Three years after Diablo - and after several delays - we get Diablo 2. Now, I actually don't object to the span between the two. I kinda prefer a longish wait between sequels, as it gives the industry time to grow and gives the fans time to get excited. (Good example: WarCraft 1, 2 and 3. Bad example: the Tomb Raider series.)
That said, I was not a fan of the first Diablo. I hated the limited item storage. I hated the boring town setting. I hated the repetitous dungeon-delving. (Oh, and don't even _try_ to play the PlayStation version.) Let's all admit it: Diablo is nothing but Gauntlet with an inventory system.
But I was pulled in by the hype machine (and the promise of a new internet multiplayer game) and I bought Diablo 2. And I was happily surprised to see some nice improvements... but it's still just a dressier Gauntlet with castoffs from a Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook.
Visually, Diablo 2 is much the same as Diablo. The 2D graphics give the figures the kind of detail you can't get with polygons (today...) There's some sexier lighting effects attached to all the spells... but man, look at the water in the first town... it looks like a Game Boy RPG-style texture. There are plenty of baddies... but they tend to repeat themselves with different color schemes. It's an age-old video game trick, but it seems especially stale in the year 2000. The font is the same too, it's that old faux-gothic Nightmare Before Christmas font that really annoys me. And, I hate the "unique" baddies. You know, that one light purple guy in the middle of the pack who is nearly unstoppable? He always has some gay-ass fantasy cliche name, like "Grim Fang the Fearless" or "Storm Heap Fire Squash." I especially hate when the randomly-rolled lame-name is applied to a giant swamp frog or a cloud of bugs.
The biggest improvements lie with your player character. The new skill tree lets you grow your characters skills visually... not in a meaningless text table of Dungeons and Dragons spells. In my first time through the game, I accumulated around 30 skill points, which I dispersed at my whim on my necromancer character. My necromancer, therefore, stands to be considerably differently-abled than your necromancer... depending on what I wanted to specialize in. I chose raising the dead as my general skill theme, but your necromancer could mainline in curses or bone spells. (As you repeat the game - or just play multiplayer levels ad infinitum - you will accrue more skill points. Eventually, you could become a master of all skills.)
This recalls the bygone days of pencil-and-paper role playing games in a very real sense. You make up your character and improve him as you gain experience. It's the kind of thing we dreamed about a decade ago... but played Gauntlet instead.
I also heartily endorse the two modes of Battle.net. In "open" Battle.net, you can use characters from your single-player game... IE, the tricked out sorceress you've spent weeks evolving. But, your character at home could conceivably be illegally hacked in some way, so it would be very easy to cheat your way to a level 100 character in a minute's time. So, in the "normal" Battle.net, you can only play with characters you create, but store on Blizzard's own secure servers. Until somebody hacks into Battle.net, those characters will always be legal. On Open Battle.net, anything's possible. (But if you trust your regular playgroup and never play with strangers, Open is the way to go.)
The storyline tends to limp along, as you get distracted by meaningless (and often poorly communicated) quests. Several quests you can complete without even knowing it. However, I do appreciate the Quest screen, which tells you exactly what you need to do next. The people you'll meet in town are all annoying. Every single male voice sounds like a 40 year old white guy. Every single female voice sounds like a 20 year old co-ed. Unlike Diablo Uno, you actually get to see other towns and other wilderness regions, which I liked. And I am very glad that the one-note Tristram has been razed.
(In other Diablo 1 continuity news, the ending of D1 has been incorporated into the plot of D2 in a half-assed way. Your character from D1 volunteered to contain Diablo's spirit as a means of keeping him defeated. This is common practice in fantasy worlds, but it never seems to work out, eh? The Diablo-possessed "Wanderer" is now searching for his two evil brothers. I won't bother to mention their ultimate goal. I did find it interesting that D2 completely insinuates which archetype from D1's heroic trifecta is the Wanderer.)
But now, on to the repetition! In a very irritating move, the game completely respawns every time you stop playing. This tends to make you not quit the game. Masochistic bastards wrote this game. I blew through the final Act in one night, because I couldn't bear to turn it off and have to face all the respawned hellspawn again.
As a self-avowed pack rat, I find the inventory structure very, very painful. I want to keep every cool item I come across... but there's never enough room for 4 suits of armor and 10 different helmets. You're forced to make tough choices about what items to keep and what to sell off. My kingdom for a Bag of Holding.
BUT. The game is still fun to play, if a bit dated-looking and a bit frustrating. The skill tree is great and the uncountable amount of weaponry available makes your own character truly unique. I don't think this game has the replay value of Unreal Tournament or Starcraft, but it's a damn fun ride for a month or two.
Holy good goddamn. It's the year 2000 and I'm playing WarCraft on my Game Boy.
Well, not exactly WarCraft. Blizzard is too busy missing deadlines on WC3 to worry about porting their original flagship series over to the World's Most Successful Portable Gaming Platform Now and Forever. Warlocked is WarCraft shrunk down in every way and steam-ironed into a super cute, super smooth portable real time strategy mini-epic. And I hope Blizzard is pissed that they didn't think of it first. (Even though, technically, they did.)
Assuming you're aware of how WarCraft works, I won't bother to explain Warlocked's two opposing factions, city-building, fog of war, mining-and-deforesting and dragons. It's all here, and it's all very familiar.
You just wouldn't think that this would be possible, given the Game Boy's limited control scheme. Well, the interface of Warlock is deliciously simple. You have a cursor hand - which, by the way, is the slickest-scrolling cursor I've ever seen on a GB game - that you wave over your units. You select with the A button and then wave the cursor over something else. If the cursor changes into a different icon, that means your selected unit can perform an action... mining gold, attacking, etc. Warlocked has distilled the silly, over-hotkeyed Blizzard paradigm into clear, red wine.
Hell, they even managed to squeeze in a team grouping feature. Plus a surprisingly wide selection of voice samples for clicking on guys and giving orders.
Naturally, you're not going to see the complexities of the pc hit here... there's no boats or workshops or catapults (and you can only have one dragon at a time). But you get just enough cutesy, super-deformed units to fill your dot matrix screen and wage miniature bloody wars.
Given that pokemon has officially passed into continuous franchise status, we even get a slight poke-influence. As you run from level to level, you'll rescue/capture randomly powered wizards that will join your army. Certain wizzes will only work the humans; others solely for beasts... and some you'll only get by trading wizards with another Game Boy player. And they can die permanently, which gives me the chills.
The wizards themselves range from mildly interesting (Icewiz turns enemies into melting snowmen) to incredibly invaluable (Mysticwiz heals beast units). You can only summon 2 to 3 wizards per level, so wiz management is pretty important in the higher levels. Choosing the right wizards for your attack plan will really speed things up and save you precious resources.
There are two ways to play multiplayer. Via link cable, you can play a vs. game on one of several multiplayer maps. Exactly like WarCraft's battle.net. Via infrared port, you can exchange pre-manufactured armies and then pit your home team against the visitors. In this mode, if you win, you get to absorb all the pieces of the enemy army. But if you lose, your army is deleted.
Graphically, Warlocked is wonderfully colorful - an obvious Game Boy Color-only cart. The units themselves look like they just walked out of a Zelda game... and they have great pain animations, so you can tell at a glance who's about to bite the pixel.
The game is disappointingly quick; only 25 or so levels per faction. I suspect the designers were planning on you getting a lot of play out of the multiplayer modes (and poker and tile puzzles, see sidebar!) And the little armies tend to become easily confused on long walking commands, so you have to step them through troublesome terrain.
Those complaints aside, it is a wonder to see an rts on Game Boy. It's a shining example of the possibilities this genre can achieve in such a small scale. I think this game is a prelude to the advances we'll see on the next Game Boy iteration.