Secret Cow Level
A favorite joke/absurd rumor from Diablo I, the "Secret Cow Level," packed full of Hell Bovines, is a reality in Diablo II -- an Easter Egg/joke that's actually quite fun and profitable. It was so profitable that the Cow Level was the most popular area to "run" in v1.09, thanks to the huge cow herds, good experience, and low danger to players. In v1.10 and later the experience was nerfed and the area is no longer so popular, but can still provide players with some fun and profitable play experiences.
It's also an amusing area to visit, if only for the sight gag of walking cows with polearms, and to hear the voices of the cows. They were recorded by various Blizzard North employees, and must have required many takes to edit out the laughter.
From a Joke to Reality
There were player-created rumors/jokes about a Secret Cow Level in Diablo I, based on the cows in the pasture in Tristram, that would moo, or cause your character to say something amusing, if you clicked the bovines long enough. There was no secret level or anything to the cows other than an Easter Egg style joke in Diablo I, but the D2 team obviously got their inspiration from that, and worked the whole level into Diablo II.
How to Get There
As for the Cow Level itself, it's about what you would expect. Cows and more cows, called Hell Bovines, appear in huge, almost never-ending herds. By far the most tightly-packed monsters you see anywhere in the game can be found in the Cow Level. Every cow looks the same, there is no variation in coloration or weaponry at all. They all have massive polearms, and do quite heavy damage when they strike you with their very fast attacks.
The level is all on the surface, there aren't any sub levels or dungeon or cave areas, but there is a main wooden stockade sort of area, with walls just like those in the Rogue Encampment. It is square in shape, with openings on all sides, and a number of dead Rogues lying around, and others tied to stakes, as you often see them in Act One. It's not a real good place to fight in, since the approaching cows can easily fill every exit and you do not want to be cornered by them. Being cornered or too surrounded will get you scenes like this, and as you can imagine, body-retrieval can be a challenge.
You can open the red portal to the cow level as many times as you like, providing you don't get credit for killing the king. Credit is given if you kill him yourself, or he dies at the hand of another player who has never killed him before, while you are in the Cow Level. Being partied or not has no effect on the credit for the quest, it only matters who kills the King.
- Kill the Cow King yourself.
- Are in the Cow Level, when some other player who has never killed the king before (on that difficulty level) kills the Cow King.
If you've already killed the king or gotten credit for killing him when someone else did, you can't open the red portal anymore, but you can still enter the red portal when someone else opens it up.
Cow Level Bosses
The boss monster for the level is The Cow King, and he's there every game, always spawning somewhere inside or very near the wooden fort. He has minions as well, just like any random boss in the game.
You can see full stats for the Cow King here. He doesn't differ in appearance from the other cows in any way; no crown or different coloration or longer horns, though on hell he often is Aura Enchanted, so you'll spot him by that. There are often random Cow Bosses and champions scattered throughout the area, and with them all identical in appearance it's hard to tell if a monster is the king or not until you kill some to clear out the mob. The King is always Lightning Enchanted, so that's one way to tell him immediately.
Prior to v1.08 the Cow King was a guaranteed special drop, like the Act Bosses, though only two items. Uniques and Sets were almost guaranteed from him with some MF. In v1.09 he was toned down, and he only drops at about the level of a SuperUnique now. On Hell his Treasure Class is much lower than that of the normal cows, so while he will never drop top level items, he can drop quite a few low level Elite items such as Bramble Mitts, Dusk Shrouds, Shakos, etc.
The Cow Level requires some unusual strategy. First of all, the only way in is through the red portal, which does not always spawn in a safe location. It's a good idea to get away from it as quickly as possible, since if it gets swarmed and you leave the level through it, or die, you will not be able to return safely.Hell Bovines are very slow of foot, but they hit hard and have fairly rapid attacks, so caution must be used when tanking them. Their greatest strength comes from their numbers, simply because 10 cows swinging at your character, at once, is a bad situation for almost anyone.
The best characters for the cow level have ranged attacks that can strike multiple targets at the same time. Javazons might as well have been designed specifically to excel in the Cow Level, thanks to Lightning Fury, which is more effective the more targets there are in range. Other highly useful skills against the Cows include Nova, Corpse Explosion, Multishot, and Death Sentry. Anything that hits many targets per use will come into its own against the cows.
The basic strategy for the level varies a lot. If your character has a powerful area attack, you want to run around with a purpose, getting as many cows following you as possible. This is known as "herding". Run around the mobs, "knitting" them into bigger packs, so you can attack huge mobs at once. Characters with less powerful skills will probably want to take on the cows a few at a time, and should advance slowly and carefully.
The difficulty in the Cow Level comes from the sheer numbers. The level is set outdoors, and looks like anywhere else outdoors in Act One. A few trees and some rocks and chests scattered about, but no houses or anything else that would give you a bottleneck where you could take on the cows just a few at a time.
The hardest part is when you first arrive: The red portal appears in some random location, usually against one of the outer stone walls. Sometimes you are in a safe spot, but other times there will be cows galore right away. As many as 30 or 40 coming at you immediately, from all directions. You need to try and kill them without moving too far in any direction, since if you do you'll get into sight of more cows, and another 20 or 30 will move in. The cows can see farther than the edges of your visible screen, so get used to them moving deliberately towards you, "moo-moo'ing" all the time.
An alternative is to run for it. You can dodge through and around the clumps of cows pretty easily, since they all move at zombie-speed. Usually some corners of the level will be devoid of cows, and you can reach a somewhat clear spot and drop a town portal, or fight there and run again when they threaten to swarm you.
It's always a good idea to not die near the red portal, and ideally to have a blue and the red available, so you can always get back there without cows hitting you the instant you appear. Retreating through the red portal, or a town portal, will probably be required a number of times, either to get a mana refill or more red potions, or arrows/javelins if you are using a projectile attack.
The best equipment for the cow level is magic find gear, or else defensive stuff. Especially useful is a high defense, and equipment with -% damage. Shaftstop, Rockstopper, Stormshield, etc. If you can cut the physical damage you take, you'll be much more likely to survive attacks. A high blocking percentage is very useful as well, as are Dodge and Evade for Amazons.
The fun of the level for items is that there are such huge numbers of cows that doing the Cow Level gets you more kills in a small area than you will ever get anywhere else in the game.
Very few things changed for the Expansion. A character must kill Baal to be eligible to enter, rather than Diablo, but that's about it. The value and difficulty of the cows has fluctuated from patch to patch, and may yet change again in future versions of the game. In v1.09 the Cow Level was among the most profitable areas in the game, and was the most popular since it was so easy to rack up huge experience quickly. It became less valuable in v1.10, when the experience given by the cows was cut and their item dropping lowered.