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Hell Knows No Bounds
By: Andrew Long
It's kind of funny how it is somewhat more difficult to write a readable review of an entertaining game than it is to pan an abominable title. All too often, reviewing a good game degenerates to a mundane listing of the title's various features, while if a game blows, complaining tends to be a lot more fun, to say nothing of the opportunity it provides for creative disparagement. Lamentably, however, we must press forth and complete the reviews of the good alongside the reviews of the bad, for it is only through this balance that we can hope to do that thing where stuff gets compared to other stuff, allowing the use of fun words like "good" and "bad". This, then, should serve as a warning: this will be a Positive Review, and as such you may wish to avoid it.
On the other hand, maybe you don't wish to. If that's the case, then allow this poor author his second attempt at introduction in as many paragraphs. Diablo II was released in Summer 1998, if you can believe the back of the Starcraft instruction manual, and then released again in Winter 1999 according to Brood War's guide, and then still another time in Spring 2000 according to the fine folks who pieced together the Warcraft II: BNE experience. This was not Blizzard screwing around with the minds of its loyal fans; no, this was the way Blizzard used to operate back in the day, and by that point everyone was used to the idea that any given date could be reasonably expected to refer to another, much more distant, date. Used to it still didn't mean that there wasn't the inevitable bitching and moaning, however, and it seems Blizzard finally learned its lesson after releasing Diablo II and decided to restrain its creativity in marking calendars. The result: an expansion to Diablo II that actually came out on time, which had the added advantage of improving upon the original in every conceivable way.
Whereas Blizzard entrusted dearly departed Sierra with the making of the expansion to the original Diablo, that effort's lukewarm reception and dubious quality probably contributed to the icy developer's decision to keep things in-house the second time around. As a result, instead of a new and half-assed character class and a few items tossed here and there that almost managed to look different from those which had already been littered throughout the game, Diablo II: Lord of Destruction featured a truly numbing assortment of new stuff with which to mess around. Not one, but two character classes were introduced, and in addition to adding a new weapon and / or armour type for each class (including the new ones, obviously), a plethora of other items, sets, and all-expenses-paid trips to hell were inserted into the game to keep things interesting. Of particular note among the neophyte entries are the runes of LoD, which range from fabulously useless and common to painfully useful and rare. Runes act much the same way as the gems found in the original title do, adding various attributes to socketed items when they are placed in said sockets. As an added bonus, however, certain combinations of runes will add further bonuses on top of those that already exist, ensuring that those too lazy or honourable to search around for a pre-made list of these concoctions will spend hours wasting time and runes in an effort to find some of these cachetastic permutations.
The new characters, of course, come with brand new skill sets, and while some of these border on redundant when stacked alongside those that are already present in the game, a quick trip to Battle.net will find Druids and Assassins much in evidence. Druids are rather like a mix between the sorceress and necromancer classes, featuring various transmutation, elemental, and summoning spells. Assassins, on the other hand, while similar to the Barbarian class in their general combat tendencies and abilities, possess the added advantage of looking much better in leather, to say nothing of being faster and stronger in most respects.
Speaking of looks, Lord of Destruction marks the first game in which Blizzard left the comfortable confines of 640 x 480 in favour of newer, sharper pastures. The 800 x 600 enhanced graphics mode, while still easily eclipsed by many contemporary titles, is a definite step in the right direction; not only does everything look much sharper, much like the impression the original Diablo gave in comparison to titles of its time, it also enables much more to fit on the screen at once. The interface looks much sharper, and things just feel cleaner in this graphical mode. It does, however, manage to tax even moderately hearty video cards, so those who have not upgraded since the game came out should probably think about doing so before trying this new video mode.
That said, the expansion should stand the test of time as well as its predecessor did; online play has been tweaked to ratchet up the challenge, and on top of all the added features listed above, there is an entire act tacked on to the end of the game for players to slog through. This act takes place in the Barbarian Highlands, which start out in the tradition of the game's other acts with a few mind-numbing field levels before getting down to business with some very pretty indoor levels, culminating in the infernal austerity of Baal's hideout. All in all, the expansion completely revamps the experience offered in the original title, which is as much innovation as can be expected from an add-on.
As has been previously mentioned, the rate of difficulty in Lord of Destruction has been improved somewhat over the original, so gamers can expect to take a little longer slogging through the various areas of Diablo II. With a host of new equipment and items to find, there is also plenty of reason to do so again, and again, and again for the truly acquisitive. Cheating has cropped up in recent months as an increasingly prevalent problem, but things still haven't hit the rampant levels that existed with Diablo's online experience. As such, expect a fully enjoyable online experience that will keep begging for just five more minutes. This particular feature, more than anything else, is what makes this game simultaneously worthwhile and detestible; while a Diablo glut can be enjoyable, it also feels very, very wrong at some deep-seated level, but then again, it has yet to be conclusively proven that video games are addictive, so until a study can nail that one down firmly, it's okay to shake off the feeling as simple tiredness.
As there is a whole new range of stuff that players can pick up in Lord of Destruction, so too is there more space to put it in. This, combined with the graphical enhancements that streamline Diablo II's interface, is one of the major selling points of the expansion. It is, however, marred by the fact that one of the new drop items, charms, tends to suck up a lot of inventory space if they are not used judiciously, which is very difficult sometimes. In the end, players will still need to utilize several "mule" characters to have a truly respectable hoard, but at least things are somewhat improved.
Not so for the game's story, which is rudimentary at best. Lord of Destruction takes no pains to come up with compelling narrative, which is okay since the game is an action RPG and such things are at best an irritating distraction from the matter at hand. Gamers who are looking for in-depth plot exposition will have already looked elsewhere, so this game is, in the end, not terribly marred by this lack of a strong plot.
So just when gamers might have been tiring of the original Diablo's hack-and-slash fun, along comes an expansion to make everything seem fresh and new again. With a wide variety of new features, Blizzard can even be forgiven for those that did not make it into the game, such as guilds. Diablo II: Lord of Destruction is more devilish fun, and one of the better expansions put out by a company well-versed in the art.
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