Ask any gamer, hardcore, softcore, nerdcore ... whatever, if they have a particular game in their gaming history that holds a special place in their heart. Their eyes might swell with tears as they wax romantic over the joys, perils, challenges and victories of their beloved game from days gone by. Then they'll stare off into space as their mind swims in fond memories. Maybe not but you get the picture. Most of us have a special game from our past. For me, and for many out there, that game was Diablo II.
I could go on and write an entire piece dedicated to the grandfather of action RPGs. It was and still is that good. Wait ... still is? The game is nearly eight years old and still finds relevance in today's crowded, over-hyped, multi-billion dollar gaming industry full of failed blockbusters and strange game announcements? How can this be? I'll tell you why: Diablo II presented a game full of refined mechanics and gameplay that is still being used today and while it wasn't a true MMO, many of those conventions are used in modern-day MMO development. The mechanics were good but after eight years can some refinement and advancement be too much to ask? As much as I loved, and still love, Diablo II, I'm also anxious to move on.
You have your mother's eyes.
Diablo II gave us many tried and true game mechanics that can be found in an increasing number of MMO games and, of course, action RPG games as well. Let's start with the "good genes", the stuff we want to pass down.
Diablo II was very accessible. The gameplay was not complicated and it worked smoothly giving any player that immediate gratification with a short learning curve. Mythos and Dungeon Runners, two recent descendants, are using the overall D2 gameplay model and do it well. Both games are very approachable and are easily playable. Mythos throws a few new tools in the mix with an open-world sort of feel with temporary dungeons and an easily traversed world map. Dungeon Runners is very linear like D2 but offers a strange brew of humor to an otherwise straightforward, hack-and-slash game. Imagine Diablo II designed by Monty Python. That's the idea.
The idea of a randomly generated map automatically increases the replay options for a game. However, the mere mention of random dungeons in a MMO would send hordes of players shrieking into the night. In some games, however, it can be used as an asset. Hellgate: London is very faithful to the Diablo II model. It might be because it was made by the same team of developers (these are also the minds behind Mythos). While some players find random maps to be more frustrating than rewarding, the idea appeals to me. It keeps you on your toes if you don't know what lies behind the next corner instead of boring you into fits of madness with the same spawns in the same place all the time!
Diablo II was a drug dealer. It peddled its wares with tenacity and formed an unyielding grip on your psyche. The drug of choice: random loot. If any monster you killed could drop an uber-item, you will keep killing them until the blister on your clicking-finger forms blisters. Most modern MMOs have random loot but the loot table is very limited. The idea of truly random loot from monsters often spits in the eye of logic. In true D2 fashion, any lowly goblin could be carrying a unique item, as long as it fell within the rather expansive range on the loot table. In today's MMO, that goblin is more likely carrying a rusty scabbard and some copper coins. The loot is there but the truly sweet items are reserved for those instance bosses or elite baddies. Would MMOs benefit from the piles of random loot where even the lowest rat could carry a decent item? I think so. It would, in the least, keep newbie players happy if they knew that they could score something interesting instead of some soiled rags and a bundle of sticks.
And you have your uncle's hideous mole.
Now, let's look at some of those bad traits that Diablo II left swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool.
Diablo II had those hot-keyed skills that you could assign to your left or right mouse button. This may well be the insidious uncle to our current numbered-skills mechanic in MMOs. Diablo II's combat was simply: click until it's dead. Most MMOs haven't inherited this gene. Once you start a fight, you take your hand off the mouse and push numbered buttons and watch. It's like fighting on autopilot. In all honesty, this isn't very interactive or immersive gameplay. The upcoming Age of Conan, among others, is making attempts to change this mechanic and I certainly hope it works. So far, it looks promising. If I'm able to actually leave my keyboard while in the middle of a fight and still prevail, something isn't quite right. If I can leave my keyboard for a prolonged period of time and level-up, my head may explode.
As with any upside to an addiction (is there an upside?), there is a tragic downside. While piles of random loot are good for the item-hoarding soul, sifting through mounds of worthless, digital crap can be tedious. This goes double when you've got a very limited amount of inventory space. Most MMOs have relieved this by saying that my Two-handed Halberd of Unrelenting Bloodletting takes up the same amount of space as a fragrant candle. Suspension of disbelieve aside, this is a good way to get around the problem. Although, I never seem to have enough inventory space. Hellgate: London, however, is still slave to the grid as are others. Bad designer! No twinkie!
Diablo II gave us many innovations that stay with us even today, the good traits and the bad ones too. More and more money is being put into the production of high-quality MMOs. While this may be good for the final result, it makes it unlikely that they would take chances on new mechanics instead of recycling the same clichéd interface and combat systems of old. I say let them die with dignity and forge a new legacy of great gameplay, intuitive interface and lasting appeal and one day, when players reminisce about the greatest game of yore, it will be the MMO that broke the mold and left Diablo to die in his hallowed dungeon of glossed-over memories.