When I write the word Diablo, I want to dot the i with a cute, bubbly little heart.
PC gamers can’t begin to comprehend the years of hack-less, slash-less torture we console gaming lower lifeforms have endured. Only now, as my once-fearsome Xbox 360 lay gasping on the cold stone of its sepulcher, the last drops of life seeping from its dust-choked vents, the red-ringed light at the end of the tunnel filling its vision, only now, in this latest of hours, does a hero appear to send the legendary console off on the demon infested, skill-tree lined path for which we’ve yearned since the days of 20GB hard disks and navigation blades.
Those of us console gamers with a penchant for bro’ing up and severing demon limbs from a cumulonimbus POV have trudged this desolate journey nigh on a decade, twiddling our uncallused thumbs, swords firmly sheathed and armor unblemished, with nary an ice-shooting skeleton to crush, a digitally-enhanced wench to pour us a mug of swill, nor a stack of pleonastic weaponry to clog our amply spacious inventories. How our pampered toes have yearned for just a simple pair of +1 Boots of Bandit Backstabbing with which to tread the rough-hewn floors of the stinking lair of a gaggle of acid-puking ooze beasts!
I implore you, the PC gaming elite, hunched over the keys of your beloved mechanical keyboards as you read this, please, pull your black hoods back and use your sun-deprived fingers to ctrl-tab over to your favorite search engine and, with your long, black-painted fingernails, tap out a search for best console hack n slash. Now, hard as it may be after laying your gaze upon those retched search results, I urge that you resist your emo tendencies to burn your own eyeballs out with your laser mouse. I seek only to evoke a bit of empathy from you towards your Mountain Dewed, console-gaming counterparts, not cause mass depression and blindness.
Now gather ‘round, and hear my tale of woe, and hope.
You see, in the ancient times, when the original Diablo was released, the world of console gaming had only just graduated from 16-bit cartridges. I’d played the quarter-slaying Gauntlet in the arcade, and I’d graduated from the shallowness of Double Dragon to the more RPG-like River City Ransom, and I’d reveled in pure RPG experiences ranging from Wizardry to Ultima on the PC to Final Fantasy on the SNES. Diablo squished the best aspects of these genres together into an entirely new genre that was immediately familiar, combining swashbuckling, blood-letting immediacy with character-customizing depth and strategy. And if you config’ed your .sys and autoexec’d your .bat just so, and could wrest the telephone line out of the crook between your sister’s neck and ear for a couple hours on a weeknight (good luck), you could connect to a friend for some 56kbps co-op glory.
However, as a gamer who has always favored leaning back to leaning forward, preferably with a buddy on the couch, I found myself consistently in the shadow of PC dungeon-crawling’s Mount Olympus. It wasn’t until the otherwise inferior PSX version of Diablo hit Babbages’ shelves a few years later that the potential of couch co-op hack-and-slash was at least gestured at.
The PSX was polygon averse and more concerned with turn-based battles between spikey-haired manic depressives, and the initially promising release of the N64 marked the beginning of Nintendo’s now familiar Buy Our System For One Major First Party Release A Year creative strategy that has since yielded an amazing pygmy marmoset’s handful of exquisitely produced schlock starring no one not named Mario or Link. Diablo II and its clones came and went on the PC, but the console remained a wasteland.
So, like min-maxed barbarians contemplating a door-unlock puzzle while entangled in spider spit, we waited.
A year after the release of the PS2, just a mere month after the original Xbox’s release, Snowblind Studios nailed the formula in late 2001, dropping Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance on us like a brick of 6-sided dice. An unabashed Diablo rip-off with console-centric graphics, interface, and pacing, Dark Alliance set the standard for console co-op hack-and-slash.
I plowed through these games in co-op mode, sometimes with my gaming buddies, sometimes my girlfriend, or my dad — that’s how simple and addictive the Dark Alliance-engine games were; when your videogame-illiterate (and by “illiterate” I mean “hating”) college S.O. invests 20 hours into something even remotely related to Dungeons and Dragons, you know the game developer did something very, very right.
Dark Alliance’s style was nearly perfect for local two-player co-op play; light on story, heavy on action and character progression, with some fairly impressive graphics for the time. Not that graphics have ever been a huge draw where the dedicated hack-and-slasher is concerned.
Snowblind checked all the boxes in Dark Alliance, and stuck to this winning formula over the next several years of the Xbox/PS2 generation. While farming Dark Alliance’s direct sequel out to perennial sequel-masters Black Isle Entertainment, Snowblind themselves hooked up with Sony and cranked out a couple of PS2-exclusive Everquest games using the Dark Alliance engine. Interplay and InExile saw the success of the formula and promptly stamped Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel and The Bard's Tale out of the Snowblind Studios mold, to varying degrees of success. The top-down action RPG appeared to be on its way to becoming a sure-bet console staple, and with the promise of increased graphical power, slicker user interfaces, and integrated broadband, the potential for high-quality cooperative hack-and-slash fun on the forthcoming Xbox 360 and PS3 seemed assured.
The reality of the better part of the last decade, though, has turned out to be a polygonal pommel to the co-op codpiece. I’ve grudgingly attempted to undertake every hack-and-slasher I could get my gauntlets on, and each one induced its own special brand of rage and disappointment by breaking the above tenants in excruciating, creative ways.
The little-known and much sought-after Saturday Night Thor costume.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance was an overrated (82% on gamerankings), shallow action RPG with a chunky framerate, button-mashy combat, and little control of character-customization or progression. Great … if your idea of "loot" was seven different Spiderman outfits. I can only chalk up the relatively decent reviews to the lack of competition and a co-op starved install base. Or Stan Lee had all of the negative reviewers killed. Excelsior.
If this image doesn't cause you a Pavlovian rage response, you never played Too Human.
Hopes and hype for Silicon Knights’ Too Human (69%) turned out to be infamously misplaced. Few games in history sparked the level of frustration and disappointment than this Dennis Dyak-designed hot mess of intriguing concepts executed to the poorest of degrees. Fun ideas like the quick movement and aerial juggling couldn’t overcome the terrible pacing, clunky controls, and schizophrenic tone. Any sane gamer would rather be drawn and quartered than have to suffer through even one more floating Valkyrie respawn sequence.
Anything you can do, I can do worser.
XBLA lootsploitation titles like Crimson Alliance (73%) and Realms of Ancient War (62%) assaulted the senses with a relentless barrage of mediocrity. In my desperation, I was nearly convinced that they were worth playing. Nearly. Ultimately, their arcade-focused limitations doomed them to the deleted-demo pile.
Dungeon Slave III.
Dungeon Siege III (72%) had the pedigree and looked the part. I played the demo solo and assumed my loot-laden galleon had finally come in, only to discover that, when playing co-op, the second player character is tied to the main player’s campaign. Developer Obsidian was so insistent in ramming the vision of their story (a not particularly interesting one, by most accounts) down gamers’ gullets that they sacrificed fun in the name of continuity.
Clear as anti-aliased mud.
Sacred 2 (72%) probably hit closest to the mark, its ambitious open-world layout and free-roaming mission structure heavily marred by uninteresting objectives, oddly limiting co-op design choices, and a Rube Goldbergian menu system created either by Mensa International or the village idiot.
Gears of War in the North.
Snowblind Studios themselves looked like they would finally break the abysmal streak of hack-and-slash sludge when they adapted the Dark Alliance engine for a licensed Lord of the Rings action RPG, The War in the North (65%). How on Middle Earth they managed to miss the mark combining the tech from the best console hack-and-slasher ever made with the most beloved fantasy setting in literature and cinema is a mystery. In switching from a top-down view to a Gears of War-esque third-person perspective, the gameplay became more beat-em-up than action RPG, and, in couch co-op mode, required the dreaded split-screen configuration, an abomination Sauron himself wouldn’t foist on the denizens of co-op fandom.
Wonderful, so long as the only companion you're looking for is a digital dog.
The most critically acclaimed hack-and-slash option available was Torchlight (84%), but it lacked any co-op mode at all. The fact that a game like this was designed so well but omitted the single best aspect of the genre was mind-blowing to me; it felt like a personal taunt from Runic, saying, “We can give you exactly what you want…but we’re just not in the mood, you poor console-saddled sunovabitch”.
Okay, maybe I took it a little too personally.
Moving on. By 2013, the cooperative hack-and-slash might as well have been extinct, a trebuchet in a world of rocket launchers. In fact, the best loot-driven games of the entire current console generation have been the Borderlands games. First person shooters, for the love of Diablo! While an entirely different (but still fun) brand of combat, the Borderlands series managed to nail the majority of the RPG and cooperative aspects of Diablo clones on which all of the above-mentioned hack-and-slashers choked in some way or another
In a 2011 interview about the development of LOTR: War in the North, Snowblind’s Andre Maguire agreed with Gamasutra's Christian Nutt’s claim that, “The Dark Alliance gameplay perspective was great for the last generation, but it wouldn't cut it now,” asserting, I suppose, that the current consoles’ graphic capabilities and the appetites of modern gamers somehow necessitated a move away from the top-down/isometric perspective.
The successes of Diablo III and PC darling Torchlight 2 (damn you again, Runic!), contrasted with the critical failure of LOTR: The War in the North, definitively disprove that opinion. My hope is that, much like the 2-D side-scroller’s recent resurrection on the current consoles, the co-op hack-and-slash has skipped a console generation but will see a renaissance on the PS4 and Xbox One. I understand it’s probably wishful thinking, but I can only hope that the console hack-and-slash fans speak with their wallets and demonstrate that there’s at least a decent-sized faction of console gamers starved for a good co-op action RPG experience. Help, couch co-op fans! You're my only hope!
September 3rd, 2013 marked the seventh year, ninth month, and thirteenth day of the Xbox 360’s existence, and the first day of a no-excuses, legitimately well-made hack-and-slash on the current console generation, just two months before these consoles become history. Diablo III is manna from Hades for those of us who’ve craved co-op killing and looting these past 2,843 days. I can’t provide an unbiased evaluation of the game on its own merits — not because I’m only 10 levels into the 60+ level journey, but because even just a few hours in, Diablo III’s completely competent execution alone places it well ahead of the next-closest console challenger. The control is responsive and customizable, the art and character design are pleasing, the fighting and character progression are satisfying. It may be that Diablo III is the valedictorian of console hack-and-slashers. It’s also entirely possible it’s just a solid B-student accidentally placed in remedial basket weaving; the curve has been set so low, and the wait so long and excruciating, I can’t help but hand Blizzard a ridiculously hyperbolic A+ on their action RPG report card, with smiley faces and “great jobs!” scribbled in the margins. I expect my enthusiasm will quiet somewhat, to a lesser-demi-demon’s roar, over the next few weeks. But for the time being, the descent to Hell feels like a return to Paradise.