The most interesting thing about Reaper of Souls, the first expansion for Diablo 3, is that it's an admission of guilt. Blizzard are one of the best developers in the world not only because it makes great games, but because it prods and tweaks and adds to them after release until they positively hum with glory. But Reaper of Souls isn't a nip here and a tuck there. This expansion is Blizzard dealing with the reality that, in many people's eyes, Diablo 3 just wasn't very good. But can it be fixed?
First thing to establish is that Reaper of Souls and a patch introducing 'Loot 2.0' are separate things, the latter of which is available to all Diablo 3 players, but for the sake of convenience we're going to look at them together – and after all, both are something of an experiment in fan feedback. Of course companies like Blizzard listen to their playerbases, and respond, but rarely do you see a top-down redesign of a game that seems designed to answer almost every problem that a large and vocal playerbase has raised.
List-me-up! The real-money auction house is gone, and lo the nerds did rejoice. This was only ever something that made your own drops feel worthless, so good riddance. Loot 2.0 kind of ties into this, being an attempt to make loot feel more valuable by tailoring it towards your characters; dropping more legendaries, adding 'playstyle-altering' characteristics to certain items, a new NPC that lets you re-roll certain stats, and of course an absolute tonne of new loot.
Reaper of Souls adds an Act V to the campaign, which sits alongside the new Crusader player class (very influenced by Diablo 2's Paladin), and an increase in the level cap of all characters from 60-70. Finally the randomly-generated Adventure mode is joined by a new 'Torment' difficulty level. Read between the lines here and you can see the problem with vanilla Diablo 3: it didn't have long-term pull, an 'endgame.'
We'll come back to that idea, but first the new campaign. The locations are gorgeous; a city being torn apart from within, with corpses littering the streets, leading onto the war-scarred terrain of Pandemonium and below. But Diablo 3's issues were never really in the art department, and what makes Act V the best Diablo campaign act yet is the wealth of incidental content – enter almost any door or cavern opening and you'll find an event or special monster to take down.
The main campaign objectives are as fetch-questy as ever, though what else can you do with Diablo, but the sheer quantity of 'bonus' material crammed into every cranny makes it feel like a long and true adventure. My only major issue is that if the campaign has a narrative theme it's – wait for it – monarchy is great! Kings are generally bang-up dudes, and peasants who plot to overthrow them are scummers. Not even joking.
At no point sadly does Malthael, the bad angel who's caused all this, say “I WILL REAP YOUR SOUL!” The dude's got double hand-scythes, is more goth than Bauhaus, and racks up an on-screen death toll in the hundreds – and even puts up a good fight (thanks entirely to constant AOE) but it's hard to find anything especially memorable about him as a videogame boss. The transformation of Belial, for example, from little dude into screen-filling bloater is pretty awesome, even after you've seen it many times, but outside of cutscenes Malthael has none of that panache.
So that's the campaign – but Reaper of Souls is all about Adventure mode. This lets you play through every environment from the main game in random configurations, with random quests and spawns, as well as enter 'Nephalim Rifts' which are special dungeons with hot loot.
This is the best thing in Reaper of Souls by a million miles, and it's easy to get in a group of four and simply barrel through quest after quest after quest, totting up the XP and endless new items. This is what Diablo is all about, for me at least, and Adventure mode does a great job of varying what's on offer.
Whatever its other problems Diablo 3 always felt amazing to play, in short bursts, and Adventure mode is like a playpark that continually throws new configurations of enemies and environments up. The first time you run into an elite sand wasp that walls in your Demon Hunter, before dropping mortars from above and plague pools underfoot, your eyes pop alongside your poor character's corpse.
It only took a few hours of Adventure mode before I had an armful of sweet sweet Legendary items, all of which can – if you're especially attached – be 'transmogrified,' a concept carried over from WoW. The new Mystic NPC (levelled up like the Artisan and Blacksmith) does this, and it's simple enough – she lets you make one piece of gear look like another, for aesthetic purposes, as well as allowing one attribute on an item to be re-rolled. All very nice. For me this isn't a big thing in Reaper of Souls, because it's the kind of feature I'd care about in a long-term game. And this is the nub of the problem.
Blizzard wants to make sticky games. It wants to create things that you play for hundreds of hours, if not every day, and return to again and again. The core of Diablo should be that feeling of permanence when examining your inventory, a sense that this is stuff you'll always value. Because if Diablo is 'about' anything it is about loot, and so we come to the major adjustment of 'Loot 2.0.'
Loot 2.0 is a reworked system that drops stuff your character is more likely to use as well as adding (allegedly) playstyle-altering properties to certain kit. I acquired a set of bracers, for example, that spawn a yellow enemy champion at any buff shrine, and a pair of pants that make gold “rain from the sky” when I got a Massacre bonus – though what actually seems to happen is that a small pile of Gold apologetically farts out of the character model.
Loot 2.0, however, doesn't and in some ways could never fix the real problem with Loot 1.0. The fact is that the equipment in this game just doesn't matter very much to me. Yes you can add poison modifiers, increase your pickup distance, acquire passive buffs and enhance certain skills with the right kind of equipment. But you could play Diablo 3 with the starting loadout and your character would be doing exactly the same moves with the same animations, and simply be getting less damage out of them.
This is why Diablo 3 is not a long-term game – that bedrock concept of what loot is, and why it's valuable to players, is flawed. Look: I love loot. You're reading about Diablo 3, so I bet you love loot too. But this is Excel loot, stat loot, loot where the only difference you'll ever see is visual and the feel never changes. Scrooge McDuck doesn't sit there looking at his gold, does he? That old duck dives right in. You need to feel treasure for it to be real, and it's bizarre that creating a sense of virtual weight is one of Blizzard's specialities – yet Loot 2.0, despite the claims of 'playstyle-altering' properties, doesn't deliver.
The new Crusader class in one particular way feels designed to address this, inasmuch as any character built on a bad foundation can. The whole idea with the Crusader is that it plays differently depending on whether or not you choose to go with a shield – which among a lot of pointless loot, used to be some of the most pointless loot. This is nice and taking the Crusader up to level 30 felt good – like a Barbarian with more options, and a snazzy horse. But here we come to what the feel of a game actually is, and whether it directly correlates to quality design.
Diablo 3 feels great, like it's always felt great, and teaming up with three buddies to careen through mobs is a good old time. But it doesn't feel like a permanent game; the kind of thing that becomes a fixture. This is why Diablo 3 was, for me, a big disappointment. I found it shallow and, despite the fun of playing with friends, grew sick of it after a week or so and moved on to other things.
Perhaps if you're more invested in the original Diablo 3, you'll be more impressed by Reaper of Souls. I was instantly impressed, but have grown more bored the more I've played – with the changes to loot, in particular, seeming profound but in practice altering little. I've been playing on and off now for four days; last night I actually fell asleep at my monitor. Now I was tired but I'm often tired, and can't think of the last game I fell asleep while playing. There might not even be one.
The same old story, then? Diablo 3; the game to play when your brain is toast! I had hoped Reaper of Souls would renew Diablo 3, give me a reason to pick it up over the competition and – especially – start running random dungeons again and again with friends. From moment-to-moment your moves and skills feel great, but that was true of the vanilla version too; and for all this expansion adds to and changes and tinkers with Diablo 3, the core feels the same.
Despite Loot 2.0 and Adventure mode and the Crusader, Reaper of Souls doesn't quite reinvent Diablo 3 and the reason is simple. The core concept underpinning this experience, fun as it is in passing, makes for a game that plateaus quickly. Diablo 3's central problem is that it lacks long-term appeal and, despite Reaper of Souls having the best of intentions, it seems some things just can't be fixed.