Blizzard’s latest BlizzCon event sees the longtime PC game maker at perhaps its most beleaguered yet. Game delays, notable departures, botched remakes, smartphone-gaming backlash, and an anti-protester reputation have weighed down what was once a sterling RTS/RPG reputation. That led us to wonder: Can today’s streaming-only BlizzCon showcase of games and plans show that the company’s recent hires and behind-the-scenes reshuffling are paying off?
In at least one respect, the outlook is optimistic, thanks to an impressive reveal of Diablo II: Resurrected. This long-rumored remake includes everything from both the base 2000 game and its 2001 expansion, Lord of Destruction. At first glimpse, this top-to-bottom remake seems to get everything right that WarCraft III: Reforged got so very, very wrong—and we won’t have to wait very long to come up with our own impressions. Sign-ups for D2:R‘s technical alpha are now live ahead of the game’s launch on PC and consoles “in 2021.”
The right balance between preservation and polish?
We’ve grown increasingly skeptical of Blizzard’s sales pitches in recent years, but so far, everything about D2:R strikes us as the right kind of “Blizzard Classic” approach, including the following sales pitches:
- If you want to deal with online logins (and, obviously, co-op and PvP content), you get a handy perk: cross-progression for your characters between platforms, should you wish to switch between, say, your home PC and your portable Nintendo Switch.
- Blizzard is sticking to the game’s original source code, which the company says has been left intact—and to prove that, players can tap a “swap graphics” button at any time to return to the 2000 original, much like in StarCraft: Remastered.
- In the “new graphics” mode, heroes and monsters appear as 3D polygons, while all backgrounds are otherwise made of 2D textures and sprites. Despite this split, every element benefits from a new dynamic lighting system that otherwise preserves the game’s original, dark aesthetic. This approach strikes us as the right balance between preserving the game’s original look and feel and glossing things up for higher-res action at a 60fps refresh.
- In the “original graphics” mode, players can still benefit from new, built-in support for arbitrary pixel resolutions.
- The game’s original 27 minutes of cinematics are being recreated, and Blizzard President J. Allen Brack spoke specifically to these matching the look and pacing of the originals. (We’ve yet to see what they’ll look like, however.)
- According to a post on Reddit ahead of the announcement, which lines up with much of what was shown on Friday, this game will include “shared stash” functionality and automatic gold pick-up, which D2 fans previously enjoyed by applying a community-made mod. Blizzard has since confirmed access to a shared stash, so we’re confident in the rest of the rumor’s details, including mention of a “one-time only” online check-in. (Yes, yes, please let us enjoy this game offline in peace, Blizzard.)
The scale of this project far exceeds what we saw from Blizzard’s re-release of Diablo 1, which saw the company merely hand the game’s original files to GOG to be resold as a DRM-free collection. This 2019 launch included a mild tweak to the handling of its online play, albeit done in a way that we still do not recommend anyone actually use. The greater scale of the project may explain why Blizzard is asking for a relatively steep price of $ 39.99 for its PC pre-order, already live at Blizzard’s shop. (Let’s be clear: Tantalizing as this already looks, we’re not preordering. You’ve got goodwill to re-earn here, Blizz.)
Reforging a reputation
Diablo IV‘s segment, meanwhile, began with one of the most unsurprising announcements possible: confirmation that the forthcoming game will include a “rogue” character class. Even though that class has appeared in every Diablo game up until this point, Blizzard at least made the most of this announcement by dressing it in a dark, heretical take on the archetype, with a cinematic trailer full of sin, violence, and severed ears—followed by a rapid-fire gameplay montage full of back-stabbing and crossbow-rainfire attacks. This was followed by a brief peek at a character-customization interface, which includes options to pick things like your hero’s “backstory.” However, Blizzard wasn’t ready to commit to any release-date window for this sequel, leaving its likelihood for a 2021 launch in the air.
Diablo II: Resurrected was nowhere near a well-kept secret, having leaked after Blizzard announced its absorption of longtime Activision support studio Vicarious Visions in January. That news immediately prompted questions about what VV had been tapped to work on, and Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier cited inside sources in confirming that the team had been assigned to the D2 remaster. What’s more, VV had taken that project away from the same internal Blizzard team that brought us the utter disappointment of WarCraft III: Reforged.
Speaking of leaks: BlizzCon 2021’s slate of World of WarCraft announcements—about Burning Crusade Classic and a new Shadowlands content drop—appeared on Blizzard’s servers one day before the event. You can read all about that here.
Blizzard President J. Allen Brack kicked off Friday’s video presentation by announcing Blizzard Arcade Collection, a $ 19.99 package containing mildly updated ports of the developer’s earliest 16-bit console games: Lost Vikings 1 & 2, Rock ‘N Roll Racing, and Blackthorne. Each game benefits from typical classic-emulation collection perks, like save states and visual filters, while each game gets its own specific tweaks (an updated map interface in Blackthorne, 16:9 ratios and four-player split-screen in R&RR, and “combined” content for the Lost Vikings games). The collection’s PC version launches today, and fans who already purchased a “Blizzard Digital Anniversary Bundle” (mostly full of cosmetic add-ons for existing games, as part of BlizzCon’s celebration, and starting at $ 20) will get the collection as part of that purchase. The collection will also arrive on PS4, XB1, and Switch digital-download shops today.
Much of Hearthstone‘s biggest news was already formally revealed ahead of Friday’s presentation: a new “Core” set of cards, which will be available to all free-to-play players of the card game and keep them in contention when matching up against more seasoned, expansion-owning players. In WoW Classic-like fashion, one set of cards will be retired and moved to a “Legacy” mode, so that players can face off within a crystallized time capsule of the game’s earliest state. But today also saw the brand-new announcement of Hearthstone: Mercenaries, a brand-new mode that includes “roguelike” battling scenarios and “leveling up” opportunities for the mode’s cards. Though no gameplay from this mode was shown, it certainly sounds like it draws inspiration from popular deckbuilder games like Slay the Spire and Monster Train.
Ahead of today’s events, Blizzard debuted an Instagram account for the smartphone-exclusive game Diablo Immortal, which seemed to hint at an impending launch—and that’s unsurprising, given that Blizzard previously launched a region-limited closed alpha test of the game on Android phones. Ars Technica was invited to the test, and my limited tests confirmed, among other things, a lack of gamepad support but otherwise competent introductory gameplay, should you be OK with tapping a phone screen to control isometric hack-and-slash adventures. However, the tests’ limitations meant I couldn’t dive into Immortal‘s approach to endgame content—and how real-world money and microtransactions will ultimately factor into the game, since it will launch as a free-to-play title. Whether we learn more about those aspects during BlizzCon’s ongoing video presentations, scheduled throughout today and tomorrow, remains to be seen, but for now, the game does not yet have a formal release date in any territories.
Yet while there was plenty of Diablo and WoW to go around during today’s BlizzCon keynote, two key titles remained missing from the presentation: Overwatch (and its announced sequel) and the overdue-for-patches WarCraft III: Reforged. Instead, Brack took the keynote stage after clarifying details about D2:R to point viewers to an Overwatch 2-specific presentation later today. Additionally, he said “a very small percentage of developers are working” on either the games shown off in today’s keynote or the ones that have been previously announced. “Far more people are working on the future of Blizzard,” Brack said, though he didn’t go further to clarify exactly how many games, series, or platforms the studio is currently focusing on behind the scenes.