Who likes to leave a job incomplete? Diablo, the Lord of Terror, apparently wasn't yet down for the count when we dispatched him at the end of the original 1996 game. So we waited four years for Blizzard North to release a sequel and then pursued the horned devil through four new environments in order to more conclusively smite the Prime Evil. But even though we eventually accomplished that task, we let one of Diablo's companions, Baal, escape our righteous wrath. The upcoming Diablo II expansion pack will finally let us remedy that omission and complete our purge of the demonic upstarts by sending us back to the world of Sanctuary for one final adventure.
The expansion pack will add one final act to Diablo II's storyline as well as a couple of new character classes and dozens of new items. A lot more thought has gone into the creation of this expansion pack than the one published for the original Diablo game. Defunct development house Synergistic Software produced the expansion pack for the original Diablo; as a result, the additional areas and creatures didn't integrate well with those in the original game. That won't be a problem this time around, as Blizzard is internally developing the add-on for the sequel. While some expansion packs are hastily assembled to capitalize on the commercial success of a title, Blizzard contemporaneously plotted the expansion pack while developing Diablo II and always intended to use the add-on to complete the tale.
Unlike the abbreviated final Act in Diablo II, the expansion pack will feature six full quests and should add a significant amount of gameplay. Reflecting the ascension of Baal after the events depicted in Diablo II, the expansion pack was originally going to be simply dubbed the "Diablo II Expansion: Lord of Destruction," but that name will likely change because Blizzard encountered problems when it tried to copyright the title. The expansion pack storyline commences several months after Diablo II's conclusion, specifically after Baal has begun the conquest of the Northern Steppes, the homeland of the barbarians.
Instead of starting characters off in a relatively tranquil setting, the add-on immediately challenges you to confront a siege initiated by Baal's forces. The two initial areas of the add-on are the somewhat scorched barbarian town of Harrogath and the battlefields of the nearby Arreat Foothills. Blizzard's development team is aiming to create a much more dynamic feel to the game's new areas by stocking them with friendly nonplayer characters that'll assist you in fighting Baal's forces. NPCs in Diablo II were just available for recruitment in civilized areas, but these NPCs will be encountered out in the wilderness, already locked in battle with creatures. You won't have to bribe these NPCs into joining your cause, and they won't be dependent upon direction from the player characters. Rallying against Baal's assault, the barbarian hordes have launched a full-scale counterattack against the Lord of Destruction's forces, and the developer wants you to feel more as if your characters were part of a larger struggle against Baal. It's a design decision that the developer hopes to implement in the other new add-on territories as well so that the gaming world doesn't seem so dependent upon your heroic actions.
Computer-controlled allies aren't a completely new feature in Diablo-style games - Westwood's Nox had several levels during which your character would receive unsolicited assistance from the world's inhabitants. But the developer of the expansion pack is aiming to make the new environments more dynamic in other ways as well. Aside from being populated by friendly forces, the initial battlefield areas in the expansion pack are constantly being pelted by catapult fire launched from impressive siege weapons. The first quest in the game involves stomping the Siege Lord in charge of the assault on the barbarians. If you're tired of fireballs raining down on you and disrupting your progress (and who isn't?), you can take a brief detour to destroy the massive catapults.
Several of the creatures in Diablo II, like the Fallen Shamans, could respawn lesser creatures that you had previously dispatched. In the expansion pack, the developer intends to add an even broader variety of symbiotic relationships between creature types. The infantry of the Siege Lord is largely made up of Minions, a type of enemy encountered early in the expansion pack territories. Minions have a pretty standard melee attack and generally aren't too threatening. But there's also an Overseer creature that can heal Minions or make use of a large bullwhip that it carries to either attack your character or to provide some not-so-gentle encouragement to the Minions, which causes them to frenzy and attack more aggressively.
Imps are another new enemy type, and they hurl a glowing magical attack that's reminiscent of the attack of the witches and succubae in the original Diablo. Imps will occasionally teleport away from melee attacks, which should make them a frustrating foe unless your characters are equipped with ranged attacks of their own. But Imps can become even more dangerous by interacting with another of the new enemy types, a siege tower. Imps can scale the towers in order to launch a more effective attack from a fortified position. Other new monsters include:
Blood lords: One of the toughest hand-to-hand combat opponents in the game.
Frozen horrors: Enemies that are abundant in the northern territories of the world of Sanctuary. They can attack with a cold inferno blast that is more dangerous than its fiery counterpart.
Rot walkers: The ultimate zombie warriors, these undead terrors will randomly rise again - up to three times after being defeated unless you destroy their corpses.
Altogether there'll be around 15 new enemy types included with the expansion pack, plus a few additional boss creature variants. As usual, there'll be a number of variations of each of the new creature types, each with its own distinct coloring and attributes.
Kicking Butt and Planting Trees
The two new classes are suitably different from the five classes that shipped with the original game (although they seem more than a little inspired by EverQuest character classes). Like the five character classes in Diablo II, both of the new classes will have 30 unique skills, divided into three sets of ten related skills. Naturally, you'll be able to use the new characters in the original territories or those included with the add-on, in single- or multiplayer mode.
The assassin is a new female character who has skill trees for martial arts, shadow disruption, and traps. The assassin looks exactly like a more limber version of Natalya, a static nonplayer character featured in Diablo II who offered a modicum of assistance during your hunt for Diablo. While many of the martial arts skills available to the assassin are Jet Li-style kicks and chops that you might intuitively expect, there are some martial arts skills that involve more than manual dexterity, like the dragon-breath attack. The shadow-disruption skills are varied, and they include lure, which should come in handy for luring enemies into your traps set with the assassin's third set of skills. There are a delightfully nasty variety of traps, including blades that sweep through an area and sentinels that launch charged bolts or sprinkle spikes when triggered.
Even more interesting is the druid, an imposing 7-foot tall fellow that the development team has christened the Lord of the Forest. The druid's three skill tabs are divided into shape shifting, elemental, and summoning skills. Shape shifting skills allow druids to assume the form of a condor, dire wolf, or mammoth bear. By turning into a condor, you will be able to circumvent some obstacles entirely, since aerial creatures are largely immune from attack. The summoning skills let druids summon ravens, a variety of plague poppy plants, wolves, or a single grizzly bear. Plague poppies travel underground and shadow the druid or another ally by bursting to the surface to surprise nearby opponents. Lastly, the elemental skills provide a mixture of fire and air attacks. The elemental attacks include: firestorm, which sends out long streams of fire and resembles Diablo's attack in the main game; molten bolder, which damages and knocks back foes and then explodes; cold inferno, which does less damage, has a shorter range than its hot counterpart, and is more deadly because it has the additional effect of slowing recipients; twister, which sends a cyclone rampaging across the gaming world; and volcano, which raises the ground and hurls fire in a manner that will make Populous fans nostalgic.
Naturally, the expansion pack will also add a ton of new magic items and, at last, a somewhat larger stash to store your character's possessions. The developer hasn't revealed just how much larger a character's stash will be in the expansion, but space will still be relatively restricted, as the developer wants to force you to keep making those tough decisions about which items to keep. In addition to gems, there will now also be runes that can be fitted into socketed items. There will also be a number of new matching sets of items, and the developer intends to make each item in a set more consistently useful.
One of the few changes in the expansion pack that will impact upon the established character classes is the introduction of a key item type for each class. Druids will get special use out of animal pelts that will provide protection and change the appearance of the druid (although it seems somewhat hypocritical for the nature-friendly druids to be decked out in spiffy furs); assassins will get bonuses for using a variety of claws (including some that would make X-man Wolverine proud); paladins will get special abilities from shields; sorcerers will get unique abilities from orbs; barbarians will get additional value from helms; amazons will be more adept with a variety of gloves; and necromancers will gain power from shield totems.
There'll also be two new cutscenes that function as bookends to the expansion pack's storyline. There may also be some new shrines, although the developer is still debating the utility of adding original shrines (but there'll definitely be new shrine art). There'll be some new art for the character classes in the original game, but otherwise those classes are likely to be unchanged, although the developer still hasn't ruled out adding some additional, more powerful skills or replacing some of the less useful ones. One criticized aspect of the original that definitely won't change is the game's relatively dated graphical resolution, which will still be limited to 640x480. That's somewhat disappointing, but not unexpected, and the graphics for the expansion already look at least as good as the best graphics featured in Diablo II. The developer also hasn't undertaken to use the expansion to deliver some of the promised multiplayer Battlenet clan features that were deleted from the game's original release, which will disappoint the multiplayer game's most dedicated fans.
The enhancements and additions, such as the increased participation of NPC allies and the new character classes, do add both replayability and more varied gameplay and environments. The additions also seem to integrate better with Diablo II than the enhancements offered by the Hellfire expansion pack for the original Diablo, which isn't surprising since Blizzard is developing the add-on internally, and at one time both of the new classes were going to be included with the initial release of Diablo II as multiplayer-only classes.
Blizzard has a great history of producing expansion packs that add significant value, such as StarCraft: Brood War and WarCraft II - Beyond the Dark Portal (the latter with the assistance of Cyberlore), and the Diablo II expansion pack will likely continue that trend.