Why is Diablo 2 so special? We ask the fans remaking the classic ARPG

The diehard fans making their own remasters explain what makes this classic so special, and what Blizzard must preserve

Project Diablo 2 is simple in conception but complex in execution. A group of fans has set about imbuing the old game with 20 years’ worth of fixes and improvements to bring it into the modern day while preserving its legacy. It’s Diablo 2 as you remember it, but with regular updates that invite comparisons with Path of Exile. The server resets as new content and balance tweaks keep the economy and gameplay vibrant every four months. The aim is to recreate Diablo 2 as if Blizzard had never stopped working on it.

“We’re improving the quality of life, making skills that were mechanically limited by the design of the times more viable, and improving a lot of dated design concepts that were just a result of the early days of game development,” project lead SenpaiSomething, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells us. “It’s essentially about applying 20 years of RPG knowledge and backdating it to Diablo 2 so that we can pretend the game has been getting patches all along.

“By doing this, we’re creating more builds, more items, adding new endgame zones, giving players reasons to group up by adding new maps (similar to a Path of Exile system), and new dungeons for groups that enforce more team play for those who want it – dungeons are side content that are completely optional, but require support builds, tank builds, and more, which is a foreign concept to most ARPGs. Essentially, we’re trying to create an ARPG that allows you to play whichever way you want.”

The project was eagerly embraced by fans when it launched late last year, hitting a peak of 12,500 players in its first season. It even caught the eye of one of the original creators of Diablo 2 on Twitter, which certainly helps. Clearly, people haven’t forgotten about Diablo 2.

In Diablo 2's Lord of Destruction expansion, the new final boss Baal sits on his throne. An obsequious demon bows its head as it approaches Baal's spidery form. Flaming braziers line the throne room, bathing it in a red glow, and tapestries hang from the ceiling.

This isn’t the first time, though, that someone has tried to recreate the classic ARPG. Reign of Terror is a fan-made Diablo 2 remake that has been stitched back together and maintained in another ARPG called Grim Dawn. One of its creators tells me it all started in September 2016 when he tried to recreate Rogue Encampment with Grim Dawn’s modding tools. At that point, Ram, who also wishes to remain anonymous, just wanted to see if he could do it. Five years later, the team is still at it. After spending three years recreating all five of Diablo 2’s acts on weekends and other spare moments on holidays, the team is now taking care of the minor tweaks. They’re currently working on a new balance update for progression, items, and more.

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“A few more people offered their help with the project after [all the acts were remade],” Ram says, “which I am very grateful for, since that allowed me to shift my focus to making my own indie game with another former GD modder [WareBare]. But I had to return to Reign of Terror because the person who was responsible for the project during my leave has suddenly left for unknown reasons, and I couldn’t leave my legacy unattended.”

Other Diablo 2 fan projects stretch even further back. Curse of Tristram is a remake of Diablo 2’s first act which uses Starcraft 2’s tools, and Etienne ‘egod123’ Godbout began work when when the Starcraft 2 beta was still in testing. Today, it features weekly events, fresh items to track down, and new economies to master.

What is it about Diablo 2 that has held people’s attention for so long? The sense of community around modding helps, but there’s something special here that players haven’t found in Diablo 3. Notably, everyone I spoke to praised the game for the dark, gothic atmosphere that its sequel chose not to emulate.

I ask Ram what elements of Diablo 2 he tries to keep intact in Reign of Terror. “It’s a combination of things, but mostly fond childhood memories back from when I was actively playing Diablo 2,” he says. “If I had to name something specific, it would be the dark atmosphere and superb sound design.”

Yet as players seek to pin down and preserve the elusive feel of Diablo 2, its age is inescapable. The genre has evolved in the 21 years since its release, SenpaiSomething observes. Ram sees this as an opportunity, and had his own improvements in mind when making Reign of Terror.

“What I simply couldn’t stand was the same level design used in most of the Diablo 2 areas, and that’s where I had to change something,” he recalls. “Also, the endgame in Diablo 2 isn’t particularly rich, so I’ve added more things to farm once the player finishes the campaign. Then we have the quality of life improvements such as automatic pick up, loot filters, unique/set item drop notification, and so on, though some of those came with Grim Dawn itself.”

While each of these projects is driven by a comparable wish to preserve what makes Diablo 2 special, they’ve taken on an identity of their own. I ask everyone if Blizzard’s rumoured remaster of Diablo 2 would have any influence on their project’s future. For the most part, everyone believes they’ve created something unique – something sufficiently distinctive to still be of value even if Diablo 2: Resurrected is unveiled at BlizzCon 2021.

“As far as I know, the official Diablo 2 remaster is still just a rumour,” Ram says. “However, even if it’s confirmed it won’t affect Reign of Terror in any way because this mod was never meant to be a 1:1 remake of Diablo 2 due to how different the Grim Dawn engine is, which brings limitations to what I can implement. Reign of Terror is a unique mix of Diablo 2 and Grim Dawn, so it will be very different from a remaster.”

SenpaiSomething also never set out to make a true remaster. Rather, his goal for Project Diablo 2 was to make something more like a new expansion. “This one differs in the sense that we can reverse engineer Diablo 2 and are not trying to create a ‘mod’ or ‘new game’ like many of the more technically savvy modders tend to do,” SenpaiSomething explains. “We’re a team of experienced people who simply want to improve the game as is and maintain the Lord of Destruction feel.

“I’d say the biggest distinction for us would be that our team is led by people who are hardcore Diablo 2 players with thousands of hours and deep understanding of all the intricacies and interactions that come with it. For example, I’m the project lead and designer, and I’ve spent the last two years making guides and providing feedback and design ideas for other mods. Essentially, we’re trying to create Diablo 2.5.”

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For Godbout, though, it’s time to leave Curse of Tristram behind. Over the weekend the team released a polished yet unfinished version of the mod on BattleNet that contains everything they’ve made so far. It’s partly in anticipation of Blizzard’s rumoured remaster, but also of Godbout’s long-held goal to dive into indie game development. Besides the timing, Godbout adds that the mod is becoming more challenging to maintain due to Starcraft 2’s engine.

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“The limitations of the Starcraft 2 Engine editor [have been] the biggest challenge,” he tells me. “It’s not that it’s a bad engine, it’s just the mod was too big for it. Blizzard helped us a lot, and we share info together as well with updates on the editor, but still, the project was too big. It’s running very slow right now due to a large amount of coding.”

While each of these projects is on different paths, they’ve all been led by people with a deep passion and understanding of Diablo 2. As such – and with one eye on Warcraft 3: Reforged in the rearview mirror – I ask each of them what Blizzard would need to do in its rumoured remaster to make it a success.

An in-game screenshot from Curse of Tristram, a fan remake of the first act of Diablo 2. The player's character is enveloped by a swirling magical vortex as they prepare to cast a spell in the middle of a lush forest.

Godbout says that Diablo 2 in its current form is still “really good”, but needs to be purged of the bots and hacks that ruin the experience. Ram adds that “story, NPCs, atmosphere, memorable areas, enemies, music, sounds, voice-overs, core gameplay mechanics, and loot should remain, otherwise [Blizzard] will lose the majority of its fan base”. That may seem like a long list of things for Blizzard to leave alone, but Ram’s own goals in Reign of Terror inspire an equally long list of ideas for modernisation.

“What has to improve are graphics, animations, larger variety in level design for randomly generated areas, quality of life improvements such as a larger inventory size – infinite stash, as in PlugY, would be the holy grail – auto-pick up, loot filters, item drop notifications, and more endgame content, because that’s what Diablo 2 lacks the most in comparison to modern ARPGs.”

For SenpaiSomething, though, one of the most important features is mod support. After all, it’s what has kept the original Diablo 2 around 21 years after its release.

“I think the game has an amazing base and I’d love to see something like what Jagex did with ’07 Runescape, where they essentially have a continuation of the old game. Tthat’s what we’ve tried to do with Project Diablo 2,” he says. “It’s something I would’ve loved to see them do with WoW Classic, but that being said, if they wanted to keep it completely 1:1 I would also understand that approach. But they need to keep mod support, as it has been a large part of what’s kept the game around as long as it has.”

Check out the fan projects! Here’s Project Diablo 2, Reign of Terror, and Curse of Tristram. Our thanks to the creators for their time and thoughtful comments.