I can't recall a gaming villain who looks as imposing as Reaper of Souls' Malthael but leaves so weak an impression. He pops in and out as the narrative unfolds, spouting a few threatening lines before evaporating in a mist of gloom, and thus he recalls Blizzard's similar treatment of Arthas Menethil during World of Warcraft's Wrath of the Lich King expansion. But at least Arthas had the benefit of years of accumulated lore to support his cameos. The star of but one act, Malthael is never around long enough to make us care about his grumbles.
Malthael's saga delivers few surprises; there's little like the shifting allegiances and unexpected deaths of Diablo III proper. If it warrants attention at all, it's only in that it lets us settle a score gone unpunished from the first outing (and in the weakest of the expansion's three boss fights, no less). Instead, it's the environment that stands out in Reaper of Souls. As if in defiance of criticisms that Diablo III was too soft, Blizzard kicks off its tale with medieval streets paved with bodies that squish under your feet. Later, marshlands simmer with more menace than I ever felt in the Leoric Highlands or Dalghur Oasis, and the portal-ridden citadel of Pandemonium mirrors Malthael's madness. Reaper of Souls fails to serve a sufficiently epic story, but it nails the ambiance.
The cast is as entertaining as Reaper's setting, too, with demon dogs that wriggle you in their jaws like a squeaky toy and a boss that wields a demonic flamethrower while a burning ceiling collapses around him. Perhaps that's why Blizzard's kept the prattling to a minimum: story never gets in the way of Reaper's eternal hunt for the next best loot upgrade or its satisfyingly responsive dance of combat and movement. Instead of force-feeding us tragedies, Blizzard instead invests in spectacle. Malthael himself makes up for his insipid tale with a fantastic boss fight that makes Diablo's feel like a glittery piñata bash.
At times, I felt as though I should reach for popcorn. Am I really battling on top of a moving battering ram in Pandemonum? Thank the heavens, I am.
I'm especially pleased by the direction Blizzard took Reaper's levels because there were sections of Diablo III that I dreaded slogging through—zones like High Heavens with their bland grandeur—but each of Reaper's eleven zones here yields its own treats. What's more, some levels shift randomly with each new playthrough so you're never running through the same map twice. Randomized events pop up around most grimy corners. Some of these rely on familiar scenarios like fending off hordes on a timer, but others present vignettes that demand attention. One time I stepped through an unassuming door and found a would-be usurper gloating over the slain leader of Westmarch. And when my haughty Crusader condemned him for taking advantage of the chaos to further his own ambition, I felt his zeal.
He was a tough bastard, but only because I allowed it. The massive patch that dropped two weeks before launch let all players choose specific difficulty modes at their leisure, and this mattered a great deal for my well-geared level 60 character with a 55 Paragon rating. For around two years, you could only reach the tough stuff by chugging through three separate difficulty modes corresponding to fixed level brackets across three playthroughs. The “hardest,” Inferno, was sometimes stupidly easy thanks to its fixed nature and the conveniences of gear optimization from the auction house. About a month ago I jumped into a multiplayer battle on Inferno mode with Azmodan, the boss of Diablo III's third act, and saw him three-shotted by a high-level, well-geared Paragon.
Reaper of Souls may give folks like him a hard time. Without the tiresome need to slog through an overly easy first playthrough to access tougher stuff; I could choose from one of five difficulty settings right from the beginning and change them if it got too rough. But wait, it gets better. Select the highest level difficulty, "Torment," and you'll find a slider that lets you bump it up six additional tiers of brutality. That gives you perks like 300 percent extra gold or 300 percent extra XP, but if you're unprepared like I was, it'll knock you silly. Weeks or months from now, when I'm decked out in the godliest of gear, I'll be grateful for the remaining challenges and associated replay value.
And so it came to pass that I chickened out and cut down the difficulty a notch or four. It wasn't for naught; when this would-be ruler fell, he dropped a legendary shield that might have given me a fighting chance against his tougher self. Five legendaries in all dropped during my six-hour march from 60 to 70, a marked improvement over the zero found during my initial 2012 playthrough. Such improvements also spring from the pre-launch patch. In a sweeping overhaul, Blizzard ditched the auction house and tweaked the game to drop legendaries that live up to their name, eradicate most trash drops, and focus on gear that is usually relevant for your character. That's all true here, too. It works so well that I ran into a laughable problem: so many Crusader-only shields were dropping that I had nothing to give the NPC Templar companion I took along for an extra hand in solo play.
The Crusader class is a worthy addition. He's a likeable fellow that sounds a lot like Iain Glen in the role of Ser Jorah Mormont on HBO's Game of Thrones, and despite his (or her) fervor, he's not a caricature like the Templar. I've never really been one for Paladin-style classes, but the Crusader sold me. Here Blizzard gives us a badass that can wield two-handed weapons in one hand and a shield in another, and he shoots a fiery shield across the room as though he were the Vatican's take on Captain America. Press one key, and he summons a flaming steed that heals him, tramples enemies, or drags them behind him; press another, and he soars up and crashes down in a holy shockwave. I initially worried that some of his skills mirror the comparatively humble Barbarian's too closely: the “Akarat's Champion” ability, for instance, is essentially just a reskinned Wrath of the Berserker. But had I not played a Barbarian for countless hours in the months leading up to Reaper's release, I probably wouldn't have noticed. He's fun, to the point that the older classes sometimes feel like rough drafts.
And yes, to acknowledge the elephant in the room, the swappable skill system remains much the same. Sorry, Path of Exile fans. (And yes, Diablo III is still an always-online game, although Reaper launched with none of the connection issues that hounded the first release and spawned their own meme.) But Blizzard focuses on letting us play the way we want to play in other ways besides skill trees, most notably in the form of the new the Adventure Mode and Nephalem Rifts, both of which shatter the grinding linearity of battling through the same levels in sequence ad infinitum.
Adventure Mode is almost rebellious in its freedom: it lets you access all five acts (even if you haven't played them) and battle through them with level-appropriate enemies at your leisure. It's strong enough to justify Reaper of Souls' otherwise steep asking price on its own. Nephalem Rifts, which drop randomly in Adventure Mode mode, draw from the entire game's assets to push Reaper of Souls' emphasis on randomness to the extreme. In one of my favorite examples, I battled gigantic Withermoths from Act I within 10 levels of corridors from Bastion's Keep from Act III. In light of such dizzying variety, the campaign feels secondary and almost unnecessary. It's a smart design that encourages both extended solo and multiplayer play; whatever you want to do, there's a good chance you can do it.
Still other features enhance the experience. The new Transmogrification system, a World of Warcraft import, ensured that my Crusader always looked rightfully awesome by letting him adopt the look of preset models or Reaper's legendaries. A new Mystic NPC that lets you swap out a single stat on an item for a randomized new stat fills some of the void left by the auction house, but high resource costs and randomization seem to keep any exploitation in check. All of this combines to make Diablo III both an apology and a love letter, the game it should have been all along.
There may be more to come. Approaching the doors leading to Malthael, the Templar asks the Crusader, "What happens after Malthael is dead?" The Crusader, ever stoic, replies: "There will always be more evil to face. I expect to die fighting it."
If Blizzard keeps this up, I expect to be there with him.