Diablo 2 is one of the best games of all time. It's the 15th bestselling game on Amazon seven years after its release... and at the price of a new game! One of the elements that made it so is its visceral combat.
Some might dislike the word "visceral" the same way they dislike "immersion", believing such an impression is subjective to the point of being a useless subject. But making experiences visceral seems more objective than making them immersive. The following are some ways in which Diablo 2 makes combat visceral.
If you club a centaur in Titan Quest, its body almost floats. It hovers in the air for a moment before collapsing to the ground. Compare that to the way the body of a dying demon in Diablo 2 immediately slams against the ground. This slight difference in animation makes the latter feel more violent and the former more cartoony. Slight changes in the pace of animations can have profound effects.
Creatures in Diablo 2 die in many different ways. The spirits of dark rangers are released from their cursed bodies. Zombies can be cut in half. A gargantuan beast collapses into a bloody mess. Skeletons crumble into a pile of bones. Such animations encourage an impression that enemies are made of different materials and structures.
Each enemy type also has a different sound that it makes while dying. I'm not sure, but I think Diablo 2 might be one of the only games I've ever played in which absolutely every individual enemy makes a noise when dying. For skeletons, this sound is crumbling bones, but most other creatures scream, gag, or grunt.
There are two sounds played for every killing blow: the sound of death and the sound of impact. Diablo 2 does an excellent job of making every impact felt through sound. The audio designer ensured that every impact is satisfying, rather than merely realistic or intriguing. Some weapons have sounds beyond impact. Swing a two-handed sword and here it swoop through the air.
Countless other sounds engage the player without him or her even realizing it. Every step the character takes is heard. Rats squeak and make a squishing sound when stepped on. Flies buzz around corpses. If you've got a copy of Diablo 2, play it while being attentive to sound and you'll be surprised how much there is. There's great attention to details.
I've started writing three or four posts about Diablo 2 and Diablo 3 ever since 3 was announced. Blizzard did and is doing many things right with that series. It should be required material for game design students, regardless of whether or not they're interested in hack-and-slash games. I'll probably post some other important lessons I've learned from that game.