“Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.”
The first line from a lyrical poem written by Emily Dickinson may sum up the final battle from the recently released Reaper of Souls expansion, far more elegantly and with outstanding accuracy, given that it was first published in 1890.
In truth, Diablo III’s journey has been a rocky one, from a community dividing beginning through its auction house phase and its transition from PC to console, with much of its gameplay and several innovations made specifically for console that serve to make the game even more accessible.
Finally having made the jump to next generation consoles, Diablo III is at its best when you and a few online friends are smashing through large hordes of endless foes, each slain enemy potentially dripping with gold and precious loot, just waiting to be claimed.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Diablo III (and indeed, the entire franchise) consists of you making a character and proceeding through the painfully bleak world of Sanctuary, following the story and destroying umpteen hordes of enemies that stand in your path.
The story is your typical hero’s journey mixed with an angels and demons narrative, that really only serves to guide you from location to location, though the four acts, from your humble beginnings in the surprisingly busy town of New Tristram to the Pinnacle of Heaven and your showdown with Diablo himself.
Although characters familiar to players who have gone through the franchise are featured prominently, their appearance isn’t as memorable as you might expect.
The new expansion, Reaper of Souls, having been out for some time on PC already, makes its debut in this Ultimate Evil Edition, with somewhat mixed results.
The story in Reaper picks up immediately where Diablo III leaves off, with new antagonist Malthael laying siege to Sanctuary, beginning with the area of Westmarch and its surrounding environs.
Act 5 has you exploring much of the town of Westmarch, and the local area, completing quests and ultimately confronting Malthael himself. As an antagonist, Malthael seems incomplete, as his motivations aren’t entirely clear. Even worse, the console version strips out the beginning and ending CGI cutscenes from the PC version that serve to both set the stage and end the journey quite nicely.
That being said, if Diablo III’s story is an afterthought, or an appetizer, then the gameplay is undoubtedly the main course. That same easy accessibility, plus variety of loot and hordes of great looking enemies make wading through oceans of enemies tons of fun.
Unique to consoles is the “smart drop” system, where the game may detect if your current weapon or shield is becoming a bit ratty and outdated and up your percentage of finding a shiny new bow or glistening new shield. Up to four player local co op is also a much touted feature, however, while playing with friends is always fun, prepare to have to sit through various menu shifting when a player needs to equip an item. Online play is seamless however, and provides each player with their own unique loot drops.
One of the more interesting, yet oft overlooked features of the game, at least on PS4’s is the “Nemesis” system. If a player on your friends list gets killed at some point by an elite or boss type enemy, that enemy has a chance of spawning into your game when you head out into the world and at higher difficulties may even include a summoned minion resembling your friends’ character. Fighting these enemies is always challenging and slaying them usually provides a high end legendary item for yourself, or a dropped legendary gift for the player that you just avenged. If these enemies should take you down, however, they will then run off, in search of their next victim, offering you little recourse, except as a tale of “the one that got away.”
For players needing even more of a challenge than the normal through master difficulties, there are torment levels, one through six. These feature enemies with substantially increased health, experience and aggression, not to mention higher end loot.
There’s also a hardcore mode, that’s completely separate from the normal game. This means that any character that you create, via hardcore mode, wont have access to any unlocked merchants or crafting abilities or the universal stash that you share with most of your other characters. Like its name suggests, hardcore characters can only suffer one death before vanishing for good, so this mode is not for the faint of heart.
The on screen instant comparison of a found item’s stats, in relation to what you’re currently using has been slightly expanded, as you can now equip items directly from the field onto your character, without needing to access any menus.
Reaper also boasts a variety of new additions, like a new major merchant for your growing entourage of followers, several new high level gems for slotting into various weapon and armor pieces, and an Adventure Mode that unlocks once you finish the main game, and perhaps its most prominent addition, the Crusader class.
The Crusader is built like a tank and while you may think that the damage mitigation of high level Barbarian class players may be impressive, they’ve got nothing on the Crusader. Using wrath as a resource, the Crusader favors large flails and carries his own special shield, the Crusader’s Shield. Early skills include Taunt, which makes the Crusader a natural born tank from the get go.
Adventure mode is fun to plow through, as it gives you the freedom to tackle any stage of any act you want, in search of bounties or quests. Completing a quest earns you bonus xp as well as rift fragments. Completing all the quests available in a given act earns you even more xp, plus a large treasure trove of goodies.
Rifts are the new main attraction of Adventure mode, and while it takes five rift fragments to open a rift, getting through a rift successfully, especially on the higher difficulty levels, is no mean feat. Inside a rift, you’ll face tons of champion level enemies or higher, in what seems to be almost non stop waves. Defeating enough of these baddies catches the attention of a Rift Guardian, who is often a challenge, and parting him from his legendary loot is usually a daunting task.
The addition of the new level 70 cap in Reaper, means that every class now has access to skills up to level 70. Some are more useful than others, obviously, however, but the sheer variety of different skills, both active and passive, serves to keep things interesting.
Speaking of classes, as a refresher, you can choose from barbarian, crusader, demon hunter, monk, witch doctor and wizard. The nice thing is that each class feels different and totally unique from every other class. For example, Barbarians will use large weapons and moves like whirlwind and earthquake to mow enemies down, while the wizard will shoot disintegrating beams and cast blizzards from above.
The oft criticized skill and rune system, which automatically grants you skills and then runes to empower those skills with different effects, as you level up, has been lamented as taking away the freedom of building your own character, using the tech trees of past Diablo games, however, a variety of builds are still available, as most classes can effectively manage skills and runes to suit their class for offensively focused builds, defensively focused builds or even builds that lie somewhere in between.
Supplementing classes even further are passive skills, which are unlocked every so often and give you class specific passive bonuses and effects. These, combined with the variety of runes available, actually let you create characters with quite robust builds and when playing online, you’ll probably find that even playing alongside someone with similar classes, will yield different play styles due to substantially different character builds.
Graphically, everything looks quite lovely on the PS4, ambient lighting is everywhere and both loot and elite enemies glisten and gleam nicely. There’s a hint of slowdown for brief moments when the action is fast and furious onscreen, such as when there are multiple enemies with screen filling special effects, but it usually only lasts for a second or two and is hardly noticeable, so it doesn’t affect gameplay at all.
One of the nicer effects of the game are the monster death animations which correspond to the type of attack you use to finish them off. Being a barbarian or crusader will enable you to watch enemies burst into bloody explosions after feeling the impact of your mighty weapons, while a wizard or witch doctor will cause enemies to burn in flames, course with electricity or glow with a sickly green poisonous cloud, which lingers on their corpses after death. Its a small detail but it goes far in punctuating the differences between the classes.
Aurally, amidst the grunts and death screams of enemies, the subtle background music is the star. Somber violins punctuate your journey into darkened crypts and undercrofts, while the music ramps up to intense and frankly overdramatic levels during boss battles or encounters with multiple waves of enemies.
Perhaps Diablo 3’s ultimate legacy lies not in its visceral graphics, or atmospheric soundtrack, but its ability to reveal one of the psychological aspects of the human condition. Blizzard has become a master at fine tuning the addictive risk versus reward gameplay that lurks just under the surface in most of its games, however, it seems to reach a new level in Diablo 3.
Psychologically, as human beings, we crave rewards. Whether its that new promotion or raise at work, that fire truck you got for Christmas as a kid, or even the pat on the back from that project you turned in early, as a society and as individuals, we are hard wired to feel pleasure at accomplishing tasks, and reaping the benefits of those accomplishments.
This addictive nature of the effect of constant rewards is prominently on display in Diablo 3. You’re constantly being rewarded with new levels, new skills, new runes, new loot, new areas to explore, new enemies to conquer, etc. This bombardment of rewards stimulates the pleasure centers in our brain and so we want to continue playing, we want new skills and new loot, and this translates to a highly addictive, pleasurable experience.
You could make an argument that all games feature rewards that stimulate the pleasure centers in our brain, and you may have a point, but no other game in recent memory puts this mechanic so unapologetically on display. Diablo 3 is almost a pleasure simulator, psychologically speaking.
With its psychologically addictive gameplay, variety of classes, online and local multiplayer and console specific features, Diablo 3 Ultimate Evil Edition represents the pinnacle of the franchise, and one of Blizzard’s most polished works.