Two years ago, Blizzard announced its intention to release a series of remastered classic games, and so far, the company is making good on that promise. StarCraft Remastered launched as a solid, faithful recreation in August 2017, while Blizzard is still currently working on World of WarCraft Classic and WarCraft III: Reforged.
That leaves one classic-minded Blizzard fanbase in the cold: the Diablo fans. These are the fans who, to some measure, let Blizzard have it after seeing the unveil of smartphone-only “freemium” game Diablo Immortal in place of any “Diablo IV” news at BlizzCon 2018. Which is to say: the word “Diablo” is a touchy one as of late.
Which brings us to today’s seriously surprising news: Blizzard has just put Diablo 1 on sale digitally, a first for that 1996 game, with no prior announcement. It’s not a remaster, per se, but it does come with some quality-of-life updates and is Blizzard’s first DRM-free game launch in years.
What’s more, Blizzard has handed the game’s keys to a completely different storefront: GOG.com. This famously DRM-free marketplace is run by CD Projekt Group, the Polish company that also owns game developer CD Projekt Red (The Witcher). You’ll have to go to GOG, not the Blizzard Launcher app, to purchase and download Diablo 1 (for $10, right here). Once you download the files, designed for Windows PCs, that’s it—no online check-ins or CD keys required. All of that is a first for a Blizzard game sold as a digital download.
And it won’t be the last. GOG has already announced that it will follow this Diablo launch with future re-releases of the first two WarCraft RTS games’ original files.
We received this news roughly a week ago, and we’re still doing that cartoon-like thing of shaking our heads rapidly, then rubbing our eyes, looking up, and saying, “huuuuuh?” But seriously, this out-of-nowhere release, mixed with an out-of-nowhere partnership, is real—and we’ve tested the results.
Diablo, meet “DX”
GOG’s bundle comes packed with two versions of Diablo 1. The first is a “vanilla” version, which runs on the game’s 1.09b codebase with only one noticeable tweak: a scaling fix to ensure that the game renders at its original 4:3 screen ratio, no matter your display size (even though it otherwise transforms your screen in a way that resizes background windows in Windows 10). In comparison, trying to run the game via a mix of the original CD-ROM and official patch files can lead to a stretchy screen, should you not install any third-party mods.
The second included version is a DirectX-fueled build of the game, whose extra tweaks were built entirely in-house by GOG. Among these are support for a variety of resolutions and refresh rates, a “borderless window” option, a v-sync toggle, a gamma slider, and a pair of visual filters: anisotropic filtering up to 16x and anti-aliasing up to 8x MSAA.
If a smeary-looking Diablo 1 experience sounds good to you, go ahead and toggle that MSAA. But purists will appreciate another option in the menus: “integer scaling,” which guarantees that the game’s original pixels map to a 1:1 ratio, in all of their pixellated, 16-bit color-depth glory. In GOG’s “DX” version of Diablo 1, the anti-aliased version does feel slightly smoother in motion, but the game’s art style and animations were never meant to be covered in pixel-obscuring Vaseline. Thus, make sure to enable integer scaling.
Should you wish to connect to online friends in the game’s original Battle.net implementation, that requires running the vanilla build… and opening up some ports. You’ll need to go through Windows menus and your router’s settings table to open ports (specifically, 6112-6119, both TCP and UDP) before you can matchmake with friends in the game’s ancient Battle.net chat-lobby system.
I matchmade with another tester to confirm that, once those ports are opened, you can expect perfectly solid Diablo-over-IP performance, along with some glitches that seem era-appropriate. In particular, my tester and I each used items in our inventory, only to find (on a very rare occasion) that their effect hadn’t kicked in, yet we’d lost the item. Also, as the above gallery shows, the Battle.net interface of old is veeeery rudimentary. Gosh, it still includes “age,” “sex,” and “location” in its profile pages. The Internet-in-1996 jokes write themselves.
Punch a big hole in your firewall?
As for the security of playing this version of Diablo online via Battle.net, let me hand the proverbial mic to my Ars Technica colleague and Windows expert Peter Bright, who wrote the following portion:
No rose-tinted glasses required
Beyond that heavy-duty caveat, it’s classic Diablo, warts and all. This is 1996 we’re talking about, and back then, online play didn’t include niceties like the ability to see other co-op players on your mini-map. Meanwhile, 1996’s single-player campaigns didn’t automatically save their progress before you got your butt kicked on only the second floor of the dungeon.
Blizzard North got a ton of stuff right in its first stab at the action-RPG genre, and the result is a game that, even at its most archaic, makes it very easy to get sucked into an all-night, dungeon-delving click-fest.
And you don’t need rose-tinted glasses to respect how well much of Diablo 1 has aged. Its pixel art includes gleefully evil designs and moody, randomly generated levels, boosted with rudimentary lighting effects, while the sound design is unbelievably good. This soundtrack is an incredible combination of haunting melodies and crazy, atmospheric sound effects, and the voiced, snarling enemies all sound enjoyably insane.
But your heroes’ animation suite is painfully rigid, which makes the basic, constant action of clicking around for combat and loot a bit of a nightmare once you know how much better that action can feel. Honestly, after tooling around in this re-released version of Diablo 1 for a couple of hours (and realizing how many errant and imprecise clicks I burnt through along the way), I got the urge to play Diablo II instead. Diablo II fixed pretty much every quibble from the first game while adding even more ridiculously awesome pixel art.
Thanks to a 2016 Diablo II patch from Blizzard, that’s relatively easy to do on modern Windows PCs. Blizzard’s Web storefront sells CD keys for both D2 and its Lord of Destruction expansion pack ($10 each), and then you can download a standalone EXE for either/both. But that sequel has its own quality-of-life limitations on modern machines, including a lack of proper resolution scaling beyond 800×600.
“We were bummed”
When asked for comment, GOG’s representatives referred us to the company’s press release on the matter—which only includes one statement from a GOG executive, merely reminding shoppers that Diablo 1 has ranked highly on GOG users’ request charts for some time. The same press release quotes Blizzard VP Rob Bridenbecker: “We were bummed that these iconic games weren’t available to our players, so we’re very happy to work with the crew at GOG.COM to rectify that.”
Thankfully, Blizzard had more direct answers to our questions, including one biggie: why partner with GOG, as opposed to launching classic games on the Blizzard Launcher?
“In order to have any [software] on the Blizzard launcher, it must be connected to the modern Battle.net stack,” Blizzard Global PR Manager Sara Zaidi said to Ars in an email interview. “Unfortunately, this means that some of our older titles, like Diablo 1, do not have that modern infrastructure that enables them to be on the Blizzard launcher. We didn’t think it was right that players couldn’t get access to these titles because they lack the necessary back-end framework, so we were very happy to work together with GOG to help make Diablo 1 available to our players on their platform.”
Zaidi didn’t go into specifics when asked why GOG built this week’s DirectX-flavored build of Diablo 1, as opposed to an internal Blizzard team, beyond lauding GOG’s reputation for “bringing updated versions of classic games to modern hardware.” She also didn’t have any news to offer about exactly when to expect news about GOG’s launches of WarCraft 1 & 2.
Blizzard’s official answers didn’t hint to our previous guess for this release’s timing: as an olive branch to the series’ loudest current critics. Diablo Immortal‘s late-2018 reveal unleashed a maelstrom of complaints, even from fans attending its BlizzCon event, and Blizzard has since gone into hiding about the game. Once it returns to the spotlight, there’s no telling whether it will still so loudly resemble the microtransaction-heavy, smartphone-only Diablo clones already made by its developer at NetEase. If that game is being delayed to get some smoothing over, then maybe Diablo 1 is a nice toy for fans to futz with in the meantime.
Let me be clear: I hold out hope that Diablo Immortal will deliver a faithful, engaging dungeon-crawling experience that’s worthy of the series’ name. That hope sits right next to my louder hope for a different kind of classic re-release: Diablo II, remastered, and based on that game’s original, incredible sprite-art foundation. Hiring from as far back as 2015 suggests Blizzard wants that, too. But other Blizzard Classic games are ahead on the release calendar. What’s a sullen Diablo fan to do in the meantime besides play Diablo III‘s solid Nintendo Switch port?
Blizzard’s answer—a digital re-release of the original Diablo files—could be seen as a bit lazy. Just like the 2016 Diablo II patch, this one does little beyond bringing the series’ first entry up to basic computer-compatibility standards (and even then, the albatross of ancient netcode remains). But there’s also something great about a company as big as Activision-Blizzard just letting this game go, completely DRM-free, and giving fans $10 worth of nostalgia that doesn’t require some modern game launching software. Like ma used to make.