Developer: Runic Games
Review Platform: PC
Review Copy Provided By: Runic Games
Release Date: September 20, 2012
With snacks at arms length, coffee on the pot, and fresh mousepads at the ready, we clung to the the edge of our computer chairs on bated breath, fully prepared to contract new types of carpal tunnel syndrome which hadn’t even been properly discovered yet. As midnight drew closer, the fact that we’d finally be playing Diablo together again for the first time in nearly a decade started to feel more real than ever, and our ragtag group of summoners started to vibrate with a collective excitement that echoed over the Skype call on a feedback loop. It had been awhile since any of us had taken a video game launch this seriously, and even though we’re all in our mid-twenties with jobs to go to, bills to pay, and responsibilities to attend to like the average adult, in that brief moment before the clock struck 12, it was just like we were a couple of carefree kids in middle school again, skipping homework and sneaking out of bed to just get “one more” Baal run in before the finally sun came up.
Sick days called in at work weeks ahead of time, multiple paychecks dropped on the most reliable hardware we could find, and even spa tickets bought for girlfriends to ensure there would be nothing to get in the way of our collective quest to level 60. We’d done our part, and now the only piece left to complete the puzzle was squarely in Blizzard’s hands…all they had to do was not mess it up.
Unfortunately for the developers over at Runic, no matter how many different ways you swing the enchanted axe, it’s not really possible to write a decent review for Torchlight II without mentioning the demon-hellspawn gorilla in the room a few times at least. At the most basic levels of gameplay the two games are nearly indistinguishable from one another, each doing their to best replicate the core of the “hack-cast-loot”mechanic that’s been in gaming for 25 years now. And even though its been nearly half of that since Diablo 2 was originally released, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t still call it the undisputed king of the genre. It was clear from the first character you played that the team behind it was putting an unbelievable amount of attention into the smallest details, smoothing out creases we didn’t even know were there until they had already ironed them out. This paid off in gangbusters for both the lead developers and the company that backed them, but after supporting a robust patch schedule for years post-release, creating an expansion pack filled to the brim with extra goodies and areas to explore, and showing a tireless dedication to providing as much balance you could ask for in a randomly generated world, Vivendi decided their concepts for the inevitable step towards Diablo 3 weren’t the direction they wanted to go with the franchise, and axed all of Blizzard North in one very short-sighted swoop.
Not a group to let a good idea and skilled hands go to waste, four developers would eventually come out of the layoffs to form their own company, Runic Games in 2007. In 2009 they released their first game onto an unsuspecting indie gaming public and gathering of game critics, who gave it a generally good reception overall, save for a few asterisks here and there. It had its faults like any other PC title, although I can’t say any were really quite as obvious or glaring as the fact that the one thing we all loved in D2; the ability to play with friends, was nowhere to be found on the menu or in-game. It made up for these missing pieces with tried-and-true gameplay elements being presented in fresh new ways, along with a solid collaboration between the art and graphics departments to create a whole new steampunk-esque world where magic and machines could collide into one.
Diversity Over Continuity
This brings us to Torchlight II, a game which basically pulls the best parts from what made Diablo 2 a masterpiece, and throws in a new, highly fluid combat system that encourages dozens of different build combinations with about 600 million more pieces of loot, alongside an impeccable sense for art direction which manages to be both engaging and immersive throughout your journey . You’re encouraged to use the field intelligently, manage mana strategically, and always knowing where your enemies and allies are for every second of a fight. It punishes mistakes quickly and rewards combos heartily, all with the polish and attention to detail we originally expected out of the team behind Diablo 3.
For example, even though my Outlander is only leveled to 28 and just reached the first portion of the last act on normal difficulty so far, she already feels like she has more capability and diversity in her left glove socket than my level 60 in Diablo has in his whole build. Combine that with a massive library of items, skills, and disciplines available to choose from, and even in the mid-game the sense of individuality I feel for my character is stronger now than anything I got out of the Witch Doctor in D3. She’s a ranged spellcaster who favors a bow with RapidShot on primary, and depends on an intoxicating mix of close combat, ranged bow usage, pet management, and spellcasting. If I had to give her class a name, I guess I’d call it a HuntLock (short for Hunter/Warlock), although only using two archetypes still doesn’t feel like enough to fully encompass everything I’ve been able to do while playing thus far. At this point I’d even go as far to say she’s probably the most unique character I’ve played in a game to date, just edging out my Jedi Outcast in the original Knights of the Old Republic.
Easy on the Eyes
Those of you who followed Diablo 3 since the first screens might remember that the developers were criticized for a “cartoony” look which didn’t fit the overall feel of the Diablo universe, prompting hundreds of changes to both the UI and the feel of the game as a whole. And while I didn’t necessarily have many issues with the way they chose to do things, I wasn’t too enamored with the dull gray/blue/brown palette either. Torchlight keeps my interest primarily through diversity, stellar art direction, and the ever-important tactic of always introducing a new character to the cast for me to fight every 10 minutes or so, complete with their own unique skin, flair, and abilities that I have to learn how to avoid on the fly. This allows the gameplay to stay fresh and the battlefield to constantly change, without disorienting the player or making them feel like they can’t understand what’s happening on-screen. With every minion type from trash mobs to elites and bosses each carrying a unique set of weapons and skill sets with them in their toolbelts, you’re forced to switch up your play style to match the occasion, and never feel “safe” for long enough to get bored.
Never the Same Twice
Dynamic shifts in content means that different areas challenge you to use your character in different ways; while fighting “Netherlings” I was constantly having to depend on basic attacks because their special modifier drains mana while you fight. They are these small, admittedly pretty cute puffballs of purple gas and teeth that sneak into battle unnoticed under the bigger targets and sap you of all your precious blue elixir while their cousins continue to hammer away at your forcefield and shield. It’s the little details like this that keep you on your toes throughout most of the campaign, and whether you’re playing together with friends or solo alongside your pet, proper communication and teammwork are the only way you’ll get through a dungeon unscathed.
Finding items 2-8 levels above my own is another seemingly innocuous trick that I loved falling for in D2, but sorely missed in the atrocious randomization engine that’s still plauging the few people who still sign in to Battle.net to play D3 anymore. It encourages me to play more while helping to shape the way I build my character, constantly influencing the stats and skills I choose on my way to the maximum level of 100. I would get a bow that had a large amount of knockback or high percentage for fear, and this would encourage me to boost my rapid fire skill in order to give those two buffs as high of a chance of casting as possible. Diablo 3 took a huge step in the wrong direction when it came down to this mechanic, and even now they’re still trying to clean up a mess that resulted in massive player loss numbers and even more dismal prospects for team leader and head designer, Jay Wilson.
Torchlight does everything that Diablo does, and it does it cleaner, better, and with more…soul, if I had to put what it is that makes this game so good into a word. I stopped playing Diablo 2 nearly 8 years ago, so I haven’t been up to date on what’s been patched in and what new features from an old game might have carried into this one, but either way the sheer amount of fun I’ve been having in TL2 is enough to exemplify how dedicated the team behind it was to bringing this tried and true formula into the 21st century, and getting it right on the second time around.
Power to the Players
My Outlander gained an ability at level 21 which spawned a shadowy floating ram’s head around my character, one which keeps enemies within a certain distance away from me on all sides. This is a unique addition to the shield/forcefield dynamic that has gotten so worn out in the past, but it also helps to further the point I’m trying to make about what the dev team has accomplished here.
See, the ram-head spell lasts for 30 seconds, and the cooldown for it is only 25. This gives me 5 extra seconds on the field to see that the cooldown is done, know that I need to recast on my next move, and then plan where I’m going to go from there accordingly. In D3 none of the cooldowns seem to correspond with each other or create any sense of flow between skill trees or rune types. Where Runic differs most significantly from their former employer is they forgive the player preemptively through the intelligent management of cooldowns, which is just another notch on a long list of unique approaches the team has taken to spice up this steadily aging pattern we’ve all grown a sort of hypnotic skill for at this point.
Torchlight II doesn’t break up every action beat as evenly as you might hope, and there are some particularly dreary stretches where you might come across 100 of the same trash mob with standard affixes until anything worth sitting up for happens…but once the real baddies show up to the party it’s a non-stop duel to the death almost every time, and even now I still have yet to walk away from an Elite fight feeling like it wasn’t worth it, regardless of the drop.
By the time I reached level 60 in Diablo I had been using the exact same set of skills and passive buffs for about 12 levels, because the game got so unbalanced at the top that using anything else but the absolute highest damage/protection skills was a death sentence two steps out of the gate or less. I joined games along dozens of other WD’s who had the same Vision/Bears/Gargantuan skill tree as me, all set that way to avoid dying in an instant to enemies which had clearly been designed and tested by a 5th grade ESL class on their free time. So after dying upwards of about 200 times from lag issues, hitbox detection glitches, poorly implemented enemy class characterizations, and a whole range of other mistakes that I’ve been able to avoid almost entirely in TL2 so far, it dawned on me just how extensively the “Acti” in ActiBlizzard had affected key choices in design and development along the way
The Publisher Paid For It, They Get to Break It
They buffed monsters, traps, spawns, and bosses in the last 20 levels far beyond the scaling present in the first 40, and they did it for a very unsettling reason to boot. Normally you might expect a developer to skirt around the issue and sugarcoat their statements responding to complaints from the community, but in a scarcely candid moment Bashiok (Battle.net community manager for the official forums), was quoted as saying;
“…although we’ve always had the intention to give our players the chance to play their characters exactly the way they want to without stepping foot in the Real Money Auction House…a decision came down from the design executives during the later stages of production which required us to shift some of the developers original vision in a different and somewhat unexpected direction. With that said, we at Blizzard and those working here at Diablo 3 HQ are still just as dedicated to pursuing our initial plans to give you and your friends the most varied and balanced experience you’ve come to expect from us over the past 20 years.”
In a nutshell, this means that Activision stepped in way late in the development cycle with some crunched numbers they got from their accounting department, and immediately started handing cash-driven design instructions down the chain of command. The RMAH was now to be the absolute center and Sun for everything the development team did, and no matter what new skills or items they might have wanted to put in, they would always have to think “how will Activision be able to make money off this?” first, and “how can I make this engaging and unique for the players?” in a distant, distant second.
Midnight’s Second Chance
I have found myself wondering though if my swiftly rising obsession with this game might have something to do more with my disappointment with D3 than it does with the specific benefits that TL2 brings to the table. The game still comes with plenty of flaws of its own, including loading screens that are both punishing in the way they take you out of the environment for up to 30 seconds at a time, and also for the fact that waiting for it to finish in the middle of a fight can end up costing the battle if you don’t time it well enough. The graphics, while crisp and reminiscent of Wind Waker in all its cel-shaded glory, won’t be pushing your video card to the edge any time soon, and only really serve to back up the rather delightful art style which fits the genre nicely.
The hits feel harder, the fights feel closer, and the loot is all that much sweeter because of both of those improvements. If you want to, you can just go straight through the main quests and get the storyline done in about 30 hours on Veteran difficulty, but honestly, I wouldn’t recommend it if you really want to get the full looting and elite-fighting experience. The rewards for taking sidequests are both plentiful and unique, adding playful weapons, skill increases, and spell rewards that you won’t be able to find anywhere on the straight and narrow path restricted to the major roads.
When I originally started this piece I figured I’d probably gush a little extra about it than I do in other reviews, but honestly with how good TL2 has been from day one compared to the slightly-above-mediocre support we’re still getting from Blizzard almost half a year post launch…I think I’m ready to call Torchlight II the “true” sequel to Diablo 2 here, and forget everything I played that was released by a company I barely even recognize anymore. Diablo 3 had 8 years in development, and they came out with a game which is barely half as decent as its predecessor, and that’s being nice about it. Torchlight II had just under three, and they seemed to have no problem knocking their old bosses clear out of the park with this one-hit crit. To think, all it took was a little genuine love for gaming and the will to give players everything they could possibly want at ⅓ of the regular price.
Hell, if the people who created Diablo aren’t going to do the franchise proper service anymore, at least there’s still a company out there ballsy enough to show them up with a better version instead.