Diablo 2 is actually the best Diablo game
Stay a while, and listen
"O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!” Popeye the sailor man once famously said. A few weeks ago Graham messaged me and said we were refreshing our list of the best RPGs. "Which Diablo game should go on it?" he asked me, the Diablo liker on the editorial team. "Diablo II or Diablo III?"
I thought about it, and replied "Diablo III, but with this energy:" and then sent him that meme image of a guy throwing his hands up and saying "I guess" in a beleaguered way that suggests he accepts the situation but isn't happy about it. The panels are actually from a larger strip from the webcomic gunshow
I do genuinely believe that Diablo III is the game to recommend to new, prospective Diablo players. It's just kind of a bit better in a bunch of ways as outlined in the aforementioned bestest best article, and while DRM is an issue a lot of PC gamers care about, it's also an issue a lot of people don't care about, or sort of care about but ultimately ignore whilst grumbling a bit. See also: reading the licensing agreement; thinking the state of the environment is terrible but not going to any protests and also owning not one but probably several black boxy computers, each a small temple to nothing but your own tawdry entertainment, and all sitting under your massive TV.
Importantly, Diablo III is prettier. Most consumers these days, including me, are like babies responding to keys jangling in front of their chubby little rosy cheeks. Diablo II was a shiny set of keys in its day, no mistake, but its day was now actually 20 years ago (feel old yet?!). These days many players will get turned off just from staring at the the ugly repeating grass tiles for a solid few hours. Diablo III still looks lovely, so if you're trying to convince someone that these mad repetitive dungeon smasher RPGs are actually any good, it's best to ease them in to the experience.
But while Diablo III is the game in the series to recommend... Diablo II is still the best game.
Part of why I think that is because of the nostalgia. Diablo II (and specifically its expansion Lord Of Destruction) is the first RPG I ever played ever in my whole life, sparking a decades long love affair with the genre. It's the game my big brother used to teach me click-to-move - "Right, so now keep clicking in front of her before she gets to where you last clicked." - and every thing that happens in Diablo II tickles the ol' happy memories like a poacher gently mesmerising a trout.
Like the way the character select screen has all the classes standing around a fire, and they each do a little signature move so you know what they're like, like contestants on a dating show who only have seconds to make an impression. "Next up it's the druid! He's a wild child who describes himself as a bit of a loner with a dangerous streak! Ooh-er! We love a bit of mystery here, don't we, studio audience?"
Or the very evocative sound design. The sad guitar from the opening camp, worthy of the next Lewis Capaldi album. The growl that zombies make, the crunchy sound of a skeleton collapsing. Even how a lot of the female enemies make a weird sexual howl when you kill them. It's all a rich melange for the sword and sandals and loincloth vibe, the sort of slightly naff sexy-fantasy that everyone does really like, or Game Of Thrones wouldn't be popular.
But Diablo II does sensible things well as well. It disguises what it is, which is ultimately a game you are designed to play multiple times to get incrementally better pairs of gloves, and successfully becomes this epic quest of life and death. Latest dungeon darling Wolcen rips off the 'clear this underground cave of all the baddies' bit from Diablo, but just tells you you've done did it in big words on the screen when you kill whatever big lumbering lad you were supposed to.
In Diablo II you need to hunt down the very last trash mob hiding in the corner, fight a bright blue skeleton or an orange zombie, and then get to see beams of beatific light piercing the darkness around you. Your character might say something about cleansing evil. It makes you and what you just did seem important, not just part of the grind - even though Diablo II is very much an industrial sized mince-maker of a game.
So I do stand by the fact that Diablo III is the right game to recommend, and if I didn't I'd go and edit that bestest best article right now, gosh darnit. But Diablo II is the best. At least until Blizzard ruin it by remastering it, anyway.