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May 20, 2012 / jwaxo

Diablo II (Skill Trees)

Prepare to do some major clicking.

Believe it or not, now that I’m done doing nostalgia-based posts, I’ve had a lot of requests for posts on specific games and my opinions on them. One particularly vocal minority has asked for what I think about Diablo III, but before I do that, we need to talk a bit about Diablo II.

It wasn’t until high school that I ever really played Diablo II. It was at a LAN party, one of many day-long celebrations of the computers we had built and our prowess at beating each other, when someone offered me a CD and told me to install whatever was on it, “the multiplayer install.” I had no idea what it was, but I installed it, anyway, wondering at the splash screen that showed an Amazonian woman approaching some kind of mummy. The name rang a bell, probably from a promo for its predecessor that was in the back page of the original Warcraft‘s manual.

Now, ten years later, I have put hundreds of hours into Diablo II. Every year we would all go through a phase of starting up new characters and running them through the randomly-generated wildernesses and dungeons, killing evil creatures to gain experience points, getting better and better loot, and quickly skipping anything at all related to the story. The game, plus its expansion pack, has a total of seven different character classes to play with, each with their own specialties and skills, and combine that with the random dungeons and randomly-created weapons and armor that popped, like corks, from enemy corpses, and you had a formula for endless replayability.

Of course, I almost exclusively played the Paladin character. But that’s kind of my point: using a single character class, I managed to play this game for ten years and never really get bored of it.

Being a badass is never boring.

Recently there has been some kerfuffle in the action RPG (or ARPG, as games that copy Diablo came to be called) community lately because, after twelve years, the sequel to Diablo II has finally come out. Diablo III hit shelves last Tuesday, a week after an open beta allowed everyone to experience the first couple hours of gameplay. At the same time, another ARPG has entered the beta phase and has also been allowing users to get an early glimpse at it: Torchlight II. The original Torchlight was a very small Diablo-clone that came out a few years ago, but, as it was singleplayer, it didn’t invite too many people’s interests. Now with Torchlight II‘s beta, the accusations and debates have been flying.

Thanks to the power of the internet, I’ve had the ability and opportunity to play not just Diablo III in the beta two weeks ago, and not just Torchlight II in the beta this weekend, but also a chance to go back and give Diablo II a hefty revisit with two friends of mine.

Ignoring the server issues that Diablo III has been suffering from and focusing purely on gameplay comparisons, they are almost all identical games: there’s a top-down, isometric view; you click through randomly-generated environments to go through enemies to objectives; randomly-generated weapons and armor drop in satisfying, fun ways; your characters level up after gaining specific amounts of experience points.

And here’s the big thing.

Wait for it, maestro. Wait for it…

The skill systems.

So, in D2, at every level your character gets a skill point. Armed with this skill point, you would navigate an interface of skill trees and either pick a new skill to learn, assuming you met the prerequisites, or level up an old skill to be more effective. In TL2 you do much the same thing. Skills no longer require specific other skills to be learned beforehand, but you still have to make a choice of what skills you want to learn, and which ones need to improve, etc. Both systems also have a system where the user picks if they want to increase their health points, stamina, magic points, etc, but that’s a completely different boat.

D3, meanwhile, got rid of the entire skill tree system.

In a nutshell, characters automatically unlock skills as they go along. Every other level or so, a new skill is unlock, or a potential improvement for a skill. Rather than picking which skills to improve or which ones to unlock, players are instead tasked with deciding which ones to equip and have at the ready, and how to apply minor to major customization to the skills. All of this can be changed at any time, at no cost to the player, when out of combat.

The main argument for this type of system is streamlining: in the previous system, if you leveled up a skill that turned out to stink, you were trapped with it, having wasted a precious skill point. In this way there are many different “builds” you can have, and if it’s a poor one, you save time by being able to go back to town and change them at whim, instead of having to play through the entire game several times, just to get a character back to the same level. You still only have certain skills at the ready, but you can’t get trapped. It also allows for more experimentation, is less nerve-wracking, and, overall, is less frustrating.

And, well. To put it simply: I don’t find that fun at all.

I know, I’m a killjoy.

I realize that people play for different reasons in order to have fun. My kind of fun is different from your kind of fun. And hey, if you have fun playing Diablo III as it is, jump right back to it (assuming you can connect to the servers). But here’s my explanation for why this system is boring.

I played Diablo II for ten years, off and on. I restarted many different times, developed many different Paladins, and had a heck of a lot of fun. And while I sometimes chose to try out skills that I didn’t like, I never once got to the endgame and went “Man. This character is horrible, and I’ve made horrible decisions. I guess I should scrap him and move on.” This is because for some reason I build up a relationship with the characters I build. Every time, they are unique characters, different from any others. This Paladin is super-fast, able to smash through loads of weak enemies in only a few clicks. This Paladin focused on heavy magic-based attacks. This one is mostly a support one, healing and helping my friends. They evolved, through my permanent skill choices, to be their own characters.

If I had the ability to change who they were, it would cheapen the game. Even having the mechanic there, even if I ignored that ability completely, it shows what direction the game developers were going.

I compare it to a pen-and-paper RPG, the kind with a real skill sheet and dice rolls. Those kinds of characters are even more your own than ones you’ve raised through a video game: you decide their backstory, what they look like, what clothes they wear, and how they respond to everything, along with their skills and attributes. And, after playing this character monthly for three years, you realize that you shouldn’t have taken points in car mechanic. And even though the tools are at your disposal to change this (namely, an eraser and a pencil), you would never do that. It just wouldn’t make sense. What was the point of playing if you don’t live with your choices?

So anyway. There’s that. In the same way that I don’t save-scum anymore, even if it’s perfectly reasonable to do so within a game’s mechanics, ARPGs that don’t feature permanence anywhere in their character progression hold no interest for me.

Plus there’s this problem. Seriously, no offline option whatsoever? I’ll be playing Torchlight.

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