The first Diablo has a very local setting. The game starts and ends in the town of Tristram, and the sixteen-level dungeon lies entirely within and beneath the cathedral on one side of town. The colors are dark and dreary. The music in the dungeon is unsettling and contributes to the oppressive atmosphere. Screams and moans echo through the halls, pathways are often twisting and narrow, and the low resolution means ranged attacks frequently come from off-screen unseen demonic beasts. No matter what, you always feel like you are going further down into the beating heart of terror. The jangly acoustic musical theme in Tristram is an audio relief every time you return from the dungeon.
The bits of color found in the game come from the impressive magic spells, and certain areas contain bright rivers of water, acid, or lava. It is certainly not a game devoid of color, and the use of light is judiciously used to enhance the overall atmosphere.
The world of Diablo 2, in contrast, practically bleeds with color. While rainy, the first Act of the game is a lush green field. Act 2 takes place in a bright yellow desert. Act 3 takes place in a darker, more frightening jungle environment, but it's not until the fourth act, in Hell itself, that Diablo 2 returns to the claustrophobic feeling of its predecessor. Obviously, the size of the world you explore in Diablo 2 is far larger; the return to Tristram is merely a quick stop along the way in a much bigger adventure.
Both games feature weapons and other items that increase the amount of light that emanates from the player. Using these items increases the area you can see, at the cost of allowing monsters to see you from further away. In Diablo, this was a serious concern to weigh, especially in later levels of the dungeon where enemies frequently used devastating magic attacks from across the room. In Diablo 2, you can nearly always see everything around you. Certain smaller dungeons dotting the landscape tend to be darker, winding caves, but even they tend to be well lit with torches scattered about. My biggest disappointment going from Diablo to Diablo 2 was that the sequel never achieved the same overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere of the first game. A new floor in Diablo was a terrifying prospect, often because I never knew if it would cause me to restart the game in order to progress. Diablo 2's re-balancing of, and stronger focus on, character development means that the only real trepidation came from facing bosses. Certain enemies, especially in Mephisto's levels, would cause me to panic and run. Most of the time, though, each trip to a dungeon was merely an excuse to hunt for more gold and gear.
So then. Diablo is a game about horror and madness, while Diablo 2 is a grand adventure to save the world. The two defining moments in Diablo's backstory are when King Leoric is driven to madness by Diablo, and when the treasonous Archbishop Lazarus leads the people of Tristram into the defiled cathedral, having fooled them into thinking they would be rescuing Leoric's son. Most of them were of course slaughtered by the horrors in the labyrinth, and Leoric's son was already in the process of being possessed by Diablo himself. The only time Diablo 2 touches on these themes is during the cutscenes between Acts showing the descent of the Dark Wanderer as he slowly loses his internal battle to keep Diablo under control. Once Baal is freed though, even these cutscenes resort to spectacular battles between the supernatural. Only at the end of Act 4, when the narrator realizes who he is talking to, do feelings of hopelessness and terror return.
(Having played both games back to back, it's obvious to me that the people complaining about the supposedly bright color palette of Diablo 3 either never played the second game or simply have a very selective memory.)
The first Diablo's relative simplicity and much more effective attempts at setting a mood and atmosphere make me prefer it overall to Diablo 2. The sequel adheres to the Bigger, Better, More Badass school of thought in regards to making sequels, and it seems like something was lost in the transition from one game to the next. Diablo only does a few things, but does them quite well, and its a testament to the quality of the game that it holds up to this day. For many people this is not a vintage game that they can only play out of academic interest. It's still fun, engrossing, and highly replayable (sorry Ben).
Stay Awhile and Listen
Diablo doesn't try very hard at presenting its story in-game. The manual fleshes out the backstory of Tristram, the surrounding kingdom, and the war between the forces of light and darkness. Quests encountered in the game make mention of certain events described in the manual, and books in the dungeon flesh things out a bit more, but a player who ignores the manual is unlikely to have any idea what's really going on. I suppose this could fit the idea of the lone adventurer coming to Tristram looking for gold and glory and not really caring about why hell itself is springing up around him. It even contributes to the atmosphere of oppressive doom and despair if you're in the dark about what's going on in town. My problem the first few times trying to play Diablo was that I expected the game to present the story in the same amount of detail that the manual did, when this was simply not the case. The plot is really just a premise for why you're killing hordes of monsters and taking their stuff. There are three brief cutscenes, with the latter two being near and at the very end of the game.
The production of Diablo 2's cutscenes is much better, and the overall story and characters are much more interesting. There are more people to talk to, the plot actually has some pacing, and the generally larger scope of the setting really makes it seem as if you're saving a world with something resembling real people. Most of the quests contribute directly to the larger goal of tracking down Diablo and his brothers instead of feeling random and almost pointless like the first game's quests. The goal of your quest is always at the forefront of the story, and even though the game is at least a couple dozen hours long, you always feel like you're pushing ahead and making progress.
As far as the action-RPG/Diablo-clone genre is concerned, I'm not really sure that it's progressed much over the years. I'm certainly no expert on the genre, having played few of the similar games that have come out over the years. Titan Quest and Torchlight, two of the biggest entries in recent years, and certainly done little to revolutionize how these games behave. The settings are different, but the fundamental game loop (equip your character, go into the dungeon, kill everything that moves, take their stuff, sell it in town, rinse, repeat) has stayed the same. Torchlight was made by many developers who worked on Diablo and Diablo 2, and it is truly those games with a different coat of paint. The biggest innovations have been enhancements to the user interface and improving the overall game flow. It's easier to compare found loot with equipped gear, and Torchlight adds a pet that you can send back to town to sell gear so you can continue killing things. Torchlight's premise is even flimsier than the original Diablo's, but it compensates by showering you with so much loot that it's the most addicting entry in the genre I've played. It's following the path created by Diablo 2 in that the announced sequel will prominently feature online co-op play and will take place in a much larger area.
While visiting a friend in Austin this summer, I got the chance to play a 15 minute demo of Diablo 3 at a regional tournament for Warcraft 3 and World of Warcraft. There were lines to play the upcoming Cataclysm expansion for WoW and Starcraft 2, but the line for Diablo 3 was by far the longest. I chose to play the Barbarian class, and I was struck by just how similar the game was to Diablo 2. Keyboard shortcuts were nearly all the same, character movement was exactly the same, and basic combat was the same. Skills now have a cooldown time, and mana has been replaced with some sort of meter that builds up over time and allows you to unleash more powerful attacks. Combat felt faster and more brutal, more bloody, and the 3D graphics were highly detailed and quite good looking, but it didn't really excite me overall.
Now, part of this is absolutely due to Diablo-fatigue on my part. I played Diablo and Diablo 2 back to back, and that's a hell of a lot of mouse clicks. If Blizzard announced today that Diablo 3 was being released next week, I'd be hard pressed to muster any enthusiasm. But my friend, who played Diablo 2 and Starcraft when they were first released, watched me play the demo, saw the Starcraft 2 demo, and expressed disappointment that both games seemed exactly the same to him as the previous ones. He had no interest in their respective stories, so these shiny new games didn't appear to offer him anything new. It's a valid criticism, and one I saw in several reviews of Starcraft 2. Despite adding health orbs and upgradable merchants, my impression right now is that Diablo 3 will feel like more of the same with some user interface improvements. I will certainly be buying the game when it's released in a year or two, and I look forward to continuing the story begun in the town of Tristram. My enthusiasm will surely be rekindled by then. But I'm not expecting it to change the world. Blizzard has never seemed to interested in that sort of thing though, so perhaps that's fitting.