Greed is good.
Marilyn Manson comes to mind. His sad, sorry face occurs to me every time I see the rendered visage of Baal, the primeval protagonist of this little piece of work, the Diablo 2 Expansion Set. Perhaps the connection is even more substantive than aesthetic. After all, what is Manson if not a faking, morbid, unoriginal bastard marketed by the record companies for the sole purpose of making money? And then what is Diablo 2 if not an unoriginal follow-up to a megahit that not only was destined to become one of the most successful games in history, but one that, at it's heart, is about nothing else than greed and killing?
Personal issues with capitalism aside, Diablo 2 Expansion Set: Lord of Destruction, is rather good. Scratch that, it is very good. But I should clarify that it is a very, very good expansion to a merely decent game. Lord of Destruction accomplishes something impressive - it gives players a reason to go back to Diablo 2, even if they've already beaten it several times.
Lord of Destruction is based on the game expansion theory which states that in expanding a game, you don't just add more to it, but you enrich what existed before. While there is a new act added to Diablo 2, of greater importance are the two new character classes and host of additions and improvements to the existing game.
Players may now assume the mantle of the Druid or Assassin. The Druid can call upon or become certain animals, while the Assassin makes use of fast attacks, traps, and martial arts to great effect. Neither of the characters play quite like any of the older ones, and both make for some very satisfying play, even if one of the Assassin's skills is way, way too useful.
But all types of characters can make use of the many new improvements. Most of these revolve around socketed objects. In Diablo 2, socketed items may have items inserted into them to add attributes. Only gems were available to insert, and they mostly just added elemental damages. Lord of Destruction adds Runes and Jewels.
Jewels are more unique and add a greater variety of effects, but the Runes are more interesting. There are about 25 types, each of which has a monosyllabic name. If you insert Runes in the proper order into the proper item with the proper number of sockets, you create a "Runeword" object with some really impressive abilities.
Hirable NPC companions now play a greater role. They can be outfitted with weapons and armor, be resurrected when they die and they can accompany you through the entire game.
Beyond these improvements are other more subtle changes, such as the addition of Ethereal (non-reparable) items, a much larger personal stash and a huge number of new kinds of items, many for the new character classes and final Act.
Speaking of which, the new Act steals the entire Diablo 2 show. Diablo is dead, but one of his brothers, Baal, Lord or Destruction, is trying to cause some major badness, unleash hell, etc. You go to kill him now. Set in the "Barbarian Highlands" this snowy stage makes for some of the best gameplay ever to grace the Diablo franchise.
After the mostly non-interactive and chaotic Acts preceding, it is a great joy to storm military embattlements, burn catapults and kick down doors. Your base of operations is a city under siege and much of the action puts you on the front lines of a military campaign. The sense of immersion is greatly increased. It is a nice feeling, for example, to come across a Barbarian warrior, fighting to save his city, protect him from harm and use him like a football blocker to carve a path.
The aesthetics of the new scenario deserve mention. While the expansion pack finally includes the option to view the graphics in 800x600, the new Act takes better advantage of it thanks to some really lush rendering.
The music, however, should get the most honorable mention. In a time when really good game scores are extremely rare, the score for the Barbarian Highlands is an evocative mixture of at least a dozen of my favorite film scores, from Conan the Barbarian to Star Trek: First Contact to the Princess Bride and far, far more. After the stale, repetitive tunes of Diablo 2's four Acts, the audio in Act V really lets you know you're in for something a little more special.
In order to get to Act V you have to complete the game, as the way only opens after you slay Diablo (in a ham-fisted segue to boot). I vowed never to play Diablo 2 again after the great chore it was to review a year ago. It is a testament to the quality of this expansion that while playing again a game I had sworn off, I had a far better time of it than I did in those grueling four days last summer (6 days this time around).
All is not completely rosy, though. Runeword objects are not totally functional, only working in multiplayer. One patch has already been released but it appears at least one more is one the way. While it is safe to say that the issues with Lord of Destruction are temporary and therefore will be negated by the staying power this expansion is sure to have, the curse of incomplete software makes another lamentable appearance.
Still, Lord of Destruction is a great example of what an expansion pack can be. Not only does it add length, but it improves the quality of the entire experience. If not for the bugs and the hefty $40 price tag, I would wager that a better expansion to a game will not be seen for some time. If you like Diablo 2 and have any interest in spending some more quality time with it, or if you just love to augment your capitol worth with plenty more new virtual loot, you cant go wrong with Lord of Destruction.