Wednesday, September 1, 2010


A bit late to the party, but I recently completed both Diablo and Diablo 2. I believe Diablo was the game that had been on my backlog the longest, so it was nice to finally get through it and its sequel. I thought I'd compare and contrast the two games and go into what I thought about the design decisions made in each. I'll take a few posts to discuss different aspects that stood out to me.

I had tried Diablo three or four times in the past, and never got far. I was always hoping for/expecting an RPG with a fairly deep story, and killing monsters in dark halls for hours never kept me engaged for very long. It wasn't until Torchlight came out last year that I began to understand the "right" way to play these games. The emphasis is on improving your playable character through improved stats, weapons, and armor so that progress can be made through increasingly difficult areas. When I realized that character progression was the point of these games instead of particularly deep stories, I had more fun playing. In the first Diablo especially, the plot of the game is extremely simple and only really hinted at in books and some quest text. What threw me off was the manual's pages and pages of backstory and lore. I assumed the game itself would spend as much time on those aspects of the universe as the manual did. I was wrong. Torchlight adjusted my expectations for Diablo, and it made all the difference in my enjoyment of the game.

Phat Lootz

Diablo's main gameplay loop is extremely tight: equip your character, go into the dungeon, kill everything that moves, take their stuff, sell it in town, rinse, repeat. As more monsters are killed you gain experience and level up. You can put points into base stats such as vitality and dexterity, but the main way to improve your character is through getting better gear.

Early in the game, lack of gold means you have to get better gear from monster drops, but I quickly found that the really good stuff is, bizarrely, back in town. Monsters drop tons of gold and gear for me to sell, so it was easy to accumulate enough coin to purchase whatever I wanted. The blacksmith sells premium stuff with various stat bonuses and extra damage or defense ratings, and this is what's truly needed to delve deeper into the dungeon. These magical items are pricey, but gold quickly becomes plentiful. In fact, my inventory was often half full of gold while I waited for better gear to show up in the blacksmith's shop. I ended up spending silly amounts of money buying the cheapest item in his shop just so something new would cycle in. I'd immediately sell the item back for a much lower price of course, but other than that there was no penalty.

You could also buy extremely expensive rare items from the peg-legged orphan, Wirt. It cost 50 gold just to view the one item in stock, but it was often tens of thousands of gold to actually purchase it. These items only changed when you bought one or every other time you leveled up. I was only able to purchase a few of these items.

Certain quests and bosses would drop powerful unique items. The iconic early boss The Butcher drops a cleaver that I held onto for quite a while. Similarly, a later quest gave me a set of plate armor that I had equipped for a very long time. These items were far better than even most of the gear back in town. In fact, a valid criticism of Diablo is that the sense of progression can tend to level off fairly quickly. Unlike later games in the genre, once you get a good item, it can be a long time before you find something better. While your character continues leveling up, you may find yourself needing a better weapon with nothing better showing up in town or in dungeons for a long time.

I think it's because of this that Diablo 2 has a far better drop rate for good loot from monsters. Common enemies will drop high level or even unique items, and bosses drop absurd amounts of special items. I wouldn't say that you're constantly upgrading your gear, but you certainly go through stuff a lot faster than Diablo. Gear can be bought in town, but I didn't do this nearly as often as in the first game. Getting a great drop is certainly the kind of rush that any WoW player can tell you about, and Diablo 2 does a much better job of feeding that addiction than Diablo.

As an alternative to finding better magical items, Diablo 2 introduced the socketing system. Players can find gems, skulls, jewels, or runes to insert into weapons or armor with one or more sockets. Socketed items were usually non-magical, and relatively easy to find at shops or dropped by monsters. The color of the gem determined the effect, and some were of a higher quality than others. The type of gear they were inserted into could also determine the effect. An emerald inserted into a weapon would inflict poison damage, but would add resistance to poison damage done to the player if inserted into into armor or shields. Jewels could be inserted into any type of item with the same effect, while runes behaved similarly to gems but were more powerful and offered different types of benefits.

It also let you craft gear tailored to a specific purpose. Some gems increased a weapon's effectiveness against undead enemies. Others increased effectiveness against demonic enemies. This let you have weapons that were maybe only so-so against regular monsters or demons but would absolutely crush hordes of zombies and skeletons. This added a small but welcome bit of strategy to equipping gear depending on the area or dungeon.

I didn't use socketing very often, but it offers a good alternative for players who don't necessarily want to depend on purely random loot drops for better gear. At the same time though, gems, jewels, and runes were themselves random drops that couldn't be bought in stores. I personally found the rate of new items I found or bought to work for me, though I didn't complain when a magical item did have a socket or two for me to use.

Diablo 2 expanded on the semi-mystery of Wirt's items in the first game by adding merchants who would let you buy magic items without first knowing the effects. You could see the various types of items for sale and their general category (shield, two handed sword, ring, etc) but only by purchasing the item at a fairly high price could you actually find its properties. If you were lucky, you got a great piece of gear to replace what you currently equipped. If not, a relatively mundane item plunked into your inventory whose only use was to be sold back for a fraction of what you paid. Diablo 2 didn't seem to throw as much gold to the player compared to the first game. It definitely wasn't stingy, but since there was more to buy in stores, and prices were higher relative to the amount of gold you were given, it wasn't a good idea to recklessly gamble away all my money in the same manner I would clear out the blacksmith's inventory in Diablo.

Diablo and Diablo 2 both significantly increase the drop rate for good items when playing in multiplayer. Crazily powerful items drop from the lowest of monsters, nevermind bosses. This perhaps justifies the other new feature added to Diablo 2: item sets. Sets are items with similar names and magical bonuses that, when worn together, further increase their bonuses. In my entire time playing Diablo 2, I found two items that were part of a set, and both were part of different sets. I get the feeling that these are intended for the really hardcore players who enjoy farming areas for loot with other players, and that a full set is ridiculously good if you can get one. Torchlight had the same feature, along with the Xbox 360's Too Human. There, too, I rarely found items from a set and certainly never found a full set.

On the whole, though, Diablo 2's loot systems are about giving players more options than Diablo. I liked the thrill of getting a sweet sword from a random drop, but players can buy good gear if the dice rolls aren't coming up for them, or build their own with the sockets. In my next post I'll talk about how leveling up differs between the games and how Diablo 2's leveling further supports the idea of giving more choices to players. This also feeds into how both games handle replayability.

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