Before I begin, I need to give a special thanks to Doug McCreary from Blizzard Entertainment, who was able to enroll a bunch of us here at Slashdot in the beta program. When was the last time John Carmack mailed CowboyNeal a beta? Never, I say. Doug McCreary is clearly a god among men.
A lot! Blizzard has followed in the tradition of Brood War, an expansion set that dramatically changed Starcraft gameplay, with an expansion set that will dramatically change the gameplay of Diablo 2. I can't even list all the new items, features, and changes in this space, but I can at least outline the major ones.
First off, the game now has the option of running at 800x600 instead of 640x480. This really doesn't add much besides an increased field of view, but I preferred the new resolution over the old. An added bonus is that the new stat/skill buttons get moved onto the bottom toolbar when in 800x600, so they don't interfere with your vision when you are saving points.
Next up, there's a new minimap which will display in the corner of the screen rather than take up the entire screen and force one to look through it. I got used to looking through my map to see my character fight, but I never liked it.
Some of the engine changes are less noticeable: Shift+right mouse click on a potion in a store will completely fill your belt with that potion type. Shift+right mouse click on a scroll will completely fill the corresponding tome with that scroll type, and the blacksmith in each town now features a "Repair All" button which repairs all items that are equipped. All of these features save a lot of time when making a quick run through town.
Mercenaries/Hirelings have been totally revamped to make them worthwhile. I remember receiving a hireling for completing a quest only to have him die as soon as I leave town. Whatever the hireling's name, I used to always refer to mine as "Redshirt of the Away Team," since my party always seemed to come home one member short. Now, the hirelings are stronger, and one has the option to supply them with healing potions and manipulate their inventory. Instead of just selling that last suit of armor, now you can improve your mercenary's defenses with it. After receiving a rogue mercenary in Act 1, she stayed alive until halfway through Act 2, even surviving (and helping immensely) in the battle against Andariel at the end of Act 1.
Another great new feature is weapon switching. One is allowed to equip two items in each hand, and switch back and forth with a hot key. I liked to equip a bow or missile weapon in the second slot for those times when I could see the enemy but not be able to reach them and attack with a melee weapon. This new feature will also be great for barbarians to switch weapons quickly while wading through monsters. I can also think of uses for my necromancer, like quickly equipping a wand with a skill point bonus to a certain spell before casting the spell.
New Character Classes
In addition to the five character classes that shipped with the original, the expansion pack includes two more classes, to give even more choices when starting a character. Some of the skills of the original five classes have been tweaked to better balance the classes, and it will be interesting to see where these classes fit with respect to fighting style, player vs. player, and so on.
The assassin focuses on martial arts, shadow disciplines, and traps. Some of the assassin's skills allow her to summon duplicates of herself, lay traps for unsuspecting enemies, and use power-up moves and finishing moves that increase the damage inflicted, add magic damage to an attack, or increase her attack rating.
The assassin is the only class that can wield claws, and the shadow disciplines tab contains skills that increase the assassin's proficiency with claw class weapons and let her use two claws to block, instead of carrying a shield. Also, as the name indicates, she has plenty of ass.
The druid was my character class of choice for playing through the game, because of his ability to shapeshift into a bear and maul his opponents, which has been a lifelong dream of mine, and since I probably won't be acquiring lycanthropy as a skill anytime soon in real life, D2 now provides me with the next best thing.
The druid has a unique combination of skills which lets him play several different ways. He can summon minions ala the necromancer, undertake elemental attacks not entirely unlike the sorceress', and shapeshift into either a werewolf or werebear. Some of the druid's skills are only available to him when he is in shapeshifted form, making his character as complex as the necromancer, and very rewarding to play.
The new items are probably going to change gameplay the most. Since the original four acts have no new quests or monsters, what makes them different in the expansion is all the new items dropped by monsters. I'd guess that there are now twice as many types of items to find as there were in the original version.
Socketable items and gems were almost worthless once past normal difficulty in the original, but they've been revamped to make them a large part of gameplay. Items that were not previously socketable, like bone shields and suits of armor, can now sport up to 6 sockets. Many magic, set, and rare items also come with sockets, so when one finds that super cool rare helm, it's still tweakable by adding a gem, jewel, or rune. In short, sockets and gems don't suck anymore.
Runes? What's that? Well, runes are a new socketable item similar to gems except that equipping multiple runes in the correct order will unlock even more magic modifiers on the item they are inserted into.
The expansion set also introduces charms. Charms have magic properties similar to rings and amulets, except they can't be equipped. Instead, they just need be kept in one's inventory to get the magic bonuses they carry. Instead of hunting around for an item with fastest hit recovery, one can throw a charm with the same modifier into the backpack.
Finally, new class-specific item types have been introduced, such as orbs for the sorceress, animal heads for the druid, and shields for the paladin. These items are only usable by the class they are intended for, and usually have some sort of skill point bonus as well as magic properties. This means that even if my druid can't use that great eagle orb I found, it will still have enough modifiers on it to make it sell well when I get back to town.
This was by far the most anticipated part of the expansion set for me, since it means all my old characters will have new quests to complete. Act 5 takes place in the Barbarian highlands north of Tristram and the Rogue Encampment. It introduces several new NPCs, including the first blacksmith in Diablo 2 who looks like a real blacksmith. I'm all for political correctness, but there's no way the women blacksmith in Acts 1 and 2 are gonna be able to hammer steel day in and out. The smiths in Acts 3 and 4 aren't much better, with Halbu acting like he's trying to get up enough courage to ask the paladin out on a date. Act 5 also features 6 new quests, and some of the best graphics in the game. Even in the wasteland regions of the new act, it's easy to tell that the level of detail was turned up a notch. The randomly-generated terrain seems hardly random, and there's all kinds of new tilesets to fight in, including ice caverns, mountaintops, and portals back into Hell if you didn't get enough of the River of Flame in Act 4.
At the beginning of Act 5, the town of Harrogath is under siege by a tribe of demons, and the town's NPCs enlist the player to help end the siege. It does seem kind of odd that an entire village of barbarians wouldn't be able to fend off demons, and that my druid was the much needed aid that turned the battle around, but I don't play this game for the plot.
The hirelings in Act 5 are barbarians, and when my druid reached Harrogath, he was able to hire barbarians that were at a higher level than he was. Combined with the new ability to heal hirelings and manipulate their inventory, they make for an excellent investment. It was a bit odd, however, to have the barbarians that needed rescuing in the previous quest suddenly come to fight by your side. I had to think for a moment before I was sure I wanted to hire one. When my barbarian was level 30, he kicked ass, took names, and gave Charsi the ride of her life, yet these level 30 barbarians were able to be captured by demons. The same demons who were easily defeated by my level 28 druid. No real barbarian is going to sit by while some pansy master of the woodlands saves him.
The quest rewards in Act 5 show off some of the new items, such as runes, and one quest even lets one personalize an item of his/her choice by having the character's name prepended to it.
I liked all of the new features, and really can't wait for the game to ship, so I can start importing my old characters and equipping them with all the new items. The new, higher resolution and the new minimap are easily my favorite new features. Also, I like the increased stash space, which is twice what it was before, so that it's easier to save more items, especially all the new items that can go into sockets.
Of course, the gameplay is still on for me. It was the gameplay that addicted me to Diablo 2 when it shipped last July, and a few new tweaks made that good gameplay even better.
Not much. I still have a list of dislikes but my list of dislikes is much shorter than the original Diablo 2. An issue that has plagued every version of Diablo starting with the original Diablo is that the font they use makes the fives look like sixes. Has no one else noticed?!? I know it's just the font. But fix it already. I'm tired of squinting to see if I'm level 56 or 66. I'm tired of the people advertising that their weapon does 160% more damage to undead, and I'm tired of seeing items advertised on ebay that claim that they reduce poison length by 26%.
Filling up your belt with potions after you die still sucks. They've added shortcuts to buying potions and scrolls, and it seems that something could be done with the belt once you've retrieved your corpse and just want to get back up to fighting speed again.
In a couple places, I really needed to suspend disbelief in order to continue the plot, but it's not like the plot was stellar in the original either. More important than the plot to me is kicking a few monsters' asses, which I got to do.
If you liked Diablo 2 the first time around, you are probably gonna like the expansion. People who blew off Diablo 2 last summer are gonna blow off the expansion set, since the enhancements are geared more for the person who will log some serious time into the game, rather than the casual player. Some of the engine enhancements almost feel like they are bugfixes rather than new features. If Blizzard wanted to do a noble deed, they could backport the new features not dependent on Act 5 or the new items, so that the existing Diablo 2 players could enjoy what a year of feedback and tweaking since the original has produced. Regardless, I'm sold on it. I've already pre-ordered two copies. Two copies? Yes, two copies. Make note, game companies: Including CowboyNeal in your beta programs will increase your sales, so long as your game does not suck.
Preview Part 2: Electric Boogaloo
After hearing about my plans to review the Diablo 2 expansion, my good friend Sam Zenpus also wrote up an excellent account of his experiences playing with the assassin. It follows below.
When I heard there was a Diablo2 expansion coming out with a new act, two new classes, and other new features, I couldn't wait. Much of my day for the past year has been spent having tea with Deckard and talking to Fara about the incredibly strong female blacksmith union that has infiltrated the land. I was most interested in playing the assassin; the barbarian was my favorite class -- no running from evil, and most importantly I didn't have to map out all eight hotkeys. I also have an aversion to playing female characters. What about Joan of Arc or Athena? you might say. I guess I've watched too much anime and the little school girl who turns out to be a demon alien cyborg with a mega-cannon arm has gotten the better of me.
Imagine my chagrin when I loaded the beta and discovered that the assassin is both a female character and has one of the most complicated hotkey configurations of any class.
My worries turned out to be unfounded as the assassin proved to be extremely versatile and a heck of a lot of fun. One-on-one, there probably isn't a better class. Her martial arts skills are deadly effective in combat, and a couple of charged-up finishing moves can destroy the hardest of foes. The trap skills are very effective at taking out large groups of creatures or creating a relatively safe area to run back to. The assassin also has a set of miscellaneous psychic skills that range from increasing your speed to converting opponents.
The expansion has fixed or changed some features for the better: You now have more hotkeys to use, gems seem to be worth something and you can tell exactly what bonus you will get before placing them into socketed items. There are runes and jewels that work just like powerful gems. A much increased inventory size and map that fits into the left hand corner of your screen round out the changes I like in the expansion.
The only complaint I have is they made the game much harder and allow you to collect items that increase your abilities by an incredible amount, thus creating a bloated equilibrium. I know people who need a mule to carry all the charms, jewels, runes and magic faces they have. It seems the most powerful characters in the expansion will look more like walking trinket shops than heroes.
If you like Diablo2, you will like the expansion. The added classes and Act make it seem new again and the improvements to existing features really round out the game. So start giving plasma or collecting cans, because when this one comes out you need to have it. I suggest you play the assassin; she's a dirty girl.