Thursday, 20 April 2017

Diablo 2: Median XL - Ultimative Review

Diablo 2: Median XL - Ultimative: Review

   I n t r o d u c t i o n   

Median XL has long been the crème de la crème of Diablo 2 uber-mods; the original of which was built from the ground up by Brother Laz, who is one of the best modders to grace PC gaming. But the recent developments into Ultimative are headed up by MarcoNecroX, and it's this version of the mod that I'm treating here.

Having recently re-played it to the point of burning myself out, I thought this might be a good time to explain the mod and share some of my experiences in a form that's easy to digest for any new players or people just interested in the genre, or how far mods can push old games into current gen relevancy.

This mod thugs out the base game to a large extent, but also adds many new concepts and content to make it seem almost like a new game.

   S o  h o w  i s  i t  d i f f e r e n t ,  h u h ?  T e l l  m e  t h a t !   

Entering into the starter area - the Bloodmoor - the first thing you notice is that density and variety of the enemies is majorly increased. Instead of one pathetic fallen or zombie sparsely dotted around, you now have assorted packs of aggro that converge on you from off-screen and fire projectiles from positions you can't yet see. These ranged enemies seduce you into approaching, which in turn invites more convergence from new packs. For new or bad players this can easily result in getting swarmed, stun-locked and owned in an instant, but veterans will lick their lips at all the stuff to kill, then loot the corpses with relish.

Besides, this added difficulty is mostly offset by your increased base rate of movement (+FRW), increased base rate of attack and casting (+IAS/+FCR) and deeper mana and health pools with faster regen rates. You also level-up much faster, hitting second level on your tenth slay. Drops are much more generous, frequent and useful (jewels, runes, gems, magic and rare items...), the most welcome addition of which is the introduction of a 100% chance "Gift Box" drop from Griswold that rewards you with unique items relevant to your class. This Gift Box can quickly be farmed a few times to get an array of class-relevant uniques, helping out heaps in the early stages.

You can up-tier the various uniques that drop to make them Destruction (Hell) difficulty-proof, reroll items inexpensively, enhance them with alchemy, disenchant them to get their residue, remake them from scratch, craft them with shrines and then bless them for end-game epicness. You can even legally dupe jewels and reassign stats and skills at any time around your newfound items by concocting a potion (respec).

Mercs are also beefed up, the squishy First Act Rogues are now Rangers and Priestesses who have better AI, buffs and vastly increased DPS, tanking and self-healing to hold their own against the hordes, at least until you take on Ubers. They can also be equipped with gloves, boots, belts and helms, all of which are now socketable.

As you lvlup and break into the next skill tier, you feel a sudden growth in your build; none of this incremental, imperceptible stuff. My starter Barb went with Stance, Rage and Melee trees, initially using Wolf Companion summon, Earthquake angular AoE melee, and Titan Stance. Just as the game started to feel like an uphill battle I conveniently broke into 2nd-tier Snake Stance, giving me poison dmg which polluted hordes with Earthquake AoE, and this took the heat off until Andariel, when I broke into the next tier. And so on.

Early enemies in Ultimative can teleport, avenge their fallen, summon, corpse explode, (de)buff, self-replicate, pounce, revive, hit n run, fire from off-screen and just generally make major nuisances of themselves. Super Uniques are amped up. Remember Bishibosh of the Cold Plains, the face roll? Well, he's been replaced with Snotspill (from the original Diablo) and his rapidly swarming mob on crystal meth, who hit like trucks. Another early-game hindrance is cold-enchanted Prince Albrecht of the Den of Evil, the famous starter dungeon.

Speaking of which, delving into the Den before clvl5 is probably suicide thanks to the giant quill rats who fire homing spikes from their bristling fur. At clvl5 you're wiser to tackle the "Level Challenge 0" first to get the Harkon Crystal (a "charm") before doing the Den.

This challenge begins with you transmuting a statue in the Horadric Cube (given early by the mod), which enchants it with a special summoning skill. You then head into the Bloodmoor and activate the skill, summoning Volrath the Vile who is encircled by traps which must be destroyed before he can be harmed. This is made more difficult by his emitting of a 360 degree rotating beam of insta-death.

I circled him to avoid the beam while attacking the traps; then I turned on Volrath himself and he dropped like a sack of shit. Then I transmuted the Harkon crystal with a gem inside the Cube, and what resulted was a sweet item with various bonuses, one being a re-animate.

Reanimates are an important survivability concept in Ultimative. They differ from hard summons in that there's a %chance that the corpse of a slain enemy will come back to life, as another monster type, to fight, tank or debuff the enemy for you.

There are many challenges in the game that reward charms like this, and in Destruction difficulty ubers a charmless build is a dead build, unless you have ultra-optimized gear and madskillz.

Money can quickly become a problem in starting Ultimative. D2 had a good chance you'd find at least one item early that would sell for a few or even several thousand gold, but here normal items sell for like 1-10 gold, magic items for about 10-100 and rare items maybe for a few hundred towards the end of Act One. Which is a slap in the face for new players, until they find other means of cashing up. For example, there's this amusing enemy with the subtitle "Demon AFK". These tanks are just sitting there and don't attack (cuz they're AFK), and when killed drop loads of gold. Since your Harkon Crystal offers +250% GF, this enemy is a massive money-bag.

Farming in D2 drains my will to play at times, but Ultimative reduces the need dramatically or manages to make it fun long enough that you get what you need, and stop. I found two great runes within 30 mins in Fauztinville. Now, a top-tier rune in D2 could take many years of concerted farming in single-player mode. Potions that massively buff XP gain+magic find for 60 secs are frequent drops. I did an untwinked run (which means I don't use any items or gold gained from previous runs from the shared stash in PlugY to thug myself out) without repeatedly farming areas for XP, GP, and items or manipulating /players x, and succeeded. You don't necessarily need madskillz to do this, but you do need to utilize many of Ultimative's extra mechanics to succeed.

I've just touched mostly on beginner stuff here but as anyone who knows D2 can gather from what I've written, Ultimative undeniably improves it in many ways and cuts down hugely on time-consuming tasks and luck-based success, replacing much of that with knowledge and skill. You can have the best build out there with items and charms to match but if you bluff your way or simply suck, you won't succeed. This wasn't true of certain base builds...

While Ultimative can at times be exhausting and frustrating to play, the rewards are mostly worth it and you can burn lots of time polishing your build. Any other game of this type is a snoozefest in comparison. Playing this casually to an extent is possible (depending on build), providing you look out for clearly-marked "WARNING! UBERQUEST AREAS!" where only dedicated players should tread. So yeah, I recommend this mod to veterans and new players, alike.

The following shots were taken in a 1080p game using D2MultiRes v1.02 and DDraw (not D3D or Glide).

This is Tran Athulua uberlvl, showing my barb tanking heavy amazon fire; also some Zons are preoccupied with "modron" reanimates, and bots (in blue):

Tran Athulua

This is Fauztinville uberlevel, showing my barb fleeing a horde that rapidly converges at an intersection. This level is difficult to navigate, because it has a height map, the sidewalk being higher than street level. The necrobots - clearly shown at top-left - are the tankiest generic foes, and are also phys-immune. The orange guys are chargers (PS:T sprites) and you can see undead stealthed here, bottom-left and center screen:


   C o n c l u s i o n   

In summa, Ultimative game-play is characterized by blistering pace and highly compacted enemy density, diversity and abilities, resulting in total, unbreakable immersion which few mods can match. The lightning-fast leveling, powerful and nuanced itemization and skills (including "oskills"), and huge stats means this mod is tailored to gamers who like experimentation and extremes - those searching for a more pedestrian pace or prudent evolution on Diablo II mechanics should probably look elsewhere.

See alsoModding Diablo 2, Reflections on Diablo II.
Next post: Good Old STALKER Evolution.

   E o P   

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