Cast your minds back to May of 2012 - Diablo 3 has just been released, the hype-train has entered the station, and across the world millions of eager blizzard fans are downloading or unboxing their new game. The result? A slick, polished and graphically superb effort that topped the charts as the best-selling PC game of 2012.
Despite all that though, it somehow still managed to leave a bitter taste in the mouth for a lot of fans. Many had issues logging on to the servers in the weeks following the launch (error 37 anyone?) while others encountered lag issues resulting from the constant DRM that the game enforced, which could be particularly frustrating in group play. With few options other than to play the campaign over again, there wasn’t a great deal of incentive to continue playing after completing the storyline for a lot of players too...
Over the last couple of years, however, the patches have kept on coming in from Blizzard: native retina display support, tweaks to balance and loot; a PvP arena was released in February last year, as well as monster level adjustment and new “paragon” level tiers for your characters. With the release of the new expansion, Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls. Blizzard are hoping to reconcile the myriad of modifications that they’ve made with a new story, new character, and new end-game options for the more hardcore players among us.
I was able to spend a fair amount of time with the game in the run-up to the release of Reaper of Souls, playing through the original storyline with new hardcore characters, and getting a feel for some of the changes that Blizzard have brought in already. The controversial real-money and gold auctions have gone, so players are now encouraged to actually go out and kill monsters for the best bits of loot. On those monsters, its worth mentioning that the pacing, scaling and difficulty spikes that were an issue in the harder levels of the original appear to have been ironed out nicely too, and with the aforementioned monster level adjustment its possible to make the experience as much of a cakewalk or bloodbath as you’d like. Of course, the bigger and nastier the critters, the better the loot they drop. The Paragon levelling system, an extra system in place for those players that have maxed out their characters ‘normal hero’ levels and already an addition brought in post-release of vanilla Diablo 3, has been revamped, removing the previous experience cap and affecting both regular and hardcore (perma-death) characters.
Perhaps the most important change, brought in only last month however, has been to the loot system. Dubbed “loot 2.0”, players now stand a much better chance of encountering loot drops that are useful and pertinent to their character, while the overall volume of loot has decreased. This leads to a fresher, much more enjoyable experience: by about 8 hours into my playthrough this week, thundering through the main storyline with a hardcore witch-doctor, I had already picked up 6 pieces of legendary equipment, the majority of which I had equipped or made use of at some point. They’re fun too - one belt doubled my character's power for 30 seconds upon opening a chest, while a ring summoned a treasure goblin to follow me around, picking up ordinary loot and converting it into choice morsels of rarity. The game tailors loot-drops to your character, making that moment of picking up a great piece of kit much more meaningful and narrative-creating. Often items will confer buffs or alterations to specific character skills, making it possible for players to craft entire character ability designs around a particular piece of loot. To contrast all of this with my previous experience in Diablo 3, where after some 40 hours of gameplay I’d accumulated barely any loot of actual worth, the improvement is huge. The only caveat I might throw in here is that, with the improvements that have come to loot found from monster drops, the games array of loot vendors are now somewhat superfluous, besides being a dumping ground for all your unwanted paraphernalia.
A sensible person might well ask what, then, have Blizzard actually added to the game in the new expansion? For starters, a whole new chapter of the campaign beckons, in the form of Act V. Resuming your role as the Nephalem, slayer of the Prime Evil, the plot takes you to the city of Westmarch, where the archangel Malthael is up to no good reaping peoples’ souls. An enjoyable playthrough, the expansion’s plot has meat to it, and is filled with a host of side-dungeons, events and open areas to explore, definitely making it greater than the sum of its parts. Drenched in lore, there are plenty of amusing monster descriptions to hear, diary entries to discover and people to talk to, not to mention all the new beasties, critters, demons and reapers available for slayin’. It’s clear that Blizzard has taken notes on the reception of the previous game’s campaign, as they’ve really stepped up their game to make this final act feel just as epic in scale and scope as the last chapter’s titanic clash with Diablo in heaven. Westmarch’s streets have a gritty, gothic aesthetic to them, while other areas, such as the realm of Pandemonium you visit towards the end of the chapter, convey a much more otherworldly feel. Graphically, the game is a delight to behold, with a beautiful, if slightly scary, introductory cinematic, and the kind of high quality in-game visuals that we’ve come to expect from Blizzard these days. One particularly impressive set-piece takes place atop a gigantic battering ram, where your character fends off wave after wave of demonic monstrosities as your platform hurls itself into the adjacent castle gates. Take your time with it, and the new chapter can net you a good 6+ hours of gameplay, although I’m certain that the more avid power-levellers and speed runners will be able to burn through it in a fraction of that.
The second major addition to be brought into the game with the new expansion is the crusader: an all-new hammer-smashing, armour-clad, shield-bashing addition to the character line-up. The sixth nephalem to enter the fray, the crusader is a versatile character that can be played as a tanky, physical bruiser or indeed as a wielder of powerful holy magic, though most players will tend to opt for a blend of both. A fine fit for the tone of the final act (and the others besides), the crusader is well worth playing through the entire game with. With those being the two main features of Reaper of Souls, Blizzard have introduced a further selection of improvements in order to add content and depth to the experience. Addressing the oft-heard criticism of the endgame options for Diablo 3, the new adventure mode allows players to travel across the entirety of Sanctuary, Heaven and Hell, completing additional quests, such as bounty hunts, and new dungeons, dubbed “Nephalem Rifts”. Its a successful feature addition that some other ARPG games have been implementing for a while now *cough, Torchlight, cough*, so its great to see Blizzard take a good idea and put their own Diablo spin on it. Adventure mode yields continuous content for players really looking to sink some time into the game, and around higher levels the good loot flows thick and fast - so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it becoming the go-to option for players looking to level their characters up to the dizzying heights of paragon and beyond.
In terms of gameplay, things feel refined, if (understandably) a little familiar. With 10 more regular levels (and the concomitant abilities earned by levelling) added to the cap, there’s incentive to invest more time into the game, while dungeon-crawling itself has been enhanced with new weaponry, such as flails and crusader shields, as well as a range of new event set-pieces and cursed chests. That said, the core gameplay model remains blessedly untouched: kill monsters in order to gain experience and loot, with which you are able to kill more monsters. The logic seems circular, and yet it ends up providing such a highly rewarding, compulsive and satisfying (if a little click-intensive) experience that players flock to it in their millions - myself included. For the more fashionable dungeon-crawling connoisseur, a new artisan, in the form of the mystic, allows you to customize the appearance of your characters items, allowing you to play around with the look and feel of your nephalem to your heart’s content.
Blizzard are asking for £29.99 ( ~ $40.00) for Reaper of Souls, which does seem like a lot, and for those that really weren’t sold on the original, I would counsel them to give it another go now that all of the aforementioned patches have gone through before deciding to take the plunge with Reaper of Souls. That said, I had a lot of fun with it and shall probably be playing it for some time, as after a year-long Diablo hiatus I’ve been sufficiently pleased by the tweaks and enhancements that the developers have made to game to strongly recommend it.