Blizzard excels at expansions. Brood War, Lord of Destruction and The Burning Crusade have all demonstrated the developer’s ability to build and expand upon seminal entries in the RTS, ARPG and MMO genres. Now, Blizzard is about to release an expansion to Diablo III, a game that received perhaps a flatter response from players than any Blizzard game before it.

Amongst the criticisms levelled at the game were its insistence on always-online gameplay, a real-money auction house that incentivised players to spend less time battling demonic hordes in Sanctuary and more time scrolling through menus in search of that Legendary sword, and a character progression system that felt a little to constricted.

Reaper of Souls addresses almost all of those concerns. The expansion takes players to the gothic kingdom of Westmarch. With Diablo, his brothers, and their lieutenants all captured within the Black Soulstone, Malthael, the fallen angel of Wisdom has set about wiping out humanity, a tainted bastard race spawned from the unnatural union of demons and angels.

Most immediately, the game better captures the darker tone that was once synonymous with Diablo. The narrow streets of Westmarch are littered with thousands of dead. The tall architecture, buttressed and adorned with spires, lends a stifling, brooding, grim aesthetic the opening passages of Reaper of Souls. A constant drizzle falls and runs in rivulets around cobblestones.

Beyond Westmarch, players will visit bogs and marshes, and finally, return to the eternal battlefields of Pandemonium. A critical revision is true randomisation in each of these zones. Whereas in Diablo III, each level was made from large tile sets often with prescribed entry and exit points, or with prescribed outlines, Reaper of Souls reintroduces true level randomisation.

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls hands-on
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls hands-on

“We really wanted to get the game to be truly random,” senior level designer Dave Adams tells Gameplanet. “We had a lot of static exterior stuff the first go around, and the biggest priority for my team was to get all the zones completely random.

“Every zone you go into rolls differently. In Diablo III, each zone would have a static edge, cut outs, really. Now the whole thing is completely random. I can go in one side, and out the other, or I might start at the bottom next time.”

It’s a welcome addition, and Adams doesn’t anticipate that the system will result in numerous dead-ends and frequent back-tracking. “We can test the random level generator system and see where everything is in the game, and we can make sure it’s not sending you to a lot of dead ends, or empty corridors.”

In addition, many new and interesting ideas that appeared in the console edition of Diablo III have been implemented in Reaper of Souls. This includes targeted loot and Nephalem Glory, yellow orbs that add incremental buffs to the player or party, and that change the gameplay dynamics moment-to-moment.

Game designer Travis Day says most of those ideas were initially formulated around Reaper of Souls and adopted late by Diablo III on console. “We were like, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do in the expansion’, and they were like, ‘That’s really cool!’”

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls hands-on
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls hands-on
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls hands-on

There’s no poaching or friendly rivalry between the PC and console teams, however. “We constantly find ourselves trying to solve the same problems, independently of one another,” says Day. “Whenever we identify things or find ourselves working on the same areas we combine forces like Captain Planet.”

The expansion also introduces a new class, the Crusader. The character is almost homage to the Diablo II Paladin. “The Crusader is a very much the embodiment of a tank,” continues Day. “The barbarian, in some peoples’ minds, filled that role previously, but only because he was sort of close to it.

“I think the Crusader better fits the role of the hard tank. It’s also a very different playstyle to the barbarian and the monk given that he has lots of righteous wrath and mid-ranged mechanics so he’s more of an intermediary between a melee character and a ranged character, and you can choose play him how you want.”

“Wrath feeds into wanting to melee, but being able to be ranged if you want.”

Most appealing for traditional Diablo fans will be refinements to the Paragon system and the introduction of a new Adventure Mode. Patched in after Diablo III’s release, Paragon levels increased a single character’s statistics such as strength and dexterity, and also passive bonuses such as Magic Find.

This new iteration of Paragon levels will be account-wide, and – most critically – players will be able to choose where to spend points on any statistic. “We wanted players to feel like they were being rewarded. We don’t want people to feel like they’re tied to one character and can’t play a different one because they’ve invested so much time in paragon farming,” says Day. These are important changes and it feels now like the game begins at the level cap.

Adventure Mode breaks down the traditional linear structure for those who are no longer interested in following the story. In Adventure Mode, all waypoints in all acts are unlocked, allowing players to move around the game more easily, and without having to exit to menus.

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls hands-on
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls hands-on
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls hands-on

The Mode also introduces two new features: Bounties and Nephalem Rifts. Nephalem Rifts are randomised zones that mash-up level designs, creatures and bosses.

“You go into a cathedral, and all the monsters are themed cathedral and you make your way down,” says Adams of the current game. “In this we’ve put tile-sets together in multiple ways. You might be in a cathedral themed one, but the next level down is a cave, and we combine monsters in new ways that we don’t typically do. Strange combinations that work together that we thought would be cool to fight.”

In another throwback to the series’ traditional gameplay, the boss monsters will exist on the map in addition to mobs of trash creatures, meaning players can run aground attempting to kite unique creatures.

Bounties are quests randomly assigned when starting an Adventure Mode game. There are 25 random bounties to complete across five acts. These range from simply killing a boss, or completing an event, to killing a unique spawned randomly in the world or fully clear a dungeon (think “Den of Evil” from Diablo II).

One area that has not been addressed is the always-online requirement. The reasons provided by Blizzard for its continued implementation, to promote interactivity and cloud saving and cross-game chat, all ring empty and sound unsatisfactory.

If connectivity is a sticking issue for you, Reaper of Souls will not currently address your concerns. But anyone else who barely registers the fact that their computer connects to the internet when it boots up, Reaper of Souls represents an important evolution in the ARPG genre with a clear focus on an end-game that does away dull grind in favour of a more dynamic and challenging experience.

Welcome home, Diablo fans.