Hands-on / Torchlight II

Torchlight is easily one of the best deals in gaming. It’s an action RPG dungeon crawl made by guys who worked on the first two Diablo games.  It delivers a familiar, equally fun experience, throws in some nice twists (pets!) to make things a little more interesting, and was only $20 at launch. It did, however, have two big flaws: it just wasn’t a very large game with only one town and one really really deep dungeon, and it offered no multiplayer, a staple of the genre since the first Diablo. With Torchlight II, Runic Games has addressed both those issues and is even replacing the original three character classes with four new ones. It all sounds like the right steps to make with a sequel, and from my time playing the game, it sure felt that way too.

Max Schaefer, CEO of Runic Games, was my guide through some of the new features of Torchlight II, and things kicked off right away as we hopped into an instance of the game world to start our “click on monsters watch them die” venture. I got to try out the newly revealed class: the Berserker. He’s basically a sort of Barbarian-esque brute forcer who specializes in dual wielding lighter weapons for some really fast hack n’ slash action. It didn’t take long for me to try this out. Within seconds of the world loading, some little jokes of monsters charged at us with intent to kill. I clicked and I clicked, watching with glee as my Berserker eviscerated with a speed that was just glorious. In fact, throughout most of my time playing I preferred his normal attacks to his specials (which were no slouch mind you) because it was just so satisfying.

“I think there’s a cave down here somewhere…” said Schaefer, steering his Railman south as we explored the outdoor world. These worlds are going to be similar to the outdoor “hubs” of Diablo II, where they will connect you to smaller caves and dungeons where you’ll typically have a quest to complete. Another similarity: the outdoor worlds are going to be pretty huge. The actual length of time to complete the game is still up in the air, as every little balance tweak they make can affect how long it takes to finish the game. I wasn’t given a number, but from what I gathered, it won’t be a short game.

Eventually, we found our cave. We had to activate three beacons that got some ghosts to do some things with some glowing lights that opened the way for us, and then we were on a descent through more monsters that needed severe clicking. As we traversed, Schaefer pointed out that while the game runs on the same graphics engine as the first one, graphics were slightly improved. From what I saw, that was… yeah that was pretty accurate. The reason here was that they wanted to keep the game playable on a ton of systems like the first, where they boasted that the game ran fine on even a netbook. What they were more interested in doing, and what they also succeeded in doing, was giving the world a little more life. In Diablo, it was too common to walk into, say, a crypt with tombs, only to find demons literally standing around, and only moving at the sight of you. What we found were ethereal spirits seeping through cracks in walls, little imps crawling up from what looked like bottomless pits, and eventually, a gigantic boss that crept out of a rather conspicuous hole in the middle of a foyer. Oh, and of course there will be music by Matt Uelman again, and this time recorded by a live orchestra, and that I didn’t get to hear because it was frickin’ E3. Those certainly add to the look and feel of the game, but what really kept me in my seat was, of course, the actual clicking on/killing of demons.

I want to stress again that the Berserker was a really fun class, and I have every intention of rolling one when I inevitably buy this game, but that fun is a function of a really solid formula. Runic really knows how to nail it in this genre. Heck, most of them helped establish it. Their past innovations, like the pets that help you fight and do chores like sell your extra loot to keep a steady pace of action, are still in place, and it adds little things like a reddening screen to indicate that you should probably drink a health potion, but it’s still the same game at heart. Well… maybe a little faster, and even that’s a good thing. It gives a welcomed emphasis on the “action” in its action RPG label.  Also worth mentioning is the obligatory and satisfying smattering of bashing a monster into a bloody pulp. No… it doesn’t really feel new, but it’s so solid, and they’re so comfortable with this genre, that it’s still a welcome treat to play this game.

What also feels great, of course, is knowing I can enjoy all this with friends this time around. I had only one ally by my side in my time playing, and even that changes the dynamic. All of a sudden you’re talking to someone as you walk through a dark cave, and your “uh oh” is a shared reaction. It’s fun, something to laugh at, and what co-op is all about. I enjoyed the first Torchlight as a solo adventure, and it worked just fine without it, but that multiplayer is finally there really does make it that much better.

With multiplayer, Runic’s putting an effort into making the experience as frustration-free as possible. Loot is the big example. Each player will have a completely separate set of loot from everyone else in his or her party. So if you see a huge axe that your friend would love, you’ll have to get used to the fact that said friend won’t see it. This will definitely address the problem of bickering over who gets what, unless of course you liked doing that. Another perk for the hardcore PC gaming fans is that the game will also support local area network, or LAN play. So all you still itching to game all night in someone’s garage across foldout tables, rejoice. Runic hears you.

There are still some questions left unanswered. We don’t know what the max player count will be. Schaefer told me that it will be somewhere between four and eight players. But even after saying that, he did mention that the game will come with level creation and modding tools where that number can be changed by the user to anything they want. We also don’t know how much this will cost. Nothing’s been set, but I was told that it won’t be less than $20 or more than $30, and given what I saw that seems plenty reasonable. We also don’t know what the fourth class is, details on the new pets, or of course when exactly this game is coming out. The team is aiming for this Fall, and Schaefer sounded pretty confident with that, but you just never know in this business.

Torchlight II has me excited. It keeps close to the chest with the core gameplay, feeling nearly identical to its predecessor, but that doesn’t bother me. I just like that core so damn much, and I get a feeling I’m not alone. It’s also no small thing to add new classes, a larger game world, and of course multiplayer. It was fun to play, and I’m excited to play more.

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