Roughly every couple of years for about the last decade, I've returned to Diablo II. Blizzard's action role-playing game was released in 2000, and has been imitated many times but never matched. It's easy to see why so many developers have sought to make games that use the Diablo II formula: it is an addictive style of gameplay which is easy to pick up but hard to master; it can be adapted to different settings and game engines; and Diablo II itself was a tremendous commercial success.
There are also a number of reasons why Blizzard's game has remained the gold standard for action RPGs after all these years. The developer's famed quality control is one reason, as is their continued support (the game has been patched as recently as March 2016). For me, though, the single biggest asset the game has is its thrilling sense of challenge and difficulty: particularly in hardcore mode.
Set within a dark fantasy world, Diablo II and its 2001 expansion Lord of Destruction task players with tracking down and defeating the three "Prime Evils". Doing so means creating a character in one of seven varied classes, naming them, and setting out into the game's world: across five "Acts", characters gain experience, level up and acquire new skills and gear. The basic format wasn't original in 2000, and it certainly isn't now: but add in Blizzard's meticulous approach to difficulty together with hardcore mode, and every tough encounter becomes an electrifying dance with permanent death.
"Permadeath" has become a familiar feature of a lot of indie games in the last few years; typically, though, it's an inducement to replaying games that are quite short. A game like Spelunky or Nuclear Throne wouldn't take long to complete in one sitting if it wasn't very challenging. Death is extremely frequent and doesn't mean much in these games - however, Diablo II has an epic campaign which takes many hours to complete. It's possible for a character that has taken a long time to build up to be killed within a few seconds - as I was reminded when my level 22 druid was incinerated by a Fetish Shaman last week.
Clearly, this kind of gameplay isn't for everyone - and that's why hardcore mode is optional in Diablo II. For those who develop a taste for it, it adds not only a lot of intensity to the pursuit of the Prime Evils, but also offers tremendous satisfaction in overcoming heavy odds. Take Duriel, for example: a "lesser evil" who is the boss of Act II, Duriel is infamous for his massive damage output, terrifying speed, and "holy freeze" aura which slows players. He will have killed countless hardcore characters over the years, but once some key tips are learned (thawing potions, cold resistance and judicious use of town portal scrolls), defeating Duriel offers an incredible sense of achievement - not to mention some useful loot left beside his putrid corpse.
It's moments like this that make Diablo II, as frequently copied as it is, an incredible experience over fifteen years on. Every battle in hardcore mode sets players on a perilous balance between glorious victory and oblivion - and while the game's fiction is very familiar, this adds a kind of mythic quality to the player's journey that few games have ever possessed. Diablo III was released in 2012; I'm sure I'll get around to playing it. For the time being, there's still more to conquer in its predecessor - not least death itself.
Diablo II and its expansion Lord of Destruction are available to buy directly from Blizzard for £6.99 each.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.