Diablo 3 was one of the most disappointing games that I've ever played in my life. (It didn't help matters that it was released on the heels of Civilization 5, another top contender on my personal "most disappointing games" list.) Although my initial impressions of D3 were positive, I became more and more disenchanted with the gameplay the further that I progressed into the higher difficulty levels, culminating in a scathing review on this website where I reached the conclusion that Diablo 3 was essentially a Blizzard sweatshop, a high-budget version of a "Pay to Win" iPhone game. Whereas I spent decades continuing to enjoy the gameplay of the first two Diablo games, years and years after they had become graphically obsolete, I abandoned Diablo 3 a month after release and never went back. The gameplay was thoroughly unsatisfying on every level, from indistinguishable classes to uncustomizable item builds to rampant fake difficulty where success or failure was determined purely by the quality of a character's gear instead of the player's personal skill. Diablo 3 had both meteoric initial sales and one of the highest abandon rates of any game ever, testifying to the fact that most of the fan community felt the same way that I did. I figured that this was the end of my involvement with D3 - I moved on to other games and didn't bother looking back.
One of the best parts about Livestreaming different games is the ability to interact with viewers and fans through chat. Viewers will periodically suggest different games to try that sound like they might be interesting, and I've ended up learning about some fantastic titles over the years through fan suggestions. In the years following the release of Diablo 3's Reaper of Souls expansion in 2014, I would periodically get questions from viewers of the Livestream asking about whether I was interested in revisiting D3 in the wake of its expansion. A number of different people nudged me at one point in time or another to give the game another try. "It's much better now!" was invariably the refrain that I kept hearing. My answer was always the same rejection: definitely not. I had been burned in the worst way by Diablo 3 and it's very difficult for a game or a designer to get back into my good graces after squandering things as badly as D3 had done on release. I did not read any information about the Reaper of Souls expansion and I continued to have no interest in revisiting the game.
Things probably would have remained in this state forever if it wasn't for the intercession of my wife Liz. We're always looking for various games to play together, and we were particularly in the market for a co-op game somewhat in the vein of Divinity: Original Sin but with a bit less in the way of lengthy dialogue sequences and a bit more in the way of action. Liz is a big fan of Blizzard's titles, logging innumerable hours over the years in World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, Overwatch, and Heroes of the Storm, and she suggested that Diablo 3 might be a game that would be fun to try together. I was even playing the original Diablo at the same time thanks to its release on Good Old Games (GOG) at the beginning of 2019, and that had put me in the mood for more dungeon-crawling adventures. With this encouragement, I purchased a copy of the Reaper of Souls expansion (I don't think it's even possible to play non-expansion D3 anymore) and we created new characters together and completed the full campaign mode up to the new level cap of 70. After spending a few weeks afterwards testing out the endgame content and playing a second solo character through the campaign mode, I felt that I had enough knowledge to put together a review detailing my overall impressions with the expansion, and more generally how Diablo 3 has changed in the years since release. We'll get to the big takeaways a little bit later. First though, I need to run through what specifically has changed in the expansion so that the rest of the review will make sense. This will take place in two main categories: changes to items and changes to endgame content. If for some reason the only thing that you know about Diablo 3 comes from my website, or you haven't followed the game's development since its release period, this will be an educational read.
First of all, let's start with the single best change in the expansion: no more Real Money Auction House. It's gone, dead, killed off for good. This was the single worst aspect of the original release version of D3 and the destruction of the auction house was the catalyst responsible for virtually every improvement in the expansion. The auction house was the primary reason why D3's gameplay was so frustrating in the release version, the gameplay mechanic underlying the unsatisfying item drop rates and inability to have a viable character through pure play. As a quick refresher on this, the release version of the game basically had a miniscule chance for your character to get items that were actually useful to your character. The monsters scaled up in strength insanely fast on the higher difficulties, and your character simply could not progress in the game without having access to better items. Therefore there were only two options: grind an endless amount of hours hoping for the infinitesimal chance for something good to drop, or shell out real-world money in the auction house. Blizzard structured the entire gameplay around forcing players into the latter option, and it was basically a giant pyramid scheme, a really fancy pay-to-win mobile game. Nothing about this was fun or interesting - why on earth did anyone think that buying items at an online auction house would be a better setup than finding them organically through normal gameplay? It's truly baffling to me that a gameplay system this bad ever made it into a finished product, at least from a designer with as much of a storied history as Blizzard. Anyway, D3 couldn't improve until the auction house was removed, and thankfully it's gone here in the expansion. Whatever designers at Blizzard were able to convince the executives to axe the auction house have my eternal thanks.
With the auction house eliminated, the designers of the expansion could then start to improve the rest of the gameplay. The second-biggest improvement in the expansion was the creation of a smarter loot system, or what the designers called "Loot 2.0" in their interviews. They correctly saw that the overwhelming majority of the items that were dropping in Diablo 3 were useless junk. Now that wasn't exactly something new to D3; the vast, vast majority of items in the first two Diablo games were utterly useless as well. Due to the way that items were randomly generated, the base property for items would always start out as normal (white-colored) and then have a chance to roll magical (blue) or rare (yellow) or unique/legendary (gold) properties. The bulk of items would always be normal though, and therefore completely useless to any character past the first fifteen minutes of gameplay. The designers of the Reapers of Souls expansion had a wonderful insight to alleviate this problem: what if they simply removed the vast hordes of junk? They wisely cut down on the total drop rate of items but made it enormously more likely that what did appear would be useful to the player. Whereas the release version of D3 might see 90 normal items, 8 magical items, and 2 rare items appear in one area, Reaper of Souls now would see 15 magical items and 5 rares appear. In other words, fewer items overall but more stuff actually useful to the player. This is so much better just from an inventory management perspective that it's hard to put the improvement into words. It's actually quite uncommon to see the "normal" white items show up in the expansion; the designers have correctly realized that these items are basically useless and culled them from the game. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
The basics of the new loot system therefore create fewer total items but significantly more items that are useful to the player. As a corollary to this, the expansion also drops enormously more legendary and set items than the old release version ever did. These are D3's unique items, pieces of gear that always show up with certain properties in common every time that they appear. The legendary items have all sorts of strange properties that otherwise can't appear on items, like one that caused a treasure goblin to follow along behind Liz's character and pick up non-magical items that appeared, eventually combining them into new items. Or I found a legendary ring that made my character immune to all arcane damage, and one that doubled the value of any gems socketed into a helmet, and so on. The legendary items have a lot of fun properties and making use of them is one of the best aspects of character development. There was just one problem: in the release version they were basically nonexistent because they would never drop. I never found a single legendary item in my month of playing the release game. Not one. They might as well have been concept art sketches for me. Their drop rate was made essentially nil because Blizzard was trying to funnel people into the auction house, where these items could be bought using real money. Killing off the auction house allowed these items to be reintroduced into normal gameplay, and the expansion boosted their drop rates to the point that non-obsessive players can actually get these items again. A legendary item is guaranteed to appear the first time that each act end boss is killed in Campaign Mode, to give you an idea of how much more often they're seen now. While this might seem like a small thing, it makes a huge difference in terms of actually playing the game. There are genuine item rewards out there now for playing the game, interesting and meaningful gear that helps to customize your character's build. It sure beats paying real money on the Blizzard equivalent of eBay.
Another crucially important component of the "Loot 2.0" system was the creation of something known as smart loot. One of the crippling problems of the release version of D3 was the fact that the vast majority of magical and rare items were useless for your character. This was due to the stat point system used in D3, whereby there are four total stats (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Vitality) but only two of them are useful for your character class: Vitality because it adds to health and then either Strength/Dexterity/Intelligence depending on your character class because it adds to damage. This is your "primary stat" and the other two stats are essentially useless. In the release version of D3 any item that didn't roll your primary stat was pointless, and this made it very difficult to get the stats that your character needed to be effective. Magical items can only roll 2 affixes and rares only roll 3-6 of them; good luck getting the exact combination of stats that you need to appear! I can't tell you how many otherwise great items my Wizard had to throw away because they ended up with Strength or Dexterity instead of the Intelligence that she actually needed. Nothing about this system was fun for players, and I saw it as an indictment of the poorly-designed stat point system.
For the Reaper of Souls expansion, the designers couldn't get rid of the stat points or make any changes too fundamental to the gameplay. What they did instead was make the best they could out of a bad situation with an awkward but effective kludge: the new smart loot system deliberately rolls your character's "primary stat" and ignores the other two stats something like 95% of the time. My expansion character Monk would end up seeing Dexterity (the primary stat of his class) appear along with Vitality on nearly everything that dropped. Strength and Intelligence might as well not have existed. Again, this is much, much better than the release version where characters would rarely get magical/rare items to begin with, and most of the ones that did drop would be packing stats that were useless to their character. The new smart loot ensures that your character will have item drops that match their class, and this in turn means that your character is actually strong enough to progress through the game in pure play without tweaked/gifted/purchased items. Reaper of Souls has done a complete 180 degree shift in this regard from the release game, as legendary items are locked to your account and can't be traded to other players after an initial 2 hour grace period. None of this would have been possible under the old auction house system, which was intentionally designed to starve players of the items that they needed to advance through the higher difficulties. I still think that the overall gameplay system of having only two useful stats for each class is a case of very weak design, but the expansion at least does a vastly better job of maximizing this poorly designed system.
There has been a further streamlining of items in the expansion to remove some of the frustration of the release version. A good example of this comes in the form of the potion mechanic: in the release version, there were 10 different health potion types of varying different strength. Players needed to stockpile these (quickly ending up with hundreds of the weaker potions) and even the best health potions would eventually become useless because they didn't restore more than a fraction of your character's life total. Given that potions also had a 30 second cooldown after use, this didn't make much sense and largely consisted of a lot of pointless busywork. Reaper of Souls has simplified this mechanic in a good way: there are no more health potions in the game, just a potion button that restores 60% of max health when used and then goes onto that same 30 second cooldown. Although I still prefer the "full belt" potion fights from the earlier Diablo games, if you're going to have a potion cooldown system, this is the way to do it. Now potion usage is another cooldown to manage in big fights and there's no need to go through the tedious management of ten different health potion types. This is a major improvement.
In similar fashion, there are fewer gems tiers in the expansion and some of the most annoying aspects of the jeweler are gone. No longer do players have to pay gold to unsocket gems or fiddle with "pages" for the jeweler, only spend gold to combine gems when upgrading to higher tiers. Crafting materials have similarly been simplified and are now handled automatically rather than taking up space in the player's stash. It is so nice to have this portion of the gameplay automated, and furthermore this simplification has allowed the designers to add more endgame crafting materials for high end players. Great stuff all around. Perhaps my favorite improvement though is the gear comparison that takes place when hovering over an item to compare it to the gear that the player is currently wearing in the same slot. The expansion now rates all items in three categories: "Damage" (compared under the same damage-per-second metric used in the release version), "Toughness" (a combination defensive stat involving health, armor, and resistances), and "Recovery" (a stat that combines life per second regeneration with life on hit and several other similar categories). This system makes it much, much easier to see if a particular item will be an improvement over your character's current setup, and allows players to emphasize different build aspects accordingly. Do you want a glass cannon pure damage setup, or something intended to tank for as long as possible? It's significantly faster and easier to tell this stuff as compared to before. (The release version compared "life", "damage", and "protection" on items, leaving out many important stats from the comparison, particularly life per second health regen.) Given the large number of items that drop in all Diablo games, having these quick comparisons is a great help.
Finally, players were also given more control over their own itemization through the addition of a third artisan in town, the Enchantress. The Enchantress takes over the cosmetic aspects of character creation, allowing players to dye their gear in two dozen different shades of coloring and even change the appearance of their items to get exactly the look desired. More importantly, the Enchantress also allows players to "enchant" their items, essentially picking a single affix on an item and rerolling it to get a different affix. If for some reason your character would wind up with your non-primary stat on a piece of gear, you can reroll the unwanted affix to get something better in its place. This can be done as many times as desired (at an increasing cost in gold each time), and the game helpfully displays all of the possibilities that can be rolled ahead of time. The whole process significantly increases the ability to get good stats on items and removes the frustration of finding those nearly-perfect items where four out of five affixes are helpful. With the Enchantress, that unwanted fifth affix can be customized to the player's desire, and importantly the player gets to choose what they value the highest out of a series of different possibilities. One player might want to stack critical strike chance while someone else could go for additional health or resistances. Crucially, the player is actively involved in customizing their own gear and picking the specific affixes that they want to have on each item. This is exactly the kind of freedom that was sorely lacking in the release version of D3, and it helps to make the endgame content in the expansion a lot more interesting to play.
With that in mind, let's move on to the endgame content more specifically.
It's commonplace for expansions to add additional content for players to explore in the finishing stages of gameplay, bonus dungeons and optional superbosses and that sort of thing. In the Diablo universe, this has come in the form of an extra Act V after the base game provides four starting acts. Act V in Reaper of Souls takes players to the Kingdom of Westmarch, and it sports the same beautiful isometric 3D environments present throughout the rest of the game. There isn't anything here too different from what players encounter in the other four acts, and the plot remains as linear and dumbed-down as ever. (We were coming to Reaper of Souls fresh off the experience of playing Divinity: Original Sin II, and the contrast between the incredible linearity of D3 and the frequent overly-complicated setups of DOS2 couldn't have been greater.) Where Reaper of Souls distinguishes itself is not in the additional act that it adds to the main campaign, but rather in all of the various endgame content that it provides after the campaign is over. It's not an exaggeration to state that Reaper of Souls barely cares at all about the traditional campaign. The expansion is much more interested in what happens after new endgame boss Malthael is slain.
For starters, Reaper of Souls raises the level cap from 60 to 70 and then adds a gigantic number of limitless pseudo-levels after hitting that cap. Leveling in general seems to be much faster in the expansion as compared to the base game; my expansion Monk character hit the new and higher level cap of 70 before finishing Act V in the campaign, whereas I still hadn't hit the old level cap of 60 in Hell difficulty with my original Wizard. After reaching level 70 characters begin gaining what are known as "Paragon levels", which have no upper bound and can theoretically go on forever. Technically speaking Paragon levels were present in the pre-expansion versions of D3, but they were significantly expanded upon and made much more accessible in Reaper of Souls. Each Paragon level grants a skill point that can be placed in one of 16 different categories, things like extra life or faster movement speed or more critical strike chance/damage or even a higher maximum of the class resource pool (mana, spirit, etc.) Most of these categories have a cap of 50 skill points, and when multiplied across 16 categories... well, there's 800 levels for you. Have fun grinding. Two of the categories add directly to Vitality and the class primary stat which truly have no limit and go on forever. Paragon levels are shared between all characters on the same account and can be reassigned at any point in time out of combat. Although each individual Paragon level is pretty weak, stack up a few hundred of them and it makes a significant difference.
Paragon levels serve two different functions for endgame characters. One is to provide a constant stream of small rewards, creating an incentive to continue playing the game and amass additional experience. This is a better system than running into a leveling cap and having XP become meaningless afterwards, or alternately having experience threshholds that are so absurdly high that no one will ever realistically reach them (like the level 99 cap in pre-Lord of Destruction Diablo 2). The other function of the Paragon levels is to provide another form of character customization, the chance for players to pick what stats they would like to emphasize. In other words, this is a blatant admission on the part of the design team that they made a mistake in the base game by not allowing players to assign stat points, quietly putting a near-identical mechanic back into the game again. The whole system is still too rigid for my tastes, as players are forced to divide up their Paragon leveling points equally across each of the four general categories instead of getting to dump them into a single stat all at once. There's no reason for this - why can't I put everything into a single stat if I want? And of course anyone who hits Paragon level 800 will eventually max everything out and wind up at the same point, therefore eliminating any customization. Nonetheless, this is still a positive step forward and a good sign that the design team is moving away from the disaster of the release version.
After the campaign mode is completed for the first time, a new game mode known as Adventure Mode unlocks, and this is where Reaper of Souls expects players to be spending most of their time. Perhaps in a nod to the shorter attention spans of our social media age, Adventure Mode abandons the linear structure of the traditional campaign in favor of a more scattershot approach. Players are given access to all of the waypoints in all five acts and asked to chase after "bounties", randomly assigned missions that invariably involve going to some part of the map and killing some kind of boss. Each act will role five bounties at the start of each game, and completing all of the bounties in a single act rewards the player with a big payout of loot and crafting materials. The bounties can be a lot of fun to carry out in short playing sessions where you have an hour to kill and want to do some demon hunting. Hop into an individual act, follow the impossible-to-get-lost arrows pointing in the direction of where to go, and slay some monsters. There's very little thought involved. The bounties are generated from a fairly large overall list that keeps the system random to a healthy degree, and the fact that the bounties have the player jumping around to different locations in every act ensures that they'll encounter a variety of different enemies and locales. This is genuinely a pretty good system catering to players who enjoy Diablo as a treasure-hunting grind, the players who would spend hours doing dozens and dozens of repeated Mephisto runs in Diablo 2. That's never been my primary cup of tea but as far as endgame systems go, this one is pretty solid.
There's another secondary gameplay system accompanying the bounties in Adventure Mode, a system known as Nephalem Rifts. There are two types of these, the normal Nephalem Rifts and the more specialized Greater Nephalem Rifts, with both of them functioning in similar fashion. The normal Nephalem Rifts are accessed from town and open up a portal to a newly created area with a completely random monster mix inside. These Rift areas are always packed full of bosses and have higher than normal odds to drop legendary items. There are up to ten areas in total inside each rift, although players likely won't see more than three or four of them before they run into the rift boss. This is triggered by killing monsters inside the rift, which causes a meter on the right side of the screen to fill up over time. Defeated boss packs drop little orbs that cause bigger chunks of that meter to fill up. When the meter reaches 100%, the Rift Guardian appears for a big climactic fight. Defeating this boss results in more high end treasures dropping and a chance for more legendary items.
A normal Rift boss will also drop a key that opens the path to a Greater Nephalem Rift. The Greater Rifts represent a more serious test for characters, as these rifts don't allow skills or Paragon levels to be changed after entering, and the player also must complete the Greater Rift within a time limit of 15 minutes. The general mechanic remains the same, kill monsters to get a meter to fill up and defeat the boss when it appears, but the ticking time limit makes this a more stressful challenge to complete. Unlike every other part of D3 there are no item drops at all inside Nephalem Rifts until the final boss is slain, largely so that players won't be distracted with loot while trying to race against the clock. It's a bit of a purer experience in comparison to the rest of the game. The reward for winning comes in the form of a Legendary Gem, one of roughly 25 unique gems that can be socketed into jewelry and which come with their own distinct properties. These legendary gems start at level 0 and can be upgraded repeatedly, gaining a secondary unique property at level 25. They level up by completing more Greater Nephalem Rifts, with each successfully completed run offering a chance to gain somewhere between 3 and 5 gem levels. Of course, as the gems level up the player must complete more and more difficult Greater Rifts to keep getting them to higher levels. There's a satisfying sense of completion here as the higher levels of Greater Rifts start to become extremely difficult to complete within the time limit. This is another place where Reaper of Souls is succeeding in creating challenging endgame content for their most demanding users.
The Nephalem Rifts provide a good opportunity to discuss how difficulty levels work in the expansion. These have also undergone a complete rework, as the old division into Normal/Nightmare/Hell and eventually Inferno have all been done away with. Rather than playing through the same campaign multiple times on higher difficulty levels, Reaper of Souls has opted to turn difficulty level into a toggle that can be flipped up or down at almost any point in time. There are now four different starting difficulties: Normal, Hard, Expert, and Master. We started out on Normal difficulty and found it easy enough that we soon bumped things up to Expert difficulty where monsters had 320% more health and did 189% more damage. (For our troubles we received 100% more gold and experience, which may be part of the reason why we leveled so quickly.) After completing the main campaign, players can go up to a higher difficulty named Torment where monsters have even more health and more damage. And then they can keep right on going from there, on to Torment II and then Torment III and so on. At the time of writing the maximum difficulty was Torment XVI where monsters had 13 million percent more health and 64 thousand percent more damage as compared to Normal. In turn, the items that drop on that difficulty were insanely better than anything that would ever appear on Normal. The designers keep adding more Torment difficulties as the top end players maximize their gear so this level in turn will likely be bested eventually.
The same difficulty levels apply to the bounties in Adventure Mode and to the Nephalem Rift system. Players choose what difficulty level they want to use before heading out on their bounty hunting quest, and this dictates how challenging the monsters that they encounter will be. In a notable departure from past Diablo games, the Act in which players choose to hunt bounties has essentially no effect at all on the difficulty, with Act I and Act V having no real alteration in opposition level. Reaper of Souls takes a page out of the Elder Scrolls games in leveling up all of the monsters alongside the player, with the chosen difficulty level causing the only real shift. On the one hand, this means that the player can head anywhere in the game and expect to find decent amounts of loot and experience, as opposed to endlessly re-running the same few areas over and over again. On the other hand, there isn't much of a sense of progression given that the undead skeletons in Act I are basically just as tough as the unholy demons in Act IV. The only other place where the difficulty level can change takes place inside the Greater Nephalem Rifts, where the player chooses a set difficulty level at the start that doesn't necessarily correspond to the rest of the game. Every three difficulty levels in a Greater Nephalem Rift roughly corresponds to a difficulty level in the main game, so that Normal = Greater Rift 1 and Torment I = Greater Rift 10. The Greater Nephalem Rifts have no upper limit (I saw someone playing Rift Level 130 on Livestream) so this is another place where there's a lot of very difficult endgame content to explore.
The designers of the expansion also brought back some of the most popular features from Diablo 2 for use in the Reaper of Souls endgame. The more basic of these is a return of gambling, which takes place in the form of a new merchant in town named Kadala (who is canonically the daughter of Gheed from D2). Gambling works in the same fashion as it did in the prior Diablo game, with unidentified basic items offered up for sale and which have their modifiers revealed at time of purchase. The one switchup in Reaper of Souls is the use of a different currency named Blood Shards for gambling purposes, which drop as a reward for completing Adventure Mode bounties and Nephalem Rifts. While most of the gambled items will be rare or magical in nature, there's a chance to get legendary and set items via gambling roughly akin to the chance to get uniques in pre-expansion Diablo 2 (not the miniscule odds of gambling a unique in Lord of Destruction D2). I didn't find the return of gambling to be too compelling and largely spent Blood Shards only when they hit the inventory cap for my character.
The other Diablo 2 mechanic to make a return is the Horadric Cube, which has been rebranded in this game as Kanai's Cube. The new cube generally shares the same functions as it did in the prior game, providing an avenue for some high level crafting abilities that are otherwise not available. The most unique new ability present on Kanai's Cube is also its most common function: the ability to destroy legendary items and salvage their unique properties in the process, then equip those properties directly onto your character. The legendary items salvaged in this process are permanently saved to your character's account, and players can mix and match these salvaged abilities afterwards, with a limit of 1 equipped weapon property, 1 equipped armor property, and 1 equipped jewelry property. Some of these properties are extremely powerful, such as the one that I found on a legendary Monk daibo that increased the damage of the Wave of Light skill by 500% and cut its Spirit cost in half. This was the primary damaging skill on my Monk and unlocking this extra ability was a true game-breaker, first on the weapon itself and then later by equipping the same salvaged legendary property after I had upgraded to another weapon. There's a real desire to find all of the legendary items and collect their properties for use in Kanai's Cube, turning this part of D3's endgame into a bit of a Pokemon quest. Aside from melting down legendary items in this fashion, the new cube also lets players convert certain crafting materials into other crafting materials, reroll all affixes on legendary items, convert set items into other items from the same set, and even upgrade rare items into legendary items (at a truly fantastic cost in crafting materials). I'm not surprised that the designers brought the cube back for the expansion as the Horadric Cube was one of the most popular aspects of Diablo 2. The legendary item salvaging thing is a genuinely new idea though, and adds yet another avenue for more character customization.
Overall then, there's an awful lot going on in terms of Reaper of Souls endgame content. If there's a problem here, it's that the designers have stressed the post-level 70 content to the point that the original campaign and the levels before hitting the cap were virtually ignored. The expectation seems to be that players will spend about 10 hours reaching level 70 as quickly as possible, and then they'll spend the vast majority of their time hunting bounties, testing themselves in Nephalem Rifts, and crafting gear with better stats. This is fantastic for those players who want that sort of thing and view Diablo as a treasure-hunting mission. But what about those players who were more interested in the campaign aspects of Diablo and didn't care that much about the loot? I guess that Campaign Mode is still there and nothing's technically stopping them from continuing to play it on higher and higher difficulties. However, it's pretty clear that the designers of the expansion weren't terribly interested in this part of the gameplay. Once you've beaten the game a single time, Reaper of Souls doesn't really care about defeating Diablo again or paying any sort of lip service to the plot. The endgame goal of Reaper of Souls seems to be maximizing your character's DPS rating, not saving the world from demons.
With that lengthy background explanation out of the way, we can move on to evaluating the expansion itself. If you took the time to read through the wall of text above, then you've already picked up on a good portion of what I'm going to cover. Here's the quick and obvious takeaway: Reaper of Souls is vastly improved over the release version of Diablo 3. My Livestream viewers were absolutely correct in this regard. The auction house mechanic that crippled the original game has been removed, and exorcising it allowed for huge improvements to flow through to the itemization side of the gameplay. The "Loot 2.0" system is a great stride forward, eliminating most of the pointless junk that clogged up inventories (Divinity: Original Sin could learn a lot from this) and rigging the system with smart drops to ensure that each character's primary stat will appear over and over again on items. A lot of the worst tedium of the old item system has been streamlined in favor of smarter mechanics and easier to understand item comparisons. Legendary items actually drop now and they provide a lot of variety for different character builds. There are way more character customization options than there were on release, between the Paragon level skill points, legendary item properties equipped via Kanai's Cube, legendary gems, the ability to reroll individual item affixes through the Enchantress, and so on. Instead of wasting my time buying and selling gear through an online auction house, in Reaper of Souls I get to hunt for legendary items and craft most of my own gear. I have lots of options on where to go and what to do, whether I want to replay the campaign again or go bounty hunting in Adventure Mode or challenge myself in Greater Nephalem Rifts. The whole system is infinitely more fun and rewarding than it was before, and it's hard to beat the expansion when it comes to thoughtless monster-slaying.
However, with all of that said, we're missing the bigger picture if we compare Reaper of Souls only to non-expansion Diablo 3, which as already mentioned was a highly disappointing game. The designers of the expansion did their best to fix things up and made immense improvements, but they were ultimately working from a flawed original foundation. If I've been building them up and praising their work thus far, I would be remiss if I didn't also acknowledge places where they were unable to make larger structural changes. This is the part of the review where we need to discuss the serious problems that still remain in the Reaper of Souls gameplay.
For starters, all of the core combat mechanics from non-expansion Diablo 3 still remain intact. The skills system has been left unchanged aside from some much-needed balancing in patches, every skill still functions by scaling off of weapon damage rating, the player still doesn't get any choice in assigning their non-Paragon stat points over the first 70 levels, and so on. All of the criticisms that I made in this regard back in my 2013 review of Diablo 3 still remain intact. In particular, the expansion has done nothing to fix one of my biggest complaints about the gameplay, the fact that there isn't enough distinction between individual character skills and character classes. The original Diablo handled this by specializing each of its three classes for a basic archetype: melee fighter (Warrior), ranged fighter (Rogue), ranged caster (Sorcerer). Each character class was very good at their own specialized function and struggled at the other two functions. It was a basic setup but it did work, and trying to play any of the classes against their intended role ran into serious challenges. (This was also a big part of the fun, creating variant melee Sorcerers and bow-using Warriors and the like!) Diablo 2 created distinctions between the different character classes by giving each of them different skill trees, and basing the bulk of the gameplay around assigning skill points into those class trees. No one would ever claim that the D2 Barbarian and the D2 Sorceress played too much alike, since their skill trees were enormously different and led them into different styles of gameplay. Within individual classes, the presence of 30 different unique skills led to an assortment of different builds as well as endless sources of variant experimentation. A Fire Sorcie simply played differently from a Lightning Sorcie and an Ice Sorcie. With Diablo 2, I always wanted to keep creating new characters to try out different skill paths and come up with new ways to combine the skills together. Quite aside from D2's rich itemization, this was the core of the gameplay and kept many players coming back for decades afterwards.
Reaper of Souls doesn't do anything to change the skills system in D3, and for all of the good that it does elsewhere, this is a big drawback. The gameplay mechanic whereby there are no skill points and every skill scales identically off of weapon DPS rating means that all of the skills tend to feel like they do the same thing. There just isn't much variation when I'm picking between five different skills that each do somewhere between 500% and 600% of weapon damage to opponents in slightly different graphical forms. The runes for each skill are supposed to help here, but in practice they only lead to a greater feeling of sameness. In Diablo 2, Meteor is a trademark fire spell that requires investing a series of skill points just to unlock, then a bunch of additional skill points to bring the damage up high enough to be viable. If I want to play a Meteor Sorcie, I have to make it part of my character build and plan around it. But in D3, I can swap over to using the spell any time that I want, and then pick different runes to get a fire Meteor, an ice Meteor, a lightning Meteor, and so on. Ironically, it's *TOO* easy to switch between skills in D3, and the very ease in doing so makes all of the skills feel interchangeable. For the same reason, there's not much sense of individual character builds or character identity because each character can switch over to any other set of skills at the drop of a hat. The same gear can be used for almost any skill combination imaginable: just keeping stacking Vitality and primary stat and find a weapon with a high DPS rating, and you're good to go. Reaper of Souls makes some modest strides towards fixing this with its high end Legendary gear, some of which have unique mods that cater to builds involving specific skills. But for everyone else who's not deep into the Torment difficulties, the problem has not been fixed and things are no better than in the release version. Once I have a single Monk character there really is no point in ever creating a second one. D3 failed to understand one of the more counterintuitive aspects of game design: often the best gameplay comes from LIMITING player choices. By making every skill accessible at all times, and removing the ability to "incorrectly" assign skill points, they removed everything interesting from the skills system.
Similarly, my experience with Diablo 3 and its expansion has been that there isn't enough differentiation between the character classes either. They all use skills that scale off weapon DPS rating in the same way, and they can all be built in pretty much the same fashion by stacking Vitality and primary stat. There's not a lot of thought that needs to go into this process. And it's not that the individual class skills are poorly designed or badly unbalanced or whatever. No, the issue here is the underlying game mechanics of the basic design, namely the decision to make only two stats meaningful for each class, remove all of the skill points from D2, and have everything scale off of weapon DPS rating. There just isn't that much difference between how a ranged caster plays the game and how a melee fighter plays the game anymore. By way of example, let me post some numbers here that I pulled from the Diablo 3 Ladder website. There's a listing there of the average stats from the top 1000 players of each class, the high end players who have maximized out their characters to the top degree. How do the damage rating and health totals of those top players match up for each class?
Average Stats for Top 1000 Characters of Each Class (Non-Hardcore)
|Class||DPS Rating||Total Health||Crusader||4,427,580 DPS||17,762,276 HP||Barbarian||4,582,530 DPS||14,557,344 HP||Monk||4,556,004 DPS||11,359,741 HP||Wizard||3,578,855 DPS||10,598,141 HP||Necromancer||2,291,862 DPS||9,115,343 HP||Witch Doctor||3,956,731 DPS||9,108,556 HP||Demon Hunter||4,932,373 DPS||8,600,762 HP|
I listed the classes by total HP to get a descending order from tankiest to most fragile classes, and the classes do generally line up there as expected. The Crusader and Barbarian have the most health, then the Monk, followed by the casting classes and then the glass cannon ranged DPS Demon Hunter in last place. However, a closer look shows that there isn't that much difference between these classes on average. A typical maxed out Barbarian only has 40% more health than a maxed out Wizard - shouldn't there be a bigger difference than that? There certainly would have been a bigger disparity in past Diablo games, based on the much higher Vitality stat cap for the Warrior in D1 and the ubertank Barbs and Druids I remember from D2. The problem is that Vitality functions identically for all classes in D3, and therefore everyone ends up with roughly similar health totals (aside from individual class abilities) in the endgame. There's not much gap here. Similarly, there's not much difference in terms of the DPS rating between any of these classes either. Outside of the bizarrely crippled Necromancer class, everyone is doing roughly the same amount of damage. The Demon Hunter is the highest but only about 35% above the Wizard. There also doesn't seem to be much of a tradeoff between being tanky and doing lots of damage, as the Crusader and Barbarian have no trouble fielding high DPS ratings while also having the biggest lifebars. Once again this is due to the way that primary stat functions identically for every class, leaving everyone at roughly the same place in the endgame once they've stacked a whole bunch of it. The sense of sameness is palpable.
I experimented with this by creating a variant Witch Doctor based around the use of the Corpse Spiders primary skill. I was trying to come up with something goofy and underpowered, limiting myself only to the use of Corpse Spiders for damage and filling out the other five skill slots with crowd control abilities. This was a pretty entertaining character to play and I had some fun taking down the endact bosses with a bunch of jars full of spiders. However, I was disappointed to find that the character build wasn't meaningfully different from my non-variant Monk character. Whether my spiders were effective or not was determined pretty much entirely by the quality of the weapon that I was fielding at the time. This was made painstakingly obvious when an excellent legendary dagger dropped in Act II and suddenly my spider jars were mowing down everything in sight. I hadn't changed my playstyle at all, the game simply became way easier. While fights played out a little bit different from my Monk, lots of kiting backwards instead of charging into the middle of mobs with dodge chance skills activated, I was underwhelmed by the whole experience. There wasn't as much diversity between classes or between character builds as I had hoped. Yes, Reaper of Souls is far better at this than the release version of D3. No, it's still not as good as prior Diablo games or some of the other competitors in the genre like Path of Exile or Grim Dawn.
Another concern of mine is that the expansion has arguably focused too much on endgame content. To a certain extent it feels as though Reaper of Souls has completely written off the original campaign as a flawed product and designed an entirely new game centered around post-level 70 characters. Don't get me wrong, the new stuff that they've created is better than what the original non-expansion design team came up with. However, it's all so decentralized and scattershot that it doesn't quite feel like a traditional Diablo game anymore, at least not for those players who were never interested in an endgame grind for the best possible gear. My favorite part of Diablo 2 was creating pure characters that would do one pass through the game, using only the items that they found along the way, and seeing if they were strong enough to defeat the challenges they encountered. The goal was to "beat" the game, in the traditional old school 8-bit console gaming sense.
This is a completely foreign concept to Reaper of Souls. There is no beating the game in Adventure Mode, only an endless series of more bounties to chase after in search of better items and more crafting materials. Difficulty level is similarly such a mutable concept that it's lost any real meaning in the expansion. "I defeated Diablo on Hell difficulty" means something in the original game; "I scored all the bounties on Torment VIII" doesn't have quite the same ring. The only place where this idea still seems to exist is in the Greater Nephalem Rifts, and I'm very glad for their existence. It legitimately does have meaning to solo clear a Greater Nephalem Rift at higher and higher difficulty rankings, and for that very reason the Greater Rifts seem to have the most prestige in the online community. Outside of the Greater Rifts, however, the expansion operates on a fundamentally different mindset from past games. The first two Diablos were designed to be about the quest to defeat the endgame boss, with players able to do endgame treasure hunting afterwards if they so chose. Reaper of Souls flips the script, with endgame treasure hunting being the main focus of the game and the quest to defeat the endgame boss relegated to a footnote. Maybe this is even what the playerbase wants, I don't know. Attention spans are shorter now and hardly anyone at Realms Beyond seems to play Civilization games through to their actual finish anymore. All that I can say is that it's a significant shift in focus.
Finally, I wanted to return to the last point from my 2013 review, where I discussed how Diablo 3 was full of something called "fake difficulty". Fake Difficulty is defined on the TV Tropes webpage as "the developers threw in something which makes the game harder, but which has nothing to do with the player's or AI's skills." I cited as examples how Diablo 3 seemed to have deemphasized the action portions of the gameplay in favor of emphasizing the gear aspects of the gameplay, with the quality of your items being much more important than the tactical execution of the fighting itself. The release version of D3 had tons of unavoidable monster damage at every turn, attacks that were too fast to be dodged or boss abilities that hit too much of the screen at once. Eventually the player would reach a point in time where they would be one-hit killed without having good enough equipment to survive, and this would necessitate grinding up better items until the "gear check" was passed. It was all basically a scam designed to funnel players into spending their money in the online auction house.
So how has this changed in the expansion? Well, the process of obtaining gear is much easier and infinitely more satisfying than it was back at release, but if we're being perfectly honest here... the fake difficulty hasn't gone away. It's just hiding at a much higher difficulty level now, at a point where it won't be reached until sometime in the many different Torment difficulties. The actual combat gameplay in Reaper of Souls remains much more heavily gear-based than it ever was in the earlier Diablo games, making it essentially impossible to play some of the classic Diablo variants. You can't run a Naked Mage anymore since your damage would be nonexistent without a weapon for the skills to scale off of. It's similarly not possible to keep progressing upwards to higher difficulties while eschewing the use of constantly newer and better gear. The whole system is based on stacking as much Vitality and primary stat as possible; it doesn't work without this concept. In earlier Diablo games, the player could offset crummy gear through amazing mechanics and deep knowledge of game mechanics. That simply doesn't work in Diablo 3 though, as far too much of the damage is unavoidable and must be tanked through with the proper equipment. Like I said, player skill checks have largely been replaced by gear checks.
I'll return to another comparison that I made in my prior review: D3's gameplay almost feels more like a traditional turn-based RPG at times than a standard Diablo game. Character levels and equipped items often seem to be more important than the ability to dodge skillshots and kite mobs as one would expect for an action game. I believe that much of the fault for this lies with the health regen mechanics in D3, which also function differently from the earlier games in the series. There was no health regen at all in the original Diablo (or mana regeneration for that matter!), and careful resource conservation was the order of the day. This is part of the reason why Diablo often resembles a roguelike game or a survival horror game. Diablo 2 introduced mana regeneration for all classes but no inherent life regeneration, and the items that granted life regen were rare and fairly weak. You certainly didn't get enough life regen to make any kind of noticeable difference in a fight. This is the main reason why I skipped the items with life regen when I first played Diablo 3, thinking they were useless.
I was dead wrong in this respect as health regeneration, or the "Recovery" stat more broadly, plays a major role in D3's combat engine. Broadly speaking, because players can no longer drink health potions on demand, they have to rely on various forms of health regeneration, plus the health orbs that drop in battle, to keep themselves from dying in fights. This concept is drawn from first-person shooters like Halo and Call of Duty, where staying out of combat for a short period of time will restore the player's health back up to full again. I've always hated this concept since it removes the whole idea of conserving health from the gameplay, but it's become a staple of virtually every modern action game. (It allows the developers to create elaborate scripted fight sequences without running the player out of health.) Anyway, D3 essentially steals this concept and weaves it into the core combat engine of this dungeon crawler. With a healthy amount of "Recovery" items, the player can disengage from fighting and run away for a few seconds, thereby getting their life restored and allowing them to jump back into the fray. Like I said, it's the same concept used in Call of Duty and familiar to modern gamers. The combat gameplay in D3 is based around the assumption that the player will stack items with "Recovery" on them in addition to health and damage.
However, there are serious drawbacks to basing so much of the combat engine around the assumption of significant amounts of player life regen. At one end of the spectrum, if the monsters can't deal enough damage to get through the player's life regen, they are quite literally invincible and can't be killed. We used to run into the reverse of this situation while playing underpowered variant characters in Diablo 2, characters who couldn't deal enough damage to get through monster health regeneration, and the only way to make progress was to inflict Prevent Monster Heal on them in some fashion. Well, that dynamic works in both directions, and there were frequently times while I was playing my non-variant Monk character that the expansion enemies literally couldn't hurt me at all. I would dash into big mobs of demons and just faceroll the keyboard, with too much life regen for them to have any effect. This becomes boring pretty quickly, because when there's zero danger to a character the gameplay loses its focus. Obviously nothing like this would ever happen in the original Diablo game where life regeneration didn't exist at all and conserving resources was important to stay alive.
Then there's the other end of the spectrum: the situation where the player's life regeneration from gear is too low. Because D3's gameplay is full of unavoidable damage, it assumes that the player will be getting hit constantly and therefore must have a certain constant base level of incoming health to survive. If you don't meet that threshhold, well, you can't progress any further. This is camouflaged far better in the expansion than it is in the base game, but it is very much still present as a mechanic. The design team for the expansion couldn't fix these core problems inherent in the system. Of course, underpowered characters typically can make it through the more open outdoor areas through standard hit-and-run tactics, and it's possible to make it a long way with enough patience. That patience wears out on the major bosses though, where certain levels of gear must be present or success is not possible. Most bosses on Torment I difficulty and above have something known as an "Enrage" timer, whereby they begin doing various forms of super attacks after three minutes have passed. If your gear isn't good enough to defeat them within three minutes, you essentially suffer a forced loss thereafter. It is a gear check in the purest form possible. Obviously this rules out variants of all sorts that simply can't pass the damage threshhold required to continue onwards. I guess the designers hated variant characters, or more likely they simply didn't understand the concept at all. They genuinely seem to believe that maximizing a character's DPS rating is the overriding goal of every player. I mean, it is the top goal for many people, but certainly not for a lot of others. Reaper of Souls is made for the former group and doesn't seem to understand why anyone would ever restrict themselves to just the Firebolt spell.
Long story short: the gear checks are still there in the expansion. It's vastly easier to meet those gear checks, and Reaper of Souls provides players with a lot of tools to come up with the items that they need to meet those checks. However, the fake difficulty of needing a certain combination of items to proceed remains embedded into the gameplay. It's unfortunate the Reaper of Souls is therefore not a very good game when it comes to variants, as the whole endgame is designed around a long mission of optimizing gear, not willfully restricting yourself to weaker options. I don't want to knock this setup too much because I think the expansion has moved the gameplay in a positive direction overall, and for some gamers with completionist personalities, it's delivering them exactly what they want to see. It's just not what I want to see personally from a Diablo game, and that's a bit of a shame.
The Reaper of Souls expansion is likely the best result that we could have gotten for Diablo 3 given the weak starting point created by the release version. It's a lot more fun to play, especially with friends, even if it's a bit of a mindless experience at times. I also fully acknowledge that my critique of the gameplay is tilting at windmills to some extent. Tastes have changed in the two decades since the original Diablo was first released in 1997, and it's unlikely that a dungeon-crawled as slow-paced as the first Diablo would be as popular these days. I also don't want to overly romanticize the first two Diablo games, which were plagued with many bugs and had all sorts of their own problems. The fact that player-kills are impossible and that items drop separately on each player's screen are both gigantic improvements in Diablo 3 over its forerunners. Nevertheless, the gameplay in the Reaper of Souls expansion is still inherently flawed and I think it's important to acknowledge that. The overall setup in Grim Dawn is definitely better, although unfortunately Grim Dawn had only a fraction of the budget and playerbase of Diablo 3. What we really need is a game as popular as Diablo but with better gameplay fundamentals. The designers have done well enough with Reaper of Souls that I'll be watching with interest to see what shape Diablo 4 will take, which is a complete shift from where I was at the tail end of the release version in 2013. Back then I wouldn't have tried Diablo 4 if you had paid me. The expansion team truly did a great job of winning back my goodwill.
I may or may not write about some of these expansion characters on my website. The Corpse Spider Witch Doctor has been pretty fun to play, even if it's not likely to be viable for too much of the endgame content. I've been intrigued enough that I might want to try out another variant Wizard build that isn't quite so crippled, and then there's always the Necromancer to try... Well, time will tell and we'll see what happens. Thanks as always for reading through my ramblings.