What does Diablo 3's new patch offer for the end-game player?
The Grift that keeps on giving.
Diablo 3 makes an art of relentlessly gouging your time, but rarely your wallet. If the Auction House had persisted it would be a different story, but Blizzard's hectic smash-and-grab has maintained its flip-reversed trajectory to become one of the most lovingly-maintained games in recent memory.
Since the game's launch in 2012 a steady stream of updates have added layers of complex, compelling and mutually-amplifying processes and tools to refine and power up your character. The Paragon system alone will soak up thousands of hours of play, and the endless lottery of loot drops, the daily-style Bounties and options to burn your hard-earned materials crafting elusive, perfectly rolled gear in Kanai's Cube for all intents and purposes makes Diablo 3 a game you never need to stop playing.
So, why the latest patch? 2.4.0 feels like Blizzard showboating - a high profile demonstration of the team's creative resources, a firm handshake to the game's community and, I suspect, part of a shadowy PhD project studying behavioural psychology. It's also, if you look for it, a sign of Blizzard thinking about what comes next, about what a Diablo storyline should look like now that Adventure Mode is the new heart of the game.
It's a generous update. 2.4.0 offers expansions to new areas - such as the Yeti-infested Eternal Woods and the ornately detailed Royal Quarters, while fresh bounties have been added to the end game to provide a much-needed injection of variety. Set dungeons provide even more of an encouragement to gather the best loot and truly understand the way that it all works together, and a handful of quality-of-life changes make the endless grind more enjoyable throughout.
Most interesting, however, is Greyhollow Island, an entirely new area located off the coast of Westmarch.
Greyhollow Island is an Adventure Mode edition which will be a new home for bounties, but also manages to thread a little storytelling into the mix. It's a supernatural, storm-battered forest island where the main theme is man against Blizzard's version of nature: huge bear-things lunge at you before shedding their skin to reveal gigantic skeletons, beasts erupt from lightning-struck trees, and there's even a nasty kind of antlered monster waiting to do you in. It's richly detailed, craggy and riddled with mossy grottoes, and it feels significantly more alive than many Diablo 3 environments. Crucially, it's designed to drip feed its surprises to the player through many, many visits.
As a Paragon 342 Wizard running the Firebird's Finery set, I've been uncovering the story slowly, both through lore books found in the satchels that cover the landscape, and through a crazed hermit who I keep killing - and who keeps remembering that I've killed him the next time I see him. It's interesting to see Diablo working out how to tell a story without breaking it down into quests - by scattering it over events, say, and by allowing it to emerge from the landscape.
As an end game player for whom Diablo 3 has become a repetitive and soothing daily meditation, with occasional, miraculous breakthroughs of Ancient Legendary loot drops combined with steady levelling of Paragon Points, Legendary Gems and refinement of Set piece builds, what I'm looking for in 2.4.0 - and in Greyhollow Island - is new gear and changes to old favourites. I'm looking for ever more power to bring back the excitement of burning through previously out-of-reach Grift levels, as well as new secrets and overly-complex Hellfire Amulet-style farming projects, and a widening of the world and its lore. (A new class or two, and the introduction of Seasons to consoles are set to remain fever dreams for the moment.)
Patch 2.4.0 certainly delivers, but also triggers questions that the enigmatic Blizzard will never answer ahead of time. How long will free support like this continue? Is this paving the way for Diablo 4? Or are we destined to eke out the last drops of entertainment from this tentatively-expanding world for years to come?
If you're a grind apologist, this patch will effectively extend your commitment and enjoyment, but it's unlikely to change the mind of those reluctant to mentally relocate to Sanctuary.
It's worth noting that 2.4.0 has caused some performance problems on console. Digital Foundry has the story here.