Shifting this week’s post to
Wednesday, probably, Thursday, definitely, since I need a little more time to digest Age of Wonders.
Like I said in the Diablo 3 review two years ago: this is going to be complicated.
Depending on how you look at it Reaper of Souls is either the best expansion pack Blizzard have put out since, oh, Frozen Throne back in 2003, or else an incredibly mediocre experience on par with last year’s underwhelming Heart of the Swarm expansion for Starcraft II. The reason behind this little dichotomy is that most of the admittedly excellent changes Reaper of Souls has ushered in aren’t part of the expansion pack itself. Instead, they were introduced nearly a month ago in the Loot 2.0 update that everyone who owned Diablo 3 got to experience free of charge. And when Reaper of Souls itself is retailing at a ludicrous £30 (which is more than I paid for the base game), it’s important to know what you will and will not have to pay for
So this review will treat the two as separate entities. On the one hand you have the much-vaunted Loot 2.0 patch. As the name implies, this is a complete and fundamental overhaul of how Diablo’s loot system works that was necessary in order to walk back possibly the most stupid mistake Blizzard have ever made in one of their games: the Auction House. It’s gone now, and so is the miserly loot system that underpinned it in a misguided attempt to encourage players to actually use the sodding thing. In its place is a far more satisfying mechanic that practically showers the player with loot; you now pick up roughly one magical (blue) or rare (yellow) item every minute, and a legendary (orange) every hour or two. Even though the yellow magical super enchanted items are now much easier to find than stock white items with no affixes whatsoever, this somehow never gets old. Diablo as a series has always been about killing monsters and getting loot, and looking back on it it’s astounding how hard the base game failed at the latter half of the formula. 90% of the time you’d get all excited about a yellow item dropping for your Wizard only to find that it was a Barbarian mighty weapon that you couldn’t even use, and so you’d inevitably end up schlepping over to the auction house to buy the things that wouldn’t drop for you in-game. The previous loot system was intentionally crippled so that this would be the case, and it was by far the most obnoxious thing Diablo 3 did in terms of mechanics. I called it out back when I originally reviewed the game, and it remains a stupid, stupid idea.
Now, despite a year(ish) of denials that they totally hadn’t taken a hammer to their loot system in order to try to get people to spend money in their auction house, Blizzard have finally admitted that the process of getting loot was nowhere near as fun or compelling as it would have been had the auction house not been included, and their solution is to remove it and beef up the loot system massively. With Loot 2.0 not only do you get more loot, and not only is it fundamentally more awesome (I’ve still got some legacy items left over from before the patch hit, and the Loot 2.0 items are roughly twice as powerful), but thanks to a new smart loot system it will almost always be loot with affixes that make it good for the class you’re playing when you pick it up. This means that every single time an item drops it has a genuine chance to be an upgrade from what you’re using right now. Often it isn’t – in fact most of the time it isn’t – but Blizzard have successfully rekindled the almost gambling-like thrill when you pick something up: it pays off often enough that you’re excited to find out what it is, and the loot drops often enough that you keep on playing. Hell, the much-improved legendary item drop rate on its own is enough to keep me hooked for the time being; pre-Loot 2.0 I picked up a grand total of three legendaries in 100+ hours of play. Now I’ve got two stash tabs full of the things, and about half of them have unique properties that’d make me completely redo my build in order to take advantage of them. When you see an orange item drop you get a little twinge of excitement in the pit of your stomach that it might be something game-changing like Fate of the Fell or Jekangbord.
It really can’t be understated how much of an improvement this state of affairs is over the base game, and it goes hand in hand with a new dynamic difficulty system that scales with player level. The old static difficulty settings of Normal, Nightmare, Hell and Inferno have been consigned to the dustbin of history, and in their place is a transparent set of difficulties that are both finer-grain (i.e. going up a difficulty level isn’t the huge leap that it used to be) and which straight up tell you the increased rewards you’ll get for playing on a higher difficulty setting. The scaling is a little bit disappointing since getting ahead of the curve is much more difficult when the curve simply adjusts itself to catch you up, but unless you’re playing on the highest difficulty setting it’s still possible to make a build that’s hilariously overpowered, which is all I really ask. The upside to the scaling is that since enemies scale to your level all they loot they drop – as well as the XP you get for killing them — does as well, meaning that playing earlier acts of the game no longer feels like wasting your time.
There are other changes that have been made as part of Loot 2.0 – for example all classes that aren’t Demon Hunter are noticeably more fun to play than they were two years ago, although I haven’t been playing in the interim so this may just be the result of two years of balance tweaking – but the headline shift in how the game doles out equipment has been a huge success in my eyes. Diablo 3 always had a particularly polished set of mechanics in terms of killing the monsters, and now the loot they drop has been adjusted to be equally satisfying. The best part is that you get this fix absolutely free; you can go back to Diablo right now and level a new character from 1 through to 60 under this much more enjoyable system without paying a penny. Once you get to 60, though, you’ll have to start thinking about whether you want to fork out for the actual expansion part of the expansion or not, and this isn’t anywhere near as much of an unqualified success story.
Reaper of Souls itself makes the usual expansion improvements, including:
- A new class, the Crusader. The Crusader is basically a paladin from WoW; if you’ve played WoW you know that means armour like a tank and a bunch of long-cooldown abilities focused on survival, but the tradeoff is that you might as well be hitting the monsters with one of those rubber bats used in movies when nobody really wants to hurt anyone. While it is possible to make a build that’ll vomit out an absolutely obscene amount of burst damage with the right skill combination, most of the time playing a Crusader is kind of dull and feel distinctly underpowered compared to the other walking-tank melee class in the game, the Barbarian. It’s possible to give it a power boost with endgame gems and enchantments, but then I could stick that on a Wizard I was levelling and kill things twice as fast; perhaps in the future they’ll tweak it so that it’s less boring to play but right now Crusaders aren’t exactly screaming “BUY ME” at anyone thinking of shelling out for RoS.
- A whole new Act. More on this in a bit, because it is laughably bad and deserves a more systematic beating with the Hating Stick. The only good thing it does is give Blizzard an excuse to raise the level cap to 70.
- After you’ve finished that Act you get access to the brand new Adventure mode for all characters, which is a grudging concession that Diablo 3’s plot was awful and that the game would be much improved if the story was removed, as evidenced by it removing the story and opening up all the waypoints; you can now go anywhere and kill anything and the hideous cutscenes will get in your way far less than they used to. It also gives you Bounties, which are mini-missions to go somewhere and kill a monster/clear a dungeon/do an events; do the Bounty and you get a lump sum reward of cash and gold along with some Blood Shards that can be gambled for random items. You also get fragments of the keys needed to enter Nephalem Rifts, which are dungeons generated entirely randomly using any combination of monsters and tilesets found throughout the game.
- A new crafter, the Mystic. The Mystic lets you reroll stats on items (for a fee) and also changes the appearance of your equipment, which is important for fantasy dress-up purposes.
Of these four major additions, only two – Adventure mode and the Mystic – are actually good. The eleven hours I’ve spent playing a Crusader haven’t exactly been a trial, but at the same time I’d feel a little cheated if I’d bought the expansion for it. And then you have Act V, chronicling the continued struggle against new big baddie Malthael and his angelic groupies, and this is notable because it is utter balls.
Diablo 3’s story is really bad. Famously bad. It was so bad I wrote a whole extra blog post on how bad it was, and I was far from the only one to notice the badness; basically the entire internet pointed out exactly the same flaws (i.e. all of it) as I did. Faced with this overwhelming quantity of negative feedback Blizzard have taken a long, hard look at their story and writing process… and proceeded to make exactly the same mistakes they made in Diablo 3, and Heart of the Swarm, and Starcraft II, not to mention god knows how many WoW expansion packs. After everyone pointed out how shit it was to have Azmodan call the player on his holophone every time they thwarted his plans and tell them it totally didn’t matter, he didn’t care anyway and that he was still going to win, even as you systematically slaughtered you way through his armies and into his house and stuffed him into a hunk of rock, I’m utterly astounded that they’ve chosen to do the same thing with Malthael. He appears to you every so often throughout the Act, and while he isn’t quite so full of himself as Azmodan was his lieutenants are still spouting off the “YOU WILL NEVER DEFEAT US!” one-liners even while you’re busy burying your maul into their skulls. Reaper of Souls spends far more time exploring Tyrael’s difficulty with the concept of eating than it does Malthael’s motivation for trying to kill everyone on the planet (as far as I could tell it was because he was corrupted, because Blizzard have been telling the same fucking story over and over and over since at least Warcraft III) and the ending is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in gaming. I honestly think I would have preferred the game to dump me straight back to the desktop a la Syndicate rather than inflicting something so stupid on me I’m afraid I’m less intelligent for having been exposed to it.
Even if you can ignore the story, there’s no ignoring the fact that design-wise Act V just isn’t up to scratch. Where the main campaign is fairly no-nonsense in having you travel from A to B while hitting a bunch of monsters in the face on the way, Act V’s zones are huge and meandering and take you forever to get anywhere in them. One of them is a swamp level, and my objection to swamp levels is well-documented1 There’s a pretty cool bit where you have a big fight on top of a battering ram while it smashes its way into the Pandemonium Fortess, and Pandemonium itself is probably the best bit of the Act, but the rest of it doesn’t show anywhere near this level of imagination and ends up being dreary, depressing and dull; it also doesn’t help that the dynamic difficulty scaling goes a little out of whack here and starts giving monsters several million HP each the closer you get to level 70, meaning that travelling from A to B takes even longer because you have to spend whole minutes whittling down each individual monster pack on the way. Act V was mostly just a slog, and I eventually jammed the difficulty down to Normal and zipped through to the end because I couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to get to the good stuff in Adventure mode. For the single biggest addition to the game it is incontrovertibly terrible and not at all worth buying the expansion for.
As a package, though, is Reaper of Souls worth buying? If it were retailing at regular expansion prices I’d still say yes; the raised level cap, new items and the Crusader class would probably be worth it at that point. The issue here, though, is that it isn’t retailing at regular expansion prices. It is actually retailing at a price point higher than that of most full releases. I know Blizzard like to project a reputation as the premium PC developer to justify their premium prices, but that projection is currently falling quite some considerable way short of the reality, which is that if you divorce Reaper of Souls from Loot 2.0 it’s not actually that good, and certainly not worth £30. If spending that kind of money on an expansion pack makes you stop and think about whether or not it’s really worth it, it very likely isn’t and you should save your money, or spend it elsewhere. As for me, well, I’ve had enough fun with it that I don’t begrudge the money spent, but I can’t promise you won’t too.
- I hate all swamp levels that don’t utilise the inherent creepiness and three-dimensionality of the environment, which is to say I hate all swamp levels. ↩