If you want an idea of how far Diablo III has come since the game was released back in 2012, one need only look at the launch of the Reaper of Souls earlier this week. While the Diablo III launch featured constant server crashes and issues that made the game close to unplayable for the first days and weeks, the Reaper of Souls launch was completely painless. At 23:55, a little message popped up in the in-game chat saying that the expansion was now live, and immediately I could see my character's XP bar gradually fill with each monster I killed, embark on the new fifth act, create a Crusader character or throw myself into the new Adventure Mode.
Reaper of Souls' release was the antithesis to the original's disastrous launch, and it perfectly illustrates the state of affairs in Diablo-land in the year 2014.
I have poured about 100 hours into Diablo III and enjoyed myself tremendously with the game, but it's hard to get around the fact that it had some problems. Besides the disastrous launch, the maligned auction house had an unfortunate effect on the player's quest for new and better equipment, and it was simply short on things to do once you reached level 60 and had killed Diablo on the highest difficulty, Inferno.
Many of these things were changed and adjusted since the release, but nevertheless Blizzard has chosen to scrap many of Diablo III's core systems with Reaper of Souls, and fortunately it's for the better. With Reaper of Souls, Diablo III finally becomes the game it should have been from the start.
If you've played Diablo III in the last few weeks, you're already familiar with many of the changes, as per usual Blizzard has decided on making all of the core mechanics of the expansion available in the base game. This means that everyone has access to the new and greatly improved loot system that allows players better and more interesting gear from monsters and treasure chests. The system of Normal, Hell, Nightmare and Inferno difficulties, where you essentially have to complete the game four times to reach the highest level, is also out . Instead, there is a new system that is tuned to get the player into the high 60s (the level limit is 70) in just one play-through, which dynamically adjusts the enemies to one's level, and can be continuously adjusted for a more or less severe challenge.
This all ensures that Diablo III remains damn fun. But they are also the smallest changes in Reaper of Souls, as it's on the content side that the expansion really delivers.
We get a new fifth act that takes place in and around the capital Westmarch and runs on to Pandemonium, the battlefield where angels and demons have fought against each other for ages. The Angel of Death, Malthael, has returned, after having been gone for ages, and he has decided that all demons should be exterminated, thus bringing the eternal conflict between heaven and hell to an end. Sadly, humanity falls under Malthaels definition of "demon" and therefore he must be stopped. That's the story in a nutshell.
The new Act V offers more variety in both environments and enemies than the game's earlier chapters, and new side quests and mini-events are sprinkled liberally throughout the entire chapter. More often one comes across a mysterious chest, an enticing door or a person in need, which you can examine, help or be ambushed by, always serving as a quick break and with rewards to follow. It's made all the better by the fact that all environments in Act V are randomly generated - previously it was only dungeons that had a new layout each time you loaded the game, while the surface world was largely static. This is no longer the case, and Westmarch's streets are new each time you visit them.
There's a wide range of new enemy types, and they're among the most inventive the series has featured. Soft cave creatures burrow into the ground and come back up with an armor of solid granite, giant zombie dogs pick up the player and shake him like a chew-toy, and the muscular Bogans pull small Bobbit-creatures from up the soil and throw them at you. It also feels as if the game has become even more generous (and/or malicious) with Elite enemies that are extra strong and have more abilities than usual monsters. I have repeatedly experienced both blue groups of champions and golden unique-enemies at the same time, often with deadly combinations of abilities, letting them lock you in place, cover the ground with plague and fire, and hurl frost balls and rotating laser beams at you.
It is in these moments that Reaper of Souls shines the brightest, when we are pushed to the limit by an armada of strong opponents, where we have to back off, circle around and find an opening where you can get some damage in before you have to pull back again. These fights can be extremely intense, and if the challenge is too large, you can reduce the severity of them via a quick visit to the menu.
The storyline of Diablo III was horribly told and characters like Azmodan and Diablo himself, who ought to be intimidating and scary figures, were reduced to whiny and pathetic types who wrote letters to their subjects about how they should get on with stopping the player or face the consequences. They were two steps away from sounding like the black knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that's how bad it was to when Diablo, for example, told the player that "sure, it may well be you who closed my portals to Hell and cut off my supply of demons, but I can still win, nyah-nyah!"
Fortunately, the authors have gotten back on track with Reaper of Souls, where most of the story telling happens through confrontations with Malthael's minions and finding texts from his followers, and there's even some nice side-stories along the way. It works much better and is more worthy of the universe.
The boss fights are numerous, and they are all terrific. Reflexes and positioning are paramount, and quite a few cool mechanics are added to the mix - for example, one boss fight evokes memories of classic bullet hell shoot 'em ups.
But no matter how good an experience Act V is during the handful of hours it lasts, it's only part of what really makes Reaper of Souls into a full package. Perhaps the most prominent addition is the new Adventure Mode, that provides Diablo with a massive dose of new replay value.
In Adventure Mode there is no story to fight through before you visit your favorite areas. The entire game world is unlocked from the start, and you can travel wherever you want. In each of the five chapters of the game game several bounties are on offer, rewards in the form of gold and XP won by completing short missions . They follow the formula of "kill this boss", "clear this dungeon", "complete this event" and can usually be completed in a handful of minutes (depending on how much time you spend going the wrong way in a given area). When you have completed all five bounties in one of the acts, you are rewarded a Horadrim Cache that spews out loot like a geyser when you open it.
In addition to new equipment, jewellery and crafting materials, there's also a reward called "Nephalem Rift Keystone Fragments", which despite the hopelessly clumsy name, is the most important one. With five of these in your backpack or chest, you can open a brand new dungeon, made just for you and your friends. These Nephalem Rifts are typically three stories deep and offers random combinations of environments and monsters not seen in the ordinary campaign. You could quite easily go from crypt to swamp to ruins, and some clever use of coloured light makes all of the environments appear fresh.
There are hordes of monsters to be slain, and once that's done a new boss will spawn, dropping piles of loot when you defeat him. Like the campaign, the difficulty in Adventure Mode is dynamic, and in theory you can level a new character all the way from level 1 to 70 just by playing Adventure Mode, and jump directly into Westmarch if you like. However, I would recommend that you play a little in the campaign first, mostly because fresh characters have almost no abilities.
Speaking of new characters, there's a new player class as well, called the Crusader. The Crusader is an armoured paladin-like type with a penchant for heavy armor and shields. Among their skills is the ability to carry two-handed weapons in one hand, making his or her shield explode in a rain of fire, and launch into the air as a kind of artillery shell. I haven't made it far with my Crusader yet, but my impressions of the class from the beta are overwhelmingly positive.
The other classes have also been overhauled, and all have received a new capability to be acquired at level 61 along with three new passive skills. I've mainly played with my Monk since Reaper of Souls came out, and it's been a happy reunion, and at the same time I've also rediscovered the joy of my Demon Hunter, who I was otherwise bored with the last time I gave him a whirl.
Reaper of Souls feels in many ways like Diablo III has finally realised the enormous potential the game has always had. It is the game Diablo III should have been from the start, and an absolute must for anyone who likes Diablo. With the massive injection of new content and total renovation of several core systems, Reaper of Souls in many ways feels fresher than Diablo III did two years ago.