Diablo III: Reaper of Souls is a reminder that even in this era of micro-transactions and quick-hit DLC, Blizzard is still a deeply old-school PC developer. Who else but Blizzard would make an honest-to-god expansion, let alone put this much care and effort into it?
In many ways, it feels like a throwback to fifteen years ago, when I practically danced into Software Etc. to pick up StarCraft: Brood War, breathlessly eager for the new units and missions that would be accompany it. Reaper of Souls is that kind of expansion. It doesn't come close to matching Brood War in terms of content, but it's nevertheless efficient and competent in transforming a key aspect of Diablo III's core gameplay -- the post-game.
It does so via the new Adventure Mode, which utterly transforms what has heretofore verged on being a joyless grind. In the vanilla release, the post-game amounted to playing through the campaign over and over again while steadily accruing levels and loot. Those who stuck around were typically reduced to playing one section of the story over and over again to grind levels and gear, which in turn diminished the overall quality of the dungeon crawling.
Adventure Mode adds structure and purpose to that grind, substantially improving the post-game in the process. Its key ingredient is the bounty -- randomly generated objectives that can usually be completed within 5 to 10 minutes for a handful of loot. They are frequently quick and painless, but challenging enough that they don't seem rote. And though they reuse various bosses and tilesets, the random layouts and mobs help make each run feel fresh and interesting.
As I discovered after completing Act V and jumping into Adventure Mode, collecting bounties quickly becomes compulsive. I beat Queen Araneae to earn an Act I bounty, then found myself finishing several more to complete the string and get a sizable loot bonus from Tyrael. Then I used cores earned from completing bounties to open up Nephalem Rifts -- randomly generated dungeons with even greater challenges and loot. The next time I logged in, the string had been reset, and I had a whole new set of objectives to tackle. Ultimately, it was still a grind, but having actual objectives to complete made the loot treadmill immeasurably more entertaining.
That alone makes Reaper of Souls an essential addition to Diablo III. It's a great example of a feature that not only constitutes "new content," but elevates the game as a whole. While various post-release patches have made the vanilla version much more balanced and enjoyable than it was at launch, grinding without Adventure Mode was like playing with one arm tied behind my back. To be perfectly honest, it should have been there from the start.
The rest of the package consists of a new class; a story act that can be completed in three to four hours, and various balance changes. The new Crusader joins the Monk, Witch Doctor, Mage, Barbarian, and Demon Hunter; and while it isn't the sexiest class around, it does add a much-needed element of tankiness to a group that is otherwise oriented toward damage. In addition to looking cool in big shiny armor, the Crusader distinguishes itself from the Barbarian with ranged spellcasting and the rather cool ability to wield a two-handed sword with one hand while dragging around a massive tower shield.
While I would have preferred that Blizzard not go back to the well of fantasy archetypes in developing Reaper of Souls' one and only new class, I'll admit that the Crusader fits in pretty well with the existing group. Blizzard has even seen fit to go back and retroactively insert the Crusader into the events of Acts I through IV, drawing up new cutscenes and introducing a large amount of new dialogue. So if you're looking for a fresh start in Diablo III, the Crusader isn't a bad way to go.
Funnily enough though, the story isn't actually all that important. All of Diablo III's handsomely-produced cutscenes and well-written dialogue can't help falling into the background when blowing up mobs and vacuuming up loot. Act V isn't bad on its own, featuring some large dungeons and cool moments like a ride on a siege engine; but it isn't the centerpiece of the package. That would again be Adventure Mode, which I found myself furiously clicking through Act V to reach. Granted, rushing the campaign on higher difficulty levels is still very rewarding; but as of Reaper of Souls, the best place to test one's might are the Nephelem Rifts.
One item of interest regarding Act V though is that it ends on a cliffhanger, which suggests that we're either in for another expansion pack or Diablo IV. Of course, if Brood War is any indicator, a cliffhanger simply means that we'll have to wait another decade or so to find what happens next. But it is a tantalizing indicator that Blizzard definitely isn't done with the series yet, and may yet have more in store for Diablo III.
In the meantime, Reaper of Souls does exactly what an expansion pack should do -- elevate the original content and extend the life of the game indefinitely. Over the years, Blizzard has proven themselves masters of breathing new life into their games, and Reaper of Souls is certainly no different. With Adventure Mode in hand, something tells me that I'll be playing Diablo III for a long time to come.
Most of my Diablo III-ing has been done on PS3. While the console iteration is fundamentally the same as the PC version, it's tuned to be a little more arcade-like, and is also devoid of the auction hall nonsense that caused a fair amount of stink amongst the Diablo III community. Two things that made it feel slightly more focused and buttoned-down.
Going back to the PC to play this expansion took little acclimatization, but a lot of loading. Since I’ve been gone – which was a few months after Diablo III’s launch – no less than seven patches have ensured the game’s continued evolution and refinement, capped off with a chunky pre-Reaper patch that essentially paved the way for the new expansion. Jumping back into the game before downloading the expansion proper, the last iteration of Diablo III felt good. I didn’t notice anything blindingly new as I cruised around with my Demon Hunter for the first time in a well over a year, but the gameplay definitely felt solid and refined.
What did strike me, however, was not long into my first foray through the expansion’s new fifth act is that Blizzard seems to be keen to make up for any loot-related issues of yore. As I tore through the first waves of monsters, I was swapping in new weapons and armor so quickly, I barely had time to warm them up. That felt both gratifying and motivational: if there’s one thing I want from my dungeon-crawling adventures it's a big fat pile of loot - and Reaper of Souls certainly delivers. That, and an endless parade of highly imaginative, over-the-top, near-overwhelming hordes of enemies to blast into oblivion as you explore its rich and intriguing environments.
I certainly like the new content. Whether or not it’s “enough” content is a very subjective thing – perhaps taking the better part of an afternoon to finish. But either way, the Adventure Mode is an absolutely splendid idea that adds as much content as you can take, remixed though it might occasionally feel. This mode feels similar to the console version in some respects - it’s very arcadey, eschewing any pretense of story and instead serving up objective-based scenarios to blast through. It’s almost like some kind of DIY challenge mode. If you have a certain amount of time to play, you can sit down and smash your way through a level or two and then leave feeling like you’ve just achieved something. If you want to farm levels, or try out different characters, you can do that too. It’s immediate, direct and really opens the game up, delivering an experience that feels exciting and varied, and definitely not grindy and linear.
The Crusader class is an interesting beast. Its tanking-and-casting style of combat feels very Paladin-like. It’s certainly fun, doesn’t feel too overpowered, and sits nicely within the existing roster of characters without feeling duplicative. I never quite got into the Barbarian class, but the Crusader appeals because it has a few more bells and whistles.
As an expansion, I think Reaper of Souls delivers the goods. While its new content does feel a little on the light side, its Adventure Mode more than makes up for it. It ostensibly adds an endgame, and also changes the complexion of the fundamental game itself. It now feels open and fun. Less of a chore, and more of a fun-packed, face-smashing loot-fest. And that's the style of Diablo I like.
- Visuals: Diablo III's graphics aren't going to push your PC to the limit, but they don't really need to either. Blizzard's excellent art shines through as usual via the high-quality cutscenes, interesting character designs, and wide variety of loot.
- Music: The excellent soundtrack is one of Diablo's more underrated qualities. Many of the tracks reminded me of the best songs in Lord of the Rings -- in some ways wistful, but also infused with that epic quality that makes make want to keep clicking on ahead.
- Interface: ot much to say here. Diablo III's interface worked very well for a point-and-click dungeon crawler, and that remains the case with Reaper of Souls. The character customization in particularly is pleasantly easy to navigate.
- Lasting Appeal: Adventure Mode is an essential upgrade that adds hours of life to the original game. It adds structure and purpose to the grind for loot, while the Nephelem Rifts bring the series back to its roots in a very positive manner. This is pretty much what Diablo III should have been from the very beginning.
If the purpose of an expansion is to not only introduce new content, but also extend the life of its core game, Reaper of Souls delivers. Act V might seem a little light, but Reaper of Souls' new features and Adventure Mode make it an essential purchase for anyone with even a passing interest in Diablo III.