With Diablo III out of my system and the prospects of playing Diablo II for the first time soon through the upcoming enhanced port I decided to take advantage of a recent deal on GOG.com to get the original game and see if nostalgia for it might keep me interested for a while. Diablo showing up on GOG.com was a big deal when it arrived with Warcraft and it’s sequel back in late 2019 as there had been plenty of demand for the games. And being able to play them again on modern PCs was an attractive thought to say the least. The last time I had played Diablo was back in the late 90’s when I got my first CD-ROM so there’s been a lot of water that has run under this particular bridge/portal/demonic underground.
Back in 1996 when Diablo was first released the game was a pretty compelling product. Take your classic RPG formula but trim the fat so you can easily use a mouse to fight your way through the hordes. On top of that make clever use of procedural levels that help keep the game fresh by making sure no single play through is the same (with some exceptions, like quest encounters). That might sound a little like a Rogue/Moria/Angband spinoff but add in great graphics and audio and it really pushed the envelope for PC RPGs at the time. Playing it again in 2021 and it’s fair to say that the passage of time hasn’t been totally kind to it. The graphics have aged but it could have been worse if it was coming from anything less than SVGA resolutions. The opening cinematic looks a little crude now but you can see that the team behind it made smart use of the technology with a lot of moody lighting and shadow to help hide most of the limitations. On my 28 inch display I’m finally seeing the graphics up close and I think that modern displays clearly aren’t showing them at their best. The colours come across as a little muddy and the dithering effects used for transparency in the levels isn’t so effective anymore. The GOG version does allow you to adjust gamma levels and apply aniostropic filtering to try and help but I’m not totally sold on it. It could do with a few more tweaks on this side for users with high resolution screens. As it stands I think this is a game that still looks best on a CRT. I wonder if a scanline filter might help or if there are other visual mods available. Playing on a smaller screen might help too! Sound on the other hand is excellent, especially the music. As soon as I heard the town theme when I first started the game again it all came back to me again and it remains a highlight.
Gameplay wise I think there’s a lot that still works. The UI allows for you to see your character stats, inventory, etc in realtime as you play and some interactions such as picking up items will adjust depending on if these are visible. The map overlay is still an impressive trick too even if I do get confused that I can’t click on it to travel around the level! Being able to just point and left click your mouse to move around the level and interact/fight and then use right click for casting your current spell is still incredibly accessible. It’s not always perfect – picking up items, fighting and evading enemies can be cumbersome. Everything you click on requires your character to walk up to it before the action is performed. In some cases it can result in your character often chasing the quicker enemies endlessly as your character is not that agile. It’s something which is really exposed in the first questline involving “The Butcher” who is a difficult early encounter and will likely to cause many players a quick death. The game doesn’t really tell you that you can go down to lower levels to get experience to then go back and take them on so many might just give up here if they can’t beat them.
Does the game hold up well enough to bring in new players? I’m not entirely sure. As it stands the game still plays well but there’s been a lot of clones (and sequels) over the years that have taken the core concepts and improved on them substantially. Diablo III is a fantastic game that’s evolved over time and still sets a high bar with a visual style that looks good for a game that launched back in 2012. And with Blizzard jumping straight to Diablo II for an enhanced version I think shows clearly that they feel it’s the better of the earlier games. In the end having this game now playable for a modern audience is still a fantastic gesture but truthfully it might just be more for the curious and nostalgic rather than an indicator of a potential revival or remaster. But I could be wrong! 🙂
The GOG.com version of Diablo can be found here.