After hoof-stomping all over the Path of Exile beta, this weekend it was Torchlight 2's turn to see whether it would bend or break.
The original Torchlight is a game that I never played but it was quite the indie success with half a million of people buying into it. (edit: make that over a million, currently!) After reading up on it to get myself acquainted with the IP, it becomes clear that Runic games has a pretty honest and likeable CEO in Max Schaefer:
"... just from a business perspective, when you make these $50 million games, it’s so hard to make your money back that publishers are very conservative about what sort of games they’ll green light. So you get a lot of sequels, copycat games and conservative plays. When you come down to a rational budget and a rational team size, you really are freed to take more risk and do more creative things. I think Minecraft is a perfect example. I’m obsessed with Minecraft. I can safely say that Minecraft will slightly delay the shipping of Torchlight 2 [laughs]." (source)
"... Obviously, we have a lot of respect for Blizzard and what they’re doing with Diablo III, and we really respect the fact that they’re going to take the time to do it right. Obviously, we’ll be day one purchasers of Diablo III, and it’ll delay whatever we’re working on at the time, but at the same time we’re glad we don’t have to do it. They have incredible expectations, and there’s almost no way that they’ll be able to please everybody with what they do. It’s a scale and a level of responsibility and a situation that in some ways we’re glad we’re not in". (source)
That's cool, Max.
But without further ado, lets see how your game takes risks and is more creative than an AAA game with a truckload of funding and manpower. And also how it shaped up while you were so busy playing all kinds of other games during its development, you indolent man!
Character creation & opening cinematic:
There's four interesting, nicely animated, steampunky classes. There's also freedom to pick gender and your preference out of a range of presets for faces, hair styles and hair colors. When you are done with that you also get to choose a pet out of a wide selection of appealing ankle biters and a name for it too. All this choice makes it quite a bit more RPG'ish than the average hack & slasher even though it still pales in comparison with mmorpg character creation. But still ... kudos here.
Right after creating your character you get to see the intro cinematic. Probably they thought the game's art was pretty cartoony so they took the opportunity to
offer you some truly stunning visual eye candy make this even more cartoony?! Seriously?
The "Three crayons left in my box and only 100 frames to animate the whole damn thing" kind of cartoony, that is.
I can see it has a certain campy value though, and it does poke fun at all the expensive render farm work which other developers use to falsely advertise their products with.
Anyway, probably this was sneaked in when Max was busy building a record breaking phallus in Minecraft for a few days. I'm not impressed nor immersed, but cinematics be cinematics so let's move on to the actual game itself.
Graphics & art style:
The three stages of Torchlight 2 art appreciation I went through:
Stage 1, the first few minutes: "Yup, it's cartoony. Not sure if I like that so much."
Stage 2, after 15 minutes: "But it's pretty painterly too ..."
Stage 3, after an hour: "Actually it is rich and deeply inspired."
Interactive environments: I accidentily hit an oil lamp and saw this farm go up in flames.
I think this is a game that "graphically grows" on you. The cartoonyness quickly fades away in your immediate perception and makes place for an immersive and appealing kind of pseudo-realism. At least that is how I experienced it. The well done animations, coloring, lighting and weather effects help with this.
This is probably the same psychological mechanic that made WOW's graphics age so well for so many people.
If there's one caveat in the graphics and art department I'd have to mention it would be the design of some of the mobs you'll encounter. Being attacked by floating blue beach balls somehow doesn't tickle my imagination. There's a lot of insignificant critters too. Then again ... there's also funny and remarkable monsters, like the "Mimic" killer chests. Or well animated ones: humanoids that casually sit around on the dock of their hideout until your arrival (and their imminent deaths) startles them.
In Torchlight 2, rare chests find you!
World design & dungeons:
TL2 cleverly hides its linear hack & slash roots with randomized, wide and open outdoor zones and dungeons with multiple paths branching off. Some of those zones and dungeons are satisfyingly large. But what's more; the overall design and attention to detail of all environments are impressive; the game world feels very interactive and rich. A lot of love, inspiration and skill went into this game. Dungeons feel unique, you never notice the random map generation and there's all kinds of unexpected little things going on. I couldn't help myself making a ton of screenshots. More kudos here.
Example of a large, branching dungeon map.
Sound & music:
Both very well done. Apart from the lovely soundscape there's an orchestra of ominous cellos, subtle droplets of sitar and at times pumping electric guitars enhancing the atmosphere. Very akin to Diablo II and in the case of the acoustical guitar and sitary bits almost lawsuit inducingly similar.
No surprise really, as it's made by the same composer, Matt Uelmen. If I had to pick one aspect to call this game a "diablo clone" it would be some parts of the score, and that's not a bad thing at all.
Pretty smooth graphics scaling: Scaled slice of a scene, 100% crop at maximum zoom range,
100% crop at minimum zoom range.
Combat and gameplay:
The lowest difficulty level is "casual", followed by "normal", "veteran" and "elite". The game lets you choose between them at the start but there's also the option to continue playing a character at higher difficulty levels or to make it a hardcore character. Being somewhat of a hack & slash vet I skipped "casual" and started at "normal" right away. I didn't regret that. In my 7 hour playthrough of the first act I never died once, although I came pretty close a few times.
I played an Engineer up to level 21, the beta weekend's cap, and the combat with this class is the one-shot kind with some extra Chuck Norris juice on top. Your character is a powerhouse, a natural disaster to anything crossing its path. Many abilities are AoE abilities or at least have an AoE side effect, combined with the frequent spawns of numerous critters and trash mobs, this results in heinous crimes against monstrosity.
It's clear they went the "over the top heroic" route with combat and it is indeed very typically hack & slashy. But despite the first 12 or so levels being too easy for my liking at normal difficulty, the actual feel and pacing of combat gameplay is excellent: your movement speed is fairly quick, your abilities have a satisfying visual and audible "oomph" and you feel like a tornado, rampaging through each map; never a dull moment. I found it's actually hard to stop playing; the action drives you on and on.
Skills themselves are sometimes very fun and inspired too: in the engineer class the combat bots you get to learn out of the Construction tree stand out.
I'm curious to experience how it feels when there's a bit more challenge involved at harder difficulties but having played through Act 1 on normal, I kind of wonder why they are bothering with an even easier "casual" setting anyway.
Somehow I feel I should have been the one with a question mark over my head. "The f*cks that?! Can I deflate it?"
Skills & customization:
The core is your run of the mill skill system with three trees per class and points to put into stats each level. Next to that there are spells you'll find as loot which can be learned and used like any other ability. Also there's secondary mechanics like fish to catch for your pet which will buff it and change its appearance, gem slots in some of your gear to put gems in (some of the gems you'll find are rare or unique) and there's enchants for your gear to get at enchanters (hidden out in the world).
Each attempt at enchanting an item might add new or improved stats and/or sockets or it might do nothing. Every item can hold multiple layers of enchantments and each attempt costs gold. Higher tiered attempts cost a lot more. Items can be disenchanted as well. Enchanting is obviously TL2's main gold sink as it might take you a while and a ton of cash to get the ones you like best. It's something every min-maxer will be compelled to do on every newly acquired upgrade.
Vanilla drop, enchanted once and enchanted twice.
Character development is fairly standard hack & slash style but serves its purpose in giving you choices to make every level but it isn't as refreshingly free and open as Path of Exile's "free to slot the skill gems you want + bloated passive skill tree" system.
disclaimer: Not sure if I missed out on aspects in this department. It was kind of a limited beta ride after all.
The UI is top notch and a lot of care went into it: shift clicking to swap stuff from your bags to your pet bags, for instance; if you have both bags open you'll see items fly over your screen to the other side. The UI feels very fluid and intuitive. Your pet can also be dismissed to "shop" for stuff at town or to sell all items in its inventory. A nice extra functionality but in my single player experience not much needed as town portal scrolls are just as convenient.
Performance & stability:
Nothing to complain about. As smooth as a buttered eel in olive oil.
Meet Furl the Gem Smasher and Gorn the Gem Saver.
From what I've seen this game has completely outgrown its indie roots and is second to only a few games in polish. It's compelling, fun to play and despite it being kind of a cookie cutter hack & slasher which doesn't really turn previously proven mechanics upside down, the design of what it does is clever, inspired and made with a lot of love and care.
These people seem to know what makes a game in this genre tick and TL2 is above all an effort in perfecting the formula while enhancing on it in small doses here and there, within an inspired, original IP.
And at only 20 bucks its a friggin' bargain.
All in all it seems hack & slash fans are spoiled rotten in this Age of the Second Coming of the Action RPG: Diablo III, PoE, TL2 ... despite everyone having their own preference, we should only be fighting over which is "best" after being very aware of our first world problem in this regard as they are all proper additions to the genre.
Oh hi ... did anyone ever tell you that you have wonderful polygons? I mean .. it's just a few of them but still ...