Diablo III: Reaper of Souls review: Finally, the Diablo III we've been waiting for
At a Glance
I don't know how Blizzard did it. Diablo III was the pariah. It was broken forever. It was the poster child for everything you shouldn't do when updating a beloved game for the modern era. (Well, before SimCity came out.)
The new Reaper of Souls expansion doesn't make Diablo III the perfect game—far from it—but between it and the revamped Loot 2.0 system, Blizzard have salvaged a pretty entertaining core experience from the flaming Diablo III wreckage. And they've done it by going back to what made Diablo II such a hit in the first place: loot.
This is my loot
Diablo is a franchise defined by loot. It's certainly not defined by its incredibly-engaging control scheme, which consists of frantically clicking on just about everything on-screen like some sort of virtual piñata. It's funny how a peripheral system can become the centerpiece of a game, but without loot Diablo is a terrible game—something we learned with vanilla Diablo III, where the kind of legendary loot drops you'd brag about to friends were few and far between.
The fact that Blizzard implemented its updated Loot 2.0 system into vanilla Diablo III a few weeks ago is an amazing gesture of goodwill, since it removes one of the $40 expansion's greatest selling points. But suffice it to say that loot is fixed, or about as fixed as it ever could be.
Item drops are more often than not tuned to your class now and will typically fall within a narrow band of skills your character might find useful, whether you're playing as an old favorite or the new Crusader class—a heavy tank-type character who can summon a horse at will or call down the power of the heavens to smite enemies. On one hand that removes some aspect of character customization, since there are only a few builds you'll ever find equipment for. On the other hand, those "other builds" were by-and-large useless; a barbarian with high intelligence isn't a viable class as far as Diablo III's rules are concerned.
Legendary loot items are rare, but not so rare you give up and stop playing, which is a good thing since you can't just turn to the Auction House anymore. Blizzard has removed the built-in shortcut of the Auction Houses—both gold and real-money versions—making it actually worthwhile to hunt for those legendaries instead of buying your way into powerful items. It's interesting that such a small feature was enough to psychologically derail an entire game, but it goes back to the fact that players always try to be "most efficient" at a game even if they have less fun in the process.
Aiding your loot quest is the new Adventure mode, which is probably the best Reaper of Souls-only feature.
Diablo III was constrained to one mode really. You'd run through the campaign, learn all the secrets of Adria, Leah, Deckard Cain, and the rest, finish everything, and then run the campaign again at a higher difficulty. And again. And again.
Adventure mode takes advantage of Diablo III's randomized in-world events/sidequests and level layouts to make grinding a bit more interesting. You essentially run around maps, murder everything, and pick up those sidequests called bounties.
Each Act in an Adventure Mode session has five bounties for you to clear: defeat a character (kill Maghda, kill the Butcher), finish a dungeon (clear the Den of the Fallen), or complete an event (beat Jar of Souls, for instance). You'll also unlock Nephalem Rifts, the ultimate Diablo III dungeons with random tile sets, monsters, and bosses. It's pure chaos, packed into 10 to 20 minutes.
Adventure Mode is Diablo III at its purest: Wander a map, click on things, kill them, get loot, progress, over and over and over again. It's not dissimilar from the campaign, per se, except all the fluff is removed. It's a big improvement.
Diablo III will never be Diablo II, no matter how much you want it to be. It's obviously not the game Blizzard is trying to make. No matter what's done to Diablo III, I don't think it has the infinite replayability people want from the franchise. But Adventure Mode is at least a good step towards something more interesting than campaign runs.
These growls deserve a Nickelback concert...
...Because the Reaper of Souls campaign is still an overly-serious tedium full of people who speak with a throat full of rocks. Blizzard has invested a lot of care into its Diablo III lore, but the Diablo III lore is, well, pretty dumb. Characters never stray beyond basic archetypes, dialogue is best skipped, and the plot is full of awkward contrivances to move you on to the next map.
I'm not sure it's a big deal though. Video games are full of dreadful stories, and the excuse is always that you're not there for the story. That's doubly true in Diablo's case—is there anyone who is picking this game up to find out what happens to these characters? I mean, I'm sure there are those people, but why? There's nothing to latch onto, nothing to care about. I have the same emotional attachment to a Diablo III character as I do to a pawn on a chessboard—it's a game piece and nothing more.
Just play Adventure Mode.
Online for good
It's boring to even harp on this again, but Reaper of Souls is still always-online. For no reason. Before, Blizzard could feed us this line about "Well, we're afraid people will cheat and then bring down the integrity of our sacred Auction Houses." It was a poor excuse then, and now it's nonsense. There is literally zero apparent reason why Diablo III needs to be always-online except that Blizzard wants it to be.
It's a drag. As someone who's on the road a fair amount for events, you never realize how often you're without an Internet connection until you need one. Ninety percent of the Reaper of Souls audience will never notice or care that it's always online, because they're tethered to a gaming desktop or whatever, but on principle I find the practice distasteful, especially in a case like Diablo III, where it's completely unnecessary.
And even on a steady connection, I still had a few instances of rubber-banding and lag as the game tried to communicate with Blizzard's servers. In one particularly egregious example I swung at a barrel five times before it broke. Did it matter? Not really, because it wasn't a high-stakes moment. But if I'd been in the midst of a boss battle, let alone a boss battle on hardcore? Big problem.
I'm not kidding: I can't believe Blizzard turned Diablo III around. Two years ago when the game first launched, I never thought I'd be sitting here writing a positive review of anything branded Diablo III, and yet here we are.
Is Reaper of Souls perfect? No. And I suspect like World of Warcraft, many people will sprint through the new content, maybe raise the new Crusader class up to Level 70, and then quit when progress slows down again. But Reaper of Souls is an entertaining piece of content that, in conjunction with Loot 2.0, fixes many of Diablo III's deepest flaws. This is definitely worthy expansion in the Diablo franchise.