To start hell difficulty, I reorganized a ton of equipment. Once again I stripped everything interchangeable (rings, charms, boots, most belts and gloves) into a common pool, and rebuilt everyone's loadouts to balance resistances and other needs like life leech and fast-cast. Here's a look at the manifests:
Druid: Coldsteel Eye (upgraded), rare armor, Rhyme, rare pelt, Laying of Hands, Waterwalk boots. After thinking about it way too much, I decided his best weapon choice was to keep Coldsteel Eye after all. The blinding and slowing is just too important for breaking up crowds, and the other options of Buriza, Butcher's, or Headstriker aren't any significantly better if not upgraded which I don't have runes for, while Coldsteel is already upgraded and socketed. And I decided that to support Coldsteel, he had to just spend some stat points so his armor slot doesn't have to be Lionheart. Lionheart is good, but I want higher defense for a meleer, and to keep open the possibility of making an elite Duress or Smoke during the next act, which couldn't happen if he were relying on Lionheart's stats. For now his armor slot is a rare with middling (600) defense and two sockets for resist runes. And he's taking the Laying of Hands; he doesn't use the IAS, but he needs the fire resistance and can make the most use of the damage-to-demons. There's one thing that didn't happen with his buildout, which is shield blocking. I wanted to do that, but running the numbers showed how max block just takes way too much dex for anyone other than a paladin; druid is a low-blocking class and it would take over 200 dex with Rhyme or still 150 even with Whitstan's shield.
Barbarian: Butcher's Pupil (not upgraded), Myth armor, Immortal King's helm, +2 skills sword off-hand, Tal Rasha's belt. If the druid is keeping Coldsteel, then the next best weapon option is Butcher's Pupil, better than his old Honor and slightly better than Headstriker (mostly for lower requirements, particularly after either gets upgraded.) I'm also finally committing a hard point to Axe Mastery for it, rather than always swapping primal helms with a plus to the needed mastery. His armor slot is going back to Myth (it had been Angelic for the full-set magic-find bonus); +2 skills and nothing else isn't great, but I really don't have anything else to put in the slot, and with War Cry's stunning he doesn't need defense. Finally, he's keeping Tal Rasha's belt for the big damage-to-mana which seems to help quite a bit to fuel War Cry. Also I finally paid attention to giving him fast-cast rings, which help War Cry some too, though that 20% FCR is going to be all he gets since I don't really have anything suitable for other slots for him.
Assassin: Fool's claw of Amplify, Spirit Shroud (upgraded), Rockstopper, Kenshi's claw off-hand, crafted Wyrmhide Boots. The linchpin here is Spirit Shroud, as a source of cannot-be-frozen so she doesn't need Rhyme and can use a +skills claw off-hand, which in turn means she doesn't need +martial arts gloves (the key threshold is slvl 24 for Dragon Talon to get five kicks, achieved with a +3 martial claw and +1 assassin amulet) and can use Blood crafted gloves instead. And I love her main claw of Fool's of Amplify, those modifiers are probably the two most important things that she could have in the weapon slot to transfer to kicks. And Fool's frees up her ring slots away from needing AR, to focus on life leech instead.
Paladin: Black flail, Spirit Shroud (upgraded), rare sacred targe, rare circlet, Bladebuckle belt. I still don't know what to do with a smiter's weapon slot absent Grief, but I guess Black for the crushing blow and speed is as good as anything else. Actually his most exciting equipment is his pre-buff package: I'm keeping in stash Rose Branded (+3 combat skills) items for four equipment slots, all of a circlet, amulet, scepter, and shield. Plus TWELVE to Holy Shield is worth that effort to return to town to pre-cast it (it lasts almost 15 minutes), and lets him keep his good rare circlet and amulet that are each +2 to offensive auras, good both for Fanaticism and for Holy Shock vs physical immunes. For his switch slot I shopped a Fool's scepter with +2 Holy Shock for delivering that when necessary.
Necromancer: White wand, Vipermagi, Rhyme necro head, rare circlet, Trang-Oul's gloves. Pretty standard equipment package here. I guess the interesting part is that I then prioritized hit recovery on him, with a belt and two charms; that might make the difference in avoiding the fate of my first two necromancers here.
Amazon: Melody bow, Smoke armor, skills circlet, Archer's gloves. I wanted her to keep the Peace armor for skills, but realistically she needed to cover resistances somewhere, and the Smoke I made a while back was by far the easiest way to do that. (I do have runes for a Lionheart, but not sure if I want to spend them and also don't have a decent base on hand; she'll go with Smoke since she doesn't need Lionheart's stats.)
Sorceress: Rare orb, Lionheart, Moser's shield, Volcanic circlet, Chance Guards. She ended up with Lionheart by default after nobody else needed it; she doesn't really need the stats either, but the resists and life are the best package I've got for her for the slot; I have no source of +skills for her there. And it seems every sorceress of mine ends up with Moser's shield, but why not, it's perfectly solid, and she's the one class who wants a shield and doesn't need Rhyme's cannot-be-frozen. Anyway, all those resists free up her helm slot for +skills, belt for hit recovery, and rings for fast-cast; Hydra and Orb are both timered, but fast-cast still helps a little, and always does for teleport of course. And all that lets her commit her glove slot to Chance Guards.
I also worked magic-find into the equipment loadouts like my last team did also; everyone has at least two sources adding up to somewhere between 40% and 90%; nothing spectacular, but does make a noticeable difference on getting more unique and particularly set items during an act. Finally also I shopped for merc gear, several Godly Ornate Plates from Anya, great defense (1200+), which consumed most of my gambling money.
First we'll start with the bad stuff:
Well, fuck. Lost my smiter here.
That was the nastiest fuckingest bullshittiest bug in this game that was still never fixed. Actually two of them which both stack up here. When a boss is lightning and either fire or cold enchanted, any time it goes into hit recovery, the LE hit recovery trigger erroneously invisibly launches the fire or cold explosion along with the lightning. When a boss is both FE and CE, BOTH enchantments trigger BOTH explosions - it releases the fire and cold explosions twice each. And so the case of a triple-enchanted LE+FE+CE boss makes all these bugs stack up: EVERY HIT RECOVERY makes it emit FOUR INVISIBLE EXPLOSIONS. I hit this boss I think no more than twice with Smite, and that was the result from full health in that quarter of a second. Fucking bullshit.
There's also a lag that screws up your chance to react. The bugged explosions don't happen immediately, they come a half-second later after the hit recovery finishes. So there's an interval of time when four deadly invisible explosions are on the way -- but you haven't seen anything to realize that yet, and that's why I had launched a second Smite swing before realizing what was going on, which initiated the fatal second set of four bugged explosions.
It's possible I could have mitigated this - his cold resistance was low (around 20), and so was his life total (1400). This was because of his equipment loadout; I used the shield slot for an elite for damage instead of resists, meaning charms for resists instead of life, and also he had a belt for stats (Bladebuckle) instead of just spending str/dex points instead to free up the belt for resists or life. Maybe cold resist and 100 more life would have made the difference -- or maybe any of that still wouldn't have mattered, as the bugged explosions would have overkilled me by an extra thousand damage anyway, I don't know.
Anyway, I'm disappointed but not crushed here. My paladins so far had a perfect record on these teams, so I guess that was due eventually. And I feel like there really wasn't anything left to learn or discover with him anyway. Smite's damage mechanics are so narrow with so little to do for it on gear, and its tactical execution isn't very interesting either. I can carry on without him.
The equipment losses were minor. He died with the Spirit Shroud he was wearing, a partial Sigon's set left in town, one Lem rune that he had just found, and a 5-socket ethereal thresher that had dropped (for a merc Honor), but nothing more significant than that. And now I don't have to decide whether to spend the Um rune into a Duress for him.
Then also this:
This was just about the same way my previous poisonmancer died. It took only two hits from ordinary monsters out of a Cursed and Might enchanted boss pack. There were only a couple monsters near me, but I took one hit for half my life, and then an instant before I got to the rejuve button, took another hit for the other half.
I just can't play poisonmancers. Trying to use Poison Nova just keeps getting me killed. It's too short range. I'm always running into the middle between too many monsters in order to hit them all. Both poisonmancers had several close calls before the fatal encounter too, but I just couldn't stay out of danger enough.
Besides that, this particular build wasn't amazing for hell difficulty, trying to use unsynergized Bone Spear for the backup against poison immunes. It barely worked, could kill monsters slowly with enough hits, but more often it mostly really would only net out against monster regen while the merc did the work. And also most poison immunes are undead with some magic resistance too.
He lost one potentially important item: Tal Rasha's set armor that he had just found, oh well, though the set doesn't really do much if you don't have the orb.
He also lost a beautiful charm that he had just found, oh well.
Both of those deaths put me off playing for nearly two weeks each time. I really didn't feel like continuing, and was going to retire the team entirely. But then the project got saved by something completely out of universe. My gaming mouse wasn't working well, so I got a new one, which turned out to be much smoother than the old one, and using it for D2 was a fresh joy again, so I kept plugging through.
Anyway, here's the reports on the successful characters.
Druid: I made two mistakes in setting up his loadout for hell difficulty. One was that I left his merc with a weak weapon in Kelpie Snare (for the slowing, but it's redundant with Coldsteel Eye also doing it); he could have used something better here. Two, he didn't have any poison charm, so had to spend a noticeable amount of extra time struggling with monster regeneration. Although then a solution to that happened to drop: a Soul Harvest scythe, which has Open Wounds, which I could pick up and use when necessary, against physical immunes with enough fire resistance or immunity that Armageddon couldn't overcome regeneration.
Anyway, his overall build fell off some in effectiveness, probably about expectedly so for hell difficulty. Armageddon in particular isn't so effective against higher monster health; it takes much longer to kill a target that needs like twelve rock hits rather than three or four. The strongest part of his offense is now the grizzly. I keep +summoning equipment in stash to get him all the way up to level 29, and that makes quite a difference; Grizzly is quadratic in that skill levels raise both his base damage and his own multiplier, and 2100 at slvl 29 is quite a bit more than 1500 at slvl 25. He's still slow - his problem is that his own knockback knocks away a target so he switches to a different one instead of staying with the damaged one to kill it. What I have to do is pay attention what the grizzly leaves partially damaged and clean that up myself. (If only the bear could get PMH somehow.)
Barb: I also made a mistake with him - said I was going to put a point into Axe Mastery, then forgot to ever actually do it and didn't notice until after the act, dammit, hah, well now at least he can change to a new weapon type. Anyway, what I didn't expect with him is that 1-point Berserk turned out to be a better melee attack than Concentrate. They're about the same damage (Battle Orders synergizes Conc, Howl synergizes Berserk), but Berserk works better against lower monster magic resistance.
Assassin: Dragon Talon is plodding but effective, as I expected, and of course an assassin always buys all the time she needs with Cloak and Mind Blast. It also turns out that Dragon Tail can indeed be some use. I was able to use Tail against physical-immune ghosts by kicking other types of monsters for the fire splash damage. It mostly didn't work consistently enough to kill ghosts all the way, but could get a pack's health down by a useful fraction. The other immunity solution is Amplify on her claw, which also works.
Mageazon: Effective if not particularly exciting, particularly since it's still fairly similar to my last bowazon (fire/physical.) Freezing Arrow's mana consumption is bothersome, but there's really not any solution besides just buying and quaffing dozens of potions.
Sorceress: Also an effective if unexciting dual element build. Actually, Hydra is quite a bit of fun, in how it works from super long range and around corners or through doorways. The downside of course is how many fire immunes render Hydra useless; of course Frozen Orb is more than adequate to handle those, but that's hardly anything new at all as far as sorceresses go. And of course like every sorceress, she's got nothing on defense other than to madly teleport around every second - seriously, teleporting between every Hydra casting delay is not too often.
Anyway, on to the loot.
The big news was runes. Going in to this act, I was thinking about that. The amount of full-clearing I do with these teams does add up to quite a bit of mid-high runes. Mal, Ist, and Gul each occurred a total of twice across my three previous teams. So on average, each team found two runes in that range. Would something similar to that show up here?
Hell yeah! I got all of a Vex, Gul, and Mal this act! Plus another Um.
So what to do with all that? Well, the one piece that didn't come was a Pul rune. I really wanted to upgrade the Butcher's Pupil or Headstriker for the druid or barb, but that didn't come. Pul is also needed for a Heart of the Oak with the Vex, so I can't do that either.
Here's what I decided to do: a Kingslayer for the druid. What I didn't have was a great base for it; Ettin Axe is slow, but I happened to get this 4-socket one, and who knows how long it would take to get anything faster properly socketed. 30% on-weapon IAS will have to be barely good enough, reaching a 9-frame attack speed for Feral Rage. Crushing blow should help his offense a fair bit, plus he needs the PMH/OW pretty badly too, and even the Vengeance oskill can be used as an extra solution for dual physical/fire immunes.
The other limiting factor on this is the strength requirement... or actually that's kind of enabling. It also lets me include a Duress with the other Um rune. I got one single 3-socket elite armor base in this act, this Boneweave (Boneweave drops early and often for elite armor; it's an oddly low qlvl, probably a typo in the data file.) 158 strength is high... but it's not all that much above the ettin axe, and I could actually reach that with some good strength equipment on top of his base of 80. Finally, going up to this much strength also lets him take Immortal King's boots, for life and 110 AR that he also needs.
I also considered a two-hander base (Feral Axe) for the Kingslayer, which would be excellent damage and faster. But the problem with that is the rest of the loadout. Without a Rhyme shield, he would have to go with Spirit Shroud armor for cannot-be-frozen; and then he'd never have enough resistances with none in the armor or shield slots.
The Vex goes unused for now. I actually could have made a Silence, by cubing the two Ums and one Mal all up to the needed Ist plus the Vex. I might have done that if I'd had a good six-socket base on hand, but I didn't, and surely both a Kingslayer and a Duress right now beat some possible future Silence at some indeterminate time. Of course the thing to target with the Vex is Heart of the Oak, if a Pul rune ever shows up (and also a 4-socket flail base.)
A footnote: With the Kingslayer, I intended for the barb to take the upped Coldsteel Eye from the druid, my next best melee weapon. But he ran into a problem with the requirements. The Hel rune to reduce the requirements doesn't work right for a dual wielder - every time he weapon switches, the off-hand weapon gets selected as the primary before the game checks the Hel rune. I could unsocket the Hel, but that left the requirements too high (139/95 str/dex) for the barb to reach with any reasonable equipment loadout. So all he could do was keep the not-upgraded Butcher's Pupil for now.
Besides the runewords, we weren't yet done finding good stuff for the druid: also scored a Jalal's Mane! Obviously it's best in slot, with the 20 strength towards that other equipment. And the +4 shapeshifting skills really makes a difference; with only 1 hard point in each for this build, that's quite a big swing, for life (Lycanthropy) and duration and AR. Finally, the druid also got one more goodie, a second +summoning skills charm.
The one big non-druid score was a Kuko Shakaku. I thought about it, and decided this would indeed be a better choice for the bowazon than her Melody. The skills are close: Kuko is +6 Immolation / +3 Freezing, compared to +5/+5 on the Melody. What swings the decision in favor of Kuko is the piercing attack -- that's the way a bowazon can multiply damage over and above +skills. It can also chip in a little physical damage against dual-immune bosses.
Last significant upgrade: I cube-socketed an ethereal Ornate Plate and got 3 sockets and 1000 defense - a great base for a merc Treachery, for the druid's.
That was about it for anything notable. Some minor pieces: a near-perfect Chance Guards (39%), which could fit for the barbarian. And a second Tal Rasha's mask for merc use. Also another (my third) Spirit Shroud, but that wasn't quite good enough to use anywhere, particularly after I spent my Lem on that Treachery (instead of upgrading Shroud.)
Stuff that didn't help: Firelizard's Talons claw (400 fire damage that would transfer to kicks, but she's nowhere near the 113 str/dex to equip it), Dark Adherent armor, various low-level stuff like Wall of the Eyeless.
And so I guess I'm continuing with five characters now, onwards.
Next chapter, finished act 2 hell, and yeah it goes faster in real time with fewer characters. Procedurally: I full-cleared most of act 2 as usual, with the exceptions being skipping Halls of the Dead entirely, and minimal clearing in the claw viper temple, palace cellar levels, and the false tombs (only up to the sparkly chests.) I played on players-3 except for downshifting to p1 as needed in the false tombs to equalize experience between everyone.
Druid: His equipment upgrades helped quite a bit this act. The defense on Duress (with a Defiance merc) made for noticeably less damage taken, and the higher damage on Kingslayer plus the skills on Jalal's made for noticeably more life steal, enough to mostly live on leech against most normal monster groups. This build is performing pretty well. As I said before, his elemental and wereform melee and summoning plans all work at about 50% of a maximally dedicated build, but all of them operating at the same time add up to 150%. In particular Armageddon and the bear mesh well; either alone tends to be unfocused and deal about half lethal damage to a monster, but when they stack up on the same target, they kill it.
Some details of his skills: One noticeable aspect is the speed of Feral Rage. This skill has a weird mechanic where it's faster if it hits than if it misses. (It seems that the attack animation terminates immediately if he hits, while a miss continues through the follow-through of the swing animation.) His current configuration makes this very noticeable, it's a 9 frame attack if he hits or 12 if he misses. Besides that, his other improved skill is Fury. This is noticeably better at slvl 8 thanks to the skills on Jalal's, and now I started using it sometimes instead of just Feral Rage all the time. Fury even has the advantage that it works well against mana burn monsters - you can start it and the sequence will keep going even if you get mana burned!
Assassin: Also performing well overall; as always with assassins, her offense isn't super fast, but she's a thrill to play with a high skill ceiling in the tactical execution, always managing the battlefield with Cloak and positioning herself with Dragon Flight.
Although Arcane Sanctuary against the wraiths was a bitch of an experience. Not for damaging them, that was manageable, Venom could do it, slowly. The problem was the knockback on all the kick skills, knocking them out of bounds where I couldn't hit them! And then they would regenerate (Venom overrides any other poison duration, and she doesn't have a source of Open Wounds.) What I had to do was bring the wraiths to the middle of a platform, and run around them making sure to always knock them towards the middle of it. Against the worst packs (champions in particular), I had to swap in a PMH claw and tag them with that first. I also tried to use Dragon Talon's fire splash damage as another option, by targeting a goat to splash the wraiths with fire damage. This worked somewhat, but it needed about four goats worth of targets to dish out enough splash damage to actually kill the wraiths, so was limited in usefulness.
Finally, I found it worked better to go without the shadow master here. She also kept using knockback skills, compounding the problem, and also her mind blasts would screw up when I was trying to pick off and kill a particular monster. That was a bigger problem in the tombs - she would keep mind blasting the unravelers that I needed to kill to stop their resurrecting - and so I switched to the more tame shadow warrior for that.
Amazon: I enjoyed playing her quite a bit more this act, somehow. I think it's in the monster behavior. She's quite a bit more noticeably effective in indoor areas, where monsters are arranged in tighter groups to incur more splash damage from the Freezing and Immolation explosions. And the Act 2 monsters are faster and cluster themselves more instead of scattering all over the place like fallen. Kuko Shakaku's piercing also helps too, particularly in the maggot lair and arcane sanctuary.
Although, as always, the worst problem with an elemental bowazon is that the casting timers for Immolation and Valkyrie conflict. What I often had to do was go without recasting a dead valkyrie, so I could keep firing Immolation instead, and in between every Immolation cast, also recast Decoy.
Full disclosure about one problem: My computer lost power while playing the amazon, after she had retrieved the Horadric Staff but at a moment when she had put it down in town. I didn't want to retrieve it again and re-play the areas. I decided the best thing to do would be play the next character (the barbarian), and once he had his staff, give a copy of it to the amazon. (Also, more generally: when the game crashes or otherwise fails somehow, I use a previous backup to retrieve any important items that the character had left in town but should have been able to pick up again. I don't do this if I save and exit; that means the character wouldn't have had the chance to retrieve that stuff.)
Barb: Effective if plodding, but it doesn't really matter how fast he kills anything as long as War Cry is keeping it stunned. War Cry accounts for about half his offense; I usually continuously cast that if it's hitting more than about five monsters; against fewer it's better to just stun them at intervals and kill with melee instead, which is about the same speed but much better for mana efficiency.
There's one problem I need to solve with him: I need to get rid of his Myth armor. The problem is the CTC Taunt on striking, which overwrites Battle Cry, which is crucial for his offense because his AR is terrible, less than 50% to-hit, since he's got only low-level mastery and combat skills. This was somewhat tolerable in act 1, but became more of a problem against act 2 monsters, with higher life totals (more hits to kill) and monster level (making the AR problem worse.)Sorceress:
Shit. Fangskin got me.
This was entirely my fault tactically. I had advanced slowly, with a pile of hydras taking out a couple minions as they trickled at me one by one. But then the whole pack woke up, and swarmed and killed the merc. I could have run out the entrance, but I knew if I did that, the snakes would swarm the door and I wouldn't be able to get back in. I tried to teleport to the far side of the pack, but didn't get far enough. I kept trying to teleport again while getting hit; I pounded through a column of rejuves and started a second, but they landed enough damage from full health faster than I hit the rejuve button, and so Deeds.
This highlighted the problem with Hydra: it's fun and effective from long range, but it can't focus on and kill what you really need killed in a tight situation. The only tactical approach with Hydra is to grind it out; I would always keep dropping more hydras in a tight pack, while teleporting back and forth to opposite sides of them, faster than monsters could catch me, and every time I had to just keep that going until the hydras could work through the life totals. And this failed when there wasn't space to teleport like that.
The most standout find was an Atma's Scarab amulet from Duriel, for CTC Amplify. Damn, my late smiter would have loved that. But it can still go to great use on the druid here, should be a great help to have Amp multipliying the grizzly and merc that are boosted by Heart of Wolverine. (Just hope that trading out his +2 shapeshifting skills amulet won't be a fatal reduction in life total.)
Good news, my kicker assassin found a unique elite boot... and it's Marrowwalk, not really one of the useful ones, particularly given the strength requirement that totally isn't worth giving up 180 life worth of vitality. But it will go to use on the druid, since he has enough strength, and he wants the stats on this boot to replace strength on the amulet he traded out for Atma's and dex on a ring that he traded to the barb.
The worst news was these two items that I didn't get to use. I got Tal Rasha's orb also from Duriel (and with a perfect +2 on both fire and cold mastery), and I was all excited about reworking the sorceress's equipment with the partial set (orb, helm, belt adds up to a lot of good modifiers)... except that then she died to ruin that plan. And also the sorceress had found Bartuc's claw, which is a tremendously excellent off-hand weapon for the skills and stats and hit recovery... except she died before being able to trade it over, shit.
Amusingly, I found all the good mid-range physical damage bows this act: Goldstrike Arch (then lost when the amazon's game lost power), Witchwild String, and M'avina's set bow. None of those beats Kuko Shakaku's +skills and piercing for an all-elemental bowazon, though.
I got one skill charm in the act, barb combat skills; it came with a suffix of +18 life which gets it to just barely usable.
Lo! Which... does... exactly jack squat nothing for me. It's the king of high runes online... but both Grief and Fortitude are ladder-only, and out of play here. There are only two non-ladder runewords with Lo, both of which also require a Cham, so this probably isn't going to do anything at all.
I got nothing else notable for runes; the highest was a Lem by the sorceress who died before any chance to use it (might have made another merc Treachery.) Yeah, this is where losing characters starts to hurt, you get a lot fewer items with four playthroughs rather than seven. What was still absent was any Pul rune. I really wanted to get the barb a better weapon by upgrading his Butcher's Pupil or Headstriker, but I still couldn't manage that.
The best weapon I can give the barbarian now is the previously-upgraded Coldsteel Eye that the druid gave up for the Kingslayer. My problem before was the requirements on it; a Hel rune doesn't work for a dual wielder, the off-hand sword becomes primary before the Hel rune is checked for requirements. But I can solve two problems together here: I needed to replace the barb's Myth armor anyway, so that can now be a Lionheart for the big stats. And Lionheart has resists, so he doesn't need that in the boot slot, and with his strength now higher, he can take the Immortal King's boots (that the druid just gave up for Marrowwalk) to go with the helm. After all that, he needed about 25 more hard points in strength to wield the Coldsteel, which was manageable. (And that's without the Hel rune because it doesn't work right, and so I resocketed a Shael instead for speed.)
The assassin also got some minor equipment rework. I crafted a good Blood amulet, with skills, prismatic resists, life steal, and some faster run speed which I really like on a fragile meleer. Her old amulet had had strength to support her upgraded Spirit Shroud armor, so I swapped in a strength belt instead. That meant trading out a belt with more life, so now I went ahead and spent a socket quest on her Spirit Shroud, with a ruby for life.
I made some other minor swaps of rings and charms around everyone, to balance out resists and life steal numbers, including giving a run-speed charm from the amazon to the druid to make up for Marrowwalk's slower speed.
Short report from act 3 hell, which went quickly. I full-cleared the outdoor areas on p3, and also ended up full-clearing most of the Durance on p1; all the characters had to uncover most of the level before finding the exit so I just cleaned it up to keep the experience numbers matched.
The druid is turning out to be my favorite from this group. He's a ball of fiery furry fury tearing through every monster pack. Armageddon on crowds of flayers was particularly a thrill. It's amazing how often I start to run away from a pack that's a little too heavy (every character does this, all the time) -- but then by the time I circle around and look at them again, they're already dropping dead from Armageddon and the bear and merc! I can kill packs just by running around them while Armageddon and the bear and merc work. This feels like what a necromancer always wanted to be, with better artillery offense and not so dependent on the one-dimensionality of corpse explosion.
That said, he died in this act -- or would have, but escaped and survived by the wereform death mechanic (you can't die in wereform but instead unshift with 1 life.) I was fighting a crowd of undead dolls in the flayer dungeon, and suddenly in an instant his entire life ball disappeared from full health! The "poof" sound effect from unshifting alerted me instantly and I smacked a rejuve in time. From there on, I was a little more careful, in fact I often left Armageddon unused against the dolls so it wouldn't explode a bunch of them at the same instant.
Atma's Scarab was his new addition for this act, but it turned out not to be all that great a part of his offense. Amplify triggers a lot less often with his 9-frame attack than for the 3-frame kicker assassin. But it's still welcome and I think still worth the amulet slot; it does help leech noticeably, and Amplify is at its best when you need it most, against big targets that take a while to go down like thorned hulks and the Council.
Amazon: What happened for her this act was that I got to compare Immolation and Freezing more directly against each other, since most of the monster immunities are lightning. Immo hits noticeably harder shot-for-shot: bigger damage numbers, bigger explosion radius, and also it can apply its damage twice (separately on the projectile and the explosion; Freezing Arrow doesn't work that way.) So I preferred Immolation when either it or Freezing would work, although the right answer was both, keep firing Freezing during each casting delay of Immolation.
Barb: He had an annoying problem. I spent all that effort setting up his equipment for Coldsteel Eye, and then started using it and realized the mistake there - Coldsteel's blinding effect overwrites Battle Cry! He still can't hit anything without Battle Cry's defense penalty, and so I had to leave off Coldsteel and switch back to something else for a weapon. That weapon was Headstriker rather than Butcher's Pupil now. I hadn't used Headstriker earlier because I hadn't set him up to meet the strength requirement of 95, but now he could meet that. And the damage numbers pretty clearly showed Headstriker beats Butcher's thanks to the 100% deadly strike, plus it's a frame faster, plus PMH. (Butcher's is better after upgrading, but absent that, Headstriker is better because the base is a higher-end exceptional.)
Assassin: Steady progress. Dragon Tail's explosion was also fun against big crowds of flayers; I'm glad I spiced up the standard Talon kicker build with that addition. Although I did have to be smart enough not to use Tail against dolls and risk exploding a pile at the same time.
Items: Very not much at all.
The only significant score from act 3 was a Wizardspike, a favorite of singer barbs. I'm not entirely sure it's best here, but I couldn't resist rebuilding his equipment around it in his off hand. It's not perfect, with several downsides: the big mana-per-level doesn't get multiplied by Battle Orders; the FCR is somewhat overkill win-more in that it doesn't really matter how long it takes to kill something that's already stunned (really FCR for a barb is to speed up horking but I'm not doing that here); and it involves trading out the +2 skills scimitar he had been holding. But I'll go with it anyway. The big upside is the 75% resist all that frees up a ton of other slots; I resocketed his Immortal King's helm with two sapphires for more mana (getting him over 1000 mana total!), and swapped out his amulet with resists for a magic one with +3 warcry skills, plus gave away a few resist charms to help out other characters too.
A minorly useful find was a Tiamat's Rebuke shield. I found this before but didn't think much of it. This time the assassin found it, and then soon entered the Flayer Dungeon full of ghosts, and it turns out Tiamat's elemental damage really was a pretty good way to handle them. So she'll keep it to swap in for such use - in particular she may need this against the physical immune minotaurs and witches in act 5.
Hexfire shamshir, +3 fire skills and ITD. If upgraded, this might actually be pretty good for the druid, and I'd pass his Kingslayer to the barb; I'll think about this if I get a Pul rune.
Lycander's Aim bow, first time in a long while I found that, but not quite better than Kuko's piercing here.
Stuff that wasn't useful: Impaler spear, Tarnhelm (that hadn't shown up since my first team here), another copy of Trang-Oul's armor, Dangoon's and Aldur's maces again, and a bunch of other low level uniques as usual.
And not a single rune above Hel. Well, we've got the hellforge coming in that department, in the next chapter.
Another short report, from act 4 hell. Procedurally, I kept full-clearing, and on players-3. Reason is for more experience, to set up so that the Ancients experience reward will come out just right to reach one final level (86). Last time, I had to grind for about 10 million extra experience in act 5 to get there, so I may as well do that sooner in act 4, when there's still a chance to trade items acquired along the way.
Also, there's an issue with the assassin here. Assassins encounter fewer boss packs and get less experience. There's a bug (confirmed by Blizzard by way of announcing it was fixed in Resurrected) that assassin traps somehow count as bosses, and count towards the number of boss packs allowed to spawn in an area. Traps cast by the shadow master also count, so it affects even non-trapper assassins. So I noticed her falling behind on experience in each act here, and had to bump up her player count at times to compensate, including doing half of act 4 here at players-5. This didn't come up with my previous assassins because I wasn't closely tracking the experience totals then; I started to do that around act 3 hell last time, which was when the phoenix striker died.
Not much to say about the character mechanics that I haven't already. But one thing I will say is about the mercenaries. Defiance mercs survive far better than Holy Freeze mercs. The defense multiplier is massive - the key point is that Defiance also multiplies each merc's base defense of ~1500 (they get this just by being a level 80+ monster.) So with a decent armor (1200 or so, shop a godly ornate plate from Anya in nightmare), they get total defense to 10k or more, for a get-hit rate of around 20%, and unlike player characters they never turn it off by running or with something like Berserk. Here, my amazon's merc with Holy Freeze died constantly (to the point where she ran out of money), while the Defiance mercs of the druid and assassin would almost always go down slowly enough that I could react and portal out when necessary.
For loot, the Hellforge runes were below average yet again: Ist, Fal, Fal, Lum. Man, I was so excited back when my first hardcore team here got 80th-percentile results for both nightmare and hell difficulties... and then I've been paying for that with reversion to the mean ever since, hah.
I also got an Ist from a random drop in the act. And still have the Vex from act 1. But I really don't have anything to do with any of these. I could make a Silence, but nobody actually wants that: the druid can't deal with the monster-flee, the barb could with War Cry but doesn't want the blinds-target overwriting Battle Cry, the barb also wouldn't want Silence in his off hand over Wizardspike, and the amazon is fine with Kuko Shakaku over a Silence bow. Nobody needs Silence for the +2 skills on switch for summoning/buffing either, everybody already has +2 class or +3 tree skills there.
The two Ists could make a Gul, but what that would make is another Kingslayer but I don't have either the Um or Mal that it also needs. And the other thing Ist does is Delirium... but I can't make that either for lack of a Lem! (The sorceress died with one earlier. Although if I'd had any more, I probably would have made more merc Treacherys.) And finally I still can't do Heart of the Oak with the Vex for lack of a Pul. Man, so much unfulfilled potential here, maybe those characters that died would have filled in these gaps in the runes, oh well.
Nothing significantly usable from drops in the act either. I got a Spike Thorn unique elite shield - somewhat interesting with 18% physical damage reduction and a slot for a diamond; I might consider it for the assassin, but she's too far from the 118 strength requirement. Also got an Alma Negra paladin rondache, that might have been the smiter's weapon of choice, oh well again.
Actually, that charm is the best thing I've found in a while. I also got a couple decent rare rings, one with strength and life leech for the assassin, which let her trade out a strength belt for a Whale instead with 100 life.
And the finale is next.
Less triumphant than the previous teams, but four more distinct Guardians is still an accomplishment. I cleared act 5 as minimally as possible, as before - all on players-1, no Anya or Nihlathak quests, just finish it off and get to Guardian.
The Ancients mostly weren't much trouble. I know how to handle them with the standard playbook, reroll them into tame boss enchantments (twenty or more rerolls if need be) and run around to separate and isolate one of them before engaging. It was the amazon who had the most challenge here. First, her Holy Freeze merc couldn't even survive long enough to get them separated!, and I had to go get a Defiance guy instead. Second, I ran out of money to resurrect the merc after a few failed attempts, and several times had to go fight more at one of the waypoints to scavenge for sellable goods for money! And then she had one particularly embarrassing run, when I killed two of the ancients and got the third down halfway -- and ran out of arrows! I tried to plink him down with Magic Arrow, but the merc couldn't quite hold out with enough regen and leech (the ancient was stone skin), and I had to bail out and try again. Finally I got it done, although even on the successful run, the merc got killed by the third ancient (the thrower; I hadn't seen while fighting the first two that he was Might enchanted), and I had to handle him by madly kiting him around and popping off an Immolation shot every few seconds when I could.
Anyway, Lister and the other boss packs were also no trouble; key for them too is that a Defiance merc can hold up pretty well against five or so minions, so it's not that hard to split the pack enough to handle that. They're also vulnerable to War Cry stunning and Freezing Arrow freezing, so those went easily too.
The one interesting bit was getting to play around with the last socket quests for each character. I finally had the assassin socket the claw she'd been using forever, with an Amn for extra life leech (didn't need a Shael with Dragon Talon already at its best major speed breakpoint.) The barb got to throw a Shael in his Headstriker, and also had another socket quest remaining, which went for an Io (+10 vitality) in his Wizardspike just because why not and he didn't have anything better. Finally, the druid socketed his merc's Pierre Tombale polearm, with an Amn. I considered putting in the Lo rune for deadly strike, but couldn't bring myself to do that in a fairly mediocre weapon, particularly because it already has 55% deadly so more makes for less of a relative impact.
Starhunter, the druid: This build, like my previous necromancer, worked out much better than the ramshackle collection of hybrid pieces might have suggested. Neither Armageddon nor the summoning package of Grizzly and Wolverine is really enough to sustain an offensive build, but both together plus his own low-level melee added up to quite a bit more damage than I expected. Wolverine in particular is better than I ever realized, including its AR multiplier which helps the merc and grizzly a ton too. This druid was still fragile on defense, with only low-level Lycanthropy for a small life boost (to about 1700), and I always had to be careful about not pushing too deeply into combat (and he did get virtually killed once, to be saved by wereform unshifting instead of dying.) But on the whole this was quite a fun change of pace.
Startalon, the assassin: I'm finally satisfied at getting a martial assassin to Guardian. This kicker assassin was the opposite of the druid: less offense but better survivability than I'd anticipated. She really had no close calls throughout all of hell difficulty. Max Fade makes a noticeable difference for a melee fighter, which is what the late phoenix striker lacked. But also Dragon Flight is amazingly invaluable for keeping an assassin out of danger, always working around the edges of a pack, and the other critical point is that Flight also snaps the merc and shadow to her to take any remaining incoming hits. Her offense as a kicker felt a bit underwhelming, in part because she never really got good boots; she only ever had a crafted wyrmhide (the lowest elite), and the best-in-slot-by-a-mile kicker boots of Gore Rider never showed up. She also never got the best supplemental melee damage in a Duress armor. But what fixed her offense as with so many melee builds was Amplify Damage on her claw, plus the Fool's prefix for a nearly perfect hit rate with Dragon Talon's big AR multiplier. That humble Fool's of Amplify claw was the best magic-grade item I've ever had.
Starmage, the amazon: I kept going back and forth on whether I liked this character or not. The all-elemental bowazon build has a nice purity to it, including a high life total thanks to not needing stat requirements for a big bow. But in practice, there are lot of infuriating elements. One problem is packs with mixed immunities; I can't always clearly hit cold immunes with Immolation when fire immunes are blocking the way, and vice versa. Piercing is also somewhat problematic; it's unreliable because the AR check needs to succeed but there's no great way to get high AR (the AR multiplier on bow skills is broken and doesn't work), and it's really infuriating that the buggy client graphically shows missiles piercing anyway and extra fire/cold explosions that didn't actually happen! And finally the big problem for this amazon build was mana consumption; it was also a pain to have to spend an entire potion's worth of mana to kill any single straggler monster, with either Freezing or Immolation.
Full disclosure: I had to save and exit her once in act 5, when I was running away from a Might-enchanted pack in Crystalline Passage, and took a wrong turn around a corner into space that wasn't cleared. So I had to come all the looong way again from the Frigid Highlands waypoint three areas back. As always, when I have to retraverse an area for some reason, I kill as little as possible and take none of the item drops. (The extra experience wouldn't matter here, she'd come out to the same level 86 with or without it.) And the major downside was that she lost from town a Kelpie Snare (slows target) and Rattlecage armor (crushing blow) that she had been keeping on hand to put on the merc for act bosses, and the lack of that meant it took over twenty minutes to kill Baal with arrow shots.
Starscream, the barbarian: Wow. This might have been the most powerful character I ever played. Not in terms of kill speed, but in his ability to handle any situation, to make for an overwhelming likelihood to complete hardcore. He could wade in to the middle of absolutely anything and stun-lock them forever. Mana burners aren't a problem when they're stunned either. Even champion packs could almost always be stunned and brought under control. His other key skill was Taunt, to force any shooter or resurrecter or maggot or whatever into War Cry range to get stunned and killed. And all with 4000 max-Battle-Ordered life, meaning nothing would ever threaten to kill him. (Except the ridiculous bugs involved with multi-enchanted cold/fire/lightning/beetle death explosions, which killed my smiter too.) And Headstriker worked surprisingly well as a weapon even without upgrading; 100% deadly strike is ahead of just about any other modifier you can get.
Of the dead characters... I really came to miss the smiter as I went on through hell difficulty. I said when he died that he was boring and expendable, but it really hit me over again every time a paladin shield dropped and I jumped for a moment while remembering that it couldn't help, and also every time one of the meleers was strugging with attack rating and I wished for Smite's perfect hit rate. The poisonmancer was regrettable too, but it seems I just don't have the patience to drive that build through hell difficulty, to hang back while the poison works. The Hydra/Orb sorceress was expendable; Hydra was fun when it worked, but so limited against so many fire immunes, with its big problem being that it's dumb enough to keep shooting at the fire immunes anyway instead of something it could actually damage. And just in general, pretty much every sorceress plays like every other, all you do is cast differently colored attack spells and madly teleport away every two-thirds of a second.
A few items from this act:
Veil of Steel helm, found by the assassin halfway through and useful enough (50% resist all, 400 defense) to put on her merc for the rest of the act.
Rattlecage armor, found by the barb and perfect to put on for the crushing blow to work down Baal's life total.
Aldur's set armor, a pretty rare find; I might have been tempted to rework the druid's equipment with it and pass his Duress over to the kicksin.
Oh, and I finally got that Pul rune that had eluded me all through hell difficulty. But I still can't make that Heart of the Oak - since after spending them all previously now I also lack a Ko! Although I think I don't really have anyone who would want the HOTO anyway, without a sorceress. It's good off-hand for a singer barb, but so is Wizardspike. Actually the best use of a HOTO would probably just be on switch for the druid for +3 skills to prebuff shapeshifting and summons. If I were continuing from here, I think I would use the Pul to upgrade the Headstriker to give to the druid, and pass his Kingslayer to the barb.
And once again I laid out a chart of everyone's equipment to visualize and compare that way.
And that concludes this team. (If I had made the HOTO, I would have taken the singer barb for a victory lap joyride with it in the cow level, but I can let that rest.)
So that makes a total of 21 Guardian characters achieved across these projects, including the extra sorceress I replayed after the second team. Took a lot of playing time of course, but I had nothing but time to kill during the pandemic.
My success rate shows a very clear pattern: very directly related to the life totals of each class. I lost zero barbarians and druids with the big life multipliers, one medium-life paladin and assassin (and no amazons, but my one melee one was probably saved multiple times by her damage-reduction equipment), and three necromancers and sorceresses.
That would be the big lesson learned here, life total is everything for hardcore. The only thing that can ever kill you is a flurry of damage that empties your life ball faster than you can react with a rejuve. There are a number of ways that can happen to a life total of 1000, considerably fewer for 1500, and almost nothing that will whack 2000 or more before you can react. Lesson learned, if I ever play a hardcore necro or sorc again, pack on the life equipment as much as possible.
Of course the big development that came while I was playing this was the release of Resurrected. I don't know if I want to get into that; my current computer isn't anywhere near the requirements, but it might finally be time to build a new one. I'll see what happens, but for now I think this series is concluded, thanks for reading.
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