When you watch someone play Diablo III, you see visual noise. Flailing around, colors, effects, little numbers flying out of everything. But playing Diablo III — actually being in that visual noise and making it all happen — is a whole other matter. The little blue smudges are my mana generating locust swarms. The slightly bigger blue smudges are my mana generating toads. The red blobs are zombie dogs, and they’re red because they’re healing me with their bites. The green pools are acid I’m vomiting onto the bad guys. The yellow circles are incoming mortar fire and I need to be sure not to stand there. The blue sparky patterns are electricity. Duh. That large yellow blob is my target, but first I have to clear out the non-yellow blobs. My friend’s barbarian is in there somewhere and I know it’s relatively safe to stand behind him. I can see him mainly when he does his spinning whirlwind. Barbarians love their whirlwind. Show me a barbarian not using whirlwind and I’ll slow you a clown without big shoes.
After the jump, a funny thing happened on the way to Malthael.
All this makes perfect sense to me because I’m in the groove. Furthermore, my mind has been conditioned by the hours it took me to get this witch doctor to level 70. Where you see visual noise, I see a symphony of carefully honed character builds trying to play on torment level 2. It’s like peering into the Matrix.
I saw something funny in the Matrix today. Something you can’t see if you’re not in the groove, if you can’t interpret the visual noise, if you don’t have an ear for this particular symphony and the discrete strains of my witch doctor’s character build. I was playing in a public group, which is an easy way to quickly whip this music into its outrageous crescendos. Jump into a game with three other players who’ve gotten their characters to the level cap, who are interested in moving quickly and efficiently, who have very particular character builds, some of whom might be in Japan so you can’t make sense of their character names, some of whom have paragon levels in the triple digits, many of whom have those “Hey, I pre-ordered/have the collector’s edition!” angel wings on their back which makes them easy to pick out of the crowds. The other players with me today are a wizard and demon hunter, hanging back and pouring attacks into the swirl of numbers and colors. The last player is a crusader, standing smack dab in the middle of the vortex, fighting toe-to-toe with the toughest monster he can find. He’s sort of our tank. We’re following him. We’re watching him. We’re letting him take the lead while we shape the noise around him.
Sometimes he moves a little to the side. Just a little. The equivalent of a few feet to the left or right, sometimes a little bit back. It’s a small movement but it’s unmistakable. He repositions himself as surely as if he were standing in lava or poison or an electrical attack, but there are none of those things when he does it. Our rock is yielding slightly to something only he is aware of. Why is he doing it? I know I’ve become a borderline hardcore Diablo III player because I notice this and wonder at it.
Reaper of Souls, the add-on for Diablo III, raised the level cap for every character from 60 to 70. But you can’t just have ten empty levels. In those ten levels, you need something to look forward to. So every character gets a new skill with glyphs to modify it, and a couple of new passive skills, and even a new slot for a fourth passive skill. These are gradually unlocked on the way to level 70.
The witch doctor’s new skill is a piranha pond. It drops onto the world a graphic of a little marshy pond with snapping piranha’s leaping out of the water. These do damage over time to any monsters standing in the pond. One of the glyphs that modifies the skill adds a giant crocodile that leaps out of the pond and swallows a monster for a short time. He’s a toothier version of the giant toad that used to be a variation on the witch doctor’s basic toad attack. The recent update made that giant toad its own skill. Using both the giant toad and the crocodile variation of the piranha pond is a great way to enforce a time out on powerful monsters. Here, you sit inside this thing’s belly for a moment while I fight some of your buddies.
But when you add new skills at the upper end of each character, players aren’t going to see those skills first-hand as commonly as the other skills. A witch doctor at level 61, when the piranha pond is unlocked, will have every other skill unlocked. So there are that many more skills they might be using, that many more levels they’ve played without the piranha pond. When you level up alongside characters, or playing as a character, you see the early skills plenty often. Spider jars, toads, locust swarms, zombie dogs, zuni dolls. Anyone who’s played or played alongside witch doctors knows those because they’re the basic building blocks of a witch doctor. But how many witch doctors use the piranha pond? Only the latest who want to spare a precious slot for some johnny-come-lately Reaper of Souls skill. Mine, for instance.
The piranha pond I’m using today has upgraded zombie fish, so they’re more visible leaping out of the pond than the tinier default non-zombie fish. The skill is on a fairly short cooldown timer, and I’ve slotted a few imperial diamonds to reduce my cooldown timers. So I’m frequently dropping the pond on whatever the crusader is fighting. It’s part of my regular rotation.
And what I come to realize is that the crusader hasn’t seen a piranha pond before. As I watch, I notice that he steps off it whenever it appears beneath him. Sure enough, that’s exactly why he’s taking a step to the left, a step to the right, a step backwards. He thinks that marshy puddle effect is something one of the new monsters is doing! He’s hearing a new instrument playing in all this visual noise, and he’s reacting exactly as he should, avoiding it because it’s full of snapping angry fish.
I suppose I could type into the chat window that the pond is my doing, that it won’t hurt him, that it’s actually helping him burn down the hit points of whatever he’s fighting. But who watches the chat window in Diablo III? And beside, there’s something endearing about adding a few extra steps to his careful dance. It’s like when I was in summer camp, sitting in a field during some sort of assembly or presentation, and I’d take a long blade of grass and tickle the neck of the person in front of me, watching him slap his neck because he thought it was a fly. Our crusader will figure it out eventually. That’s the beauty on an action RPG with a long deep learning curve and precise visual cues like Diablo III. You figure stuff out. Blizzard teaches you to teach yourself. Otherwise, you’re the kind of person who never got a character to the level cap because you thought it was over when you beat the last boss.
I feel sorry for the people who write off Diablo as an exercise in pointless clicking. I feel even more sorry for the people who think “beating” Diablo is about beating Diablo. Getting through the storyline is just the beginning. Leveling up your characters — plural, of course — is the point, and which dungeons you do it in doesn’t matter one whit. That’s one of the central tenets of the Reaper of Souls add-on: the content is the characters, not the locations, not the story, and certainly not the progression of established bosses, who can’t hold a candle to the impromptu boss fights that make up the actual gameplay beats. Zultan Khuul? That emperor kid? The farting Jabba the Hutt monster? Whatever. Those guys are bookmarks in the old way of playing, working your way along the storyline because you had no choice. The real substance in Diablo III is that random elite I ran into out on the Field of Misery or in the Halls of Agony. That guy and his minions and the battle we fought are what makes Diablo III what it is: an ongoing battle of falling back and pushing forward and falling back and now pushing forward again, holding ground and giving ground, like a war, or like sports, but where you always eventually win.
Diablo III was already so much better by the time Reaper of Souls came out. Like many Blizzard games, it improved as it aged. An update a few weeks ago completely reworked the loot system, which included removing the auction house that subverted the loot system (better a few years late than never?). It put a new system of paragon levels at the end of the game to advance all your characters simultaneously, including characters you haven’t even started playing yet. The update was a spectacular example of after-the-fact game design, or in-the-wild iteration, or post-release support. Blizzard shrewdly tied it to a temporary experience point bonus to lure you back. It’s as if just releasing an add-on wasn’t enough. Blizzard reverse engineered Diablo III to play you over to Reaper of Souls, to coax your $40 from you.
But to discuss Reaper of Souls critically, you have to be careful not to get distracted by your enthusiasm for the update. That’s not easy to do. Just look at how many breathless reviewers reviewed the Starcraft II patch that preceded the Heart of the Swarm add-on, as if the update was somehow part of the add-on. New co-op! New campaign system! New matchmaking! Blizzard is no dummy. They know how to work goodwill. They know how reviewers just burble on about whatever’s in front of them. Look at how many words I’ve already written about Reaper of Souls without even specifically referencing Reaper of Souls.
Reaper of Souls does a few things. The main thing it does is give you more content. To people who don’t know Diablo III very well, who wouldn’t notice someone stepping off a piranha pool, content means new areas and new bosses. For them, there’s Act V, which includes some nifty set pieces in ruined towns chock full of mini-events and a swamp with a bunch of fake exits that you have to narrow down by finding obelisks. It ends, of course, with more crazy heaven/hell levels and a final boss battle I hope never to play again. One of the new bosses is a memorable battle with gross blobs of squelching flesh that dissolve into caustic pools when you step on them. There’s also a memorable battle on a swinging battering ram that plays in extremely close quarters, where ranged characters have nowhere to run. I lost a hardcore level 52 wizard there. Thanks, Blizzard. Jerks.
For people who do know Diablo III very well, the content is the characters, their skills, and their loot. Where they fight and get their stuff is irrelevant. For these players, there is a new character class, the crusader, as well as the ten extra levels with skills for the other characters. The crusader is basically a paladin, all bulked up, swinging heavy weapons with aplomb and aglow with buffs, but strangely missing the damage reduction that makes barbarians and monks good tanks. I don’t know why Blizzard decided to make the crusader frail in comparison to the other melee classes, but I suspect it has something to do with his effective area attacks. He’s a pokey monk crossed with a brawling wizard, hurling lightning bolts and standing in a vortex of spinning fire hammers. The crusader feels like a variation on an existing theme, like a new kind of burrito at Taco Bell. It’s damning that there’s hardly a time I’m playing him that I don’t feel like I’m playing something that got cut from the original game. At least crusaders look the part, decked out in Medieval armor as if they’re ready to take back some Holy Land somewhere.
By the way, the new mystic vendor is a wonderful asset not only for how she lets you tweak magic items’ abilities, but for how she lets you completely tailor your character’s appearance. Anyone who ever tinkered around with dye — the cardinal red top will look marvelous with some abyssal black pauldrons as an accent — will love getting the look of his gear just right. The dress up aspect is completely in your control, for the price of some of that gold you can’t spend at the auction house anymore. Reaper of Souls adds more tinkering, more fine tuning, more customization. It’s a little absurd, really. But it’s exactly what any good action RPG needs: to be a bit more like an MMO.
But unlike the “just add a couple of new things” approach in Starcraft II, Reaper of Souls is a fundamental adjustment to how you play Diablo III. The new adventure mode is a change in philosophy every bit as important as removing the auction house. Once you’ve gotten through the storyline, you’ll unlock adventure mode, which opens the entire map and randomly generates objectives. Here Diablo III concedes that it might as well be a series of desultory “go here and kill stuff” assignments without cutscenes or narrative justifications or a set sequence. Click to go wherever you want, chasing dynamic objectives at whatever difficulty level you want. All that “content” is diced, shuffled, remixed, perfect for fifteen minutes or five hours. Start a new character and play it entirely in adventure mode. You never again have to meet Leah or Cain or help the templar get his gear out of that chest or walk the enchantress through the desert looking for hidden footprints. Now Diablo III is unadulterated action, free to do what it does best: random acts of hack, slash, and loot, stretching before you for as many hours as you want to put into it.
A few months ago, I tried to talk a friend of mine into playing Marvel Heroes with me. He kept begging off, insisting he didn’t want to play any more games without end. Who can blame him? The conventional wisdom these days is that every game must be an infinite timesink, and a hole open to as much money as you’re willing to throw into it. But the really insidious twist is that this doesn’t preclude being a good game. These days, even great games can be endless.
And now, whenever I log in to play Diablo III, there is my friend, leveling up his characters, adding paragon levels, grinding for endgame crafting materials, playing another game without end, probably because Blizzard is so good at what they do. And I wouldn’t know how much he’s playing if I wasn’t playing so much myself. I got my witch doctor to the level cap already, I beat Act V, I’ve leveled up my crusader enough to know what he does. Yet here we are, two discriminating guys, aware that our time is limited, yet willing to pour it into this symphony of visual noise, this cacophony of color, this piranha pool that strips away hours instead of flesh. Meanwhile, the chat channel taps out a steady rhythm of messages announcing the legendary items found by my friends and the 150 clanmates who quickly filled our clan to capacity. Here we all are, in a game without end, a game exponentially better than it was when it came out a few years ago. It’s almost like Blizzard called this thing Reaper of Souls as a joke about the game itself instead of just a reference to whoever that guy was in the boss battle at the end of Act V that I’ll never have to play again.
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls
The Prime Evil rages within the Black Soulstone, its essence screaming for vengeance and release. Before the artifact can be sealed away forever, Malthael -- the Angel of Death -- manifests in the mortal realms with a deadly new purpose: to steal the Black Soulstone and bend its infernal power to his will. So begins the end of all things. And now you can ignore all this by playing Adventure Mode!