Beating Blizzard at its Own Game
Ever get that feeling that you are erring towards the underdog? Like watching a re-run of the Rocky series, I can't help but place Torchlight 2 into the mumbling, shuffling shoes of the Philadelphian slugger - and at the same time mentally mutate Diablo 3's amiable mush into that of the cold, dead-eyed stare of Ivan Drago. Don't worry this metaphor is going somewhere.
Whilst Blizzard are verbally murdering Apollo Creed (see Brevikgate), and throwing cash and numerous scientist bods at Diablo in an attempt to sculpt the perfect ARPG machine, Torchlight's development is in the snow, rutting with plough horses, and climbing mountains.
You see, Runic Games have had just a percentage of the budget available to Blizzard, and half the staff behind the scenes, and yet, this is ultimately, and undoubtedly, a superior game. It has more charm, it has more adventure, and it's a fraction of the price. Erring towards the underdog? I'm like those Soviet Union leaders cheering Rocky on when he's duking for the "one in the middle."
Now I will prefix this entire bit with the admission that perhaps I have been won over by the little guy. Everybody secretly craves to see a Goliath fall, so with ex-Blizz developers at the helm, fewer resources, and with such indie spirits, it's like Schaefer and crew have cobbled together a giant-slaying megazoid. Has this clouded my judgement like Yoda on a particularly Sith-filled day? I don't think it has, but I'm perfectly open to objections to the contrary.
You see, I didn't really connect with Diablo 3. I found it charmless, a little lifeless, and essentially a decade-old game parading around in those sneakers with the little blinky lights on. Aside from charging 60 bucks for a virtual bracelet, there wasn't a lot of innovation knocking around; where were the steps forward? The innovative punts? It seemed like nervous fan service, and unlike StarCraft 2, it wasn't second-time lucky.
But Torchlight 2 is very similar right? It's an ARPG which by definition means it's about as forward thinking 90's disco - which is true, but Runic Games' slasher-that-could just encapsulates a lot more adventure. Rather than re-inventing the loot-scattering wheel, it has added to it; fleshed out the world; added more quests; made it feel more alive. Whereas in Diablo 3 I felt like I was clearing the same old tired areas for nothing, Torchlight drives me forward, whether it is to find that forgotten tomb, or slay a pirate demon. It's charming, it's fun, and never does it feel like a reduction of simple grind for weapons and thus status. I'm in the moment, and I like it.
Which isn't to say that it isn't a simple rotation of kill, loot, ad infinitum, because it undoubtedly is. The differences here are minimal, but Torchlight 2 edges it for me. It feels pieced together by people that want to deliver that seminal ARPG experience - the art direction is playful, the mood exciting, dangerous, and foreboding all at once, and I actually want to explore the randomly generated environments.
Comparing this with Diablo 3 where I found sparse rolling maps, filled with the same three species of enemies, and perhaps a copy-and-paste dungeon (if I see one more centaur I will stamp my heels with protest). While Blizzard's design made me feel cold and uninterested, Runic's makes me want to explore, murder, and maim. It's that magical alchemy of an entirely welcoming world and at the same time filled with dangerous twangs of guitars and orchestral sounds. You don't just grind relentlessly through; you stop to savour the experience in the lands of Ember.
But that sounds like a barrel full of bias doesn't it? To counteract the glowing positives, there are short comings too; mainly that of the story. Torchlight follows hot on the heels of Diablo 1 & 2 in that both games have felt almost identical in terms of narrative structure. The first game saw us plumbing the depths of the namesake mine to eventually face off against the Alchemist and Ordrak (click and drag those names for Diablo and you have the same plot) while the second is also in very familiar territory.
Like the second Diablo entry, the Alchemist of the first game is corrupted by the mysterious ore Ember, and also in possession of Ordrak's heart. Cue rampage and a quest that seems entirely reminiscent of the Dark Wanderer.
Ultimately, it reads more like a paper-thin reason to get you travelling, but I would say that Diablo 3 fares no better. Both are very similar in that you are usually shuffling in the wake of terror, and you must stop it. I'd just point out that Torchlight is a little less po-faced and sterile: but honestly? It's splitting hairs.
Ultimately nobody is here for story, and ARPGs are never going to scale the heights of virtual, Shakespearian tale-spinning. We are more interest in what the gameplay is like; how does it measure up to its peers? Again invoking comparisons between Torchlight and Diablo, it hangs on how you like your slaughter.
Torchlight 2 is very much the product of those that made the initial Blizzard series (which of course it literally is). Starting out in a muddy field, you slay, gather, and level. The major throwback here is the complete sculpting of your character by dictating attribute points - something that was a controversial omission of the third Diablo. The development here feels very much in your hands, an Embermage for instance can be specialised in a way that Diablo wouldn't let you.
There is also absolute freedom in how you equip your character. While I may be a spell-flinging character, I can reserve a few points for strength so I can wield swords or hammers. Unlike Bliz's title, that need for balance, balance, and more balance is less of a concern. Rather than stunt gameplay, if you want to create a fire-spewing warrior-mage, you are at liberty to do so. And that, for me, wins out.
And then there's the online stuff. I will say right here and now that I am disappointed by the lack of a central hub in both games. While you and a gang of marauders can chain-gang through maps, you have to enter games from a matchmaking system. It's functional and it works, but the Brevik idea of a "Battle.net Town" (you’ll see this in Marvel Heroes via Xavier’s Mansion, etc.) sounds like a more forward thinking, and immersive idea.
But with that put to one side, this is the most fun I've had with online others for some time. It is hectic, a little unstable, and has had some technical server-side issues, but it's a whole lot of fun. With a coherent team, you will take down bosses, loot legendary items, and forge memories that you won't forget in a hurry.
Before I played Torchlight 2, I was ready to write off the Action RPG genre. While I have enjoyed the original Diablo games, Titan's Quest, and Sacred, each entry has been that little bit more stale. Like popping bubble wrap, there's only so much you can do before you will get bored. And when Diablo 3 swung around, I was ready to call it a day. And then Runic Games has managed to pull me from the brink.
While I was moderately entertained by their first outing, this time round they have gotten it right. It's not perfect, and it isn't without fault, but for those who wanted more from Diablo 3 other than polish and a bland end game, Torchlight 2 has you covered. This is a game developed for those that wish to experience it for 20 hours, rather than 200. If that sounds good to you, then this is the game for you.