Reaper of Souls is the shot in the arm that Diablo III needed, and exactly what every game expansion should strive to be. It's a heady claim, but I have yet to play an expansion set that aims to correct some obvious errors while also streamlining its own gameplay. Combined with the additions of a new class and a brand new act, Blizzard performed a feat of surgery that is almost unheard of in the game industry today.
Without a doubt, Reaper of Souls, is the Diablo III we wanted two years ago.
When it was released in 2012, one of the core offerings Diablo III shipped with were in-game and real money auction houses. Purported to help ease the grind in the late game, Blizzard had no idea that it's end result would be to actually rob the game of its core mechanic, the search for better loot. In needing to balance the quality of drops to support an auction house economy, both the quality and amount of useable drops were reduced to a fraction of what they needed to be. All in all, it was a bad idea.
Cut to last year. Diablo releases to consoles, and with it, the announcement that the auction houses, both real money and in-game, would be closed. In its place is a system Blizzard labels “Loot 2.0,” and while it debuted with said console release, it is the backbone of what makes Reaper of Souls as impressive as it is. A fundamental reshaping of drop rates, 2.0's aim was to make drops more meaningful by providing you with loot you could use. Combined with an overall change to the way the background character stats are presented to you, with all those numbers boiled down to a Damage, Toughness, and Healing stat, the results are felt immediately.
Rares and Legendary weapons and armor make startlingly more appearances, and while the overwhelming majority of what you pick up will still be crap to break down at the Blacksmith's for crafting resources, the increased frequency of drops that aren't make picking up every single thing that drops an exciting prospect again. Changes to the crafting system also make the resources you will steadily build up much more useful as well, as those same changes that affect drop rates also affect the quality of items you get when you create them yourself.
I find it pretty amazing how such a fundamental change to combat rewards can make combat itself more fun. Playing online with friends who had spent time with the game when it was first released, the first comment I always heard was how fun this was now. It was my exact reaction when the system was rolled out in preparation to the for the official expansion release, and it's exciting hearing and seeing others react that same way.
Beyond the loot system, Blizzard also changed the way it handled Diablo's difficulty levels. Before the expansion, the next difficulty tier was unlocked and entered automatically when you beat Diablo and completed the game. As there was no way to deal with the game outside of the confines of its story mode, the ramp-up kept progression moving in a very linear fashion. Things got harder the further you got, with the rewards only marginally improving for the amount of work it took to get there. Reaper changes this by not only immediately making 4 difficulty tiers available, but it offers experience and gold rewards for adventuring against greater odds. Its final tier, Torment, which itself is split into a sliding scale of 6 significantly harder modes, offers the greatest rewards, including new legendary items, but is only unlocked after you reach level 60, Diablo's previous level cap.
These changes work hand-in-hand with the new additions to Diablo III. With the Lord of Terror, and newly crowned Prime Evil's defeat at the hands of the Nephalem, Tyrael makes the decision to hide the Black Soulstone away. Maltheal, the Angel of Death, seeing its existence as a way to end the Great Conflict between Angels and Demons once and for all, steals it. To finish the threat, the Nephalem journeys to Westmarch, and proceeds to do what he/she does best, kill things and loot their bloody corpses of any and everything that can be used. While I won't spoil some of the story events that happen, I will say that unlike Diablo II's expansion, Lord of Destruction, Act V's ending feels more like a stepping stone then an actual conclusion. It's certainly not a knock against it, but the final movie, done in the style of the in act “ink” cinematics, as well as a blanket statement by Tyrael, leave little doubt as to an eventual second expansion.
Finishing Act V also opens up Adventure Mode. A completely new concept, Adventure mode adds context to the loot grind, opening up the world and all of its way points, allowing you to jump around the Acts as you see fit. The mode also gives you 5 quests, or bounties, per Act; acting like carrots at the end of a stick, they give reason and purpose to the Nephalem's wanderings. With goals like killing specific unique enemies, or clearing specific levels dungeons, Adventure Mode uses the random nature of the maps to its advantage, always offering something new to do. As additional incentive to complete bounties, Adventure Mode makes available two new items, the Blood Shard, a type of currency, and Rift Fragments.
Its inclusion seemed more random then any of the other additions or changes, and it was only when I saw what it was actually used for that it makes sense. Blood shards are used to gamble on mystery items. Separated into item types, these random pieces pay for random pieces with equally random enchantments. I've yet to see anything truly special come out of gambling, but like its predecessor in Diablo II, I am sure there are a bunch of random goodies waiting to be bet on. Rift Fragments, on the other hand, open up a new trial area called a Nephalem Rift. Made up of random maps, the rifts require you to fill a meter by killing monsters. Once full, the meter summons a boss. Kill the boss and you get a whole heap of blood shards plus the random goodies awarded in the pinata-like explosion of loot.
The final addition to Reaper of Souls is a new player class: the Crusader. A valiant warrior, much like the Paladin from Diablo II, the Crusader wields a specialized shield, and most of their skills focus around using that shield for both defense and offense, including a shield throw that bounces of multiple enemies like that of a certain star-spangled captain of note (as a side note, it can also be argued that this move was taken from the Paladin class in World of Warcraft. If you use this as your argument, and you ignore the fact that in WoW the ability is called Avenger's Shield, you are the worst kind of person).
Through both additions and subtractions, Blizzard has done perfectly what few developers even manage to get right. Reaper of Souls is an absolutely mandatory part of the Diablo III experience. If you managed to wait through the less then stellar launch of the main game, you have absolutely zero reason to wait any longer. This is the game that should have come out two years ago, and while it's sad that we didn't have it then, it's great to enjoy right now.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!