Diablo II Resurrected impressions: Unholy cow, man

Diablo II Resurrected impressions: Unholy cow, man
Blizzard / Sam Machkovech

Diablo II: Resurrected is slated to launch on PC and consoles “later this year,” but in the meantime, the remaster is far enough along that its handlers launched an early “technical alpha” demo over this weekend. (There’s a teensy, tiny chance you can still get in if you sign up right now.) I was invited for the single-player test’s first wave—and took the opportunity to stream my initial gameplay via Twitch.

Should you watch that three-hour session, you’ll see my largely positive reaction at first blush. (Once some initial online-check stupidity cleared up, at least.) Afterwards, I took a moment to breathe, have a snack, and install the game on other systems in order to do some more fully fledged testing.

Even outside that first-look afterglow, of seeing D2:R running beautifully on a modern PC, the results thus far—of an admittedly unfinished preview version—have charmed me even further than my first session might have led you to believe. The “Blizzard Classic” team is currently walking on a long road into hell, and that road just might be paved with redemption.

2D to 3D: Can Blizzard do it?

A quick summary: In terms of content, D2:R is a gussied-up Diablo II, paired with its Lord of Destruction expansion and updated to run on modern platforms. Every original class, quest, biome, monster, AI routine, dungeon-generation algorithm, song, and more returns here with both single- and multiplayer options. Your muscle memory of the original game should translate perfectly to this remaster.

The D2:R sales pitch begins with a pledge to bolt all of its new features and polish on top of the 2000 game’s original source code. Thanks to some uneven Blizzard Classic history, I didn’t know how that would work out. StarCraft Remastered pulled the trick off beautifully, since the remastered content was all higher-res 2D sprites, while WarCraft III: Reforged’s fumbles included trying to do the same with brand-new 3D content—in unbecoming ways that most players immediately disabled.

Diablo II is an entirely 2D game, but this update includes a ton of 3D assets. Is that a recipe for disaster? In D2:R‘s case, not at all.

I became optimistic earlier this year when I learned that Vicarious Visions took over lead development duties on D2:R. That studio has established a hot streak with game remasters, especially in terms of preserving original artistic intent while adding modern graphical flourishes as appropriate. The same can be said for D2:R.

Your inner glow doesn’t ruin D2:R‘s outer shine

At any time, players can tap a keyboard shortcut (by default, bound to “G”) to switch between the game’s original presentation (800×600 resolution, 4:3 ratio) and modern displays (including arbitrary, ultrawide options). It’s a fun party trick, and it guarantees that at any time in the game, if you think Vicarious Visions got the game’s HD vision wrong, you can take graphical matters into your own hands. What I love thus far with D2:R‘s technical alpha is its clear demonstration that Vicarious Visions deeply cares for accuracy.

Every biome’s color tone-mapping, in particular, matches almost 1:1 with the original source material—and the devs have somehow nailed this while also including a much more reactive, modern take on dynamic lighting. At any time, regions both above- and underground can be bathed in additional light, whether from your “inner glow” or from weather effects. D2:R is generally careful to have those color touches appear as mild highlights. Thus, when you compare old graphics to new, you’ll sometimes see a redder or bluer tint on a world element, but not in a way that denies those assets their original tone-neutral treatment.

If Vicarious Visions had gotten this wrong, I might’ve switched to the old graphics and never looked back. Diablo II was a legendarily good game at establishing a “dark fantasy” aesthetic without stripping its world of organic and vibrant color. It hit the sweet spot between the gray-and-brown default of Diablo and the too-saturated extremes of Diablo III—and in previews of Diablo IV, you can already see that Blizzard art team reverting to what Diablo II got so very right in 2000. Vicarious Visions clearly got the same art-direction memo, and thank goodness. Higher-tech visual touches like puddle reflections and rapidly dancing shadows look gorgeous, but they’re also grounded in the game’s core color palette philosophy, and that means they don’t wear out their splashy welcome.

Also, it’s interesting to see Vicarious Visions pick and choose how dramatically to change game’s most dramatic moments. Maybe an original, massive puddle of blood is now a more understated, red-soaked slab of concrete. Maybe a burning house has been entirely remodeled to make room for more flames. Or maybe a cinematic burst of electricity looks remarkably similar to the 2000 original, in terms of wacky zig-zag lines filling the screen. When a scene has been redone with modern rendering techniques, it’s usually for the better; walls of flame were originally broken up into separate graphic blocks, but they now combine seamlessly, and I’m fine with that artistic license. But for the most part, they recreate original scenes as much as possible, like when light shafts fill a “purified” cave or when enemies explode.