The first major content patch for Diablo 3's Reaper of Souls expansion was released just over a week ago, and so rather than spending my first real holiday of 2014 as I'd intended, focusing on the house, wife and baby I've acquired in the space of 12 months, I ended up playing a rather worrying amount of a Blizzard game instead. Plus ça change...
There's a fair bit of new content to take in here, most of it very positive for a game that's sold by the lorryload yet has always struggled to shake off the grumbles surrounding its always-online, auction-house origins, and a community that tends to show its love for a franchise by dishing out a good kicking on a daily basis. Here's a quick look at what's changed for the better over the last week.
Introducing Greater Rifts
Greater Rifts are the star of the show and are spiced-up versions of the Nephalem Rifts introduced in the Reaper of Souls expansion. Rather than simply tearing your way through monster after monster until a progress bar fills up and a boss spawns, you're also up against the clock in these new zones. Complete each Rift within 15 minutes, and you get the chance to either enter a more challenging version of the dungeon, or upgrade one of the new Legendary Gems that drop from the Greater Rift Guardians.
These new adventures are a genuinely thrilling addition to Diablo's end-game farming frenzy. To keep you pushing harder, there are also leaderboards that track your best times, immortalising that moment when your heart stopped as you killed the boss with four seconds left on the clock. To aid this speed-clearing process, you no longer have to scoop up every piece of loot that drops as you battle your way to the finishing line. Instead, the new Rift Guardian detonates upon death, unleashing a glorious shower of loot into the room. Along with the acres of Gold and Gems that litter the floor, you can expect to hear at least one of those tantalising pings that herald the arrival of a Legendary or Set item.
The delicious allure of doing something genuinely new in a game that's all about doing the same thing over and over again can be a little deceptive, but I can't see myself getting bored of these racy events for some time to come. The new cycle of completing Bounties in order to participate in regular Rifts, so you can in turn gain access to Greater Rifts makes for a very rewarding pyramid of progression. We'll see if the satisfaction's long-lived.
As someone who loves these sorts of games but typically scurries to the safety of an internet sage whenever stats show up, the new Legendary Gems have thrown a bit of a spanner in the works for my max-level characters. These quirky combat boosters have a - very good - chance of dropping from the Greater Rift bosses, but they can only be socketed into rings and necklaces.
The twist is, good versions of these jewellery items rarely come with sockets as standard. You can use the Mystic to turn a single weak stat on each piece into something more useful - such as a socket - but you can't change the stat once you've gambled it once. Characters are not so easily re-balanced after months of money, farming time and tweaking have been invested into them.
Right now I'm getting more use out of these gems as I level my last couple of characters to 70, a time when it's easier to play fast and loose with the stats on your gear and the skills in your build. I'll decide how these all fit in with the end-game gear on my main heroes when the community's done crunching the numbers.
Diablo 3's Season play
How a younger, time-richer me would have loved the masochistic competitiveness of 2.1's new Seasons system. In a game that's about acquiring everything, Seasons gives you the chance to throw it all away and start all over again. Gold? Gone. Characters and crafters? Gone. You start at Level 1 in every possible sense, and then race to be the best-geared badass by the time the current period of competition ends.
So why bother? Well, each Season introduces new Legendary items to hunt down and lust over, as well as leaderboards if you can reach certain milestones ahead of the pack. There are also special achievements to be earned and Transmogrification options to unlock. The thing is, the new Legendary items will also be released into the general loot pool once the Season's ended, making the most valuable reason to participate feel rather redundant. Put simply, Seasons are either a fun race to a re-positioned finishing line with some shiny new medals attached, or a gift for the man who truly has nothing - a question of perspective.
The new Cesspools environment
It's unusual for Blizzard to release a bit of unfinished work later in a product's life, rather than simply extend the polishing process even further, but 2.1 has also brought with it a new bit of cosmetic content. As well as providing a new environmental tile-set, the underground sewers of the Cesspool build upon one of the most effective yet superficially insignificant additions to Reaper's Rifts - darkness.
In the Cesspools, you're never entirely sure what you're going to find around the zone's many darkened corners, and the ramshackle structures spread around the area also do much to obscure the path ahead. Rather splendidly, these grimy tunnels are typically packed to the rafters with the kind of fat, throbbing monsters which specialise in spawning dozens of pestilent enemies from their guts - deliriously welcome when you're racing against a Greater Rift's clock.
If no-one's found any game-breaking exploits within the next month or so, we'll be able to make a call on how successful the comprehensive class re-balancing act of patch 2.1 has been. It's nice to see plenty of changes all round - and even an additional set of armour for the Crusader - but it's even nicer to see Blizzard state its philosophical intentions behind the extensive tinkering that's been undertaken. No-one likes to see an aspect of their class get downgraded, after all, but at least now you can find out exactly why you're being shafted. The changes are comprehensive to say the least, and can be found in more detail over at the game's official site.