This morning, I blew the dust off my Diablo and Diablo II CDs (remember when games came on CDs?) and went for a spin with both of them. Watching the Diablo III gameplay movie got me thinking about the ways in which the gameplay mechanics have changed since the original Diablo in 1996, and what this might mean for the third instalment.
The first game in the series is a pretty basic game on the surface. One of the hallmarks of the Diablo series as a whole has been its straightforward gameplay mechanics, stripping away a lot of the daunting complexity of a traditional role-playing game and combining what remains with fun, satisfying action elements, but this first outing is the most simplistic of the lot. The multiple act, multi-dungeon structure of the second and, it would seem, third games is nowhere to be found; nor are the weird and wonderful character classes like the Necromancer and Witch Doctor. Instead, players get to choose from one of three broad fantasy archetypes - a Warrior, a Rogue or a Sorcerer - and do battle in a single, multi-level dungeon, descending gradually deeper into the earth.
In many ways, though, simplicity is its greatest strength. This is a game that knows exactly what it’s meant to do, and more importantly, so does the player. Right from the beginning, you know that your mission is to make your way deeper and deeper underground until you ultimately face and defeat the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo. The tone is remarkably consistent: everything is dank and murky, swathed in shadow, and the atmosphere is incredibly foreboding. This feeling of dread is achieved in many ways, and it’s not just the gloomy visuals and highly evocative sound design. Movement in Diablo is rather slow-paced, meaning that, should you be overwhelmed by insurmountable odds, running away is rarely an option. And it’s easy to be overwhelmed, particularly if you play the rather frail Rogue and Sorcerer classes. If you aren’t looking where you’re going, chances are you’ll find yourself slap bang in the middle of a pack of angry monsters, in which case it’s often game over. This ensures that you’re constantly on your toes, gingerly creeping down each corridor and round each bend, mindful of the fact that you could, at any moment, be signing your own death warrant.
Superficially, Diablo II is a direct continuation in every way. It retains the same basic premise and gameplay mechanics as its predecessor, but I can’t help feeling that the developers changed the tone in a subtle way. With the first Diablo, it quickly became clear that people liked doing two things: killing monsters and collecting loot. So, thought the designers, let’s give the players more of what they want. Let’s throw in more monsters and more loot, and let’s have people get to the monsters and loot quicker. To lessen the wait between dispatching one group of enemies and the next, players were given the ability to run, which had the immediate result of doubling (at least) the speed at which the game was played.
Unfortunately, this had the effect of stripping away a lot of the tension. The ability to run made it possible to stage a hasty retreat should you stumble into the middle of a gaggle of bloodthirsty monsters. In other words, you could afford to be more reckless, which in turn made the game more of a clickfest than ever before. Add to this a reduced emphasis on dungeon crawling with the addition of wide open outdoor maps, and the game not only lost a lot of its tension, it more or less completely removed the feeling of claustrophobia. Likewise, much of the atmosphere created by the first game’s moody locales and limited colour palette fell by the wayside thanks to the sun-scorched deserts and lush green jungles which players found themselves exploring. Put simply, Diablo II was a lighter, brisker, less tactically-oriented game than its predecessor.
Now, I love Diablo II. I consider it one of the greatest games ever created, and despite being eight years old, it remains permanently installed on my hard drive, and I continue to sink countless hours into frying skeletons to a crisp and beating zombies to a bloody pulp. When I want to whittle away a few minutes, or indeed a few hours, without having to tax my brain too much, chances are I’ll be reaching for the Diablo II CD. But, if I want a deeper, more immersive, more mentally taxing experience, it’s the original Diablo for me.
Flash forward to the present day, and Diablo III has just been announced. Now, without any hands-on experience with the game, and with numerous changes no doubt due to take place between now and the release date, it’s impossible to be sure of anything, but, with the help of the screenshots and particularly the gameplay trailer that have been released, it’s possible to speculate as to how Diablo III will compare to its predecessors in terms of atmosphere and gameplay style.
While watching the gameplay trailer, it’s abundantly clear, right from the get go, that the designers are intent on stressing the quantity factor, throwing massive hordes of monsters at the player, to be dispatched in a highly visceral show of splattering blood and squelching sound effects. So far, so Diablo II, and it’s also clear that we’re once again going to find ourselves playing in a combination of tight indoor and crowded outdoor environments. The official list of features states that players will explore the world of Sanctuary (with an emphasis on world) “in gorgeous 3D”, which suggests another globe-trotting yarn. No tightly-controlled Diablo I-style focus this time round, then.
That said, much of what has been stated and demonstrated in the gameplay trailer suggests that the developers are intent on pushing for a return to tactics rather than simply wading in and popping potions while spamming one or two spells. There appears to be a commendable emphasis on enemies working together to bring the player down, using their skills in conjunction and therefore requiring the player to use all the abilities at his or her disposal in order to survive. That gets my heartfelt approval, given the extent to which Diablo II is populated by cookie cutter builds relying on only a couple of overpowered abilities.
Likewise, I commented yesterday that the new game seemed to herald a return to the gloomy, foreboding atmosphere of the first Diablo. This is a particularly impressive achievement given that the colour palette is more saturated then ever before (something which has, rather predictably, already drawn its fair share of professional whiners who hate the notion of the game coming in colours other than black, grey and brown). Perhaps not surprisingly, this is only really evident in the interior levels, with the outdoor areas seeming lighter and breezier, but, provided there is plenty of dungeon crawling, I have no complaints about that. Particularly impressive is the sense of scale: at any given time, it’s hard not to be impressed by the high walls and expansive nature of the maps. This is especially evident when traversing higher ground, given that the truly 3D nature of the new engine allows the player do look down at areas below him or her, shrouded in fog and shadow. Sound design will, I suspect, once again play a key role in maintaining a dark mood, and I’m crossing my fingers that Blizzard are able to get Matt Uelmen, composer for the first two games, to once again provide the music.