Diablo III: Reaper of Souls Review
I won't really say that I necessarily regret giving Diablo III such a positive review here on AtomicGamer back on the first few days of its release, but I admit that I severely underestimated the effect the two Auction House systems that it launched with had on nearly every aspect of the game. It was very shortly after posting my review that I realized what was wrong with Diablo III: the loot system was completely designed around this idea of having to buy and sell things on the auction house, both for gold and for real money. In order to keep those systems "healthy" (and to make a slice of every sale), the developers had to ensure loot dropped at the slowest of trickles. Players could get through the normal difficulty with what dropped just fine, but they really couldn't progress into the higher difficulty modes without playing at least one of the auction houses. This was because the loot players got was usually not good for their class, and they would have to sell it to be able to afford the gear they needed to survive in the last difficulty mode. And because the real-money auction house capped dollar values at a ridiculously high US$250 per item, this means that many people who stuck with the game into the higher levels wound up having to make real-world life decisions that intertwined with their gaming decisions. Should I sell this sword I got so I can make my car payment this month? Can I afford this $250 crossbow? Can I make a living farming items in D3?
Simply put, this is not why I play games, and I also imagine that it's not why the vast majority of the millions of Blizzard fans that wound up frustrated with Diablo III play games, either.
Frankly, I didn't expect Blizzard to do much to try and fix this game, but they did. With the closing of the auction house and the necessary complete re-work of the loot system to allow players to actually get items that are useful for their characters, Diablo III has been completely revolutionized, and while there's a lot of stuff that happened to make this happen (it's not as simple as it likely looks), the important part is this: the game's actually fun again. A lot of fun. And with the release of the new Reaper of Souls expansion pack, which includes a new act to play through, the Crusader character, an Adventure Mode that starts once the full campaign is complete, and tons of new loot and monsters, Diablo III feels like an entirely new game. It's that much better.
Sure, this is a Reaper of Souls review, but for a gamer like me who turned his back on the base game only a few weeks into its release and didn't play it once for nearly two years, I can't help but look at the entire effort of Blizzard made here - effort to both both fix the issues with the existing game for current players and in making and selling the expansion pack to those who trust Blizzard enough to give them a second chance.
And I completely understand why anyone would be apprehensive about coming back to Diablo III after the game's launch. For many, it won't even be about the rather expensive $40 that Blizzard's charging for this expansion - just the thought of bothering to install the game again and to give it another shot after all this time is probably too much to ask for some. There are more great games coming out on the PC now than ever before, and I get it if some gamers are content with turning their back on Diablo, or Blizzard completely, for the foreseeable future. But with some well-tuned changes, Diablo III is actually good now. It always had the foundations of a great, interesting action RPG, but it was a collection of failures in some core systems that gave this game its trouble - and those are fixed now.
So, what can I say about the Reaper of Souls expansion content? It fits in and it's pretty damn good. The Crusader class is interesting, if a bit slow to get going, and it pulls in a lot of what made Paladins fun in D2. The new act has some ups and downs - the down being a swamp level that anyone who's familiar with silly video game tropes should understand was a bad move (the D3 base game already played enough with sewer levels!) - but there's plenty of good, too. The new villain, Malthael, thankfully does less idiotic trash-talking to our Nephalem hero, and serves to be given character mostly by descriptions from those who know of his power. The thing is, I have grown weary of the Diablo franchise's angels-and-demons story, but what's good about the game is that you don't need any of it to play and enjoy the monsters, loot, and overall aesthetic of the game. Sure, I sat through the cutscenes and dialogues because I knew I was going to write this review, but I can barely remember any of it other than that Malthael is a Bad Guy and he wantd to take over the world by killing blah blah. It's not a great story, but it is a fun game, and for now, that's what I'm looking for the most.
One of my favorite changes to Diablo III, which is here in the base game as well as in the expansion, is the difficulty system. Instead of having you go through the game multiple times with tougher monsters each time, now you are more likely to go through it just once on a difficulty of your choosing (with tougher or easier monsters - with commensurate improvements in XP granted and loot bestowed), and then once you've completed Act V, you switch to Adventure Mode where a "Bounty" system basically sends you hunting your way down to specific bosses or to clear out areas from any part of the entire game. In this form, the entirety of Diablo III is sort of matched to your level, but then you have many difficulty level choices when playing, which will tweak just how tough your experience is. And trust me, once you see the higher levels of Torment difficulty, you'll know that nothing has been toned down or weakened from the previous system's Inferno difficulty. Instead, here, you just get better access to all of the environments and monsters from the full game for more variety, and everything is just as tough or as easy as you want it. But now, you can get a reasonable, but not ridiculous, challenge even at the highest levels, and that's worth more than adherence to any old, outdated playthrough-type system.
The end result is a Diablo III that is more fun to play from top to bottom, with a challenge level that you get to set. Often, you'll find that you can survive on a higher difficulty, but that you actually progress faster and get more loot on a lower one - especially when playing with friends, where the health of enemies is multiplied for each additional person in the party. It's the kind of choice that few gamers bother to make in single player games, but Blizzard has figured out that by designing a game where the lure of loot and faster leveling reign, they can get people to push their boundaries without all of the annoyance of having to deal with people in competitive, player-fights-player online games. Are you going to prove anything to anyone (even other gamers) by surviving in Torment 6? Probably not much, but there's still a feeling of accomplishment built in as you hone your skills, learn what works for each boss, and slowly tweak and upgrade your gear when you climb through the difficulty ranks.
Is that preferable to the legendary gameplay of Diablo II? Well, certainly not from a story standpoint, no. Reaper of Souls' villain and main characters are pretty hollow and boring in my opinion, and the lack of high-quality cinematics tell me that they weren't really focusing on that element. But unlike most people, I think Blizzard has been getting beat on this front for a while, and that their villains have been pretty one-dimensional for many years now. I don't play their games for the story or the epic struggle of muddled-good versus vaguely-evil anymore. I'm done trying to derive take-aways from the storytellers at Blizzard. While I find BioWare's Renegade-themed Commander Shepard to be an inspiring source of strength or thatgamecompany's faceless Journey hero to help me learn true perseverance, I don't see how there's anything really inspiring about Blizzard's characters anymore. Instead, I pull entirely from the finely-tuned gameplay that Blizzard so often delivers, and Reaper of Souls has it in spades. Right now, that's more than enough. Back to my original question: is it better than just playing more D2? Yeah, I think so. Opinions may differ, but I think we're close enough that even if you hated the original incarnation of Diablo III, it's worth re-downloading the client, firing up the original game, giving it a shot, and if you like what you play, consider spending the cash on Reaper of Souls.
Blizzard committed to fixing a blemish on their record when they set out to not only improve the basic version of Diablo III but also expand on it with something they could charge for, and it's the undeniable success of the former that gives them the right to ask for the latter. Luckily, both elements of it went well enough that I can say without a doubt that they did a good job. Great, even. Many gamers will point to events further back than Diablo III's release date and refuse to engage based on what happened then as well as all events since, but it's not like a bunch of other companies have come out and beaten Diablo at its own game in the last two-three years. Sure, Path of Exile gave Blizzard a good run for their money for a while there, but for many, it just lacked the charm and gameplay required to keep it addictive. Simply put, the best Diablo-like experience you can get right now is right here, in the comfortable arms of our Blizzard benefactors. (Yes, I am aware that we paid them, and am using those words flippantly.) If you want to rebel against that idea - fine. But remember: after this long since Diablo II, it's clear no one else really knows how to deliver what Diablo does. Blizzard will wait you out.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a final copy provided by the publisher.