Torchlight 2 [Preview] – Shining bright

17 May 2012  by   Paul Younger
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Writing about Torchlight 2 without mentioning Diablo 3 would be to ignore the sizeable relation to Dumbo in the room. Ignoring such creatures is unwise as you’re liable to get sat on or, at the very least, find yourself with a steaming surprise on the carpet. So let’s stare down this elephant and say that yes, Diablo 3 just came out and yes, Torchlight 2 is a similar game, looking for a similar audience.

Unlike some, I don’t see this scheduling as an inevitable problem. It’s true that if Torchlight 2 had been released earlier it might have hoovered up a few of the people still waiting for Diablo 3 (who now have that game to play instead); but by releasing after that action-RPG juggernaut Runic’s sequel can piggyback on the blanket press coverage. You’ve probably read plenty of articles, forum threads and comments sections about Diablo 3 that squeeze in a reference or two to Torchlight 2. If the game had been released last year, this probably would not have been the case.

Runic’s original game gained success through steady sales and periodic Steam promotions. It was released in 2009, but reached the million copies sold mark (a successful milestone for an independently developed title) in mid 2011. Likewise, Torchlight 2 probably doesn’t need to rely on selling many thousands of copies on release day (though I’m sure Runic would love this to happen); it just needs action-RPG fans to be aware of the game, so that when they need a new dungeon-crawling fix they consider picking it up.

Contrary to the impression being given by some of the tribal bickering between Diablo and Torchlight fans that there can be only one, people interested in a certain type of game will (in time) tend to pick up multiple quality titles in a given genre. Having these options is a benefit to the players and a benefit to the industry.

Torchlight 2 is also distinguishing itself from Diablo 3 by providing an offline single player mode in the full release (it wasn’t present in this beta). In fact, Runic appear to be taking the polar opposite approach to Blizzard over the issue of how open to make their title. While Blizzard has opted to keep server-side control of everything (in order to prevent cheating and the compromisation of its real-money auction house), Torchlight 2 seems as if it’ll have much more of an ‘anything goes’ direction.

This comes with both benefits and hazards, as it allows open, flexible modding of the game (with a supplied editor) but means there will be little effort to prevent people playing with outright hacked characters. In other words, make sure you play co-op with a trusted group of friends. Of the two approaches, I much prefer Torchlight 2‘s; but others may well favour the alternative. Again, the main point here is that action-RPG fans have options.

This sequel introduces four entirely new classes (while dispensing with the three from the previous game). The Beserker is a melee-focused character with eerie shadow powers, the Ember Mage can call on fire, ice and storm powers, the Engineer uses technology to enhance his melee abilities and the Outlander is (a bit like Torchlight’s Vanquisher) the guns-n-magic member of the group. All classes can be of either gender, and it’s also possible to tweak the face and hair with a few different options. These aren’t inexhaustible, but give you a chance to make the character a little more your own.

Of course, pets return too. Even more animals are available than before, from ferrets to bulldogs to weird lizard-chicken crossbreeds. As with the first game, pets can be given spells (every self-respecting cat wants to cast fireballs) and are able to return to town to flog the unwanted loot you’ve accumulated mid-quest. In addition, pets can now be given shopping lists, allowing them to return to you with a few extra mana potions in their … uh, tiny knapsack pockets? Mouths? Best not to dwell on that question for too long.

Torchlight 2 adopts what I suppose could be dubbed a ‘traditional’ dungeon crawler approach to abilities and skills. Levelling up (which happened with pleasing regularity during this beta) gives you stat points to spend on either Strength, Dexterity, Focus or Vitality along with skill points to channel into your spells and abilities. Each character class has three ability-type paths with distinct skills in each. For example, the Ember Mage I played with went down a storm-powers route, but could just as easily have become a pyromaniac. My Beserker had shadowy wolf abilities, but had the potential to harness the icy powers of the tundra instead.

A further change to the original game is the addition of a ‘charge bar’ for each character class. Once this maxes out (through vanquishing foes), your character gains a class-based bonus for a number of seconds.

Graphically, Torchlight 2 has maintained an art style consistent with its predecessor. There are clear improvements here and there (especially with spell/ability effects, which are highly satisfying to use), but no gigantic leap in quality. That’s fine, as the game retains the crispness necessary for a title of this kind. Enemies are fairly easy to pick out against the backgrounds (though sometimes have somewhat small hitboxes), and loot drops are clearly marked.

More importantly, in the time I’ve spent with the beta I haven’t run into many repeating tilesets. In the first Torchlight, dungeons began to repeat themselves quite rapidly, so you quickly became a bit over-familiar with the same recurring set of libraries, temples and caves. Here, there seems to be more variety. So far, I’ve battled across snowy landscapes, fought through underwater coves filled with ghost pirates and seen caves and underground libraries that are actually distinct from one another. It probably helps that the enemy variety appears to have been expanded too, so the same few foes don’t show up on the same tileset time and again.

It’s difficult to properly gauge this from a beta alone, and I’ve no doubt that repetition will set in at some point (how could it not?), but matters seem much improved from the first game.

Torchlight 2 also employs more open, hub-like areas than the original. Where that game had a single town and an essentially linear progression down through the dungeons, the sequel instead has above-ground areas (such as grasslands and steppe hills) with entrances to side-quest dungeons and main quest progression spread out across the landscape. Like the tileset variety this helps to offset feelings of experience-grinding, but it also adds a minor sense of agency to your movements.

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If you’ve watched the IncGamers Plays video from this beta (in case you missed it, it’s just above this sentence), you’ll also be aware that Torchlight 2 offers full co-op. What you may not realise is that this can be done both online (through peer to peer connections) and through LAN. It’s a crucial inclusion for the Torchlight series, and should give this sequel a greater lifespan than its single player predecessor. As of this beta up to six players could crowd into a game at once, but two to four is probably going to end up as the optimal amount.

Difficulty-wise, the game seems to be pitched at a similar level as the original. ‘Normal’ didn’t prove too tricky in this beta, but there are two difficulty levels beyond that and suggestions that a ‘new game plus’ after beating the main story will open up a further, harder level of play. If you’re feeling bold, you’ll also be able to play ‘hardcore’ at any difficulty level (meaning death for your character is permanent).

The choices Runic has made about the continuing direction of this series are looking very promising. Key requested features (like multiplayer) are being added, while the basic mechanics of the game are being slightly tweaked (such as the addition of the charge bar and pet shopping lists) and the need for greater variety of experience is being addressed (through more tilesets, a hub-like overworld and greater character customisation). If you’re a discerning dungeon crawler, Torchlight 2 is giving you much to anticipate.

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