So far, the best Platinum Age innovations in the CRPG genre have been in two realms: The rise of real-time, 3D graphics in first-person perspective, and the development of huge, highly interactive game worlds.
CRPG developers had climbed aboard the bandwagon begun by first-person shooter games like Doom and Quake. The usual refrain heard from fans of this type of game are that they are inherently more "immersive." You don't just play a character; you enact a role.
If this were true, you might expect that all successful CRPGs released after Ultima Underworld and Arena would
follow their example. However, three of the most celebrated CRPGs of
all time that emerged from this period offered only an isometric,
third-person perspective: Diablo, Fallout, and Baldur's Gate.
Blizzard is probably better known today for World of Warcraft MMORPG, which is loosely based on the company's best-selling real-time strategy series, Warcraft, which launched in 1994 with Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. Blizzard also made gaming history with the release of StarCraft in 1998, which was immensely successful and is widely regarded as the finest real-time strategy game ever developed.
Nevertheless, the publication of Diablo in 1996 remains one of the most divisive moments in CRPG history. Even today, nearly a decade later, no other game has polarized CRPG fans more than Diablo. Are Diablo and its sequel the best CRPGs ever made or the worst? At least among experienced fans of the genre, the jury is still out. Let's take a closer look and see if we can understand the source of this contention.
Diablo is usually described as an "action" CPRG, set in real-time. It's also features a vastly simplified character development system compared to most CRPGs. The player only controls a single character, who can be one of three basic types (Warrior, Rogue, and Sorcerer). The differences among these types are somewhat superficial; warriors can cast spells and sorcerers can wear armor. However, the choice of class does determine the best strategies for surviving battles, and, as usual, it's the magic-using class that starts off weakest and ends up strongest.
Each time the character gains a new level, the player receives five points to distribute among the four attributes: strength, magic, dexterity, and vitality. Although seemingly quite simple on the surface, Blizzard's genius was doing more with less. Instead of baffling players with a complicated skill system like those in the Elder Scrolls or latter Might & Magic games, Diablo offers fewer choices but made them more significant.
The result was a game that met the grand old qualification, "Easy to learn, hard to master." To put it bluntly, if you can click a mouse button, you can play Diablo. Even gamers who had never played a CRPG before found it intuitive and addicting. Furthermore, the production values were high, with great graphics, impressive cut-scenes, and a magnificent musical score. The game quickly became a best-seller, and is still being sold as part of the Diablo Battle Chest!
"Diablo is the best game to come out in the past year, and you should own a copy. Period. If you like PC games, you should go out right now and experience what is likely to be the clone maker for the next two years."
-Trent C. Ward on GameSpot, Jan 23, 1997.
Diablo is also noted for its high degree of randomization. Everything from the dungeons, monster locations, and item capabilities are randomized, ensuring not only surprises but also upping the game's replay value. Of course, readers of this series will be thinking back to my earlier discussion of Rogue and games like The Sword of Fargoal, which also offer relatively simple "hack'n slash" fun in randomized environments. Indeed, one of the most common epithets given to the game is "a Rogue-like for the 90s," though there are plenty of Rogue fans who would object to this comparison.
SSI had tried something similar with its Dungeon Hack game and editor back in 1993, which tried to marry the venerable old mainframe classic with its Eye of the Beholder engine.
Again, one has to wonder why so many developers seem to miss the point
that it's precisely the lack of distracting graphics and complex
interfaces that make the classic Rogue games so novel and playable.
Another aspect of Diablo that set it apart was its support for multi-player, which ranged from the by-then common LAN party setup to a new internet server named Battle.net. Although not without its flaws (cheating was rampant), Diablo's multi-player capability remained a significant factor in the game's long-lasting popularity.
Yet despite strong sales and praise from many prominent reviewers, Diablo was not without its naysayers. Not surprisingly, the game's popularity with "virgin" CRPG gamers drew sneers from long-term fans of the genre, particularly those who'd cut their teeth on venerable old titles like SSI's Pool of Radiance or Interplay's The Bard's Tale. Blizzard had seemed to reduce the often intimidating CRPG genre to its bare essentials, then poured on the eye-candy.
Oldsters scoffed, dismissing the game as a "clickfest." Meanwhile, fans of games like Sierra's Quest for Glory were turned off by the lack of characters and interesting scenarios; for them, the constant clicking and killing brought little more than tedium. Other players complained about the "dark" graphics, which were occasionally hard to make out. The on-screen automapping tool helped with navigation, but frequently obscured the battle sequences.
some players complained about the game's relatively short duration;
gamers accustomed to the hundreds of hours required to slough through
an Ultima weren't happy about a game that could be completed in a mere two days.
What happens next in the Diablo story is quite perplexing. Rather than release a sequel or their own expansion, Blizzard let Sierra On-Line publish an expansion named Hellfire, which had been developed by Synergistic Software (the same team responsible for Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance). This expansion appeared in 1997, and added two new dungeons, new creatures, spells, items, and a Monk character class.
Reviewers weren't nearly as enthused about Hellfire as they had been about Diablo, and the lack of multi-player support vexed many players. Many fans of the series don't consider it an "official" expansion.
It wasn't until 2000 that Blizzard finally released the true sequel, Diablo II. This game was more complex and larger than its predecessor, and the updated graphics were as impressive as Diablo's had been in 1996. Now, players could explore outdoor areas as well as dungeons. More importantly, the randomized quests were replaced with more linear ones, which allowed for a more tightly integrated storyline and cut-scenes.
The class system had also been reworked, with five (Paladin, Barbarian, Amazon, Necromancer, Sorceress) classes, each with their own unique skills. Leveling up is also a bit more interesting with a graphical "skill tree" system that helps sustain a player's long-term interest in developing a character--there's always some new amazing new ability just a few levels away.
Multi-player mode was better supported this time, and cheating was rarer. Nevertheless, their Battle.net server was prone to lag, though that didn't seem to slow the onslaught of rabid Diablo II fans desperate for online play--a fact that rankled many gamers who had just plunked down $60 or even $70 for the game. Finally, some of the Carpal Tunnel-inducing mouse clicking was alleviated. Players could simply hold down the mouse button to have their character repeatedly attack or move around.
Blizzard decided to make their own expansion this time, releasing Lord of Destruction in 2001. Besides many new items and quests, this expansion offered heightened screen resolution (800 x 600), and two new character classes (Assassins and Druids).
Reviewers were pleased with the improved graphics, as well as many improvements to the Battle.net server that improved the online multi-player experience.
If the only criteria we needed to evaluate a CRPG were its sales figures and enduring popularity, Blizzard's Diablo would represent one of the best (if not the best) CRPG ever designed. The game brought new blood to the genre, introducing it to thousands of gamers who had never played any of the classic CRPGs, much less a tabletop D&D game. It sent hordes of badly behaved teenagers (and middle-aged men, no doubt) scampering to Battle.net, "pwning" each other and seeking out the latest cheats and hacks to gain an unfair advantage.
Diablo and Diablo II are truly CRPGs for the masses. At the risk of sounding like a jaded old curmudgeon, I can't help but feel a pang of regret about the overwhelming triumph of this series, since it seems to have come at the expense of the older, more sophisticated CRPGs of past eras.