Diablo 2: Resurrected overhauls Diablo 2's graphics, but underneath the intricate new 3D models, dynamic lighting, and shiny puddles, it's the same old Diablo 2. And Diablo 2 still rules.
There are little hints that what you're seeing is just a costume. As I clicked around the trampled fields in the limited technical alpha today (the full release is coming later this year), I noticed that my sorceress gently snaps to the eight directions her original sprite has to face. And when I clicked too close to a cow, she clipped through it, whereas in the original Diablo 2, character sprites can only be in front of or behind another object.
Most of the time, the disguise is hard to see through. I might not even have believed that Diablo 2: Resurrected is a reskin of Diablo 2 if it weren't possible to yank off the mask. Press G, and the 4K art dissolves into the original low-res renders. It's an effect we've seen in other remasters, and it's always cool.
Only three classes and two acts are available in the Diablo 2: Resurrected technical alpha, and a few features aren't implemented, such as new color blindness modes, but otherwise it feels complete. The redone graphics are the big addition, and they mostly look great. Where torches and campfires in the original seem to emit pale white moonlight, you get the expected warm glow from the new dynamic lighting. Flames no longer cast shadows of themselves, either, a funny quirk of the original art. The remaster makes Sanctuary feel less otherworldly, and I suspect not everyone will be pleased with that, but in general I like the new mood. The more natural lighting gives Diablo 2's strange places a gentler side. They seem more like places that could really exist. (Although, Resurrected has its own lighting oddity. The character shadow is still based on a global light source, so it doesn't change if you walk up to a campfire. It's a bit distracting once you notice it.)
I don't like the redesign uniformly. Some of the new art lacks the character of the original pixelated renders: Boulders that used to look like smooth ass cheeks now look like normal rocks, and once charmingly chunky wagons are now more sensibly-proportioned. Characters whose features were mostly implied are now sharply defined—a few pale pixels and a helmet of comic book red hair have been replaced with severe cheekbones and styled auburn waves—and they seem less interesting for it. It makes me think of live action adaptations of cartoons. Even if the actor is good, you'll always like the cartoon version of a character more.
There are parts where I like Resurrected's new art more than the original art, though. I haven't played far, but The Den of Evil looks creepier and cooler in the new version. The Gargantuan Beasts, big Yeti-like guys, are fabulous. It's the same deal as with the human characters: They've been given detailed, shiny fur, as if someone's done a realistic render of a cartoon character, but in this case the uncanny translation makes them stranger.
The new spell effects are chic, as well, although I wish Blizzard weren't so committed to making the ground shiny. I played Diablo 4 back at BlizzCon after it was announced, and every surface there shines, too. Who is polishing all these cave floors? (I know, I know, everything's wet. Everything's always wet.)
Killing demons the old way
As for how Diablo 2: Resurrected plays, there are some light, toggleable changes, such as an automatic gold collection function. Otherwise, though, it's just Diablo 2. And while it has much more competition today, Diablo 2 still feels as good as it did back when I was putting off high school homework to play it.
Aspects of it are weird today, of course. Diablo 2 doesn't have a hotbar for attacks, for instance. At any given moment, you can have one action assigned to your left mouse button and one action assigned to your right mouse button. If you want to use more than two attacks or spells during a fight, you can assign keys (the top row function keys, by default) that change your mouse button bindings on the fly, or use the scroll wheel to cycle your right mouse button binding. Meanwhile, the number keys are used for potions.
That's not how anyone would design an action RPG today, but you get used to it. And as I played, I was reminded of how many little things Diablo 2 did so brilliantly. The ping when you move a gem in your inventory, the gurgle when you drop a potion, the clink of falling gold, the fwoshp when you reposition a leather tunic to make space in the inventory grid: all so good. Every sound effect in Diablo 2 is a top tier videogame sound effect. The music also belongs on the Gaming's Greatest Hits album, and it sounds fantastic here (Blizzard says that Resurrected features "a complete audio remaster in Dolby Surround 7.1 sound").
Diablo 2's menus remain just about perfect. Almost nothing is so complicated that it doesn't fit in a panel that only takes up a third of the screen, or half of it if you're in 800x600 mode. I'd forgotten how pleasant it is to look at a skill tree and think, "Ah, yes, there are all of the skills." It's so chill compared to the 15-page brochures about elemental damage you sometimes get today, and works even better at 1440p.
If you haven't played Diablo 2, the combat is probably what you expect based on its reputation: Big hordes of Satan's friends mob you, and you click them to death with your vintage Microsoft IntelliMouse (or whatever you have). You get rare magical loot, you identify that loot with scrolls, and you wear it, and you feel awesome about how cool your loot is. If it's totally new to you, Diablo 2 inspired many of today's biggest games: Destiny 2, the Borderlands games, and more obviously, stuff like Path of Exile. It's going to feel a bit simple compared to what came after it, but it's still a lot of fun. It wouldn't have been copied so much if it weren't.
This weekend's Diablo 2: Resurrected technical alpha is singleplayer only, but the full game will include multiplayer, and there'll be a multiplayer test before release. If you want to get into either alpha, you can opt in on the official Diablo 2: Resurrected website, though Blizzard doesn't guarantee that everyone will get to participate.
Diablo 2: Resurrected will be out before the end of the year, says Blizzard. It includes the expansion, Lord of Destruction, and all of the cinematics have been redone (those aren't in the alpha, so I can't show you what they look like, sadly). Blizzard is charging $40 for it, or $60 bundled with Diablo 3 and all of its expansions. It feels a little pricey for a graphical overhaul of a 21-year-old game, but it's certainly a big overhaul, and based on what I've played so far, it's in great shape. Hopefully the multiplayer works well. I don't think I'd pay $40 to run through Diablo 2 with new graphics solo, but if I can share a classic with a friend I might be convinced.