Most of the attention lavished on Blizzard's recent press tour of Europe was obviously focused on their Next Big Thing, the fantasy strategy game Warcraft III. But while Bill Roper was over here he also took the time to show off the latest build of the massive Diablo II expansion pack.
The Show Must Go On
When Diablo II was finally released last year it became one of the fastest selling PC games of all time, so it was no great surprise to discover a few months later that an expansion pack to cash in on the run-away success of the game was already in the works.
This add-on, now known as Lord of Destruction, picks up where Diablo II left off and adds a new act to the end of the game. Baal is trying to reach the World Stone to corrupt it, which will result in only evil creatures being brought into the world, and as Blizzard's Bill Roper helpfully pointed out this is "obviously not a good thing". And so you find yourself in the middle of a full-scale war - the monsters aren't just standing around waiting to be killed anymore, they are battling barbarians, tending siege artillery, and patrolling their fortifications as they fight their way towards the mountain top where the World Stone is. The overall effect is certainly an improvement on the original game, and should make you feel like you are part of a larger conflict.
The new act will add around six to eight hours of extra gameplay to Diablo II, but this isn't all that you will get for your money. The original acts have also been rebalanced, along with changes to some of the game's spells, items and skills. Poison has been made more powerful, and causes more damage more rapidly than in the original game, which should make it more useful in the later stages of the game especially. Some spells are also more potent, but this is balanced by the addition of casting times to prevent the kind of rapid-fire spell use which brings frame rates and internet connections to their knees.
Two new character classes have also been added to the game's original cast of five, giving you more variety and another excuse to go back and play through the original game again, with new gameplay styles and special abilities on offer.
The first of the new classes is the assassin, an expert in martial arts with a range of special charged and finishing attacks which seem to have escaped from a beat 'em up. By combining different powers with your finishing moves you can unleash flaming meteors or lightning bolts, push enemies back, hit multiple targets, suck the life out of your target, or simply bump up the damage your blows can cause.
Assassins can also develop their skills in traps, allowing them to set up sentinels that will fire lightning bolts at passing enemies until they run out of energy, as well as a range of other more traditional hazards for unsuspecting monsters. Finally there is a range of psychic shadow abilities, ranging from Cloak of Shadows, which masks the player in darkness to make it harder for enemies to spot you, to the powerful Shadow Master skill, which creates a shadow of you that is able to fight independently and use all the same skills, weapons and abilities that you have.
Tree Huggers Of The World Unite
The other new character class is the druid, which has a choice of elemental magic, summoning and shapeshifting abilities. Spell effects vary from meteor storms and volcanos spitting molten rock to hurricanes that can hurl smaller creatures away from you and damage larger ones with flying debris, and all of them look rather impressive.
These spells can only be used while you are in human form, but once you have learnt how to shapeshift into a werewolf or similar half-human half-animal form you will gain access to a whole new selection of abilities, as well as having different statistics and attacks depending on which of the creatures you become. For example, rabies can infect any monsters that you hit during hand-to-hand combat and cause further disease damage, while other skills can increase your attack rate and other attributes.
Regardless of which form you are in, a whole range of plants and animals can be summoned to aid your druid in combat, although unlike the necromancer's creations these have a limited duration - they cannot be killed, but instead will stay until their time is up or they have carried out a certain number of attacks. Wolves, ravens and other summoned animals can be strengthened using various spirits, meaning that even in the later stages of the game these less powerful creatures won't be completely useless. Meanwhile vines and creepers can tunnel underground and grab hold of nearby creatures to poison them, or even consume corpses to replenish your own health.
Players with existing Diablo II characters can convert them over to work with the expansion set (although they then won't be able to use them online with people who don't own the add-on), and there are new items for the original five classes as well as the new ones.
Class-specific items such as animal pelts for druids and the claw-like melee weapons of the assassin are added to totems for necromancers and other new weapons, equipment and armour for the old classes. Several hundred new item descriptions have also been added to the game, and the random item system can use these to produce literally hundreds of thousands of new objects for you to gather. To make some space for these the size of your inventory has been increased, and a secondary weapon slot has been added to enable quicker switching in the heat of battle, for example allowing you to easily change from a bow to a sword as your enemy gets closer.
There have also been changes to combination items. No longer are the pieces that make up these artifacts scattered across all four acts of the game, so finding all the components should be somewhat easier. And once you have assembled your special item it should prove to be rather more useful, with some items having abilities that become more powerful as the level of your character increases, making sure that even at the end of the game you won't be throwing away the magical equipment that you gathered earlier on.
According to Bill Roper the expansion pack is now content complete and the company is just beta testing, bug hunting and balancing it all now. But with a whole new act, two new character classes and a wide range of new items and monsters, that could take some time. Still, the pack is apparently still on schedule for a summer release, so Diablo II fans don't have much longer to wait...