It's been more than eight months since Diablo II hit the store shelves, but the game still enjoys immense popularity. Although dismissed by some as a disappointment, Diablo II nevertheless has won acclaim and commercial success. Today, it is close to selling 3 million units worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of people continue to play it on Battle.net--and more and more continue to play every day. However, after devoting so many hours to this game, those millions of hungry fans have probably explored every corner of Diablo II and are ready for some new challenges in the world of Sanctuary. Thus, Blizzard North is hard at work on its upcoming expansion pack, which should give all Diablo fans plenty of new gaming material to dig into.
Diablo II: Lord of Destruction is the official title of the expansion pack, which promises to include enough new features to rope in newcomers and satisfy the Diablo II veteran. GameSpot has already written news stories and an earlier preview about the expansion pack, so with this preview update, we'll dive into the gameplay and new features themselves.
The expansion pack adds--in the barbarian lands of Mount Arreat--a fifth act, which takes place after the end of Diablo II. However, the expansion pack isn't just for those who have already beaten the game. When you buy the expansion pack, you'll have the option of converting your characters to the expansion set rules. Even if you haven't finished Diablo II and thus aren't yet ready to face act five, you'll want to convert your character, because a lot of the new features, such as a double-sized stash and new items, will be enabled for you no matter what stage of the game you're in.
Aside from the expansion pack's two new characters, as well as the new act and its accompanying assets, such as monsters, quests, and nonplayer characters (NPCs), the Diablo II expansion pack will offer a lot of new features. Eight more hotkeys have been added, so you'll be able to hotkey up to 16 skills--and to any keys you want. You'll also be able to toggle between two different sets of weapons. So, for example, if you have an amazon who is a master of both the bow and spear, you can equip her with a spear and designate that as your first weapon "set" and then equip her with a bow and arrow and designate that as set two. You'll be able to toggle between the two sets by clicking on the two new tabs on the equip interface or by hitting a hotkey. This lets you swap between two different fighting styles--like using a two-handed weapon or a sword and shield--with a simple hotkey or click of a mouse, rather than having to access your inventory and perform a lot of clicking and dragging. There will now be a repair-all button on your trade screen, which should be welcome news to players who have lots of items to repair.
These changes are only the beginning. Hirelings are being improved, as are items, the existing character classes, and more.
Another change being made is in the hirelings you can acquire in the game. They are being made smarter and more powerful. You'll be able to give hirelings armor, weapons, and helmets to make them more effective or to improve their abilities and defense. Unfortunately, when they die, you won't be able to recover your items. However, you'll be able to resurrect specific hirelings, and when they return, they'll retain the equipment you gave them. A new hireling screen has been added--so you'll be able to not only equip the hirelings, but also view their stats. Hirelings have also gained new skills in leveling up, which they can use to supplement their attacks. You might have an amazon hireling who shoots cold arrows and executes critical strikes, and you'll see her improve as she advances in level. You'll also be able to give hirelings potions of health and mana. And hirelings will now travel with you through acts and difficulty levels.
The existing character classes are also being tweaked and rebalanced. Blizzard North says that the paladin is getting many of his higher-end skills boosted. For instance, holy shock will now do more damage and apply it to each melee attack you make, rather than doing a little bit of damage in an area. Conviction, another skill being boosted, will give monsters negative resistances, making enemies more vulnerable to the paladin's follow-up elemental attacks. The barbarian is also being enhanced. Blizzard North noticed that many players were bypassing less glamorous skills for those skills that boosted their damage bonuses. So the designers went back and made many barbarian skills more exciting. Concentrate, for instance, will add a damage bonus in addition to its attack and defense boosts. Berserk will do more damage and also change its damage bonus from a normal to magical damage type, which makes it better against bosses who have resistances to normal damage. Spellcasters are also being changed. To conserve bandwidth on Battle.net games, some of the more visually spectacular spells, like the sorceress' meteor, are being changed. Meteor will now do much more damage, but you won't be able to cast as many at once--this is so you won't clutter the screen with meteors and slow down everyone's frame rate. Spells like meteor will now be assigned timers so that you can cast only one or two every so often. Of course, to compensate for the decreased frequency, spells changed in this way will be made significantly stronger.
We reported previously that all the existing classes are getting new key items. Since then, a few of those items have changed. Amazons will now get new spears, javelins, and bows, instead of new gloves. And the necromancer will now be able to get shrunken heads. Shrunken heads seem to be the most intriguing of these new class-specific items. They act as poor shields, boosting defense, but also have skill-enhancing and magical properties.
Gems, those coveted but very rare items in Diablo II, will be more frequent in the expansion pack. Blizzard North is going to increase the frequency of gems and gem shrines. It will also let magic items be socketed with gems. A new type of socketed item will be the jewel. Unlike gems and skulls, jewels have fixed properties that don't change--no matter where you place them. Jewels have modest magic-boosting powers, like a bonus for damage, life, or mana.
New Horadric Cube recipes will also be in the expansion pack. And to make using the cube easier, Blizzard North will be throwing in scrolls, which will spawn as treasure in the game. These scrolls will have Horadric Cube recipes on them, which will cut out some of the guesswork of using the cube.
More Items, Quests, and Monsters
The most exciting new items by far, though, are the improved sets. Each class will now have an ultimate set of items they can find and wear. In Diablo II, sets weren't always well received. Alone, the components were often too weak, and even when combined, their aggregate bonuses didn't justify the many hours spent searching for the complete set. However, the new sets are indeed shaping up to be worthy equipment for any discerning adventurer. Each component item will have up to five abilities, not just two, as was previously the case. So even alone, they will be good items. Second, you won't have to actually complete the entire set before you start getting extra bonuses. So, for instance, the paladin's Hwanin set consists of armor, helmet, shield, and weapon. In Diablo II, you would need to complete the set before you got any special bonuses, but now, even if you have just the helmet and shield, you'll get something. In this case, it might be a +200 percent to defense. If you add the armor, you might also get enhanced damage. Finding the weapon and the set will then also add faster movement speed. The barbarian set, called Bul-Kathas' Children, consists of only two swords, but these twin swords, when combined, give you five bonus abilities, such as +60 to all resistances, +3 to all skills, and more. Unfortunately, the new sets are composed of elite items, which can be found only in the hell difficulty setting. They are one step more rare and special than even Diablo II's exceptional items.
Act five will have the requisite six quests, although Blizzard North says that aside from the standard kill-the-boss and rescue-captives missions, there will be some surprises. The two quests we know about are the first quest, which is to kill Shenk the Overseer, and the second one, which is to rescue several captives from the battlefields. Act five will actually be somewhat of a war zone. The forces of Baal have invaded the barbarian lands of Mount Arreat and have taken the snowy lands surrounding the city of Harrogath. You'll have to brave the fortifications erected by Baal's forces and chase the Lord of Destruction up the mountaintop and put an end to his evil. Blizzard North says it is building the levels long and thin to create the feeling of scaling a tall mountain.
The first quest takes place in the Bloody Foothills, where Baal has left his lieutenant, Shenk the Overseer, to continue his war against the barbarians. Once you find Shenk, you'll see him driving an army of minions at you with his whip. As he cracks his whip, he'll motivate them to fight harder and even to rush into you and explode like suicide bombers. Among the other areas we visited in our recent viewing of Diablo II: Lord of Destruction were the Frigid Highlands. Here, siege beasts dwelled. These huge bipeds have great howdahs on their backs, as well as large, almost metallic arms, with which they'll try to crush you. Their howdahs aren't normally used, but when demon imps, which also populate the Frigid Highlands, jump onto the siege beasts' backs, they'll fire infernos and cold blasts at you from the howdahs. We also ventured inside the Crystalline Passage, an underground ice cavern that cuts through Mount Arreat. Inside are snow-white yeti, frost-breathing frozen creepers, and blood lords, which are demonic minotaurs that can go into frenzied rages--just like the barbarian would.
The expansion will also feature new champion monsters, those unique specimens with personal names. There will now be ghostly specimens, which are transparent and greatly resistant to normal attacks; berserkers, who have increased attack and damage but less hit points; and possessed specimens, which can't be turned.
The new character classes will be, along with the new act, the real draws for the upcoming expansion pack. One of these new characters will be the assassin, a fighting/spellcasting hybrid with some interesting moves. Her three sets of skills will be martial arts, shadow disciplines, and traps.
The three trees of skills in this tab will be special martial arts attacks: two types of charged moves and a type of finishing move. Basically, each attack is good on its own, but if charged moves are chained together in rapid succession, they give the final finishing move greater power. Each time the assassin hits with one of the charged moves, she'll get a charge, which is represented as a piece of energy orbiting around her. The more charges she has accumulated, the more powerful the finishing move becomes. The assassin's first type of charged attack will be elemental strikes: attacks of ice, fire, or lightning. Her second type of charged attack will be magical strikes. The cobra strike, for example, will let your finishing move drain life or mana, depending on how many charges you have built up before releasing the finishing move. The phoenix strike will do elemental damage on the finishing move: extra fire damage if you have one charge, extra lightning damage if you have two charges, and extra cold damage if you have three charges built up. The finishing moves, dubbed dragon attacks, will be powerful hand attacks and kicks. The ultimate dragon attack will be the dragon flight, which lets you teleport to the targeted creature and attack. Each type of charged attack will hold only three charges, but you'll be able to switch between attacks and accumulate up to three sets of charged attacks. So, for instance, you could hit three times with a fire fist, then hit three times with the blades of ice, and then hit three times with a cobra strike. After hitting three times with three different charged attacks, you'll have nine pieces of energy floating around you and nine charges waiting to discharge in one finishing move. If you use the dragon-flight finishing move, you'll teleport to your enemies and let out one spectacular kick, which will create a blast of fire and ice in an area of effect, courtesy of the charged fire fists and blades of ice. Then you'll have drained all their life and mana, thanks to the charged cobra strike. The charged attacks are great for taking on hordes of minions, while the finishing moves are perfect for taking down bosses.
The shadow disciplines will include auras, mental feats, and some miscellaneous skills. The various auras will all have different effects, like letting the assassin move and attack faster, giving her added resistances and protection from curses and coating her attacks with poison that continues to damage enemies she hits. The mental feats will be a catchall for some unique abilities, including cloak of shadows, which dims all the lights on the screen and temporarily blinds all monsters; mind blast, which is an area-effect attack spell that damages and stuns enemies; and psychic hammer, which damages a target and also pushes it back. The miscellaneous skills will include claw mastery, weapon block, and two shadow-summoning spells that let the assassin call a body double who can attack with the assassin's own special skills.
The traps were among the assassin's first-reported skills, and little here has changed. She'll have some fire traps, lightning sentries, and bladed traps. You'll be able to place the sentries on the map, and they'll attack nearby enemies up to three times before they dissipate. Clever assassins will be able to place sentries on the other side of walls, ravines, and other hard-to-reach places. The bladed traps will include a blade shield that rotates around the assassin, providing no defensive bonus but cutting up all enemies that come close to the assassin.
The druid will be the second character class to be introduced in the expansion pack. He is a powerful defender of nature, able to cast destructive elemental attacks, summon creatures to aid him, and shape-change into powerful animal forms.
The druid commands the forces of nature, and he'll have two distinct types of elemental attacks: fire and air. The fire spells include firestorm, which sends out three tendrils of fire that snake across the map; molten boulder, which rolls a flaming boulder in front of you to damage and push back enemies before exploding; and fissure, which opens up cracks in the ground that vent with fire. The air spells will include tornado, which is a small cyclone of air that zigzags across the map and damages enemies; twister, which fires off three tornadoes; and cyclone armor, which is akin to the necromancer's bone armor except that it absorbs elemental damage.
The druid will have a menagerie of wildlife to call upon to help him. He'll be able to summon creepers, which are vines that tunnel through the earth and erupt from the ground, attacking enemies and even sucking blood from corpses to give you life and mana. The animals that the druid will be able to summon begin with ravens, but move on to spirit wolves, dire wolves, and ultimately a grizzly bear. Blizzard North understands that some players might be wary of pumping points into a low-level summon skill, only to see it wasted when they start summoning higher-level animals at later levels. The designers are thus probably going to let points added to a low-level summon spell benefit high-level summons. The final type of summoning spell will call forth spirits, which are like auras for the druid and his minions. The oaksage, for instance, will give the druid and his friends bonus hit points, while the heart of the wolverine will give all of them attack and damage bonuses.
The most impressive druid skill is his ability to shape-change into a werewolf or a dire bear. The condor, which was a third form that the druid could change into, has now been dropped. However, the two remaining forms are powerful and intriguing. In both forms, you'll retain your items, so if you have a life-draining weapon in your hand, you'll still drain life when you hit with the bear's claws. However, while in bear form, you'll do more damage and have better defense, while in werewolf form, you'll attack faster and have a higher attack rating. When in either form, the druid won't be able to use his other skills, although a druid will be able to cast a spirit spell and then shape-change, thereby gaining the benefits of the spirit while in animal form. Werewolf will be available at level one, while the bear shape won't come until level six. At higher levels, you'll be able to gain special abilities for your two forms. The werewolf gets rabies, which will deliver a poison attack to surviving enemies, as well as fury, which will let the werewolf attack multiple times per hit. The bear form will be able to maul opponents, inflicting greater damage with each successive hit, while both bear and werewolf will share the ability to inflict fire damage at later levels with their claws and even drain life with each hit when they're enraged.
Diablo II is definitely coming together nicely. The assassin and druid, while going through some changes, still hold up well to the other character classes and retain their unique play styles. All the quests are in the game, and Blizzard North will soon be finalizing the features and squashing bugs. While the game is still several months from shipping, it's looking good. If Blizzard North balances the new classes well and keeps up the level of polish and fun, this expansion pack could very well make Diablo II even better.