As a reviewer, sometimes I’m perfectly happy to receive a game well after it’s been released. Then the developer has a chance to release a patch, and the version I finally get to play is better and more stable than the original. But other times, like with Blizzard’s Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction, waiting is no fun at all. Right about the time I got my copy of the expansion pack and started working my way through the opening acts, Blizzard released a press statement saying that they’d already sold a million copies. So while I’m never sure just how many people read and care about my reviews, now I know that there are at least a million people out there who could care less about this one. As a consolation, though, a good percentage of those people probably ran out and bought the game without considering any reviews -- and for good reason. Blizzard hasn’t made a bad game yet, and they didn’t change the trend with Lord of Destruction.
Just in case you missed the hundreds of previews, ads, and other reviews for the game, Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction is an expansion pack for last summer’s Diablo 2. It picks up where the original game left off, with Diablo and Mephisto dead and you in hot pursuit of their brother, Baal. Baal has traveled north into the wintry home of the barbarians to seek out the Worldstone -- a sort of vague and mysterious object located on Mount Arreat -- and you’ll have to track down Baal and prevent him from corrupting the stone and bringing down the walls between hell and earth. In your way, of course, will be a full act’s worth of evil creatures to kill, and you’ll have to slaughter a good number of them before you can finally confront Baal and end the menace for good (unless, that is, there’s a Diablo 3).
The most important thing an expansion pack should do is add new stuff to a game, and Blizzard did a good job in that regard with Lord of Destruction. The most obvious addition is a new, full-sized act with its complement of places to explore, quests to complete, and creatures to kill (and kill and kill and kill). You start the act in Harrogath, and from there you’ll get to visit the battlegrounds surrounding the city (complete with catapults), frozen wastelands, crystalline passages, and underground temples. The locations all look pretty good, and they mesh well with the characters and creatures, but I just wish Blizzard had been a little more original in their choice of locales. (Is there an unwritten rule somewhere that says expansion packs have to include a snow terrain?) As for the creatures, I thought they were a little boring. There are some imps that teleport around, cast fireballs, and sometimes jump into defensive towers, but otherwise the act features a lot of lumbering melee attackers. There aren’t any (serious) reanimators, swarmers, leapers, or spellcasters, and so the act is much too friendly a place to gain experience. Lastly, the quests are about what you’d expect. Most of them have you kill a boss of one sort of another (just like in the other acts), but here Blizzard did a much better job of integrating the quests in with the story, and so there isn’t anything as unrelated and unnecessary as killing the Countess in the first act.
The second major addition to the game is the inclusion of two new classes -- assassin and druid. Assassins use “claw” weapons (think Freddy Krueger), and their most unique feature is their ability to use charge-up and finishing moves. The charge-up moves build up “charges” -- which can account for extra damage or spell effects -- while the finishing moves (or regular attacks) release them. Plus, assassins can also lay traps (not too different from casting spells), but their only good trap both explodes corpses (good) and casts lightning bolts (bad). And so assassins need to have very good timing and quick fingers in order to get their charge-ups and finishing moves right, plus cast their good trap spell so it doesn’t waste itself with lightning bolts. In the end, I never could coordinate all three things, and so I ended up ignoring the finishing skills. Druids, on the other hand, are highlighted by their ability to shape shift into werebears (big and mean) and werewolves (smaller but quicker). They have much less to do with hotkeys than assassins, and if they focus on summoning creatures rather than casting elemental spells (which they can’t do while shape shifted anyway), they might have less to do with hotkeys than even barbarians (which is saying something). And so druids and assassins have different requirements as far as coordination is concerned, and they give players a couple of versatile classes to try out while playing the game. Their only real problem is that they each have a number of skills closely related to skills from other classes -- a druid’s spirit of barbs is essentially the same as a paladin’s thorns, for example -- but I think this has more to do with Blizzard offering an excellent range of skills in the original release, and thus having nowhere really to go, than with them getting lazy with the expansion pack. However, I am a little surprised that Blizzard didn’t try to create some sort of healer / priest class, but then maybe they thought the paladin was close enough.
A third major addition with Lord of Destruction -- and one not mentioned as often as the other two -- is that Blizzard added quite a few things with regard to equipment. They added more set items and unique items, which was necessary because the old ones were generally for players under level 30; they added an elite class of items as a third tier over the normal and exceptional items; and they even added a bunch of class specific items, such as antlers for barbarians and preserved heads (yuck) for necromancers. Plus, there are now jewels as well as runes that can be placed in socketable items, and the runes can be placed in such a way as to form “rune words” to add even extra benefits. And if that weren’t enough, there are even items called charms that give benefits just from sitting in a player’s inventory. Basically, there is so much going on with equipment now that it’s impossible to keep track of it all without a (large) reference list, and I think that’s a good thing. The more possibilities and things there are to discover, the better.
One place where developers usually mess up with expansion packs is that they focus so much on adding new things to the game that they forget about fixing the problems with the game. But Blizzard got this part right as well. They added all sorts of improvements to Diablo 2 -- like a “repair all” button at armorers (and not having to repair items to get the best price for them any more), an increased stash size, and an 800x600 screen resolution (which really helps when playing the game). They even did unnecessary but nice things like allowing computer-controlled followers to “teleport” to catch up to their owners, and like allowing players to receive partial benefits when wearing at least two pieces of a set. The only thing that was on my gripe list for Diablo 2 that didn’t get fixed in Lord of Destruction is that 5’s still look like 6’s, but that’s easy to forgive given the other changes Blizzard made.
Overall, Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction is an excellent expansion pack. It adds things, it improves things, and it makes the game enjoyable to play again, even if you’re playing one of the original classes. Plus, even though it is (still) better in multiplayer mode than in single player mode, Blizzard finally got their act together with battle.net, and so I had exactly zero problems (from Blizzard’s end) while playing the game online, which is a much different story than when I played Diablo 2 after its release last summer. The only real caveat with Lord of Destruction is that its price -- $35 -- is higher than many full games. While I don’t approve of the escalation of expansion pack prices (and think New World Computing and 3DO did a terrible thing with the Heroes of Might and Magic 3 Chronicles), it’s hard to argue too much here given the amount of work that went into the title, given Blizzard’s always excellent production values, and given that a million people went out and bought the expansion pack anyway.