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Friday, October 12, 2012

Review: Torchlight II

Developer: Runic Games

Some games just have "it."

"It" is that strange, inimitable presence that makes them fun to play, unique, and totally engrossing. It's something you can't fake and you can't force.

Torchlight II has "it." Action-RPGs that mimic the gameplay and aesthetic of Diablo have been around almost immediately after Diablo launched in 1996. So many pretenders to the crown have come and gone, and so many of them can't nail down what made Diablo great in the first place. There have been a few games that got it right, like the fantastic Titan Quest. There have been a lot more that got oh-so-close and fumbled key parts of the game. Judging by some recent reactions to Diablo III's endgame, it seems that Blizzard has forgotten that as well.
For example, the original Torchlight came very close, as it got all the mechanics down. However, since the game took place in caverns, there wasn't a whole lot of variance in the scenery. You were either looking at caves, swamp, a weird temple, a castle, or something similar. You only ever visited one town (the titular Torchlight). They also didn't include multiplayer, for some odd reason. The quests were also kind of boring, as each one required you to go to Floor X and kill Monster Y, sometimes bringing back Shiny Bauble Z. Rinse, repeat.

Mind you, the original Torchlight was still really good. The game mechanics were fantastic and there were plenty of ways to spec your character just the way you wanted him or her. It was everything you would want in a Diablo clone, but it just wasn't Diablo.

In order to make Torchlight II, Runic Games could have just added an overworld and some more cities, thrown in multiplayer and called it a day. It would have still been decent, especially because the underlying mechanics of the game were good. Fortunately, they didn't take the easy way out.

For example, there's more character customization in Torchlight II. Instead of three fixed classes with fixed genders, you can select from four different classes, choose male or female characters, and customize their looks. You can choose from more pets, and multiple styles of those pets.

The classes are all a blast to play as. I started by playing as an Engineer, a cross between a heavy-weapon wielder and a machine-maker. I played him too closely to a straight fighter and got bored. Respeccing the character to use more of the machines at his disposal made him a lot more fun to play.

I also have a Berzerker named Burt, and he's even more fun. Burt has a skill that has a chance of causing the Berzerker to go into an adrenaline-fueled rage and up his speed. I combined that with a skill that lengthens the time that the Berzerker goes into a state called Frenzy, when he ups his damage and critical hit rate. Now, if I wanted to, I could have picked skills that improved how much magical damage I deal with each hit. I could pick skills that cause frozen enemies to explode upon death and cause splash damage. I've got that flexibility. Most every skill is useful and uniquely tailored to suit a specific style of play.

That's the great thing about Torchlight II's classes: How do you want to play them? Do you want ranged characters or melee characters? You choose. Really, you choose. Go nuts. I can take my Engineer, for example, and outfit him with a giant cannon. That's right: I can make my tank character a ranged character too.

Full disclosure: I haven't tried the other two classes yet, the magic-focused Embermage or the range-focused Outlander. I intend to try them all, even though I've already played through the majority of the game. That's how much fun I'm having.

The biggest difference between the Diablo series and the Torchlight series is your animal friend who accompanies you. He (or she, whatever) is more than just an extra warrior alongside you. As in the first Torchlight, you can easily transfer your excess gear over to your pet and send them back to town to sell it. However, in Torchlight II, you also have the ability for them to purchase potions and scrolls for you while in town and bring them back to you, an ability that saved my bacon more than once.

There’s the chance you can royally wreck your build. For example, I made some mistakes with Burt, dumping too many points into Focus and Vitality, stats which the Berzerker class doesn’t need because other skills will take the place of them. I also didn’t pick the right combination of skills, wasting my points on skills that didn’t end up being useful in the long run. Now, if I would have been playing on Normal difficulty, I probably wouldn’t have had any issues, but playing on Veteran made those mistakes stick out dramatically. By comparison, Diablo III does have some more flexibility as far as respeccing your characters, since they allows you to shuffle around your skills at a whim, making it far less difficult to completely bork your character.

The good news is that Torchlight II does make it very clear what you're getting in to before you pick your character's next skill and it does allow you to respec your last three chosen skills if you don't like the choice you made (for a small fee in gold, of course). There's also apparently a complete respec potion that can drop from time to time, though they're supposed to be extremely rare.

Now, I can't tell you exactly how this stacks up with Diablo III. I haven't played Diablo III, so I can't compare the loot drops, the skill trees, and all the other minutiae between the two. All I can say is this: After playing Torchlight II, I don't feel the need to play Diablo III. Why would I? Torchlight II scratches any possible loot-gathering, baddie-bashing, weapon-wielding, mouse-breaking itch I may have gotten, and then some. And by the way: Torchlight II sells for a third of the price. Game, set, match.

Final Grade: A