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Diablo III: Reaper of Souls Mega-Review: Fear the Reaper

There are few guarantees in life. A wise man once said that the only guarantees are death and taxes….and a Blizzard expansion pack. Blizzard are the masters of getting the most out of their few mega-successful franchises, and no matter how divisive Diablo III ended up, a follow-up expansion was inevitable.

Reaper of Souls hits two years later on the heels of a major gameplay overhaul in Patch 2.0, adding a fifth Act, new character class, mystic vendor, expanded level cap, new skills for each class, and an entirely new story-less mode called Adventure Mode.

As with all our Mega Reviews we’ve split it up between the five major new additions that Reaper of Souls brings to the venerable action-RPG franchise: The Crusader, Act V, the Story, Adventure Mode, and Expanding Diablo III.

The Crusader is a tank. I don’t really mean that in the gamer parlance of “guy who takes all the aggro and soaks up as much damage as possible”. Though that is certainly true, but my meaning is more strictly metaphorical. The Crusader is a tank, a siege tank, a hulking mass of steel designed to wade into the midst of enemy forces of unleash as much mass damage as possible. Now, in more practical terms, this pans out to a character somewhere between Paladin and Wizard in actual functionality. He has a lot of abilities designed just to keep him alive; blinding strikes, healing circles, and the like. He also has plenty of heavy area damage, best used against hordes of smaller enemies.

From my play time with him, these situations, surrounded by hordes of normal creatures, is where he shines and is the most fun. Pulling them all in with a taunt, throwing up iron skin, and summoning a storm of holy hammers was a hell of a lot of fun. Bosses, hero monsters, and other singularly tough creatures, however, he doesn’t hold up as well against, and it’s in these areas that he feels more like a character designed to be played with party. He’s certainly capable, but less dynamic on his own, as most of these fights end up a bit more tedious than entertaining.

While I can’t say he is the most inspired choice for a new hero, his visual style and personality are both pretty fun, with his huge armored form being equally matched by his uber-pragmatic, droll dialogue. Will I play with him? Sure. He’s fun enough, though I would probably relegate him strictly to group play.

I’m disappointed that Blizzard went the safe route, but not surprised. The Crusader plays very similarly to Diablo II’s Paladin crossed with some differently-dressed Barbarian skills and a few abilities lifted straight out of Castlevania. He fills the gap of being the second class to use Strength as his primary attribute, and appropriately he’s much more defense-oriented than the Barbarian. Many of his skills require a shield, and one of his earliest passives allows him to carry a 2-handed weapon with a shield, often resulting in a cool-looking phalanx or medieval warrior look.

You’d think with the first new character class in two years that Blizzard would make him at least a little exciting in the early game, but you’d be wrong. The Crusader suffers from having lots of defensive abilities early on, which even playing on Master difficulty I barely felt I needed. Once runes start opening up things become much more fun, and I did appreciate that all four of his standard Wrath generating abilities were wildly different and varied. Many of his abilities made me feel like a combination of the Avengers – Justice throws Thor’s Hammer, Blessed Shield throws Captain America’s Shield, even Smite acts like shooting electric blasts from one’s hands a la Iron Man.

Though he does get some really fun abilities, the Crusader seemed very cooldown heavy, and too many of his skills were just slightly reworked versions of other established class skills. The Crusader can certainly be an enjoyable class to play, and the theme and emphasis on defense, blocking, and player-based AOE attacks means he loves to dive right into a giant pack of foes and unleash holy fury. Still, he’s a far cry from the shapeshifting Druid and combo-unleashing Assassin of Lord of Destruction.

As is typical of Blizzard expansion packs, Reaper of Souls brings a new playable class to the table in the form of the zealous Crusader. The Crusader is combines the heavy duty tanky melee gameplay of the barbarian with a dangerous arsenal of holy magic abilities that really lets you let loose on the hordes of hell. Part of what makes the classes of any good action RPG good is their ability to really let you fulfill the fantasy of being a badass of whatever class you choose and the Crusader definitely succeeds in this aspect. Every blow you land on enemies feels weight and a lot of his spells pack an explosively satisfying punch. It’s also nice to have a character class who will actually use all those shields that I keep finding and having to sell.

The only aspect of the Crusader I can really fault with is that he’s the only class that Reaper of Souls adds compared to the series legacy of adding two classes that Diablo II’s expansion added. That said, Blizzard have definitely taken a quality over quantity approach with Diablo III, and it’s hard to fault them for that when all six of the game’s classes are so enjoyable to play as. Blizzard definitely brought their A-game when it came to the Crusader and while the Crusader does share some DNA with Diablo II’s Paladin – I still feel that he’s a worthy addition to the Diablo III’s lineup.

Act V takes place mostly in the city of Westmarch, once prosperous, but now filled primarily with the recently departed. Streets are either abandoned or filled with the dead. Outside the gates, the swamps teem with poison. And in the distance, inside the ethereal fortress of Pandemonium, a renegade angel hatches a nefarious plot. As fantasy locations go, those are all pretty solid ideas. Unfortunately, though they have their moments of excitement, most of are so muted in color and activity that they effectively become dull blue or dull brown backgrounds that the eye rarely moves to for more than a moment.

As the act is mostly focused on Death as the antagonist, it should be no surprise that the enemies take the forms of various aspects of death, and these enemies are the highlight of the Act. From an army of ghost soldiers, to giant female grim reapers, to a hulking angel wielding a bazooka, to a huge monstrosity with a magic portal on its back, the new enemies are inventive, threatening, and just fun to look at. That’s good, too, since the level design for this act focuses on winding, sprawled layouts that make sure you will be killing many, many hordes of creatures before your quest is done.

While Diablo II’s ending segued perfectly into the Lord of Destruction expansion pack, Reaper of Souls is afforded no such advantage and ends up feeling fairly tacked on. The City of Westmarch is neat in that you actually spend a good chunk of time fighting through city streets, with people’s homes as mini-event dungeons. The entire Act is shrouded in darkness, and the background art reflects a darker tone – you’ll find no rainbows in the corpse-ridden streets of Westmarch.

Act V is fairly lengthy, mostly due to the abundance of sprawling mega-zones that contain multiple dungeons like the Fields of Misery in Act I or Dahlgur Oasis of Act II. Aside from the kind-of cool apocalyptic streets of Westmarch, players travel through a large cemetery (seriously, why would you ever bury your dead in this world – or any fantasy world), swampland, and the eternal battleground known as Pademonium. The overall Act isn’t quite as focused as the base game (particularly the hunt for Adria in the swamps) but the locations are varied enough to be enjoyable, and many new enemy designs elicited a “wow!” out of me the first time I saw them.

When I spoke to the lead character designer of Reaper of Souls Paul Warzecha last week, he emphasized the notion of ‘The Haunted Apocalypse’ as the overarching visual theme of Reaper of Souls – and the environments of Act V do not disappoint when it comes to this. Although Reaper of Souls geographically unfolds quite near to the game’s first Act, it wastes no time in setting itself apart from the gothic locales of Khanduras. Westmarch presents this terrifying visage of a city that continues to fight on despite it’s own destruction and this part of Reaper of Souls is really brought to life by the game’s new enemies and the abundance of procedurally generated events in the city. Angels make for fun and challenging foes and it was really fun to see Reaper of Souls bring to life the promises that Diablo III made of randomly generated dungeons where a new event or micro-adventure waits around every corner.

The later areas in the expansion were also quite good. The appropriately titled Blood Marsh brought back some of the swampy goodness of Diablo II’s third act and the later sections of the game involving the Battlefield of Eternity and Pandemonium Fortress itself were particularly visually memorable. These parts of the game felt otherworldly and alien and I liked how the music really took a backseat during this sections to bring attention to the chilling atmosphere.

These demons just will not die; somebody should really do something about that. Well, that’s the basic premise of Act V; after defeating the super conjoined version of Diablo, his soul is once again trapped in the black soulstone, just waiting to get out. And so, one of the primary angels decides to finally end this once and for all by somehow using the black soulstone to wipe out demonkind. If that sounds like a solid setup for a story, you’d be right.

Unfortunately, that is exactly as far as this story gets. Mathael, the crazed angel in question, is a one-note villain, doing little in the story besides popping in to issue threats. The quests on the path to stop him are usually only tangentially related, and the game consistently throws out plot devices as simple excuses to go kill one more monster boss, and then these plot points are never mentioned again.

I suppose I’m ragging on the storytelling here more than the story. I’m sure that this same plot could have been used effectively elsewhere, and the problems here are really more symptomatic of the series in general. As the games moved in tone from straight horror to something more like action adventure, the story hasn’t adapted well, and what we’re left with is a series still trying to be very serious and dark within a new packaging that is mostly brightly colored explosions.

Diablo III’s story tied up much neater than its beloved predecessor: all the Prime Evils were destroyed and the angels were busy sweeping up piles of demon corpses off their lawns. But war never changes, especially the eternal battle between the angels and demons of Sanctuary, and the Angel of Death takes it upon himself to end the war – by killing all humans of course. It’s a pretty standard Rogue AI plot (to save the humans I have to kill/enslave them all!) and Blizzard doesn’t do much in the way of twists and turns. Malthael shows up a few times to sort-of taunt the player (like Azmodan in Act III, though thankfully much more succinct).

Blizzard’s storytelling has either gotten steadily weaker over the years, or I fear I’ve simply matured beyond the fist-pumping teenager of those rosy Diablo I and II days. Diablo III’s story was fairly lame, and Reaper of Souls certainly doesn’t attempt to break any new ground in that direction. Thankfully an action-RPG is served mostly by its mechanics, so the serviceable story does little to detract to the overall experience. I would like to see poor Tyrael smile every once in a while.

Like any good expansion pack, Reaper of Souls flows on quite naturally from the ending of Diablo III. The Black Soulstone that contained the souls of the defeated lords of hell is stolen away by Malthael, the Fallen-Angel of Death and the heroes of Sanctuary are called in to get it back. For most of the expansion nobody is quite sure what Malthael plans to do with the stone but given that the expansion opens with him tearing apart the city of Westmarch with an army of fallen angels at his back, it’s pretty safe to say that whatever he plans is probably bad for the people of Sanctuary. As an antagonist for the expansion, Malthael’s does a reasonably good job and although he does fall prey to some of the same storytelling flaws as the series other antagonists (namely Azmodan), he does end up giving players a hell of a final boss fight.

Without spoiling things too much, it was pretty fun to see both familiar favorites return for Reaper of Souls as well as re-appearances by some of the new characters introduced in Diablo III. Maybe it’s just because I’m living in a country whose Prime Minister just reintroduced the archaic system of ‘Knights and Dames’ but I didn’t really appreciate the weird monarchist slant to some of the subplots that go down in Westmarch. The story demonizes the rebels and the way it portrayed the struggle between them and the inept and corrupt aristocracy was kinda gross and clumsy in this really weird way. I accept that Diablo is a pretty old school style of fantasy story but as a fan of more complex modern fantasy stories (like Game of Thrones, Mistborn and Malazan to name a few), the expansion’s overly simplistic representation of class struggle rubbed me the wrong way and both detracted and distracted me from the main plot.

Weird monarchist subplots aside and In spite of the game’s ending feeling a little bit too typical of the series, I felt Reaper of Souls was about as strong of a continuation as Diablo III was going to get.

Blizzard is finally giving us the dedicated post-game content this game desperately needed, and it is called Adventure Mode. This mode requires that you beat Act V at least once before you can access it, and that decision makes sense, since once you have it, there is almost no need to ever go back to the campaign again.

Essentially providing all of the content of the game without any of the point A to point B linearity campaign, Adventure mode casts you far and wide over the lands of the game, hunting bounties (usually just simple objectives) that grant you additional rewards and the chance to enter The Nephalim Rift, which is an extended dungeon culminating in a boss battle, which offers even more opportunities for sweet loot. The variety of combinations between locations, enemies, and objectives is large enough that the replayability should be pretty damn high.

This mode is doing what Blizzard does best, distilling a game mechanic to it’s purest form. Kill monsters, get loot, get stronger, kill tougher monsters, get better loot, get even stronger, ad nauseam.

Adventure Mode will become the most celebrated feature of Reaper of Souls, and the primary form of endgame content. Accessible only after you’ve completed Act V, Adventure Mode tasks you with five random quests in each Act (typically go here and kill this), and gives you the excellent ability to instantly teleport to any section of the game at will to hunt them down. Completing all five in an act rewards you with a bonus treasure chest – the Horadric Cache, and you can earn blood shards which act as a form of gambling for rare or legendary items (they scale to your level – so save ‘em til 70).

Adventure Mode perfectly solves the problem of endgame content; instead of just farming bosses or certain sections over and over, it allows you to hop to various parts of the game and get great rewards for completing the bounties. Since the newly revamped difficulty system of Patch 2.0 scales to your level, you can easily find that perfect balance between risk and reward.

Without harping on about it for too long, the recent Loot 2.0 patch solved many of the problems that Diablo 3 had and the big new feature of Reaper of Souls, Adventure Mode, goes a long way towards making the game arguably the best in the series. Once finishing Act V, players are thrown into Adventure Mode where they can revisit old areas of the game to track down specific bosses through Bounties and once enough Bounties have been completed, try their luck with a Nephalem Rift. Nephalem Rifts are short randomly generated dungeons that are just as supercharged with loot as they are with elite monsters.

What I really liked about these editions to Diablo III was the way they enabled players to make progress with their character in a more meaningful and flexible way than just simply replaying the game’s campaign on a higher difficulty can allow for. Each Bounty takes maybe 10-15 minutes to complete and you’ll need to take care of at least five in order to unlock a Nephalem Rift  (which usually took me between 30 and 45 minutes to beat). Reaper of Souls also throws a new Artisan into the mix in the form of The Mystic. The Mystic can ‘transmogrify’ the appearance of one item onto another as well as ‘reroll’ the stats of an existing items. While she’s nothing hardly the game changer of the expansion, she’s a nice addition that really rounds out the existing crafting mechanics in the game. It is a shame that the expansion doesn’t bring with it any new companions though.

Reaper of Souls is actually pretty great, but not for the reasons it should be, which is to say the actual continuation of the game’s story. Its success lies in the more functional, pragmatic, streamlining changes they’ve made in both Patch 2.0 and this expansion. Almost every aspect of the game has been reconfigured to varying degrees, but all for the better. The new skills for each of the main characters is nothing really impacting, but still appreciated. The ability to level your heroes into infinity, even if those levels represent incredibly miniscule advancement, only furthers the desire to play them just a little longer. The Mystic, who can alter the look and abilities of items, keeps you interested in playing the inventory game.

All these changes on their own aren’t that special, but combined, they have achieved something the original had limited success with, the addiction factor. There will always be the nagging feeling that if I do one more Rift run, if I roll for one more random item, if I change one more stat on that weapon, I’ll be able to move up to the next difficulty level. For the record, I’ve managed to do Torment 1 by myself, Torment 2 with friends, and Torment 6 is the max. I best get looting.

Much of what makes a successful expansion pack are the little additions. A new act and new class are to be expected but much of what makes Reaper of Souls a must-buy for Diablo fans are the little improvements. As we mentioned before, Patch 2.0 revamped difficulties and loot drop to improve the entire experience – with or without the expansion. The new class skills are smartly front loaded and given to existing characters upon leveling up to 61. These skills nicely fill in some gaps, like giving the Demon Hunter and Monk impressive looking super-charged modes and giving the Barbarian another good AOE attack. My personal favorite was the Witch Doctor’s piranhas, a seemingly simple AOE and debuff that has a hilariously awesome and useful rune that turns it into a “piranhado,” a very Blizzard wink and nod to a certain Sci-Fi TV movie.

New level appropriate gems and loot are necessary to the overall arms race that leveling up to the new max of 70 brings, but by far the coolest addition is the Mystic. The Mystic finally gives us the loot modification mechanics that Torchlight 2 had at launch – enchanting existing items by rerolling stats in the hopes for something better (which serves as a great and agonizing money and resource sink), as well as the super nifty ability to “Transmorgify” your loot to make it look exactly how you want. No more feeling bad about replacing that awesome legendary double-bladed sword with a wimpy looking dagger just because its stats are inferior. It’s a major dilemma in ARPGs, and I’m glad Blizzard finally added it in, even if it did take two years.

If I had to distill my recommendation of Diablo III: Reaper of Souls into a single thing it would be this – Reaper of Souls refines and expands Diablo III into the game it was meant to be. Act V is a good 4-6 hours long and probably stands as one of the strongest acts in the game. It seamlessly weaves Diablo’s core gameplay and storytelling through cities, bogs and otherworldly locales and takes the chance to build off the strengths of Diablo III’s core experience.

While Diablo is never going to have the same end-game as World of Warcraft, it doesn’t stop Blizzard from trying and that’s something truly commendable. As much as a love action RPGs as a genre, they very rarely try and deviate from the formula that Blizzard cast down from the mount with Diablo II. With Reaper of Souls, Blizzard doesn’t just offer players more of what they liked with Diablo III, they take the time to try and craft a compelling endgame for a genre that just doesn’t have it – and for a company that’s spent most of the last few years cranking out expansions for World of Warcraft, that ambitious side of Blizzard is exactly what I want to be seeing more of.

A lot of games get better as they go, mostly due to patches fixing mistakes of one kind or another, but few change quite as much as Diablo III has during its run. And Reaper of Souls is really the pinnacle of that forward movement, the culmination of years of tweaking the systems and mechanics of a game that was already good, but is now better. This expansion doesn’t offer everything I would have wanted (a good, involving narrative being the most obvious), but it provides an improvement and expansion on the mechanics of the core gameplay which will increase the longevity of the game significantly.

If you hated the way Diablo III fundamentally altered the skill system, removed attribute assignment, and nudged the tone of the series into more outlandish action setpieces, Reaper of Souls certainly won’t bring you back around (not to mention the whole online-only thing). What it does well, like any expansion, is build upon the success of the main game while filling in the gaps of some much needed improvements and fixes. The new Act is fun, the Crusader fits in nicely with the existing roster, and Adventure Mode (combined with reworked loot drops and Paragon system from Patch 2.0)  finally gives you a permanent end game solution. If you at all enjoyed your time with Diablo III, Reaper of Souls is a must buy, and solidifies Blizzard as masters of the Expansion.

Like Eric said Reaper of Souls isn’t going to be the expansion that convinces the naysayers, but it is the expansion that rectifies the problems of all those who didn’t get as much out of Diablo III as they hoped they might. As any good expansion pack does, it offers more of what made its predecessor great whilst also bringing some great new additions of its own to the fray. Reaper of Souls feels like it’s the expansion that completes the saga’s dark resurrection into the modern gaming world as the fully-fledged action-RPG it was meant to be.