Eleven years ago in the summer of 2000, Diablo II hit the shelves and became one of the top sellers over all platforms for that year. A combination of addictive gameplay and innovative design propelled the game instantly to the top of many players’ all-time favourites list. Maybe it was the gothic themes, fancy cut scenes and storytelling. Perhaps it was the free access to an online lobby for LAN or multiplayer gaming via battle.net, with sturdy co-op and PvP modes. Maybe it was the clever random loot model, with set pieces and customisation built in. Perhaps it was the introduction of talent trees, or maybe it was just the aesthetics of a clickclickclick game controlled mostly by mouse buttons where on every click your character ran off somewhere and did something awesome.
In 2008, development of Diablo 3 was announced in Paris at a Blizzard Worldwide Invitational, to rapturous applause. In 2011, three years later, we’re still waiting. The official site has teasers about the classes, the lore, the screenshots, the companions, and hints of a beta test to be scheduled for Q3 2011 (ie. starting between July-September). But one unexpected result of the original D3 announcement was that sales of the aging Diablo 2 went through the roof. For the first time in years, D2 actually made a showing in top ten charts. I’m not too proud to admit that I dusted down my copy also to run through the starting area again with a new barbarian, just as a reminder. But if like me you’re wondering what other games might be out there to fill the Diablo-shaped hole in your gaming schedule, temporarily at least, then wonder no more.
Torchlight (PC, XBLA)
Runic Games, a small indie studio, burst onto the scene with the budget priced Torchlight in 2009. And everyone who booted the game up and played for more than a few seconds said, “Wait, this feels just like Diablo.” The similarity to Diablo 2 is easily explained by presence on the team of Blizzard North veterans Max Schaefer and Erich Schaefer, ex-Fate developer Travis Baldree, and the original Mythos team from Flagtree Studios. Diablo-like games are in their blood.
You select from one of three character classes and explore the gloomy, well animated overland town of Torchlight before venturing deep into a randomly generated dungeon on a series of quests that take you deeper and deeper underground. Alongside you is your faithful cat/dog which handily carries some bags to hold your spare inventory and can even zip back to town and sell up for you when your bags are full. It’s fun, bright and appealing, monsters explode in a satisfying manner when you use one of your mouse-bound abilities on them, and there is plenty of random loot to collect. There is even a fishing minigame.Torchlight has been criticised for being undertuned, and it is very easy on easy mode, so if you are in the mood for a thought-free clickfest, this is your game. The game also offers harder difficulty modes for players who prefer more of a challenge in the form of larger waves of monsters to kill and tougher bosses.
Torchlight misses a co-operative multiplayer mode but this will be remedied in upcoming Torchlight 2, about which more announcements are expected imminently. This sequel is still likely to be released before Diablo 3, and without the associated cash shop shenanigans.
The space-faring scifi setting of Darkspore sends you trailing around beautifully rendered alien planets with your monster ensemble in tow for some cheery clickfest slaughter of other monsters. Released in 2011, this game plays like a combination of Diablo and Pokemon. Darkspore is a dungeon crawler with pregenerated levels, and one of your goals along the way is to unlock and equip your full brigade of fighting monsters/ space aliens. What makes this game different is that you select a squad of three monsters out of your posse when you beam down to a new level. You play one at a time, but can switch between them instantly on a keypress. The monsters have different skills and specialities so pick your team with the strengths and weaknesses of the level in mind. Although each level is set on a different alien planet, in practice they feel like linear twisted corridors stacked with monsters rather than wide opens areas to explore.
If you are wondering what this game has in common with Spore, given that it was created by the same developer (Maxis) and has an obvious callout in the title, that’s a good question. Darkspore certainly isn't a sequel to the original game and shares virtually no gameplay with the earlier title. You can collect items that you use to customise your monsters and customisation options are extensive, which is probably the closest point of contact. There are also co-operative and competitive multiplayer modes with an online lobby where you pitch up with other random players. The game’s main drawback aside from the linear levels is that the storyline is weak, and I lost interest in reading the level text very early on. Darkspore also requires an internet connection even for single player mode. But learning to use all the various monsters’ special abilities and picking the right team of monsters for the right levels does add something special to the mix.
Sacred/ Sacred Gold (PC)
Sacred (2004) is a fantasy action RPG with all the usual Diablo-like features, set in a vast world with an open-ended feel. The Gold edition includes the original game along with the Sacred Plus enhancements (new areas, creatures, items, and quests) and Underworld expansion. There are huge numbers of main and side questlines but if you get bored with that, you can head off into the wild blue yonder to explore. The classes are notable for allowing you to play as an angel (Seraphim), demon (Daemon), or vampire (Vampiress). Upgrading character skills requires you to find skill items (icons) as you adventure, and the number of skills that you can hotkey depends on your level. Sacred also allows you to purchase a horse, which lets you ride around more quickly and also engage in horseback combat.
Sacred has been criticised for its combat system which requires more attention than is typical in the genre. There are also multiplayer co-operative and PvP modes but since the multiplayer servers for the game are no longer running, these are now only accessible via LAN play. Sacred can be coaxed to run on Vista and Widows 7.
Titan Quest (PC)
Titan Quest, released in 2006, is a mythology based Diablo-alike. You create your hero/ine, picking from a range of classes and talent trees, and rampage around the mythical ancient world taking in a tour of adventure from ancient Greece, via Egypt, to East Asia. Along the way you will be able to run the usual range of dungeons, quests, random loot, mini-bosses and storyline bosses.
Titan Quest is likely the closest a fan can get to Diablo 2 without actually being Diablo 2. It’s also a fun romp for mythology fans in which you can beat up your favourite legendary beings in their native settings. The writing is spritely and immersive, and there is also a well received expansion. As the game is fairly old, it’s easy to pick up on the cheap, but be aware that there may be compatibility issues with newer o/s. Microsoft state that this game will run on 32-bit Windows 7 but not on the 64-bit version. Veteran developers from Iron Lore entertainment (creators of Titan Quest) are currently working on the upcoming Grim Dawn, which is to be a Diablo-alike game in an apocalyptic setting.
The Witcher (PC)
This is an offbeat wild card suggestion, as The Witcher (released 2007) is closer to a fully fledged RPG than to a Diablo-like game. However it has a strong storyline, gothic medieval setting, and can be set up to have mouse focussed combat. I think that makes it close enough for government work and if you have an urge to play something a bit like Diablo but with more meat to it, this might be just the ticket. Just be aware that combat choices are more intricate and potions in particular can play a far larger part in the game.
Whilst these types of games often involve explosive genocide as part of the player experience, The Witcher is usually classified as more mature because if you choose to play Geralt as a womaniser, you will be able to collect pictures of semi-naked female characters as you hook up with them in game. Although this type of feature seems guaranteed to annoy female players, I found it far less troubling in practice than it sounded in reviews. Think of him as a medieval James Bond and you’ll be in the right ballpark, although you can play him as more of a monk if you so choose.
A sequel, imaginatively titled The Witcher 2, was released earlier this year to generally strong reviews.