Diablo 2 is almost old enough to drink in the United States, so as someone who missed it the first time around – on account of being *checks notes* seven – I was a bit worried that Diablo 2: Resurrected would bother or bore me to no end. I got into the series with a few hundred hours of Diablo 3, and between that and the quality of life standards that modern games have drilled into me, I had high hopes for the remastered graphics but low expectations for the actual game. This left me with one question going into the recent technical alpha for Diablo 2: Resurrected: without any help from nostalgia, is the game genuinely fun in 2021?
No rose-tinted glasses here
In my experience, a remaster like this can get by without nostalgia as long as it still feels distinct from the games that followed it, and Diablo 2 is wildly different from Diablo 3. I don't want to spend too much time preaching to the choir here, but I do want to share my reaction to playing Diablo 2 for the first time: "Damn, this is old school." That is a direct quote from yours truly on a Discord call with my Diablo 2-loving friends, who both shepherded me and played 'spot the differences' as I streamed my introduction to the remaster. And I meant that in a good way, to be clear. Diablo 2 definitely feels like a game ripped out of time, but that's honestly refreshing.
Some two dozen seasons later, Diablo 3 has become this over-the-top carnival of numbers and loot. For me, every season I've played has been a race to make a broken build, stomp some rifts and bosses, and immediately forget about everything once the high wears off. I remember paying attention during my first playthrough, but I have no concept of the story or stakes in that game anymore, and frankly I don't care. Any attempts at atmosphere or levity are wasted on my lizard brain.
The exact opposite is true of Diablo 2: Resurrected, a thickly atmospheric action-RPG which takes itself much more seriously and is presented with an air of horror. The technical alpha covered the first two acts, and every inch of them is dripping with style. Tombs and caves are claustrophobic and dangerous, while open fields and graveyards feel tense and exposed thanks to rich music and eerie soundscapes. Characters are expressive and enemies move with purpose and power, making it that much more satisfying to rip through them.
Obviously, the remastered graphics are doing a lot of legwork here. It really is incredible how deep the upgrade goes. Lighting and particle effects are on another level entirely, so things like fire and lightning are among the best tests of the new visuals. But as always, it's the tiny details that make a big difference. You can clearly see your reflection when you pass by puddles, armor pieces are finely textured, the health and mana orbs pulse with energy, and your character will turn their head to look at nearby NPCs or some objects. Swapping between the original and remastered graphics is a fun, jarring magic trick that really sells the impact of the new art.
Not quite heavenly, but far from hell to play
But again, I expected that much. Blizzard has (mostly) done a good job remastering things in the past, and Diablo 2: Resurrected always looked good from a distance. More surprising was how good it felt to play. It took me about an hour to shake off my Diablo 3 muscle memory, but once I did, I felt right at home liquefying demons in Diablo 2. You have fewer abilities available to you and they're tied to two weapons that can be swapped on command, but the flow of combat is largely unchanged, with the notable exception that mana is a lot harder to come by in the early stages of the game. I know Diablo 2 by reputation and I have some idea of what end-game builds are capable of, so I'm not worried about mana constraints in the long-run. In fact, I rather enjoyed the focus on potions and resource management. Between that and the more meticulous inventory management, there's an almost survival horror funk going on, which I'm here for.
Like a lot of older games, Diablo 2 is also more hands-off with its main quest. You have a handy little journal, but you don't have the clear quest markers that a lot of today's games hand you – either automatically, or after a short period if the game determines that you're lost. This challenges you to – horror of horrors – actually read dialogue and talk to NPCs. I have to say, it's a novel idea. It really is hilarious how trained I am to automatically look for an arrow or diamond or some other symbol that says "go here, stupid." Quest markers are like subtitles but more intrusive – distracting but useful, and often necessary as a guide. Because Diablo 2 was made before they became the norm, its world unfolds with a more authentic sense of mystery and discovery, which is one of the cooler ways that its age works to its favor.
Of course, there is some clunkiness. I'm willing to attribute a few long load times and occasional performance dips to alpha weirdness, but some bugbears are baked in. As much as I've tried to get used to it, I just don't like the stamina bar; sprinting indefinitely is one part of Diablo 3 I think I'll always miss. In a similar vein, the walking animations feel a little slow and forced, particularly when you're trying to turn around. When my health and mana are in the red and I need to snap-turn to quickly freeze a horde of lads that look like the freaking Beast Titan, the last thing I want my sorceress to do is swing a full U-turn like a forklift in an armored skirt.
To its credit, these issues are offset by some noticeable improvements beyond the graphical ones. The gambler merchant now has an instant reroll option that makes it much easier to refresh his inventory (as I gathered from one friend's incredulous reaction), and you can now share items between characters directly without creating so-called "mule" characters. Also: automatic gold pickup. I can't imagine playing without that.
The most impressive addition has got to be the controller support, which if anything feels even more natural on Diablo 2 compared to Diablo 3 since there are fewer abilities. Stuff like this goes a long way to make an old game more approachable for people like me, by which I mean impatient millennials addicted to instant gratification and allergic to tooltips. And it's definitely working. I was genuinely disappointed when the technical alpha ended and I'm looking forward to the next play test ahead of the full release of Diablo 2: Resurrected later this year.