"It's hard to overstate the fun that can be had with Adventure Mode. It focuses in on the strengths of Diablo III, and gives you the entire world to play in, with even a little context tying it into the overarching story."
Part 2: First Impressions
As mentioned in part one of the review, the new and revamped systems drew me back to Diablo III, but it was the expansion set's new features that truly sealed the deal. A new villain, class, and artisan accompany the game's gorgeous new fifth act, and the all-new Adventure Mode rounds out the package with incredible replayability.
Let's start with the bad stuff: to put it mildly, Reaper of Souls' plot is a magnificent let-down, and easily the worst part of the experience. The new big-bad, terrifying Angel of Death Malthael, is one of the coolest looking denizens of evil Blizzard has ever cooked up. It's a shame, then, that the plot of the game utterly fails to back up his formidable presence. Malthael himself is absent for much of the storyline, only showing up in quite literally the final moments of the quest to deliver comically brief exposition as to his motives. The plot is poorly-paced and feels more like an embarrassingly hasty MacGuffin to get your hero involved than the logical conclusion that Diablo II's Lord of Destruction did. The ending is insultingly brief and haphazardly introduces a new plot thread with barely even a mention of the humanity-annihilating evil you've just thwarted. However, while the main scenario disappoints in terms of plot, the various lore books you'll pick up are as fascinating as ever, and the various randomized events feature interesting stories that play out before your eyes. These things hint at an expansive universe whose surface is barely scratched by the sophomoric, rushed, and even lazy writing in the core adventure.
Also in the "negatives" column, with the slashing of the auction houses also comes the perplexing removal of the majority of trading in-game. Legendaries, high-quality crafted items, gold, and gems are now account-bound. This means no Diablo II-style trading whatsoever — no lending your pal some extra gold to help him afford the mystic's fee, and no trading away your old legendaries once they've outlived their usefulness to you. I understand the logic behind this choice: by locking gold and powerful items to an account, gold-farming and item-selling will be hamstrung. However, making development choices around those who are playing the game inappropriately rather than the ones enjoying it legitimately is never the right move, and it seriously harms the community aspect in Reaper of Souls. With a game this focused on cooperation between players, not being able to share in the game's biggest feature — its items — is a true let-down.
Fortunately, that's where the rough spots end. The battle with Malthael and those with the other two new bosses in the campaign, are tense and exciting, and easily the most interesting Blizzard has ever cooked up, thanks to a much better understanding of what kinds of challenges work best in the context of the systems at play in Diablo III. Act V itself is also by far the most fascinating place in all of the game, a morbid jaunt through the battle-scarred region of Westmarch. There's a huge amount of variety to the variously blue-hued spans of landscape you'll traverse, and lots of small side-dungeons make it feel more cohesive and create a greater sense of place than the series has ever had. The randomized events, sorely underutilized in the original game, are brilliantly implemented throughout the act, and offer something fresh and exciting on subsequent trips through the land.
The new artisan, the mystic, fills in a really great gap in the already-improved Loot 2.0 system. Using various reagents (and some cash), you can reroll the stats on any item you find on your journeys, meaning that almost-perfect sword you found can be turned into a personalized implement of death-dealing with a little luck and some planning. The mystic also allows you to cast the appearance of any piece of gear you've found onto another, letting you customize your hero as much as you like. Saving up components and hanging on to items that are just about useful to you is a blast, and helps round out the constant cycle of rewards in both the long and short term.
Fans of divinely-endowed heroes will also find plenty to love in Reaper of Souls' new class, the Crusader. This heavily-armored knight can wield even the heaviest of weapons in one hand, leaving room for the iconic shield in the other. My time with this particular hero showed off a variety of possible builds both short and long-ranged, and the skills at his/her disposal are some of the coolest in the game. Whipping your shield at foes Captain America-style is as viscerally satisfying as riding an ethereal steed through enemy ranks, dragging a few of them behind you on holy chains as you do. The return of classic Paladin attacks like Blessed Hammer and Charge (Shield Bash in D3 parlance) ensure you'll have as least as much fun with the new class as you did with any of the originals.
All of these things round out the game systems and core gameplay quite nicely, but it's the new Adventure Mode that truly completes the experience. Since its launch, players have decried Diablo III's insistence on locking you into one act at a time, with no room for exploration or returning to previous areas for fun's sake. Adventure Mode demolishes all of that. After conquering Malthael at any level, the new mode is unlocked account-wide for any character in your stable. When you first start a game, you'll find the complete map of the world at your disposal. Various characters return to offer new dialogue and background stories to frame your continued adventures as well, which was an unexpected but pleasant surprise that really helped the mode from feeling tacked-on.
Peeking at any place in the world will reveal various bounties, which range from "go here and kill this special enemy" to "activate this cursed chest and complete the challenge." Completing a set number of bounties in one region will net you huge experience and gold rewards, along with rare items. Gather enough of one new kind of item, the Rift Keystone, and you can spawn a gateway to a Nephalem Rift. These completely randomized dungeons draw from every enemy and area in the game to create planes of utter chaos, with bosses spawning from chests and certain bovine tyrants from the past reportedly making a return appearance. As you plumb the depths of these bizarre places, you'll collect new currency to gamble with (thanks to new NPC called Kadala, descendent of the slippery merchant Gheed from Diablo II), and find unique, rift-only items.
It's hard to overstate the fun that can be had with Adventure Mode. It focuses on the strengths of Diablo III and gives you the entire world to play in, and even gives a little context tying it into the overarching story. The mode can be endlessly entertaining, and saving up keystones to go rift-diving hearkens back to the golden days of Mephisto magic-finding runs. Since unlocking it, I've barely touched the main campaign with any of my characters, and I've had a blast hopping from one location to the other. This is easily the expansion's greatest success.
As I mentioned before, Act V is a visual treat, and thanks to the new skill effects and the variety of nightmarish creatures you'll face, the screen is ever alive with all manner of gorgeous activity. The boss battles and one cinematic event near the end of the campaign are more creatively visually than anything Blizzard has ever done with this series. Even more delightfully, the soundtrack is outstanding, with the boss battles again featuring some of the best moments. I'll have more detailed thoughts to share in my upcoming review of the soundtrack, but suffice it to say that in terms of presentation, Reaper of Souls knocks it out of the park.
So, all in all, in the short-term, Reaper of Souls is a win for Blizzard and a win for players. The amount of content being offered for the price is staggering, and if you've even the slightest bit of love for the third entry in the venerable franchise, you'll find this to be the shot in the arm it sorely needed. It's not all sunshine and rainbows: the hack-job plot disappoints, and the removal of nearly any form of trading cripples the spirit of cooperation the developer claims was the basis behind removing open-world PvP, and can make the game seem a much more solitary affair than its predecessor. However, the fact remains that Diablo III is better than it has ever been, and Reaper of Souls is, at least for now, the total package.
I'll be continuing to hack away at the forces of Hell and Heaven for the foreseeable future, and will be sure to report just how the experience fares over an extended playtime in the coming weeks, so be sure to check back for part three of the review!