Diablo III’s expansion is very more-ish. More locations! More enemies! More loot!
Reaper of Souls has more of just about everything fans could want or imagine. Many players said that Loot 2.0, the 10GB-plus patch that installed many changes for all players regardless of whether or not they bought the $40 expansion, was “game changing.” It made the game fun again (or fun at all). It’s finally the game fans were promised two years ago. And so on.
So yes, we have new loot and it sure makes things a lot more fun. Instead of playing hours of a game without a weapon or slice of armour worth keeping, new and interesting items will usually show up every time you play. You’ll get more items your class can actually use – say goodbye to your Monk sifting through piles of Wizard staffs, at least for the most part.
What’s interesting is that this “more of everything” has taken the game in two different directions. Act V adds more incidental events, characters and dialogues, fleshing out Westmarch better than any of the locations we’ve seen before.
In the highlands of Act I, occasionally you’d run into a lone farmer or a woman living in a derelict house away from civilization. I felt relief whenever I met another NPC who could actually speak a line, instead of the droves of monsters who grunted and roared in my face for hours at a time.
Westmarch is different. It’s the seat of power for the current king, Justinian IV, and appears to be a bustling trade town with commoners, tradespeople and nobles. Fish markets, courtyards and a cemetery replace demons’ lairs and literal Heaven.
The areas are full of events that the Eternal Conflict between Angels and Demons™ would consider trifling, but that’s sort of what makes them more endearing. You’ll have to deal with a popular revolt, as downtrodden commoners attempt a coup on Justinian IV in the wake of the Angel of Death resurrecting the corpses of their comrades and loved ones.
Back at your heroes’ camp, your followers’ storylines come to a head. Kormac faces the hypocrisies of his Templar order’s Grand Master, who we previously discovered recruits soldiers by beating perfectly innocent youths to the point of memory loss. And dashing rogue Lyndon is forced to reconcile the rift with his older brother – and possibly his wife, whom Lyndon also loves.
The episodes take advantage of dramatic tension and scene-setting better than anything I’ve seen in Diablo III yet. Part of that comes from the use of – gasp and shock – playing around with the overhead, see-everything viewpoint.
Entering a house with human bodies strewn about the floor, our hero observes that this was not the work of demons. We walk through the house, finding more grisly scenes, but crucially we don’t see anything until the player clicks to open the door to the next room. At one point, your view is obscured by the hallway. You don’t know what’s around the corner, except that it’s going to be bad.
The setting feels more The Witcher than Witch Doctor. It’s a marked departure from the better part of Diablo’s lore – especially after the high-epic schlock of Acts III and IV that immediately preceded it.
Even the characterization of the ancillary characters feels more fleshed out. In particular, several diaries left behind by villains paint the Templar Grand Master, Malthael and even turncoat Adria as more than black-and-white bad guys. Coming from a series that focuses on the war between devils and angels, this is a breath of fresh air. The beleaguered King Justinian IV’s characterization as a well-meaning monarch seems a direct answer to King Leoric’s cartoonish cackling, but it’s a welcome deviation nonetheless.
I could do with even more of this, really. The citizens you meet make Westmarch feel more like an inhabited city than a board game tileset. Even with the hordes of undead and piles of corpses feeding the fires, it feels more alive than most of Diablo III’s original release.
Of course, that’s not to say we spend all of our time in low fantasy: we eventually find ourselves back in Pandaemonium Fortress to face Malthael, the faceless, reverberating Angel of Death. You grind through hundreds of undead soldiers, rat monsters, corrupted angels yada yada yada. But for a precious few hours, Diablo feels more down-to-earth than it has in years.
The major attraction for longtime Diablo strips all of this away from the experience. Adventure Mode strips away the main narrative quests, leaving you with a series of objectives as simple as clearing out a certain area of monsters, or killing a particular boss character and/or randomly generated super monster.
Finish enough of these quests and you’ll be rewarded with another area: a randomized dungeon filled with frankly illogical number of monsters set for no reason other than for you to pop them like bloody pinatas to get at the gold and items within. As Blizzard gave weirdos like me more of its bite-sized modular narrative in Act V to savour, it’s also made t easier to ignore it altogether with Adventure Mode.
And dammit, I’ll probably spend most of my time here. After wading through the ultimate random dungeons, the Nephalem Rifts, spending 45 minutes bathed in scurrying monsters, lightning bolts, plague pools without a single moment of rest, I was rewarded with buckets of Experience Points and a bag full of loot that would make a kid cry at a birthday party.
I was finally rewarded with opening my first Nephalem Cache, an item that exists purely to give you more items. With one click, tiny pixels sprouted out of my character and scattered onto the floor. Rings hit the ground with a ding, swords with a clatter, and it all fell out of nowhere like a chocolate fountain.
That sensory overload, the equivalent of popping a thousand bits of bubble wrap, reminded me that the core experience of Diablo III is a lot stronger than many hardcore players give it much credit for. The abundance of skills, all of them different enough to encourage experimentation, coupled with rock-solid sound and visual design, allowed the devs to stretch and shape the number crunching under the hood however they saw fit.
It all tends to bleed into the background, after so long: the way skeletons disintegrate into dust with the sound of a tumbling Jenga tower. The amusing scribblings of Abd al-Hazir, an archivist and explorer who I don’t believe for a second isn’t also a Nephalem. The pathos in New Tristram when, yes, you are forced to kill the blacksmith’s zombified wife, but not before she hacks out a diseased cry for help.
It’s these moments that break up the endless monster meat grinder, and I’m thankful we get to see more of it than before in the latest expansion pack. That won’t stop me from grinding thousands of monsters searching for the ultimate piece of stat-pumping loot, but it’s also important to remember that a game like Diablo III can’t reach its greatest heights without a harmony between its systems and its lore.