Diablo II: Lord of Destruction Beta Report

Blizzard has sent us the official beta of this add-on--be sure read our extensive gameplay impressions.

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The official expansion pack to one of last year's best-selling games is scheduled to be available later next month. In the meantime, Blizzard Entertainment is busy polishing its next game to perfection. To this end, Diablo II: Lord of Destruction has recently entered into a beta-testing stage, in which about 2,500 players from around the world will get to try out all the new features in the expansion pack. GameSpot was fortunate to reserve a place in the beta test and has since extensively played the beta version of the game over Blizzard's Battle.net service. Based on this, the following pages contain detailed descriptions of the expansion's many new features. The information in this preview won't replicate what you've already read on GameSpot--for instance, you'll find much more about the assassin and the druid classes in our previous coverage. So this update is best suited for those who have been keeping up with the Diablo II expansion pack as closely as possible and relishing the details of the game. Don't worry--we won't spoil anything along the way. With that out of the way, let's get into Lord of Destruction.

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Like all the best expansion packs, including last year's Age of Empires II: The Conquerors, EverQuest: The Ruins of Kunark, and Blizzard's own Starcraft: Brood War, Diablo II: Lord of Destruction attempts to fundamentally improve upon and extend the core aspects of the original game. It does this by adding new content and new features suitable for all types of Diablo II players. Most obviously, Diablo II: Lord of Destruction includes two all-new character classes, bringing the total in the game to seven. It also appends a fifth and final chapter to the Diablo II saga, during which you'll take on Baal, Diablo's brother, whom you never encountered during the original game. These additions are exciting in themselves--but when coupled with all the innumerable ancillary changes and enhancements in Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, the end result promises to be as impressive and as robust as Diablo II was itself.

It's been reported previously that one of the big changes introduced in Lord of Destruction is a technical enhancement to the game, which will let you play it at an 800x600 resolution, rather than Diablo II's (and Diablo's) fixed 640x480 resolution. It takes no time to get accustomed to this change, though the improvements it yields are instantly noticeable. You get to see more onscreen, and yet the characters remain large enough to be easily discernible. The new, less obtrusive minimap option (which can replace the full-screen automap overlay) also works great. The higher resolution makes all the characters in Diablo II look sharper and makes the 3D-like parallax scrolling effect of the isometric terrain even more pronounced. All this comes with little compromise of performance on a midrange computer system. Suffice it to say, once you begin playing at the higher resolution, you'll be hard pressed to switch back. In fact, you'll wonder how you ever got by in Diablo II.

If this already sounds exciting to you, you'll be even more excited to learn that it's really just the tip of the iceberg--read on to find out some of Lord of Destruction's gritty details, which should help breathe new life into Diablo II.

So Much More

As noted, the Diablo II expansion pack is designed to appeal to all Diablo II players. Many will immediately take the opportunity to try out the two new classes. Some will hope that the expansion offers something more for their existing characters, whose countless battles have earned them a great deal of combat experience and great power. These players should be more than satisfied to find that Lord of Destruction does indeed offer a lot of new features to the existing character classes, which should have a significant effect on the gameplay without actually compromising any of these characters' unique strengths and advantages. Some of these changes affect some character skills, making previously underused skills more viable. Others take the form of new items and equipment designed to bolster the abilities of each respective class.

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The skill changes are designed to either help balance out underused skills or help make Diablo II run more smoothly overall. Some of the more defensive abilities in the game, including the paladin's fanaticism skill and the barbarian's concentrate skill, have been bolstered to become more attractive alternatives suitable for use in battle. Interestingly, some skill changes--like one that now modifies the barbarian's high-level whirlwind attack based on his weapon speed--will take effect only if you're playing in the expansion, unlike in the original Diablo II. You won't be forced to transfer your existing Diablo II characters over to the expansion.

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The many new items in the Diablo II expansion will also help boost the effectiveness of the original character classes. Each class can find certain new types of items that will benefit only that particular class--for instance, the necromancer can find and use magically imbued preserved heads. However, on a more general level, the game introduced two powerful new types of items for use with socketed equipment, as well as other items that will further enhance your characters' abilities.

The socketed items in Diablo II were interesting, but ultimately weren't very effective. You could plug magical jewels into socketed weapons and armor pieces to grant them certain magical effects. In Lord of Destruction, certain types of items--like the larger shields in the game--will have more sockets so that you can enhance them even further. Moreover, the two new types of socket items--runes and jewels--should make socketed items more potent. Runes are similar to gems but give different types of bonuses, like skill enhancements. On top of that, you'll be able to find sets of runes, which can have a dramatic effect on an item if grouped properly. On the other hand, jewels can contain random magical enchantments--sometimes more than one. A reward to one of the quests in the new fifth act lets you add a socket to one of your weapons or other items--even one that's already enchanted. In tandem with these powerful, new enhancing items, this should really help ensure that socketed equipment is both unique and powerful.

Still more types of items have been introduced. Some of the more interesting ones include lesser and greater charms--items that automatically confer passive bonuses to your character, like enhanced attack or defense ratings, simply when you have them in your backpack. Other items will pack a limited number of charges of a certain skill, meaning even those classes that normally can't use that skill may gain a limited ability to do so. You'll even be able to find powerful ethereal items. Lightweight and heavily enchanted, these items are unfortunately easy to break and also cannot be repaired, so you'll need to conserve them. A slew of new magical properties have also been added to the game, creating an even greater variety in the types of magic gear you can find. For example, some items will have a chance to automatically cast certain spells when you use them.

So how does it all add up? Next, find out if all the additions will make you want to take up arms with renewed interest against Diablo and his brothers.

Full-Scale Assault

A lot of other changes have been made under the hood of Diablo II in The Lord of Destruction. Some of these are very specific and will apply only to a small percentage of players. The point is that all such changes are the direct consequence of a year's worth of player response to Diablo II. Lord of Destruction clearly shows that the designers at Blizzard North know what its players want.

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Ultimately, what all of it means is that Lord of Destruction plays differently from its predecessor, though not too differently. This is fortunate--because to get the assassin or the druid to the new fifth act, you'll need to play through the previous four acts all over again. However, because you'll be finding different equipment along the way and using different or newly enhanced abilities, the experience promises to be new. Such changes are all across the board--at the higher difficulty levels, you'll find that enemies may drop even more powerful loot than ever before. But in turn, these enemies are even tougher--to the point where, at hell difficulty, some of them are practically immune to elemental or even physical attacks.

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The possibility of new and extremely powerful custom-made items, a whole new slew of rare and unique items, and the addition of two character classes should all make multiplayer Diablo II even more worthwhile with Lord of Destruction. For good measure, Blizzard has recently even added a group experience bonus--meaning you'll actually gain levels more quickly than before if you team up with other players. Other changes--such as the ability to have a secondary set of melee weapons that you can switch to with the touch of a key, as well as the game's more robust options for control of nonplayer characters--promise to make Diablo II even more satisfying and complex after the expansion. But in spite of all this, will the game work well online? When the original Diablo II was released, players experienced serious problems for many weeks, trying to log onto the free Battle.net service. Will history repeat itself with Lord of Destruction?

Probably not. The fact is that in spite of umpteen changes to the core mechanics of the game, the recent Lord of Destruction beta test is meant to focus on ensuring the game's stability--not so much to balance out the new features, as they've already been extensively tested internally. Though the number of players participating in the beta is a fraction of how many will presumably be playing the game within days of its release, Blizzard states that it has carefully modeled its testing server to simulate having a far greater number of players online.

If all goes according to plan during the beta test, Lord of Destruction should be worthy of bearing the Diablo name, and the game will hit the shelves late next month, about one year after Diablo II did. Many people are still playing Diablo II to this day, even though it's been out for 12 months--it's a testament to Blizzard's ability to inject its games with longevity that Diablo II has lasted for so long. And from every indication, Lord of Destruction should offer the same level of value. Its new characters and all the new items and features should collectively enhance the lasting appeal of Diablo II exponentially--giving Blizzard's action-packed role-playing game nearly indefinite replay value. For all these reasons, it seems obvious that Blizzard has yet another hit on its hands with Diablo II: Lord of Destruction.

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