Game Name:  Diablo: Hellfire Expansion
Developer:  Synergistic Software
Publisher:  Sierra Entertainment
PC Release Year:  1997
Review Date:  September 8, 2014

A week of time off has meant one thing; way more free time than I am used to.  After spending an extended weekend with my wife, and having already caught up on my to-do list around the apartment, I finally had the green light to nerd out with some PC games.  I was initially unsure what I would be playing, but Best Buy’s Labor Day sale sealed the deal.  With the Diablo III expansion half off, it was the perfect time to pull my wizard out of retirement and return to the world of Sanctuary.  Once I had vanquished the angel of death, it occurred to me that there was just one piece of franchise content that I had yet to experience.  Some may argue that the Hellfire expansion, for the first game, is somehow not an official continuation of Diablo.  Blizzard helps perpetuate this myth by failing to canonize its lore, since it was a very rare instance where they handed over their intellectual property for another developer to work on.  If these same gamers love the series, they are definitely missing out.  While the expansion does not alter the underlying fundamentals enough to give a broad recommendation, it definitely makes the experience more enjoyable.

Prospective Diablo players are encouraged to take a leap of faith with Hellfire, as it is best experienced with a new character.  Herein lies my only real complaint with the expansion, since I already had a level 25 rogue from last year’s retrospective of the main game.  Players in my shoes must manually convert their character by moving the save game into a new Windows directory and changing the file extension.  While this is easy enough to do, the process destroys any and all items that were equipped or stashed into the player’s inventory grid.  Oh, did you happen to spend a few hours farming the Lord of Terror to get some really nice unique items?  Too bad!  Tristram’s tales of woe and sorrow cannot compare to the sadness of loading a character that was seemingly beaten up in bar fight and left naked in the streets.  With enough gold on hand, players can purchase a very basic set of replacement arms and armor from Griswold, the town blacksmith.  Lacking sufficient funds, however, the only alternative is to enter the easiest levels of the cathedral and punch demons to death in search of epic loot.

Once gamers have managed to work their character back into fighting shape, they can check out the two new dungeons which account for the bulk of Hellfire’s content.  The first of these is the Festering Nest, and is unlocked with a quest from Lester the farmer; a new addition among Tristram’s inhabitants.  Considering this is the first time players are forced to fight giant insects in the series, I give Sierra credit for branching out beyond normal fantasy and religious source material.  Even if the game’s limited graphics engine make it so the organic walls are indistinguishable from the sickly colored floors, there is a certain charm in hunting down the Defiler, who wants to enslave the humans of Khanduras for use as livestock.  It introduces an air of cheesiness to the franchise, and is a welcome change from the seriousness of an eternal battle between heaven and hell.  The second dungeon is the Demon Crypt, and is unlocked with the aid of a map that guides you to a hidden entrance in the town’s graveyard.  While this is a more traditional experience, in the sense that you are fighting the demonic forces of Diablo’s former lieutenant Na-Krul, it the most stylish of all the dungeon tilesets with its orange and grey patterned motif.  It also provides a pleasing challenge, as the lich inhabitants will use their magic to quickly burn down unwary adventurers who do not tread with caution.

While this extra dungeon crawling is a welcome addition to the base game, the best part of Hellfire is how it manages to integrate into, and improve upon, the whole experience.  For example, the two new zones do not cater to maximum level players.  Instead, they are designed for lower level folks who start running into progression walls when monster difficulty begins to outpace character strength.  Rather than being forced to create a new game to replay previously cleared content, gamers now have two additional places to go for level ups and more powerful gear.  When you do choose to start over, without trying one of the new and harder difficulty settings, any shortcuts that were unlocked remain unlocked in subsequent games.  So that hell rift that opened in Tristram, after descending into Diablo’s sanctum, will allow continued access to level appropriate monsters.  On the transportation front, movement around town is a little less tedious.  While actual running animations were not created, so players happen to look like something out of a bad Benny Hill sketch, walking speed has been doubled for those distant trips between Wirt’s black market and Adria’s hut.  Beyond that, a spell called search has been introduced to highlight item drops and make them easier to find and pick up.  This mitigates the frustration of running a mouse cursor all over the area, hoping to find a little ring that was heard hitting the ground.  Finally, the problem of gold taking up valuable inventory space is alleviated with a quest reward amulet that allows players to carry twice as much currency as the base game did.

Simply put, the Hellfire improvements make the first Diablo a much better proposition.  The designers undoubtedly listened to the fan base, as most of the main game’s minor annoyances have been ironed out with this expansion.  Unfortunately, even the introduction of the new Monk class is not enough to fix the underlying design flaw of giving each character class the same book of spells and allowing everyone to wear any piece of gear.  Sure, there are mana dependencies to keep a typical warrior from learning the most devastating magic abilities, as there are strength requirements to keep a normal mage from wearing the heaviest coat of arms.  However, stacking gear with a particular attribute bonus circumvents these limitations.  This leaves the game model much like the freeform design in Path of Exile, except without the giant tree of passive abilities to differentiate characters.  For that reason alone, most modern gamers will find a better gameplay experience with one of the newer series entries.

Verdict:  Not Recommended