"Diablo III" picks up 12 years later with another devilishly addictive role-playing masterpiece.
A dozen years ago, if you had a second phone line for your dial-up modem so you could go online without disrupting your home phone service, it meant you were a technology expert.
Or maybe you just wanted to play "Diablo II."
Blizzard Entertainment, Diablo's creator, was one of the first companies to realize that the online community around a media product could be at least as important as the product itself. All of a sudden, you weren't alone in the dungeon. That sorceress or necromancer battling evil beside you was another real person.
It took Blizzard 12 years to deliver the sequel. But fans' interest never waned. In its first week after going on sale on May 15, "Diablo III" sold 6.3 million copies, following its predecessor as the fastest-selling computer game.
I have spent more than 100 hours playing the game since its introduction. By the standards of Blizzard's games, which are meant to occupy players for years, that isn't many, but it is enough to tell that Blizzard has once again delivered the definitive action role-playing experience.
The basics of the "Diablo" formula are simple: Kill the beasties, take their treasure, sell it, upgrade your magical equipment, repeat. The humans of this medieval land are under assault from the forces of hell, and your character has to save the world. You can play as a barbarian, an archerlike demon hunter, a wizard, a monk or a witch doctor. Each class can be customized in millions of ways by choosing different abilities.
But the main element in "Diablo" isn't really your persona. It's your equipment. "Diablo" is based on randomization. Every time you kill a digital demon, a potentially unique magic item has a chance to appear. But let's say you're an effete, spell-slinging wizard and you find a powerful battle-ax. In that case, you can sell it to another player in the role of a burly barbarian.
In "Diablo II," that meant spending hours trolling real-time chat rooms looking for a buyer. "Diablo III" introduces an auction house tying together millions of players into one digital economy. Now, you can sell items to other players for in-game virtual gold.
Graphics have been upgraded to high-definition modernity. The new game lets you customize each character's skills at almost any time.
Those are welcome changes, but at its core, "Diablo III" plays essentially as a modernized version of "Diablo II," which is not a bad thing.
Given "Diablo II's" fervent fan base and strong franchise identity, it probably would have been unfair to expect Blizzard to deviate much from the basic formula. And the company hasn't. The major far-reaching innovation in "Diablo III" -- a real-money auction house -- is scheduled to arrive Tuesday.
Many of us will go on happily clicking little monsters on the screen and sweeping up our imaginary magical swords, helmets and gauntlets.
At least we don't need a second phone line anymore.