Ultimate Evil is Blizzard's ARPG at its most lavish - and it works beautifully on console, too.
I expect Deranged Cultists and Accursed Hellions whenever I wander into the Sundered Canyon, but this guy was clearly something else entirely. He looked like Giger's Alien for starters, and he warped in accompanied by too much fanfare and a sprightly burst of red mist. As he lunged at me, I sensed that in amongst the echoing grandeur that accompanies a war between heaven and hell, this particular brawl was personal. So personal, in fact, that I had better pay full attention to it and stop checking my email.
I've fought plenty of monsters in Diablo - and by fought I mean I've clicked on them or jabbed away at a face button until they were dead. My latest foe wasn't an ordinary monster, though. He was a nemesis. He'd already killed Digital Foundry contributor Tom Morgan in Tom's own game, and now he was here for me.
Spoilers: he killed me too. Then he warped back and killed Tom again, I gather, and then had a final go at me as I neared the boss at the end of the second act. That nemesis had grown in power each time, and although the whole thing's a pretty simple viral trick - a packet of monster, essentially, that pings around your friends list - it's a really good trick when you see it in action. A familiar face in amidst the procedural hordes Blizzard's so good at conjuring. A reminder that your hero, decked out in whatever armour you've found, dialled into whichever skills you've selected, is part of a wider community, and that we're all hacking and slashing through this together.
A nemesis is also a reminder that, although you've very possibly played through Diablo 3 on multiple occasions by this point, the Ultimate Evil edition still has a few new tricks to show you. A few.
A lot of the time, granted, this is simply the most lavish version yet of a game you may already know pretty well. If you've played Diablo 3 on the PC, you'll recognise a punchy, crunchy action RPG spread across the four acts of the original campaign, taking you from the Washington Irving woods of Tristram to the gaudy Winterval-in-a-shopping-mall finials and plazas of Heaven. You'll recognise a fifth, and much darker act in the shape of the Reaper of Souls expansion, too: a rattle across the grim wagon-strewn streets of Westmarch in pursuit of a spindly scythe-wielding monster - Les Mis directed by Poe.
Throughout this adventure, it remains a game that's both excessive and pared back - but not quite as pared back as it was at launch. So much had initially been sacrificed to make the skills and the lightning-rod classes the stars. Over time, though, Loot 2.0 has addressed the balance with fewer, more targeted drops, and the game has steadily come into focus as the best bit of vacuuming fan-fic ever created. Roar through the world sucking up everything in your path: loot for the loot bag, monsters for experience, lore books for the chance to have someone tell you a selection of hilariously dull and stagey asides. Want to know who built the Desert Aqueducts and when? Blizzard's itching to let you in on that.
If you've played it on console, Ultimate Evil will be equally familiar. The final act will be new, and the Crusader class is a must-see - a cheery zealot cast as a chrome-plated schoolyard bully - but you'll recognise the radial menus for equipment and skills and the more direct controls that switch Diablo 3 from a PC game about leading a hero through the world with clicks to a console game about pushing him into action like a holy Zamboni. The content's almost the same, but games are rarely just about the content. Diablo on console's a far swifter beast as you tumble from one fight to the next, and it's possibly slightly more immediately tactical with it. The mapping of skills to the controller makes their separate groupings and flavours really stand out - while simultaneously banishing the impulse to set yourself to cruise control and rely on the odd number keys glissando to get you out of trouble. It's not better or worse with a pad in your hand, but it is a separate entity with its own character. Pick a favourite.
What console players won't be prepared for, though, is the added graphical fidelity on PS4 and Xbox One, making for a cleaner, brighter battle that feels in line with the PC version running on a nice machine. Edges seem sharper, textures seem more richly detailed and I swear the effects seem livelier - all of it moving at a decent frame-rate. (Tom Morgan's written an excellent piece for today about the confusing implementation of 60fps on the PS4 build; I noticed a little stuttering when things got busy in certain locations, but nothing serious.) The Crusader's lightning sparks and shatters here. The Wizard's unruly magic casts nebulae of ice crystals and plasma. Cosmetic? With Diablo, this sort of stuff probably matters more than it should. Blizzard's monster thwacker has always been a simple jewel set in a lavish mount; now you can pretty much see the money powering the whole enterprise boiling into the sky with each kill.
More importantly, console players won't be prepared for the Adventure mode that follows the final act either - an endgame so intoxicating that you can almost forgive the churlishness of Blizzard's designers in locking it away until you've played through the campaign at least once. Adventure mode still seems like an unlikely gift from the obsessive-compulsives at Blizzard: sure, the team's been happy to randomise loot and dungeon layouts for years, but here it boils down the original design until it's little more than tilesets and lighting effects and the irresistible compulsion to smack people around.
Is Diablo diminished by such a reduction? Hardly. You can pick a path through any of the game's locations in adventure mode, facing unlikely arrangements of assets and monsters as you complete bounty missions and level your way to Nephalem Rifts. It's the Blizzard ARPG at its relentless best. Those Rifts bring out the really big guns and the really big rewards, and even in a game as jumbled as this, they can be disconcertingly random in their borrowings. (PlayStation players get a Last of Us-themed Nephalem Rift with Ultimate Evil edition, incidentally, filled with clickers and bloaters and stalkers. I thought I'd stumbled on it yesterday afternoon, but it turned out to be a bunch of boring old Heralds of Pestilence. I will keep looking.)
Beyond all of this there are, inevitably, a handful of tricks specific to the Ultimate Evil edition. Nemeses are joined by another neat piece of viral generosity, for example, which sees some of the legendaries you vacuum up sending out class-specific presents for your chums. That, in turn, is joined by a mailbox system waiting in every town, through which you can post your friends other bits of loot, too. Animal Crossing comes to Sanctuary; Mr Resetti has risen from the dead, and he's learned a vicious new spin attack. PlayStation players also get an additional themed treat in the form of Shadow of the Colossus armour, but none of this IP-checking breaks the logic of a design that's already abandoned logic anyway. What's a little harmless intertextual fun in a game that for years has been happy to let you shoot ghosts to death with a crossbow?
Finally, there's Apprentice Mode, which allows lower-level characters to be boosted temporarily into the realms of usefulness when playing alongside more powerful friends in multiplayer. Joining up with Tom Morgan online, his level 14 and my level 27 were able to work pretty harmoniously. When Bertie Purchese jumped in locally with a brand new character, however, he had a rougher time of it as he worked his way up from the very beginning.
Is that all? I'm not entirely sure. Coming from tens of hours spent in the PC version, I suspect rarity is much more common here - an odd sentence to type, perhaps, but a pleasure to behold all the same. I had a legendary drop in the first half-hour, for example - a Monster Hunter sword, its blade gluey with blood. I had three more legendary items well before the end of the second act, and eight by the time I was ready to start Reaper. Have the loot tables received an additional tweaking? Time will tell. We haven't seen the end of the meddling anyway, as Ultimate Evil, at least on current-gen consoles, will be receiving regular patches.
Speaking of patches, beyond everything else, Ultimate Evil feels like a good place to stand back and see what Diablo 3 actually looks like now, with the auction house dead and the first expansion bedded in. There has been time, hopefully, for players to set aside the game they wanted Diablo 3 to be and understand the game that it is.
And that game? It's a gaudy labyrinth, rammed with horrible foes and capable of drawing in the most casual adventurers before turning them into committed min-maxers. You know the sort? Forever fretting over paragon points, pursuing improbable armour sets and ceaselessly fine-tuning their personal demi-gods until the skills and the runes reveal a model of their sweetest desires.