Usually expansions to popular games herald extra content for gamers to devour, so it seems strange that the most interesting change to Diablo III with Reaper of Souls actually comes down to a simple rebalancing. Alterations that were actually included in a free patch that arrived in tandem with the paid for expansion. Everyone who has invested time into the most recent release of this legendary hack and slash adventure knows that the game, particularly on the earlier PC release, had issues. Far too often the battlefields were littered with worthless junk, and that release of finding new and useful equipment was extremely rare. Meanwhile the difficulty curve formed an ugly shape, far too simple on the plodding early levels and then a huge impossible spike on the hardest difficulty that could only be unlocked after completion. A spike that many claimed was only possible to overcome with an investment into the real money auction house, an area of the game many understandably wished to avoid.
But, hark! The real money auction house is gone. The bells are ringing! Pealing out, beckoning home those who have long since left. Along with this untimely demise, we suddenly see the battlefield awash with promising items, the heart quickening every time you see those pillars of light emitting from where legendary pieces lie. And these items are now usually tuned for your class, so no longer will players scream out as they find yet another worthless wizard’s robe for their barbarian. Instead that brawling brute will most likely pick up another vicious blade, filled with strength and vitality boosts that will see them scything through the monsters like chaff. Suddenly the game becomes alive again.
Meanwhile the difficulty levels have been completely revamped as well. Now players can adjust the toughness more or less on the fly. If the going is pedestrian and becoming boring then a quick switch ramps up the beasts’ stats and suddenly there are hectic battles erupting at regular intervals. Furthermore, those daring players are rewarded for their bravery with extra experience and gold drops. Suddenly the game becomes alive again. The point being made here is that even if the price tag on this Reaper of Souls expansion seems rather high, its worth downloading the hefty but free 8Gb patch and dipping back into Diablo III, just to experience these welcome changes.
But of course Reaper of Souls does contain a wealth of new content as well. Slight spoiler warning ahead for those who’ve yet to finish the game. At the end of Diablo III after a lengthy battle with the lord of evil, our heroes manage to trap his essence, along with the other prime evils he has consumed, into the black soul stone. It seems the world and the heavens are at peace again, the soul stone locked safely away. Predictably however, a new evil calling himself Malthael, the Angel of Death, breaks into the soul stone’s prison and takes it, in a rather stunning full motion video opening sequence. Using the stone’s power Malthael intends to wipe out humanity, whom he sees as demons that need to be eradicated. Its desperately formulaic, but that’s Diablo for you. And so begins act five.
It’s a lengthy expansion, perhaps equal in size to the first act, clocking in at around six or so hours. Your hero will find themselves roaming the pillaged streets of Westmarch City, dispatching Reapers who are summoning undead to do their bidding and wiping out the human population. The maps of the expansion generally tend to form more corridor shapes than previously, which makes the action more feel concentrated and concise. It’s still an act where the players must always head from A to B and kill C with little variation, but there are at least more offshooting areas filled with sidequest and slightly alleviating the rather linear feel of the main campaign
The bosses of act five, often a strange anticlimax in the rest of the game, feel as though they’ve had far more thought gone into them. Each boss, from the Malthael’s chief lieutenant Urzael to the Angel of Death himself, go through phases that change the pace of the battle as it progresses, making these fights far more intense than some of the more repetitive bosses from the earlier acts. There is even a fantastic, and surprisingly difficult due to its constricting size, set piece where our heroes ride atop a battering ram, smashing through a huge gate while being overwhelmed by monsters from all sides.
Once Malthael lies defeated at your hero’s feet, the game opens up with the new Adventure Mode. It’s an interesting idea that sees all the game areas recycled and easily teleported between, each with new quests added from killing boss monsters to rescuing prisoners. Once completed these missions reward the player with Horadric Caches containing a wealth of gold and items. Players will also unlock Nephalem Rifts that open crazy randomised dungeons, containing interesting mixes of monsters that one would normally not find together. No part of Adventure Mode is technically new, but it does at least add some form of end game content to Diablo III that players can grind for items, gold and levels.
Levels! They’ve been revamped too. The expansion adds ten new experience levels, bringing the total to seventy. Each hero also gets a new skill, extra runes (that modify the skills), more passives and an extra slot to place those passives in. The piranha skill for the Witch Doctor is a particular highlight, summoning a pool of vicious fish that devour all enemies in its wake. Beyond this cap the Paragon levels (unlocked after hitting level seventy) have been changed, the cap has been removed and the minor boon each level provides to the hero (from attack speed, to health pool and so on…) now applies to all characters on the account. All of this means that characters can never stop gaining some form of experience, which makes grinding for that ever elusive loot even more inviting.
Along with the new act, there’s a new class to send into the fray. The Crusader is a more malleable hero than most when compared to the original team, with the ability to be played as a ranged damage hero or a front-line tank depending on the skill selections and equipment build. His or her skills (depending on your aesthetic only gender choice) tend towards large area effect damage, but there’s a huge range of possibilities. For example the falling sword skill sees the Crusader leap into the heavens and crash back down to earth amongst the enemies dealing huge damage, but can also be used as a creative escape from overwhelming groups or dodge incoming damage.
Other notable, if bizarre skills, that Blizzard have summoned up for this class include the ability to suddenly mount a celestial war horse and ride into (or out of) battle, which may sound incredible but lasts barely more than a second resulting in a rather unsatisfying charge. Bombardment, which sees asteroids falling from space and obliterating the enemies in their path. A magical shield that somehow can convince your foes to fight for you for a short period of time. And finally the ability to turn into Akarat’s champion, which not only increases attack speed and damage but also gives the chance to respawn with full health if killed while active.
Some have complained that the Crusader class, with its rather unfocused abilities, can be underpowered compared to others, which arguably is true, particularly while fighting alone. Generally the Crusader has a lower damage output per second and few escape mechanisms they can rely on, meaning playing the class alone can potentially be frustrating. However played with a team, the ability to dive into battle and lock all the creatures into a small area (the taunt ability for example forces all nearby enemies to attack the Crusader), can be invaluable. Often the Crusader can then survive the following onslaught with their huge armour boosting passives and life steal potential.
However we found the Crusader wonderfully entertaining to play, and more dynamic than many of the other classes, with whom it is far too easy to get stuck into one single skill set and remain unchanged for the entire game. One of the passives also allows the ability to wield a two-handed weapon in one hand, which opens up the potential for huge extra damage if the right weapon is found. How can one not love that?
The final addition made by the Reaper of Souls expansion is that of the mystic, found early in the new act. She is effectively a shop where one can modify existing equipment to change their properties, from simple swings in stats, to a whole new aesthetic. Use of the mystic requires some crafting materials (and there are some new types of these as well), and the more powerful the piece of equipment the rarer the crafting materials required, making each decision to use it a tricky one. This decision is made even harder by the fact that the new properties are randomly selected and the player must choose from a list of three, all of which could be potentially useless.
It’s an interesting and risky mechanic to add to the game, but the mystic certainly has her uses. She can potentially swap out that useless augmentation to a weapon that improved a skill you never seem to use and replace it with something of far more worth. But it will of course cost you, and often that investment can be far higher than the resulting change.
The Reaper of Souls expansion provides a great amount of content, changes and balancing that significantly improves and extends the original Diablo III experience. The maps feel more focused, the bosses refined and the Crusader class is a joy to play. There is however one little sting in the tail: the cost. The retail price on Blizzard’s own Battle.net is £32, a hefty pricetag for a simple expansion, perhaps even more expensive than one can find the original game. Yet even if the cost is an issue the free pre-expansion patch that was deployed in February has changed the game significantly and largely for the better. It may be time for those put off playing the game on release, due to the mixed reviews, to reacquaint themselves with the grandaddy of dungeon crawlers once again.