Date: September 23, 2021
Saying that Blizzard has been having a bit of a rough patch recently would be a slight understatement — they’ve kind of made a name for themselves in recent years for stumbling face-first into controversy after controversy. From sexual discrimination lawsuits and the Blitzchung / Hong Kong controversy to the Diablo Immortal fiasco, Blizzard just cannot seem to get a win anymore, while the losses keep piling on.
But to those of us who once had a computer running an OS ranging from MS-DOS to Windows XP, that thought is kind of bizarre, as the name “Blizzard” inspired a completely different picture: it’d be pretty accurate to call them the company that only had wins. From 1994’s Warcraft: Orcs & Humans to 1998’s StarCraft, Blizzard completely dominated the RTS genre.
And then Diablo 2 came along. *cue dramatic music*
There is perhaps no greater testament to how genre-defining D2 was than the very fact that I am writing this review. A lesser game would not have been this relevant and gotten this much hype 20 years after its original release. Yet D2 made it on the list of the 20 best-selling games of 2008 and had up to 11 million active players in 2010, almost 10 years after its release — it’s hard to overstate how dominant of a force it was.
Fast forward to 2021: Blizzard announces that D2 is being remastered as Diablo II: Resurrected (D2R), to be released in the same year. There was perhaps less enthusiasm in the room than they had hoped for, as fans had become wary of Blizzard remasters after the Warcraft III: Reforged disappointment just a year earlier. But after seeing gameplay footage, many hardcore fans — myself included — were cautiously optimistic.
Blizzard decided to outsource this project to Vicarious Visions, an Activision Blizzard subsidiary who had received generally favorable feedback following their recent remasters, Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2.
After playing through D2R, I think that was definitely the right call. VV is simply unmatched at taking old, beloved games, and enriching them with modern graphics and conveniences without jeopardizing the game’s soul, as vague as that may be. There is no way that 2021 Blizzard, with its constant stumbling, would have been able to put together something of this quality, and my heart could not have handled a Diablo 2: Reforged type situation.
The most obvious improvement in the remaster is the graphics. I love D2 to death but even I would tell you that its sprites and 800×600 resolution cap have not aged well, despite how atmospherically amazing the rest of the game might be. It was obvious that VV had to do something in this area to really call it a remaster rather than a lazy cash grab, and they certainly delivered.
Every single sprite in the game has been carefully reforged (heh heh) into a high-resolution 3D model, with extra attention placed on not changing the overall presentation, style, and aesthetics. The graphics are all different, yet eerily similar to what my brain expects D2 to look like, which is made immediately apparent using the game’s legacy graphics toggle, allowing you to switch to 2001 Diablo 2 sprite graphics at any point in the game for a quick comparison.
And let me tell you, the graphics are gorgeous. The game looks amazing on my 4k monitor, with all the modern technical miracles of 3D graphics coming together to form absolutely beautiful visuals, which are somehow still completely true to the patented D2 gothic aesthetic down to a T.
In fact, the only complaint that I could have about the graphics is that they’re perhaps slightly too good. My rig’s not the strongest out there, but I’d call it decent, sporting a GTX 1070 GPU and an i7 7700K CPU, yet this game absolutely crushed my PC. At a 4k resolution with graphics settings set to highest, I was getting 25 FPS, which ironically is the FPS of the original game. That’s slightly too faithful to the original for me.
I had to turn down the graphics settings and reduce the internal resolution to 75% in order to get a decent frame rate, which is honestly somewhat unimpressive and likely betrays a slight lack of optimization, as the graphics are not that good.
Another visual area that was updated to great effect is the cinematics. Blizzard always had a reputation of having killer cinematics, with incredible presentation and state-of-the-art visuals. D2’s cinematics were no exception, and VV had their work cut out for them, updating them without pissing off long-time fans — and I’m glad to say that again, they delivered.
The cinematics are breathtaking, and they lack the Disney-esque corniness of modern Blizzard cinematics. No, they’re D2’s cinematics, just as I remembered, carefully recreated in HD. To the younger members of the audience, it might seem silly that I’m even talking about cinematics, but upon watching these, you may just understand!
Sound was changed the least out of any aspect of the game, and for good reason: the sound design of D2 was stellar, and absolutely does hold up in 2021. Some would argue that some extra voice lines here and there could have helped add more personality to the characters, but VV applied a “don’t fix it if it ain’t broken” mentality here, which I agree with.
The effects themselves are redone to support more channels and surround sound, but with the clear goal of deviating from the originals as little as possible. Without playing them side by side over and over, I would not be able to tell you if the sound I’m listening to is the chime effect from 2001 or 2021.
That leaves us with the last and likely most important aspect of the game for most players: the gameplay. Once again, VV took a “less is more” approach here. Core gameplay remains precisely the same, much to the dismay of the less patient among us. The stamina system that has caused many a groan is there, you still can’t activate a skill just by tapping its key binding, you still need about 400 Mana Potions per session if you’re playing a magic-based character (and roughly 2 minutes to put them into your belt every time you run out). You still have awkward faster cast speed breakpoints, etc, etc.
But honestly, I’d have it no other way. I got exactly what I expected of a 2021 D2 remaster: a faithful recreation of a timeless classic. There are newer iterations of the formula out there, and I’ve clocked some hundreds of hours on Diablo 3 and Path of Exile, but D2 is a special game that I keep going back to for a reason. I’d never want it to be potentially jeopardized by sweeping changes made in the name of fixing “rough edges”.
It’s not like there are no changes at all though. Your character now automatically picks up gold around them, which is a very welcome addition. Your stash is now 10×10, and has 3 more tabs, all of which are account-wide, meaning you can now easily share items between your characters. Joining your friends online is significantly easier now, and your online characters do not get deleted every 3 months anymore, a huge relief for online players.
The UI has seen the largest improvements, in very much so “less is more” ways. Your character has an extra sheet now where you can see your aggregate stats. UI elements have been moved around the screen very slightly for improved visual clarity. And you can now save your key bindings to use them as presets for other characters, or if you so desire, use different key bindings for each character.
The only real complaint I would have in the gameplay department is that there’s slightly too much network-caused rubber-banding. I’m fairly sure nobody missed dying because of a 0.5 second lag spike on the server’s end causing their character to stay in place and get massacred by 20 monsters. Network infrastructure is one area they could have made slight improvements in without changing anything fundamental about the game, so it is a bit unfortunate that they didn’t.
What’s more, it was disappointing that the game didn’t release with ladders, D2’s season mode that causes thousands of players to go back to a 2001 game some 20 years later every month. It’s by no means a deal-breaker, but a lot of players were certainly let down, particularly considering the lack of communication on this.
I’ve put a decent amount of time into D2R so far and I haven’t even beaten normal mode yet. I’m simply too caught up in trying out different builds and having a blast with friends in multiplayer, most of whom have never played D2 before. And honestly, I can offer no bigger praise to Vicarious Visions than that. Their remaster is technically stunning, but in a subtle, non-distracting way. It’s still Diablo 2, just with a — very — fresh coat of paint.
You could play through the entire game with legacy graphics enabled and be none the wiser about the fact that you’re actually playing the remaster, or you could play it with modern graphics and be blown away by the visual design that Blizzard North gifted us with some 20 years ago, that VV has painstakingly recreated. Opt for the latter.
D2R has been incredibly successful thus far, including driving a comeback for the value of Activision Blizzard Inc stock, which had been in free-fall for a few months. So here’s hoping that Blizzard is paying attention to how good remasters are made, so there are fewer remasters like Warcraft III: Reforged out there.
The optimist in me hopes that the popularity of Diablo 2: Resurrected motivates Blizzard to make Diablo 4 the game it deserves to be, with no more stumbling. Diablo 2: Resurrected might even be able to pave the way for Blizzard’s resurrection, someday. But until then, we’ve got some Blessed Hammers to spam, so stay awhile and listen.
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