A marked improvement with a new Act
Despite the raging financial success of Diablo III, many fans were not impressed. Whether it was the decreased amount of high quality loot, the poorly-thought-out auction house, or the over-streamlining of character progression, there was a lot to complain about.
Having said that, I still enjoyed Diablo III for what it was completely devoid of any influence from the auction house. Over that period of time however I noticed that a lot of my friends were dropping out from the game like flies, so Blizzard had to do something eventually to help save and improve the game. Step one is removing the auction house, starting March 2014. Step two seems to be the expansion Reaper of Souls, which comes with a few major changes of its own.
But is it enough to bring back jaded Diablo fans?
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls (PC [tested], PlayStation 4, Mac)
The first big addition that Reaper of Souls brings is a brand new story Act -- the Fall of Westmarche. Functioning as Act V of the campaign, it takes place after the core game ends, so I transferred my level 60 Demon Hunter over and had a go at it. The Act starts off with a bang, as the former Archangel Mathael (and now, Angel of Death) is attempting to drain the life of everything in Westmarche. Tyrael joins the fight of course, and from there (without spoiling too much), it's an all-out war against a harbinger of Death who is overstepping his boundaries. I don't want to spoil anything story related, but it's about on par with a typical chapter from the game, both in length and quality.
As for the new cast, you'll battle against wraiths and other turquoise-colored ghastly creatures, most of which can be found in the gallery here. There's also a new town (the Survivor's Enclave), and a new vendor that you'll meet over the course of Act V's tale -- Myriam the Mystic. Myriam can customize pieces of equipment to look like other gear (transmogrification in WoW), or re-roll certain stats on existing gear. In other words, she merely facilitates more customization -- not an Earth-shattering change, but a welcome one.
The next piece of the puzzle is an increased level cap -- raised from 60 to 70. With the new cap comes new abilities, passives, and runes, and thus, new chances for customization. Although the "cookie-cutter build" problem from Diablo III still persists a bit, I think the new options do bring a lot to the table, and will allow for a certain amount of differentiation between players. The new skills aren't going to fundamentally change the game, but you do have more options for builds. All characters now share Paragon XP (post max-level experience), which is a nice touch for building alts.
As stated above, the auction house is being removed entirely from the game in March 2014. Not only is that music to my ears (much less the thousands of other fans who couldn't stand it), but it also comes with the addition of the "Loot 2.0" system. Straight-up, this new mechanic ensures better gear consistently, and if my time with the beta was any indication, it actually works.
Immediately after entering the first area of Act V, I earned a unique from the first patch of mobs that surpassed my currently equipped gear. The way Loot 2.0 functions is that it not only presents more unique and interesting gear, but it also removes needless trash like most normal and magic items, so in the end, you're getting better options without having to micro-manage a ton of stuff. Expect Hardcore runs to have a lot more viability.
As an added bonus Legendaries are vastly improved, and treasure demons give better loot now pretty much guaranteed, which makes them more enticing again -- not to mention the amazing boss loot I got. As a side note, players cannot trade items to each other unless they were actually at the loot drop point, and a two-hour timer adds a further limitation on that. In other words, character progression feels more isolated, and not based on purchases or outside influences -- interesting.
Another change (you can tell Blizzard is trying here) is the removal of Normal, Nightmare, Hell, and Inferno modes. No longer do you have to beat the game three times to get the difficulty you "want," -- you can just change it to Normal, Hard, or Expert right out of the gate. You get bonuses the higher you go, which is incentive for toughing it out. The beauty of this system is that players can custom tailor the experience to their liking at all times, and if they hate it, just quit out of the game and tweak it.
"Bounties" also allow you to go on tasks over the course of every act, and force you to kill certain bosses or enemies. You'll earn Blood Shards for your trouble, which are a new currency that can net you powerful loot in the form of randomized Horadric Caches. "Rifts" are even cooler, as they essentially randomize areas to create new experiences. Enemies and bosses are also randomized, which is a nice touch. Both of these go a long way in preventing "Mephisto or Alkaizer runs" and other repetitive tasks.
Then you have the other big addition of content outside of Act V -- the brand new Crusader class. It's very similar to the Barbarian, but more defensive minded, and similarly structured to Diablo II's Paladin. It has lots of shield-based abilities, and some holy powers like a spirit hammer that give it a more caster-like flavor. Its initial core ability generates more defense the more you attack, making it an obvious choice for tanking tougher bosses whenever possible.
To be blunt, I wasn't all that impressed by the Crusader, even after I unlocked a decent amount of their abilities. It was fun, for sure, but not all that different to the melee classes already presented -- at least, when you compare how different the Wizard and the Witch Doctor are as casters. It's neat to see a melee character that also has spells at their disposal, but then again, that's what the Monk was for in the core game. I'll be interested in seeing if further tweaking goes into the Crusader by the time the live version hits.
Reaper of Souls was a ton of fun, even if it doesn't change up the core Diablo III experiences all that much. All of the little tweaks make the game feel more enjoyable overall, and the removal of the auction house is a big clue that Blizzard isn't ready to give up on the game. I will say though if you absolutely hated the skill system and the fundamentals of Diablo III, you may not find solace with Reaper of Souls.