In an era riddled with downloadable content packs of suspect value, Blizzard’s near singular commitment to the old fashioned expansion pack is commendable in itself. Not only does the developer avoid the commercial urge to parcel up bite-sized portions of additional content and sell them off piecemeal, its expansions often bring more new ideas than many other publishers consider worthy of a fully-fledged sequel.
Consider StarCraft: Brood War, or the recently excellent StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm; Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, or Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. All of them are orgies of fresh content and new ideas that improve each base game to such an extent that it’s hard to consider playing again without them. Expansions to World of Warcraft have been so consistently well-received by players that the game is now within months of its 10 year anniversary, and despite numbers being a little depressed there is still no would-be contender within earshot of its current subscription base.
Blizzard has a singular track record with expansions, but the stakes have rarely been as high as they are with Diablo III’s first expansion, Reaper of Souls. Even before Diablo III was released, longtime fans questioned the brighter colour palette and were unsatisfied with the thin answers given to questions over the game’s always-online policy. Players’ doubts and frustrations over said policy were vindicated when servers buckled under demand and customers were unable to play a game that many of them had booked out annual leave and abandoned social engagements to binge on.
More fundamental issues would only be realised in the weeks and months after release. Diablo III was far too miserly with its loot drops. What felt like regular gear checks at higher difficulties necessarily herded unwilling players toward the now-defunct auction house. Once there, many discovered it was more practical to optimise a character’s statistics browsing in-game advertising listings than it was to venture into Sanctuary and do battle with Diablo’s hellspawn minions.
Subsequent patches radically improved Diablo III’s core offering, but for many it was already too late. Reaper of Souls represents Blizzard’s real first - and possibly last - chance to reengage those players.
It does so with aplomb. Included in Reaper of Souls is an extensive new Act, set largely in the bleak gothic city of Westmarch and on the eternal battlefields between Heaven and Hell; a new character class, the Crusader; a revamped Paragon levelling system and overhauled loot system; and a new Adventure Mode gameplay system. Considered individually, each is a quality addition to Diablo III, but it’s how most of these elements compound that makes them so compelling.
Westmarch is in most ways a return to Diablo’s roots. Its narrow cobbled streets and claustrophobic architecture capture the brooding Gothic aesthetic the series has become synonymous with. But as a city, it also adds scale and a dash of political intrigue to a franchise that has played out for the most part in small towns, ruins, and dungeons.
The Crusader is a capable class focused on close and mid-range combat, but only really comes into itself in group scenarios. Long years have taught Blizzard how to turn a holy warrior into something more compelling than mere archetypal fantasy, and the Crusader, while not for everyone, is its most robust output to date.
Adventure Mode blunts the monotony of grinding the same few most loot efficient passages of the Diablo III campaign. Instead, players undertake a randomised series of bounties in each zone across the game’s five Acts, whether it's hunting down target monsters, clearing cursed chests, or killing all the denizens on the second level of a small dungeon. Adventure Mode is unlocked after the main campaign has been completed, and is available to all characters on an account thereafter, even newly-rolled ones.
Successfully completing bounties in Adventure mode also rewards players with Nephalem Keystone Fragments, which can be used to open Nephalem Rifts. Inside, players will find a kind of dreamscape mashed together from different tilesets from across the game world, densely populated with randomly combined packs of monsters. Once enough denizens have been killed, a Rift Guardian will spawn and roam the map, just as Diablo bosses did in the past. It’s a welcome change from those boss fights heavily influenced by World of Warcraft.
Nephalem Rifts are a refreshing and dynamic way to enjoy the most important overhaul that coincides with Reaper of Souls: Loot 2.0. This new system skews the statistics on drops towards the player’s class, greatly increasing the possibility of discovering useful items. Any unwanted statistic can even be rerolled at the cost of some crafting ingredients courtesy of the new Mystic artisan. Most importantly, Legendary drops are more frequent and also cause for more excitement. Statistics on Legendary items often interact with skills, increasing a type of damage, or even the amount of damage caused by a particular skill. Far from making them useless, these entice the player to experiment with their build and explore previously shunned skills. It’s a testament to the quality of Diablo III’s skill and combat systems that “optimal builds” are so moot, and the new variable added by the procs and stats on Legendary loot only goes to demonstrate how robust it is.
Former Diablo III players who still feel once-burned by the game’s unsteady launch needn’t buy the Reaper of Souls expansion to test the benefits of Loot 2.0 – it has also been released as a free patch to the base game. Anyone still on the fence ought to download it and experiment with the system first.
Features that don’t headline back of box call-outs also deserve special mention. In particular, the score in Reaper of Souls is an outstanding collection of choral arrangements and hauntingly beautiful compositions featuring the violin. New local servers based in Sydney are steady and consistent, and they make a welcome, noticeable difference to latency.
There are very few blemishes to speak of. In the narrative sense, the Diablo series is probably a victim of its own success. The eponymous villain and his extended family have all been dispatched so frequently now, that any future return should hardly give the citizens of Sanctuary cause to look up from their newspapers and crochet. One wonders if the writers will find a plausible way to drum up the urgency and raise the stakes in the future, or whether Diablo is about to jump the shark.
It’s certainly not an urgent question at the release of Reaper of Souls. This expansion prioritises the individual and the character currently in play, making for a far more rewarding, much less prescribed experience. Reaper of Souls makes up for lost ground and then some. At a time when expansions are becoming less popular with developers and publishers Reaper of Souls demonstrates their transformative potency. The godfather of ARPGs is back.