I’d been playing the long game. While steadily making my way through the early acts of Diablo II, I’d carefully hoarded gems and runes in my private stash, sorting them meticulously by type, combining and upgrading them when opportunities arose. On approaching the end of Act IV, knowing that a confrontation with Diablo himself was close at hand, I carefully selected the ingredients that I’d need to create a weapon imbued with the powerful properties of a runeword. Checking and checking everything again, I finally took the plunge and inserted the runes into the appropriate sockets. Excitedly, I hovered the cursor over the newly runed weapon but instead of the impressive stats that I had expected, I saw a mediocre blade, crippled by my foolishly having inserted the runes into a sword classified as “rare” and invalidating the recipe. Damn it.
There’s no way back in Diablo II. Blizzard North’s seminal 2000 action role playing game is still top of its pile ten years on, sitting pretty at the epicentre of a still lively community, any member of which worth their salt could have immediately pointed out my mistake before I made it. My botched attempt at creating a runeword wasted an item that had taken me many hours of play to acquire, but pitiless as ever, Diablo II allows me no reprieve, no return from this minor disaster. Brutal to the last, the game features only one rolling savepoint, denying me the usual gaming safety net of happier, earlier times to retreat to. In this game, death demands an unusually heavy price, and knowing there is no return means ensuring that you are tough enough to handle what is to come before you open a door or venture through a portal. The real Diablo II players create “hardcore” characters, for whom death really means death. Do not pass go; do not collect 200 gold pieces.
For me, the lack of a conventional save system combined with liberal randomization is perhaps the game’s strongest feature, one of the foremost things that makes Blizzard’s work so completely and enduringly compelling. So many situations are in some ways unpredictable, and yet Blizzard demands that we deal with everything as it comes with no get-out clause, no do overs. Knowing that mine is always a surprising and risky journey makes each triumph that much sweeter but also increases the impact of failures like my recent weaponsmithing mishap. In developing the long-awaited sequel Diablo III, Blizzard has encountered fierce opposition to even comparatively minor aesthetic deviations from the old formula, so it seems unlikely that things will get any more forgiving when the new game is released in 2011. I won’t complain. If Diablo II has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes a game is stronger if you’re forced to take the rough with the smooth.