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Recently, I've had the chance to try out the Torchlight II beta to see how the oft-delayed game is shaping up now that a release date of "summer 2012" seems like a real possibility. While the game has a ways to go in terms of its overall balance, I'm also happy to say that it's shaping up to be not only a very solid sequel to Torchlight, but is more than compelling enough to compete with Diablo III and the other heavy hitters of the genre as well.
The easiest way to sum up Torchlight II is that it very effectively mimics the transition from Diablo's relatively self-contained dungeon crawling to Diablo II's greater focus on multiplayer, expansive outdoor environments, and of course, the loot slot machine. Where Torchlight was confined to just a couple of dungeon levels, floor after floor, Torchlight II is more structured, with a balance between overland exploration and dungeon-crawling, and a constant stream of new sights to see, monsters to fight and so forth as you progress. Similarly, where Torchlight revolved around hacking and slashing through enemies towards the end boss, Torchlight II puts more emphasis on teamwork in building multiple characters and sending them into online multiplayer (complete with peer-to-peer play and a game browser, just like the good old days).
Even though imitation isn't really a bad thing, it's almost impossible to talk about Torchlight II without bringing up Diablo just because there are so many similarities. The first title was a success because it appealed to a niche at a time when there was little competition; the sequel, meanwhile, is both a tribute to Blizzard's own series and a counterpoint to the much more streamlined Diablo III. However, while it would have been relatively easy to just make a Diablo II clone, Torchlight II sees a number of changes and improvements that make it stand out.
For instance, whereas Diablo's character classes have always adhered to very typical concepts (warrior, wizard, rogue, etc.), and the build archetypes for each class were relatively limited, Torchlight II's most conventional class, the Embermage, is "just" a wizard, while the others combine typical classes seen in most RPGs to form all-new ones that offer a lot of interesting possibilities. The Engineer, for example, is the closest thing the game has to a front-line warrior, and while you can chose to build him (or her) that way, it's also possible to make the Engineer a summoner, a support character, a nuker, and so on. Another addition, the Charge mechanic, sees different character classes getting different bonuses as they perform better in combat - some of them will do progressively more damage as they dispatch enemies quickly, while others can build up and use Charge to gain extra damage or effects when using skills and spells. It's a fun mechanic that encourages you to move forward into the fray rather than play slowly and wait to heal up, and works well for all classes despite being different on each one.
Similarly, while the character system superficially resembles Diablo II's, with four main attributes, plus three-category skill trees with both active and passive benefits for each class, a number of smart choices mean that building a character is a more interesting proposal. Whereas Blizzard's game stumbled by having only a single attribute really matter per class (and at high level play, only Vitality was worth boosting up), Torchlight II's flexibility extends to the attributes as well. Strength increases all weapon damage, for example, regardless of class, while Focus adds to Mana while also increasing elemental damage and chance of dual-attacking when using two weapons at once. While this doesn't make a lot of sense (why does strength make a gun do more damage?) the end result is a character system which is much better balanced and allows all character classes to be successful in a variety of rules, or as generalists.
Combat has also received a very substantial upgrade in Torchlight II. When played on Veteran or Elite difficulty, Torchlight II provides a surprising amount of depth and challenge. Enemies and bosses frequently have modifiers that actually impact play-style in substantial ways - some will eat corpses to restore their health, which introduces a risk/reward element of either luring them away from corpses to stop them from healing, or taking advantage of their feasting to get free attacks in, for instance, while others have the dreaded "lightning enchanted" and "explosive" modifiers. These sorts of tactical considerations are everywhere, and they go a long, long way towards reducing the monotony that can sometimes set in with hack-and-slash games, as each mini-boss introduces a new challenge to deal with. Combined with the extremely fast and responsive controls and lag-free gameplay, I can safely say that no other game of this style has occupied me moment-to-moment or been consistently as much fun, at least any time within the last several years.
A Whole New World
One of the other things Torchlight II does quite capably is creating interesting and varied environments to explore. While the first game's randomly-generated levels were certainly impressive to see in full 3D, they also got repetitive after a while. Torchlight II takes a page from Diablo III by having slightly more fixed elements and more consistent game-to-game direction in its levels, but it doesn't give up the randomly-generated feel in the process, unlike what I saw of Blizzard's own title.
There's almost always something interesting to come across, from individual monster encounters, to a few secrets and Easter eggs, to full-blown side-quests. Most of these appear on repeat play-throughs, especially the side-quests, although often the details change in subtle ways. In one quest to purge a tomb, I was required in one game to fight a couple of shamans with power over fire and ice magic, while in another game I had to smash some monuments. While there's a bit more potential for random elements (I would like to see more side-quests and secrets to find), it also gives Torchlight II's world a hand-crafted feel that make exploration fun, without everything being completely predictable for repeat plays either.
Going beyond the single town the first game took place in has also required Runic Games to expand their game world. Some of the monsters familiar to fans now have their own villages that you'll get to raid and demolish, for instance, while you'll also have to fight off bandits on the road, hike through snowy landscapes and dark, dank caves, and more; while not in the beta, it sounds like deserts and jungles will also make an appearance. It's all stock standard stuff, but there is a lot of variety both in the look of the different environments as well as in their overall layouts - some are wide, open and vast, while others are craggy, rocky and narrow. It's a huge breath of fresh air compared to the repetitive dungeons of the original game, and combined with those underground labyrinths, there's a very nice contrast and a good sense of pacing to the gameplay that never sees one location wear out its welcome.
Unfortunately, Torchlight II stumbles in actually explaining its world and characters. Supposedly Runic Games hired on a professional writer for the game, but truth be told it's impossible to tell. Who is General Grell, and why is he attacking me? Who, exactly, are the Zeraphi people, and why are they clad in golden armor? Why is my character taking orders from the Grand Regent? What are these "Guardians" that are being corrupted? Many of these characters and things are brought up, but given almost zero explanation - the game presents universe and story, but never bothers to make players feel remotely invested in it, because it never goes beyond the MMO-style quest dialogue boxes. It's not a huge deal in a game of this sort, but it still feels like a missed opportunity - even if Diablo, Titan Quest and other similar games are simple, at least they try to make a little sense and have decent stories to drive their action.
Although Torchlight II is, generally speaking, a big improvement over the original, with more interesting characters, skills, a more varied game world, and challenging and engaging combat, there's also a lot that still needs to be fixed up before the game releases. The majority of these are balance considerations, and I'm sure they'll see a ton of tweaking over the next few months. Even so, I think it's worth going into detail here, if only because it'll be interesting to see how the final game changes.
For starters, like the original Torchlight, the random loot drops are still a bit excessive. While things have been toned down slightly, there's still far too much useless loot that might as well just be dropped as money instead, since all players will do with this equipment is sell it. While finding powerful and unique items is actually a fairly uncommon thing, it still happens a bit too much, and the "standard" magic and rare equipment is too disposable for my liking. Some games, including Diablo III and Path of Exile, have got around this by tying loot into their crafting systems, where even basic, low-tier items are useful for melting down into components. Unfortunately, at least for now, crafting has been removed from Torchlight II, so all that extra loot is more or less worthless. Runic Games do seem to be aware of this problem, however, and have hinted that crafting of some sort may make an appearance down the line.
There are also some oddities with individual equipment. Although finding unique items is fairly uncommon, many of them have mediocre stat modifiers and bonuses, with magical items and rare items sometimes far outstripping them. There's also a lot of strange inconsistency in stat requirements - I've seen items that do less damage and have fewer magical modifiers require higher levels than ones that are twice as powerful, for example. Hopefully these things will be worked out as more types of modifiers are added and the loot tables are sorted out to be more consistent.
As much as I enjoyed the varied classes, I also had to say that the balance on a lot skills and even entire character types needs some work. I started out with an Outlander, a gunslinger character who can cast spells, and found that the low damage output from dual pistols simply didn't compete with two-handed bows, for example, and my basic starter skill, Throw Glaive, was far more useful at first level than some of my other skills and spells even when they had multiple points put into them. Meanwhile, my Engineer's Gun Bot, a summon-able robot with a machine gun attached, was so powerful that it could easily dispatch bosses in seconds without me ever having to take a swing myself. The Embermage, meanwhile, had some fun spells, but they were a bit too expensive to cast without chugging down Mana Potions constantly, and there was no way to boost Mana regeneration that I came across.
Last, while the basic combat was a ton of fun and well balanced on Veteran difficulty, the boss fights I played were a pain despite being well designed, due to excessive HP bloat. I am not exaggerating when I say that the first major boss took me about ten minutes of kiting and potion-quaffing, as well as multiple deaths and resurrections to beat, despite me being at the recommended level and having reasonably good equipment. That same boss, however, was a complete joke when played in multiplayer with other people, or when played on the Normal difficulty setting. In fact, Normal as a whole was a complete cakewalk, and at one point I had over 100 unused Health Potions sitting in my toolbelt - while it's recommended for new players, the game was positively boring on that setting and posed no challenge. A lot of tweaking needs to be done to ensure that all difficulty settings are both fun and challenging for different players, and in both solo and multiplayer contexts.
Overall, despite those balance problems, I had a blast with the time I spent playing the Torchlight II beta. Runic have shown they're hard at work tweaking the game and collecting bug reports, so I expect things to improve that way once the game hits store shelves and digital distribution platforms in (hopefully) a few months. The improvements to the game world, character system and combat as a whole are very substantial, and despite being a budget-priced title, Torchlight II is set to pack a serious amount of gameplay, as well as a great deal more variety and more features than the original game ever did.
The bigger question that looms at the moment is, of course, "how does Torchlight 2 compare to Diablo III and Path of Exile?", its two biggest competitors, which are also shaping up to be high-quality games. The fact is that, despite the superficial similarities, all three games play fairly distinctly and have their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as some fairly different business models and design considerations, and I can only encourage gamers to try out each of them to see which one they like the most. Either way, though, it's a great time to be a fan of hack-and-slash RPGs, and I look forward to playing more of Torchlight II in the coming months.