Diablo (Mac) review
"The Diablo phenomenon had already flowered profusely amongst PC gamers by the time the game found its way to the Macintosh realm in 1998. The Mac demo version of the game was only shipping on the cover CDs of computer magazines halfway through that year - a hefty lag for one of the most popular and contagious games of the late nineties, but this was the state of Macintosh gaming at the time. Whilst some startling Mac-born games such as Bungie's Marathon continued to hold the fort during t..."
The Diablo phenomenon had already flowered profusely amongst PC gamers by the time the game found its way to the Macintosh realm in 1998. The Mac demo version of the game was only shipping on the cover CDs of computer magazines halfway through that year - a hefty lag for one of the most popular and contagious games of the late nineties, but this was the state of Macintosh gaming at the time. Whilst some startling Mac-born games such as Bungie's Marathon continued to hold the fort during those years, the PC translations trickled in ever so slowly due to the ill-perceived ravages of 'the market' while Apple itself seemed to be floundering with various identity crises.
The happy coincidence for Diablo was that it appeared on the Mac at exactly the same time that Apple turned its whole situation around, mid 1998. Amongst the flurry of iMacs, new software, hardware and ideas, Diablo was one of the PC translations to unofficially usher in a new era of Mac gaming. The 'conversion lag' soon started to close up, Apple plied game developers with extra support, and you could say that the rapidly improving situation was exemplified by the coup of sorts that occurred when PC-grounded Id Software released the Quake 3 demo to Mac gamers first.
Of course none of these things can be attributed directly to Macintosh Diablo, but sometimes it's fun to pretend that they can.
Starry-eyed contexts aside, Macintosh Diablo is essentially identical to its PC mother. The only physical differences I've observed are the Mac's slightly improved, less digital-looking graphics, and the fact that a right click of the mouse has necessarily become a 'Command' click for anyone using a single-button mouse. I think Diablo across all its forms is a fantastic and important game entirely worthy of the many accolades it has received, and it remains a personal favourite of mine. Just as Atari's Gauntlet perfectly distilled the hack-and-slash appeal of dungeon mazes in the eight-bit era, wowing players with its unprecedented graphic and atmospheric qualities and becoming a classic in the process, so Diablo achieves the same feat for the thirty-two bit era.
Diablo's coup on its own terms was to offer swift and simple character development in league with a massive randomised inventory of seductive artifacts, weapons and shrines for the player to find. From The Cobalt Bow of the Stars to the Fountain of Tears, to the Saintly Plate of Harmony or the Optic Amulet, the arcane contents of Diablo are enough to please even the hardest roleplayers who are likely to have memorised the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons manuals from cover to cover.
Your goal is crystalline: The dark lord Diablo must be vanquished to save the blighted town of Tristam, and the world. Choose a character class from amongst the Warrior, the arrow-spitting female Rogue, or the Sorcerer, then descend through sixteen increasingly vicious scrolling isometric dungeon levels, building up your character's stats and powers en route in readiness for the final battle. The experience of each character class is solidly unique. There are side-quests, but they're simple and discrete. And nearly every single action in the game, from slashing with a sword to throwing open a sarcophagus, is affected by just clicking the mouse pointer on the target in hectic real time. Diablo's outrageously simple veneer makes the game experience completely imminent. You forget that there's a mouse in your hand or a great pile of RPG stats chugging away in the background, and become hypnotised by the visceral gameplay.
Nor is Diablo a game you can in any way blunder through. Ploughing into roomfuls of demons and clicking the mouse like crazy quickly becomes a guaranteed path to suicide. You need to exploit the full range of dungeon architecture, launching your spells and missile weapons through grates and windows, luring foes into bottlenecks and steering running battles through mazes. You will also spend hours tinkering with your exotic weapons, armour and spell books as you try to maximise your general death-dealing abilities, or to discover that one configuration that will get you through the current impossible-seeming situation. The first time you face a wall of Acid Beasts spitting up to forty projectiles across the cavern floor at a time, or fall amidst a ring of magic-throwing Succubi, you will be stunned by the sheer volume of foes you're expected to overcome.
The graphics are beautifully detailed, with tiny articulate animations for all the heroes and demons, and clever handling of real-time lighting and semi-transparent scenery. Diablo's atmosphere is truly nightmarish and oppressive, even lonely and terrifying. The first level is tiled in the traditional dungeon flagstones, but you will descend through floor after floor of increasingly grimy architecture - rubble, rotting wood and pools of magma - until you finally stand in Hell amidst warped constructions of bone with blood pulsing in the walls. The accumulated sight of corpses impaled on stakes or upturned in medieval torture frames by this stage will have caused you considerable despair. This was the first time in a game, too, that I felt that I was really underground, with the deathly weight of a dozen levels overhead threatening to make the ceiling drip down to crush me.
The highly imaginative design of the demons and their splattery demises, both visually and in the sound design, can never be taken for granted. The beasts variously charge, slither, fly and dematerialise in battle, always keeping you on your strategic toes. The corpse of every material foe you kill remains in place permanently, creating a gory visual inventory of your progress, with the deaths themselves leaving many of Diablo's strongest sensory impressions. The corpses of the crawling, sucking Scavengers twitch and rattle, Familiars explode with an awful scream like a vinyl record being raked backwards, and the way that a slain Snow Witch will crumple through a graceful kneel as a pool of blood spreads evenly about her is the flourish I most wish I could say I invented myself.
I remember all the way back when I first fired up the Diablo demo, or 'Spawn' as it's called, that what really struck me were those weird jangly guitar chords which commence the extremely memorable Theme of Tristam on the soundtrack. (Incidentally, most of this theme is massively playable on the piano. Throw it in amongst something reputable like Beethoven for an audience, then spring the vile truth on them that you're a videogame music freak and they've just been caught out admiring music from 'this game called Diablo.') I don't think Diablo's score has ever received as much credit as it is due, and this is probably because of the subtlety of the mix, meaning that on your average tinny computer sound setup most of the finer features are buried. This is definitely a fault in itself, but a pair of headphones or a solid stereo setup reveal the score's full inventiveness. Rustic-sounding melodic guitar pieces, weird syncopated drumming, screams and moans and heavy metal squalls all roll into each other for truly unsettling effect.
Diablo is also famous for its multiplayer online accessibility, though the opportunity to team up or spar with like-minded Diablo-loving strangers from across the globe proved to be a double-edged sword. Blizzard's free service, Battle Net, suffered from the hard-to-eradicate hacking, cheating and playerkilling problems that have continued to afflict large-scale online games ever since. The fault lies more in the vulnerability of online systems generally rather than in Diablo itself, but to play Diablo on a local network with a group of up to three friends is always thrilling in the classic Gauntlet style. Crucially for Diablo's longevity, I believe the game remains at its most compulsive and enthralling as a single-player experience. The design of fully-randomised dungeon mazes and treasures, with certain set features such as the incidence of quests, succeeds in creating a distinct world and new set of challenges each time you play. Besides, your friends don't want to stand around while you decide which permutation of magical bow and amulet will increase your damage by five whilst still setting off the colour of your eyes.
The only class for whom the randomisation can backfire is the sorcerer. The warrior or rogue cannot fail to develop their key universally-damaging skills (melee and missile respectively) in any game, but the sorcerer finds his spell-casting abilities tied to the whim of which spell books and staves turn up, and since monsters can prove resistant to particular spell attacks - lightning, fire or magical - you can find your sorcerer unpleasantly stuck on a dungeon level where you can barely scratch anything. This is the only real problem I've ever encountered in an otherwise brilliantly judged game.
When Diablo's sequel eventually arrived, dogged as it was by an unfair hype machine of Metal Gear Solid 2 proportions, the essence of the original game came under the spotlight anew. I think Diablo decided upon its nature and got its priorities right the first time out. Its potentially unwieldy RPG machinery was threaded into gameplay of contrasting elegance and simplicity, and a beautiful atmosphere of evil; this simple/ complex duality is the game's whole point, and the reason for its spectacular success. But with human nature being what it is, we all instinctively shamble towards what we don't already possess, often in spite of what we know. So Diablo's sequel cranked up the scale and the complexity, and whilst it was heralded as a miracle upon arrival, the longer-term response was: 'It's the same, but it's also too big, too tedious.'
Few people remember or care about the details of Diablo's story. You don't need to - it's archetypal. You're the hero. Diablo's the villain. There's a godforsaken labyrinth between you and him. You tool up, you go down there, you fight your way through one dungeon after another, and eventually you slay him. If anything sums up Diablo's pleasing obsessiveness as it drives you towards this one goal, it's the fact that you spend the majority of the game clicking the one mouse button over and over. As chaotic hack and slash combat, as an exceptionally addictive RPG embracing the eternal hunt for experience points, more levels and more exotic equipment, and as a journey through a memorably hellish world, Diablo is one of the great elemental fantasy gaming experiences.
-- Diablo -- 9/10 --
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)
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