I feel bad for my level 70 barbarian. His people have had a rough time ever since their homeland was totally flattened during the Diablo 2 expansion, Lord of Destruction. He's already fought through the monster-infested remains of Arreat mountain during Diablo 3's main story, and soon he'll have to tearfully slay hundreds of horrible creatures in the upcoming Ruins of Sescheron. It was once a proud bastion of barbarian might, now... well, you can guess.
Blizzard want the new zone to feel a bit sad. It's a wintry environment, full of teetering pillars, crumbling statues of long-dead barbarian heroes, and the occasional burnt-out funeral pyre. The only other remnants of barbarian civilization are a collection of traps ostentatious enough to force Indiana Jones to consider a career change. Swinging blades the size of buses chop into charging mobs; Spike traps come with a trigger switch that you can step on to eviscerate monsters stupid enough to follow you. The barbarians may have gone a little mad with paranoia before the end.
It's hardly surprising. The monsters planned in future patches rank among Blizzard's most disgusting creations. The rat king is a huge rat who sheds slimy albino rats from orifices burrowed into his fleshy spine-sac. The regular rat king drops rats whenever you hit him, and explodes into a rat horde when killed. If you run into a rift guardian rat king, you can look forward to dodging rat tornadoes made up of whirlwinds of writhing toxic vermin. The logistics of this attack are unclear.
The section of the Ruins of Sescheron I played is currently being used as a testbed for Blizzard's new swarm enemies. There are three charming varieties. Frost maggots can freeze you for a few seconds if they're too close when you pop them - devastating if you're grappling with a tough elite mob. Naja beetles are easily squished but are quick and can spit fireballs. Glowing death - my favourite - is a burning cocoon that explodes into a horde of fiery flies that charge and sting at close range. It's a satisfying way to suddenly introduce a big mob to the screen, and carving through them with an AOE attack feels great.
Sadly there was no chance to see the family of yetis Blizzard are planning for distant updates - still, yetis confirmed! I did run into (and crush) one of the three new treasure goblins. Senior designer Matt Berger tells me that there are now so many ways to get gear drops the traditional treasure goblin is becoming obsolete. The solution is a series of new breeds that drop highly specialised loot when killed. The Gem Hoarder is a crystalline goblin who drops gems when you hit him, and explodes into a shower of gems when killed. The green Odious Collector drops plans and valuable crafting materials. The red Blood Thief drops blood shards - LOTS of blood shards, if the one I killed was typical.
The genius of Diablo's new endgame, centred around randomised greater rifts, is that it gets more varied and fun every time Blizzard add new monsters and terrain pieces. The new zone will be incorporated into Diablo 3's growing randomisation engine, but Blizz are also looking at old zones that don't play well with the new tech. The Dalgur Oasis, the Spider Caves and Leoric's Manor will eventually be broken down and rearranged to offer more varied levels. The algorithms that generate rifts are also being tweaked to stop them from spawning lengthy dead-end corridors.
Further rift tweaks will buff the effects of all pylons (except the almighty conduit pylon). The speed pylon the dev team are testing lets you dash through waller walls and bop enemies you collide with into the air. The shield bestowed upon you by shield pylons will deal damage back to attackers and explode on expiration. Other planned back-end improvements will generate more consistently dense mobs in rifts. New legendary items and legendary gems are in the works, designed to encourage a greater range of viable builds.
There's a lot to get stuck into in the new (and entirely free) updates, but Blizzard aren't talking about future expansions yet - expected given that Reaper of Souls only came out in March. The current endgame is evolving in encouraging ways, however, and a new tier of 'ancient' legendaries will give long-term players a new tier of rewards to fight for. It's been a bright year for Diablo 3, and there's enough on the slate to ensure it won't go the way of the barbarians any time soon.