There shouldn’t be any arguments when I claim that the original Diablo was a masterpiece. Launched in the 90’s, it defined a new genre of dungeon crawling, successfully mixing traditional Rogue/Nethack elements with beautiful visuals, real-time combat, class selection, an innovative loot system, and haunting music. Let’s look at the series as a whole, and the genre it largely created.
IYL will be a short series of articles delving into various genres and looking at the best examples in each. I’ll follow a standard layout. I’ll start with a bit of history about the most famous game representing the genre. Next, I’ll cover a game that’s very similar to the original, then (hopefully!) any games that have surpassed it since, and finally any games that do things in a unique way, but still tipping their hat to the original. Then it’s over to you to tell me how wrong I am, in the comments!
There was something very special about the first Diablo. Arriving in 1997, the majority of households didn’t yet have internet connections and those that did were still on 28K or (if they were lucky!) 56K modems. ADSL was rare and fixed connections were pure fantasy. So for a game like Diablo to land with multiplayer baked in was unusual. Perhaps inspired by Doom which was 4 years old by then, Blizzard were targeting the LAN party crowd?
But I experienced it by dialling my ISP and playing with my best mate. It was fabulous. The village of Tristram felt alive as you stocked up on potions and sold your latest loot before delving into the dynamically generated dungeons and caves below the village to level up further. There was, simply, nothing else like it.
And the music!
Before we move on, it's worth mentioning that you can still play Diablo 1 today, thanks to the DevilutionX project. Just grab the original game from GOG, and follow the instructions on the project page over on Github.
While the original was a classic, eventually selling a very respectable 2.5 million copies, its sequel which arrived three years later was really just more of the same. Diablo II introduced five new player classes, updated visuals and enemies spread over four distinct Acts. Later expansions added two further classes, but the core gameplay remained virtually unchanged from the original. It was still a huge hit, selling 4 million copies within 18 months, and its lasting appeal saw Battle.Net still reporting 11 million players in 2010!
Fast forward to 2012 and Diablo III would land with several controversies. By then, Activision had bought Blizzard via its parent, Vivendi, and World of Warcraft was Activision Blizzard’s new darling. The focus on its subscription-led cash cow reflected poorly on Diablo as a whole. First, several expansions to Diablo II were delayed or abandoned due to that focus, and of course it had been over a decade since Diablo II first landed. Second, Diablo III arrived with an invasive DRM stipulating that even single player games required an always-on, high-speed internet connection which resulted in players in Europe suffering crippling lag in their single-player games. South Korea had it even worse after the Fair Trade Commission raided Blizzard’s offices there, resulting in Korean players being unable to play at all, despite owning the game.
You’d like to think that Activision Blizzard had therefore learned its lessons when it launched the mobile-focused Diablo Immortal last year, but of course that’s not the case. By now, the firm was famous for all the wrong reasons, whether that’s an appalling culture of development crunch, or 2016’s loot-box-gambling-arena-FPS, Overwatch. So while it was disappointing to see loot boxes in Diablo Immortal, it was hardly surprising. What was surprising was the sheer unbridled greed of how it was implemented. Several streamers ended up spending tens of thousands of their own money to demonstrate the appalling scale of that greed. In one case, YouTuber jtisallbusiness spent over $100K upgrading his character, only to find that the system couldn’t accommodate his power level, and so he wasn’t able to use that character anymore - the matchmaking failed to match him appropriately!
Anyway, Diablo IV is arriving next month and Activision Blizzard have apparently already announced that there will be no loot boxes. However, with the game garnering mixed reviews during its open beta, and criticism of its WoW-inspired visuals, I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before they’re patched back in.
A direct clone - Path of Exile [Steam]
Enough about the fall and fall of Diablo, because it’s October 2013 and there’s a new kid in town. That kid is called Path of Exile and not only is it a game focused on massive scaling and end game content, it’s also completely free. Yes, there’s a shop, and yes, you can spend hundreds of your finest dollars, but unlike Diablo, PoE’s paid content is largely cosmetic. Largely, because some upgrades do allow you to store more loot, but the gist of it is clear - no pay-to-win mechanics here.
Path Of Exile’s character development is boggling, but the core of your power level actually comes from your equipment. Much of PoE’s equipment features a varying level of sockets, each of a distinct colour. Gem drops of each colour bring differing effects or power scaling and can be “socketed” into your equipment to buff its skills, effects, or power level.
This means that even two otherwise identically levelled characters of the same class will often feature wildly differing utility and damage output, based on the capabilities they’ve chosen in their development tree, equipment, and socketed gems.
Another always-online game, PoE features various Hub areas which are also MMO-based. There, you can chat to others, trade with them, or even challenge them to a duel for some instant PvP action. That last is entirely optional however - I’ve never been challenged in the game, nor challenged anyone myself. PvE all the way for me! You can also party-up in these Hubs before attempting your next mission.
Path Of Exile has had a rocky life on Linux with pre-Proton wine builds being a bit hit or miss. Early Proton was sometimes shaky too. I’m happy to report that more recently, it’s absolutely flawless, as my 70 hours or so will attest.
My only gripe with PoE is that I’ve played Grim Dawn and as a result, the action is just a bit too zoomed in for my liking. This is a gripe also being aimed at Diablo 4 in its public alpha too - it can be sometimes frustrating to have an enemy off-screen firing at you, or worse, killing something off-screen with a long-range attack and never even seeing what it was!
I hate to say it, but Grim Dawn ruins quite a few other games in this genre simply through its excellence. Speaking of Grim Dawn…
I might have 70 hours in PoE, but I have nearly ten times that number in Grim Dawn. It’s one of my most played games, and there’s a reason for that. Several actually: lengthy, grim-fantasy story which really engages without getting in the way of the action, stunning full-3D graphics that can be rotated and zoomed to your exact specification, atmospheric music and sound design and a character system that is incredibly flexible, yet wonderfully balanced. Throw in tonnes of content, two superb DLC campaigns, an intuitive fast travel system, heaps of secrets and several end-game loot mechanics and you can see why this is often acclaimed as the king of the ARPG.
One thing to get out of the way right from the start - the maps in Grim Dawn and its many, many secrets are not dynamically generated. They benefit, therefore, from being beautiful and well designed. The drawback of course is that once you know the levels and secrets… you know them. They won’t change. There is some minor randomisation - some levels will close routes off to force you around a different way, or a dungeon is spawned in a different location - but the map itself hasn’t changed, just the obstacles on the map.
But you probably won’t mind until thousands of hours in - there’s just so much of it all. The content feels never ending. And then there’s two equally gigantic DLC expansions!
Then there’s the character customisation. Each of six classes (and a further 3 in the two DLCs) has its own tree of skills and effects. Each level grants points to distribute on the tree, either to grow along the bottom, reaching new abilities, or power up existing abilities you’ve already reached and unlocked. There are also three core character attributes to level up. Then there’s the gear, and the associated “socketing” of said gear with a massive array of gems which grant new effects and capabilities.
And then, when you hit level 10, about 20-30 minutes into the game… multi-class options become available. Yep, choose a second class to start progressing along with your first chosen class. This gives so many opportunities for synergies, it’s mind-boggling (in a good way). Starting as a Soldier, then multi-classed to Arcanist? Well done, now you’re a Battlemage. Strength AND magic? Yes please!
You want more customisation? Okay, how about an entire tree of constellations which you unlock by earning points for cleansing altars spread throughout the world (some of which are cleverly hidden). Unlock the whole constellation for bonus effects, or entirely new abilities. There are 82 of these, allowing for further synergies and strategy building.
Quality of life? Grim Dawn has it in spades. Nearly every screen can be opened independently of one another, map overlays, shift-clicking, view rotation, zooming, loot filtering, loot highlighting. Nearly every interface can be searched by keywords, or reorganised with the click of a button. The game just gets out of your way as much as possible to let you zone into the action.
How about crafting? Hundreds of blueprints across all power levels are available, and once learned, you just need those precious materials. Some of these materials will have you re-visiting certain areas to grind for what you need, but if crafting and grinding for materials isn’t your bag, there are plenty of alternative ways to earn powerful loot, such as the Crucible (DLC - 100 waves of monsters in an arena, with increasing rewards every 10 levels), or the Shattered Realm (DLC - a race to defeat a set number of monsters before the next realm closes, forcing you to return to base with whatever you looted on the way). These risk vs reward game modes are brilliant fun, and a welcome break from the campaign missions.
I’ll stop there, but given the core game is frequently under £5 and the bundle of the game plus all three DLC is frequently under £20, this game is absolute steal for the value it offers. If you like Diablo, this is what you should be playing.
Something a little different: Last Epoch [Steam]
I’ll keep this one short, because although it is different, it’s not that much different. Last Epoch takes a little bit of Diablo (the core genre), a little bit of Path of Exile (gear-focused builds) and a little bit of Grim Dawn (designed levels, beautiful 3D environments) and throws in a couple of interesting mechanics.
First, time travel! Each map has five or six “eras” or epochs that you can travel between as the story opens up. One great example of this (minor spoiler warning) sees you turned away from the locked door of a late era temple because you don’t have an imperial insignia. But by then, you’ve unlocked that era and can rift-gate to the earlier period, find an insignia then travel forwards in time to advance into the temple. It’s nicely done, and seeing the various cities and architecture change throughout the eras is fascinating.
Second, while there are five classes and a set number of skills, Last Epoch’s customisation comes from what they call skill specialisation. You choose which subset of skills you will specialise in, and doing so will grant points in a skill tree unique to that skill. Like the fireball? Specialise in it and you can advance in various ways - make it penetrate, give it larger explosion, fire three or even more at once, rapid fire them, or even turn it into a short-range flamethrower. How you choose your specialisation will determine how you play the game and the flexibility is very satisfying.
Loot specialisation is interesting too, with an always-available forge option, which allows you to add a variety of special effects to your gear, even mid-combat, which I definitely don’t recommend!
Last Epoch recently added multiplayer to what was previously a single-player experience and there are some rough edges as a result, but if you’re looking for something a little different, it’s definitely worth checking out.
And the rest
Quite a slick looking ARPG with a nice story. Sadly, also quite a few bugs, particularly inventory slots suddenly becoming unavailable, stash not working, or gear not equipping. Some of the cut scenes are embarrassingly over-sexualised, but voice acting isn’t bad. This could have been a great ARPG, but there’s a general lack of inspiration overall - linear maps, no real quality of life in the interface, far less loot in general. One to consider when it’s on sale, perhaps. Note: was on GOG once upon a time, but was removed.
Can’t speak to this one, as I haven’t played it, but the Anniversary Edition gets good reviews on Steam, despite the visuals showing their age
(despite only being a year older than Grim Dawn!). EDIT: I've had a few folk point out that the original game was actually released in 2006 - it was the Anniversary Edition that came out in 2016, so for a game well over 15 years old, it's actually looking pretty good!
A strong contender for “Something a little different”, because Victor Vran is more action than RPG. There’s no character progression as such, control is via gamepad, and customisation comes from whichever weapon you favour, and a series of “destiny cards” which grant a variety of buffs to help combat. Great graphics, satisfying (if occasionally grindy) combat and good voice acting, it’s definitely worth checking out.
It’s been a while since I played the first two, and I haven’t tried the third which gets poor reviews, nor the “Infinite” game that launched a few days ago. The first two games are definitely worth your time, however, although I did eventually become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of gear the game throws on the ground as you chew through the enemies. In fact, the devs introduced a mechanic whereby your pet will collect loot and return to town to sell it while you continue to accrue a never ending stream of gear!
Launched at the start of the year, this showed promise, but was cut down by reviewers when it turned out there was no mouse-movement option. That option was quickly added, but the damage was done, and now it’s hard to know if this is worth a look. It’s still on my wishlist and I’ll give it a try someday, no doubt.
Albion Online [Steam]
A diablo-like? Well, kind of. I thought I’d mention it due to the isometric view, character movement and fighting mechanics, which are indeed quite diablo-like. But as an MMO, this is much more focused on gathering, crafting and guilds, so feel free to give this a pass if that’s not your bag.
And that’s it for this genre! Feel free to educate me on what I’ve missed in the comments. This is one of my favourite genres, so all suggestions are welcome!