It’s easy to dismiss a remake like Diablo II Resurrection as a slap-up rehash with a few aesthetic changes and accompanying calibrations. But Diablo II Resurrected, the recently released update of Blizzard’s timeless RPG action game is none of those things. What’s clear is the extraordinary lengths undertaken by the development teams at Blizzard and Vicarious Visions to bring the game to a modern audience, but also to preserve everything that made the original game so fun.
It's effort that looks to have paid dividends. To use an overused cliche, the Diablo II Resurrected update is a job well done, a feat that instills a sense of confidence that the games we played and loved long ago, and that are now suffering from a bad case of ageing graphics and mediocre sound quality, can be brought back to life.
Among the updates found in the remake are meticulously redesigned visuals, including new 3D graphics that deliver the game in what looks to be superb 4K. The update also sports remastered 7.1 Dolby Surround sound and 27 minutes of original cinematics, that have been re-shot to create a veritable feast for your eyes and ears.
Gameplay is essentially the same as it was 20 years ago, but players now have access to a shared stash that allows them to share their loot between their characters – something we wished we could do in the original. This shared stash has also recently been updated to include two more tabs that will allow players to organise their loot across 100 slots.
Diablo II Remastered has also been ported to consoles, bringing the game that was once only the domain of mouse and keyboard warriors, the chance to be equally enjoyed by gamers armed with controllers. With new cross-progression, players can also log into their Battle.net accounts and play the game anywhere they have purchased it, for access to their characters and loot.
Looking at the scope of the development project gives an idea of just how big the task was for the developers. The team began development in 2019, the game’s September 2021 release being the culmination of more than six years of work. Top of the list for the development team was finding a way to bring the game’s visuals, which were considered ground-breaking back in the year 2000, back to life in a resolution that befits a modern RPG. Nothing short of an entire visual remaster would do, says Vicarious Vision design director, Robert Gallerani.
“There’s a fundamental difference from developing a new game, to making a remake. We couldn’t change even a sprite. Everything had to be remastered. So every monster, every piece of gear, even the content not fully accessible by the player - like the PVP arena - needed to be updated,” he says.
Part of the process of updating the graphics was figuring out how to build on the foundations of the original game. The team decided to overlap 3D models on top of the original’s 2D sprites – a painstaking process that they said created “crazy spreadsheets of item lists.”
“It was a harebrained idea. We thought it might work, but no one knew for sure. So playing for the first time, seeing how the 3D world came together, killing monsters and picking stuff up, that was pretty exciting,” says senior director of technology, Michael Bukowski.
To preserve the game’s original look, sound, and ultimately its gameplay, the art team used a concept called the 70/30 rule, Bukowski says. “From an art direction standpoint and even for the audio, 70 percent of the content was left exactly the way it was. Then on top of that there was a 30 percent leeway to enhance or modify the content.”
The result is a game that is essentially the same as the original, with the same look and mechanics that players loved and will remember, albeit just enhanced in every way. “Every single thing you see in the game is there twice – it’s there in the standard definition version and it’s there in our remaster - from the audio to visuals, to all of the mechanics,” says Gallerani.
“We’ve had players say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right! You can zoom in and toggle,’ as they’ve done those things again after not playing the game for so long. It’s like they’re rediscovering an old toy that they’ve forgotten about hiding in their grandma’s basement, that they used to play with forever when they were a kid.”
Bukowski says the team took a very considered approach to preserving the essence of iconic moments in the game. “There were very specific moments that we wanted to make sure we got right. Like for example, when you go and create your character for the first time, the campfire scene is one of the iconic moments in the original game, so we wanted to make sure we captured that really well. But we also wanted to make sure you could switch between the original campfire and the new campfire to see how the 4K compares,” he says.
Creating the 4K art required some clever workarounds, but the result adds more value to the visual experience, Bukowski says. “As soon as you expand things out, there’s lots of detail that your mind filled in before that we had to fill in for 4K. A good example is in Act II when you’re playing in the sewers; in the remake you’ll find all kinds of details that weren’t in the original game because it wasn't possible in the original. Details like running water were included because of the extra detail we had to include.”
In the process of dissecting what made the original game tick, the team discovered some cool tricks used by the developers. “Everything in the original game is trying to pretend to be 3D, whereby items are rendered at multiple angles. So, for example, for gold drops, depending on how much gold drops to the ground, the art is hardwired to change its orientation so that you see a bigger pile of gold. So, it was amazing to get an insight into how things worked originally,” says Gallerani.
Despite the game’s age, Diablo II Resurrected runs on the same game engine, so AI elements such as monster behaviour are exactly true to the original.
“It’s the same logic running underneath. There’s a couple of areas where we’ve improved d-sync between the client and server and some other modernisations, but things like: Should a monster walk over here? Or over there? There’s the same 20-year-old logic behind those things,” says Gallerani.
Ultimately, this delicate balance between the old and the new should please both older players and encourage new ones, says Gallerani.
“We were really trying to bring something that the original fans were going to appreciate, something that they’re going to be proud of playing. But at the same time, we were looking to give new fans, people who haven’t experienced Diablo the chance to play and enjoy it,” he says.
Diablo II Resurrected is available now as a standalone game for RRP AU$69.95 or as part of the Diablo Prime Evil Collection (AU$99.95). More information can be found on Blizzard's official website.