Why Diablo II is still my favorite action RPG 20 years later

Diablo 2
Diablo 2 (Image credit: Windows Central)

As Diablo IV continues trucking along its development path, veterans of the series are holding tightly to Diablo, Diablo III, and, perhaps most fondly, Diablo II. Whereas the first Diablo is legendary in its own right for laying the foundation, and Diablo III is … regularly updated, Diablo 2 is really where Blizzard North (then helmed by David Brevik and Erich Schaefer) perfected its craft. The gameplay loop. The PVP. The loot. The story. The artwork. The grind. Oh, the grind.

When I'm asked to name my favorite video game of all time, Diablo II is at the top. Despite its age — it was released June 29, 2000 — I still regularly jump into multiplayer to level a character when Blizzard resets the ladder. I also have a Holy Grail Plugy game going on an old laptop. If you know what I'm talking about, you're no doubt also a long-time Diablo II fan still living the dream. Let's take a look at why Diablo II left such a lasting impression on so many people and why it remains so much fun to grind hour after hour.

Picking up where Diablo left off

The original Diablo ended with a warrior — you — defeating the titular demon far below Tristram. The warrior becomes corrupted, and as it travels through Sanctuary, it unleashes hellish horrors. This is where Diablo II picks up, with a fresh new set of warriors attempting to put a cap back on the bottle and save Sanctuary once again.

Whereas in Diablo, you traveled deeper and deeper below Tristram, Diablo II offers varied procedurally-generated environments spread out over five total acts when including the Lord of Destruction expansion. The artwork is beautiful and ranges from overgrown jungle cities to plains to snowy mountains.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

The story and artwork, combined with a brooding soundtrack and excellent voice work, came together to create an unforgettable experience for existing Diablo fans and newcomers alike. My introduction to the series (and indeed any ARPG) was Diablo II, and I've since weighed every other game in the genre against it.

I recall the feeling of finishing the game on Normal difficulty, only to realize I had only just begun. Nightmare mode, with its steep difficulty spike, came next. I played through the same story again, collecting better gear, only to realize I now had to enter Hell mode. This was the ultimate test, and I remember grinding for days just to find slightly better gear to help me limp my way through the first act. I hadn't yet ventured into multiplayer, which is where the real fun began.

Creating an unending gameplay loop

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

I thought singleplayer Diablo II was a lot of fun until I ventured into the online world. Battle.net was in its prime back then, and there were thousands of available lobbies to join. Whether you were looking to trade, do battle, run bosses, or just park a mule, you had an overwhelming amount of options.

Diablo II still pulls me back despite having no real endgame.

Diablo II multiplayer is still populated to this day, especially following a ladder reset (where all ladder characters are moved to a non-ladder realm and all players effectively start again with nothing). All those players despite Diablo II having no official endgame. At least not in the sense of Diablo III's Greater Rift system where you push to achieve better times completing harder dungeons. Instead, Diablo II has a tight player-vs-player (PVP) system and a loot structure that makes it almost impossible to find every piece of gear and rune in a standard player's lifetime.

There are so many variables when it comes to magic finding — the term for killing enemies in hopes of them dropping high-level gear — that you can spend 20 years playing the game and never find the best top-tier loot. There's also an unforgiving experience system that rewards only the most dedicated players (or bots) with the prestigious level 99 cap. Instead of pushing for the best time and highest greater rift level like in Diablo III, Diablo II is all about amassing wealth, trading, showing off to other players, battling in PVP matches, and helping others with rushes and boss runs.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

The above reasons, combined with multiple character types and individual classes for each character, give players a ton of options for having fun within the game. Leveling up, completing quests for skill points, and finding gear that awards skill points is incredibly fulfilling. And the addition of runewords with Lord of Destruction really took things to the next level, allowing, for example, Sorceresses to harness the Druid's shapeshifting abilities or any class to harness teleportation.

Diablo II isn't perfect ... but it sure comes close.

Diablo II isn't perfect, and many people first point to the lack of viable endgame builds when asked for flaws. If you're a level 99 Paladin, chances are you're a Hammerdin due to the quick teleportation and massive damage output. If you're a level 99 Sorceress, chances are you're using the lightning skill tree and have a mercenary with an Infinity polearm. And so on and so on. But that doesn't mean there aren't hundreds of wacky character builds you can try out, especially in PVP.

And it doesn't mean those cookie-cutter builds aren't fun to play, especially for the nostalgia trip they deliver. If you ask any veteran Diablo II player what their favorite build is for clearing the Chaos Sanctuary, chances are they're going to start naming off the gear their Hammerdin wore way back in 2003.

The everlasting grind

Source: Windows Central Look at all that glorious stash space. (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Other than the rich nostalgia taste I get from playing Diablo II — at a glorious 1024x768 resolution — the game keeps pulling me back for the grind. Each time the online ladder is reset, I begin anew, collecting good gear and trading up for better gear. I make new friends, put my trust in them to mule items, then abandon them some months later when the game's economy is ruined again by bots.

The real fun I've found in recent years is the singleplayer PlugY mod. It makes some quality-of-life changes to the game to help with the lack of other players and trading, like infinite and shared stash space, as well as on-demand skill and attribute resets. It's also the perfect place to try for the ultimate Holy Grail challenge. Ever wanted to collect every single item the game has to offer? That's the challenge. It's going to take you years due to the careful rarity of elite items, but it's a great little thing to have in the back of your mind when you feel it's time for another go at Diablo II.

Looking forward to Diablo IV

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

With Diablo II remaster rumors effectively quashed on reddit by a Blizzard community manager (at least for the near future), long-time fans of the Diablo II experience can only look forward and hope that Diablo IV manages to recapture what was lost in Diablo III.

We need grime, gore, and dimly-lit tunnels rather than bright, cartoonish rifts. We need a strong story, a strong online economy, and a strong PVP system. We want loot that's near-impossible to find, and we want a gameplay loop that never gets old. Until then, there's nothing quite like the nostalgia trip that Diablo II delivers to this day. Happy 20th Birthday to a legendary game.

Put those rose-colored glasses on and embrace the past with more in our tech nostalgia series.

Cale Hunt

Cale Hunt brings to Windows Central more than eight years of experience writing about laptops, PCs, accessories, games, and beyond. If it runs Windows or in some way complements the hardware, there’s a good chance he knows about it, has written about it, or is already busy testing it.