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Torchlight 2 Hands-On Report

Posted 18 November 2011by Flux

While at Runic Games, and in the days since then, I’ve had dozens of people ask me what I thought of Torchlight 2. To my chagrin, I still don’t have a good answer. I enjoyed playing it, and I was impressed by the quality and the numerous, evident improvements over TL1. But that seems such a cop out; “It’s like TL1, but much better in every way.” Surely I can do better than that?

The most obvious comparison that comes to mind is equally-lazy. TL1 to TL2 is very much like the progression from Diablo I to Diablo II. The first Diablo game was set in a series of dungeon below a single small town. The dungeon completely changed layout and largely changed monsters every four levels, and there was no exploration and no surface level combat. All that pretty well applies to TL1 as well.

I’m not saying TL1 = D1: TL1 had skill trees with much variety between the classes, rather than D1′s simple spellbook system, and on the other hand D1′s item system and especially the story and the tone and theme were much better than TL1′s. In terms of the general scale of the games though, and the progression in types of levels and overall design, TL2′s expansion on the world and size and style of TL1 is quite similar to D2′s, all those years ago.

(Just to complete the analogy, Diablo III seems to be basically the same as Diablo II, in terms of scale and scope and depth of story, though obviously the game mechanics have received a huge overhaul.)

So my comparison is lazy, but at least it’s comprehensible. Torchlight 2 is a vastly bigger, more complicated, more varied, more interesting game than TL1. I haven’t played enough of it to say if it’s vastly better than its predecessor, but all signs point to yes, from what I’ve seen so far.


What This Article Covers

This is not one of my typical mega-reports, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I haven’t been following Torchlight 2 that closely, so I don’t have the encyclopedic level of knowledge about the game to write such a detailed analysis. Even if I did, I wouldn’t, at least not on this site, since you guys are here for Diablo III content. While many of you are curious about other related ARPGs, you probably don’t want or need 8000 words detailing every skill and monster and level and quest.

So, instead of going that route, I’ve written up a variety of observations on things about Runic Games, or Torchlight 2, or what the devs told me about it during my visit, that I found interesting. And with any luck, you will too. They’re sorted by subject, so feel free to skip to the stuff you’re most interested in.

Click through to continue…


Torchlight 2′s Development

I could write a great deal about this, as Travis Baldree and some of the other devs spoke about it at length, both at the studio and during conversations we held over lunch and dinner on Monday. But to keep on track, I’ll try to give a fairly short version.

Torchlight 2′s development began almost immediately after TL1′s Xbox port was completed. I think some of the studio was already working on TL2, since the Xbox port (which sounded like it was more trouble than it was worth, from various comments I heard) required all of their coders, but much less from their artists or writers or other employees. Hence I suspect they were already working on TL2.

At any rate, the full team was churning away on TL2 as soon as the Xbox version was done, which was around 16 months ago, by Travis’ calculations. So why isn’t it done yet? After all, they produced TL1 from start to finish in under a year… but you have to realize that wasn’t entirely by choice. As Travis told me, an imminent lack of money forced them to really rush the game out, with numerous features completed literally days before the launch. I think this contributed to a general lack of polish, especially in things like the last act, the end game content, the higher level items, some of the skills, etc.

Another complication was the numerous digital sales partners Runic Games lined up. This helped get a broader sales base for TL1, but it made patching very difficult, since many of the vendors tacked on their own DRM system that added numerous technical hurdles to the patching process.

As a result of the rushed nature of TL1, the difficulty in patching it, and the months they spent after that reworking the game for the Xbox 360, I think the Runic Games devs were *very* ready to start work on TL2, and very motivated to make it a much better game than TL1. Their initial estimates of completing it in a year proved overly-optimistic, but that’s a good thing for the game.

They could have made a larger, better version of TL1 and released it this summer. They could have released a pretty good version of TL2 this fall, or certainly by Christmas. Instead, as TL2′s development continued during 2011, and they realized just how much potential the game had, and the continuing sales of TL1 kept money in the bank, they decided to take their time with TL2 and really polish and balance everything. Though no one said anything about release dates other than “soon/when it’s done” during my visit to their offices earlier this week, I was not at all surprised by Travis’s official delay post.


Comparisons to and Worries About Diablo III

There are obvious comparisons between TL2 and D3, and though we’ve often heard comments from Max Schaefer about how different the games are, especially with the online-only, no-modding, RMAH features of D3 vs. the fact that TL2 is very mod-friendly, is playable offline, and is your actual property once you buy it (you’re just renting Diablo III, since if Blizzard ever bans your B.net account you’ve got nothing), I don’t think many of us were convinced. Yes, most D3 fans would prefer to own the game, to be able to play it offline, and perhaps to remove the RM from the AH, most people see those as peripheral issues, with the gameplay as the core issue. And most people, at least the ones reading this site, are automatically ranking Diablo III ahead of any other game, including TL2.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people at Runic Games, and a fair number of Torchlight fans, would beg to differ.

While at Runic Games, numerous TL2 developers, as well as several of the other fansite invitees (all of whom cover Torchlight much more closely than I do), asked me how TL2 compared to Diablo III. The Runic Games folks had their own opinions on that, since as has been rumored, Blizzard did indeed send them a bunch (30) of beta keys some weeks ago, which let everyone there get a taste of Diablo III. Following that trial, the sense of urgency and hurry the TL2 devs were feeling… largely lifted.

I know that this seems unbelievable, as everyone (certainly everyone I’ve seen comment on this site) has been assuming that TL2 had to release well before Diablo III, that the Runic Games people were surely quaking in their galoshes about all their potential customers being lost in Sanctuary and ignoring TL2 entirely, etc. If so, they’re very good at hiding it, since not a single person asked me to estimate when Diablo III would be released, or asked if my site’s readers were paying attention to TL2, etc. They really weren’t concerned with that, and they honestly do not seem to be worried about when D3 will be released, and if it’s coming out before or after TL2.

Perhaps they should be; I mentioned this while recording the podcast yesterday, and both Wolfpaq and The Eliminator flatly said they were not going to buy TL2 if it didn’t come out before Diablo III. At least not right away; they both allowed that perhaps some months later, if Steam put TL2 on sale, and if they wanted a break from D3, they might pick it up.

How true is that of the general TL2 potential player pool? I have no idea.

So why were the devs asking me about Diablo 3? Mostly out of curiosity, since they all thought TL2 was a very different game in feel, in pacing, and in difficulty. And they’re right, at least compared to the Diablo 3 Beta. After playing several hours of TL2 on Monday and Tuesday, I played a few hours of Diablo III on Wednesday night, while TL2 was still fresh in my brain. I played a new Monk, the only class I had yet to test extensively in the beta, and honestly… I was kind of bored. After TL2, the slow, simple, easy, almost ponderous nature of the early game in Diablo III was blindingly obvious. I kind of felt silly; how had I not noticed how ploddingly slow the game was until then?

TL2 isn’t a frantic chaos right from the start, by quite early on there are levels with considerably more monsters, more types of monsters, more action, more clicking, and a lot higher difficulty than anything in the entire Diablo III beta. Obviously the D3 beta is just the early part of the game, it’s the easiest part, it’s accessible for non-gamers to get involved, etc. All that stuff the devs keep repeating.

That said, I had more fun, in terms of the overall gameplay and action and pacing, from levels 1-10 in TL2 than I’ve had over that same time frame with any class in Diablo III. That’s obviously a conditional statement, since we know that Diablo III won’t still be wobbling forward on training wheels (gorgeously-textured, highly polished training wheels, to be sure) in Act 3, or Act 4. And certainly not in Hell or Inferno difficulty. I have every hope (if a bit less confidence) that the game will eventually be much more busy, complicated, fast-paced, and fun, and that while the beta is a great showcase for the overall polish and quality and story and graphics… it’s not a useful preview of the actual gameplay.

That said, level 1-10 is hardly enough to scratch the surface of Torchlight 2 either, and I’m sure that just like Diablo III, its late game will be a lot more fun than the early stuff.


More Diablo II than Diablo III is Diablo II

Torchlight 2′s main features are much more like those of Diablo II than those of Diablo III. Which means TL2 much more like D2 than D3 is like D2. I’m reminded of those “Hellgate: London is the spiritual successor of Diablo II” comments we used to hear from Flagship Studios, but I’m not going to bring that up because um… yeah.

As for Torchlight 2, with features like heath and mana potions, health and mana bulbs, skill trees, skill points, and manually-assigned attributes, all features not found in Diablo III, the comparison is pretty obvious.

This isn’t necessarily a good thing — though many of us in the Diablo community initially objected to Diablo III’s removal of stat points, skill points, mana potions, etc, I think most people have since come around to accept and even appreciate these feature changes. Thus Torchlight 2′s use of those D2-style game functions is traditional, but it might seem outdated, when (if?) we ever have the full versions of Diablo III and Torchlight 2 to compare side by side.

Personally, I’m on the fence about several of these issues.

On the TL2/D2 side, I still miss manual attributes. I hardly notice level ups in Diablo III, and certainly don’t notice which attribute points I just gained, nor do I really know what they do, since they’re automatic now and are very easily overlooked. I also enjoyed skill points, both to see my character’s power grow, and as a form of character customization. The skills weren’t perfectly done in Diablo II, with diminishing returns, low level skills that grew quickly useless, annoying prerequisites, and excessive synergies. But it was fun to save up skill points and feel my characters growing rapidly in power as I started loading several high level skills at once.

On the D3 side, I didn’t much miss potion drinking and excessive leech (though there’s no early leech in TL2 and drinking potions was better than being bored from the easy non-difficulty in early D3). Also, I love the variety of skill runes, I like the custom resources for every class, and I especially like the improved skill trees and the separation of active and passive skills in D3. (Though they should have kept “traits” as the name for passive skills.)

My biggest complaint about TL1 was the crappy skill trees, which had too few actives and too many utility passives with tiny % bonuses. Amongst Diablo III’s biggest improvements is the way you get so many active skills early in the game. This gives you a lot to do and encourages you to constantly change your attacks (thankfully, since the early game is boringly-easy for experienced ARPG players). Torchlight 2 follows much the same skill tree system as TL1, with 3 tabbed trees per class, each with about 10 total skills in 1/5/10/15/20/25 tiers. That would be okay, except that again, there are nearly as many passives as actives, and I thus found myself using the same one or two skills per character during my whole play tests.

My one true request of Travis; more active skills, fewer passives, and maybe a different organization system for them. I do not at all mind Diablo III keeping the passives hidden away in the back of the bus, invisible until Clvl 10 and then mostly forgotten afterwards. That is how it should be. They are second class skills. (Even though points in them are often more important and impactful than in actives.)


Difficulty On Demand

So what was so much better about Torchlight 2 than Diablo III, then? The pace and action early on, mainly.

As I mentioned above, very early into Torchlight 2 you are seeing very fast and fun action, with lots of enemy targets on all sides. This isn’t exactly dangerous, since their AI isn’t good enough to swarm you, but it certainly looks and feels more intense than anything in early Diablo III. Very soon after that, in the early (huge!) surface area, you find numerous pockets of monster packs that will put you to the test, and numerous dungeons that have challenges well beyond anything in the extended tutorial that is the Diablo III beta.

Not that Torchlight 2 is some masochistic struggle; the difficulty is optional since you can select (and change between games) the difficulty level you wish to play on. Easy, Normal, Hard, or Very Hard. According to the devs and the other testers, who all played much more TL1 than I did, the difficulties are basically a notch higher, e.g. TL1′s hard is roughly equivalent to TL2′s normal.

My first game I played an Embermage in a LAN game with all 4 of the other media guys there. It was super fun, but so crazy with all five of us running around the same areas that I couldn’t really judge the difficulty. In my second game I played solo with the Outlander and went with all archery skills. It wasn’t very difficult, but it was fun. (Though I’d have to put the Demon Hunter higher in fun factor, at least since the v5 patch fixed her Hatred problem and moved Rapid Fire to a much lower level.)

Things got real in my last game though, when I played a Berserker, selected Very Hard, went with dual fist type weapons. It was so fun. I nearly died twice in the first opening valley section that you fight through on the way to the main town for Act One. The Ratlings and other low level beasties didn’t show too much brain, but their brawn was greatly enhanced, and when they hit, it hurt

It was a good pain though, since I’d done it on purpose, and I soon realized that I had to advance carefully, string out the enemies to engage them one or two at a time, use my skills wisely, keep my finger on the red potion button, and generally play with a care and diligence worlds distant from anything I’d yet shown in the Diablo III beta. If I was reminded of anything from the Diablo series, it was playing an untwinked character newly arrived in hell in Diablo I, where I was honestly in over my head and had to be prepared to flee from any concentration of enemies.

Obviously not everyone finds that type of play fun; the Diablo III team has certainly never acknowledged the possibility of it, unless you think we might see something of that nature in Inferno, but even then you’d be using a Clvl 60 character with all of your skills and equipment available to you. There’s no way to find that sort of challenge in the early game of Diablo III; even playing naked you’d have less difficulty, and I’ve never much enjoyed intentionally gimping my chars to find some difficulty; what I like is when I’m playing as well as I can, and a game is *still* hard.

I don’t know if I’d enjoy going through the entire game with that kind of struggle, but it was tremendous fun during an hour of the Berserker, even though by the end I was nearly broke, with all my gold going to health potions, and the prospect of having to replay an early area for more eq and gold, and to get my Clvl up above the Mlvls I was facing.

As I mentioned on the podcast, after playing that Berserker Tuesday morning, I spent a few hours playing a Diablo III DiabloWikiMonk on Wednesday night, and found the character tedious and grindy, until nearly the end of the beta. Even with junky equipment, my only real decision was which DiabloWikiCombo skill to choose in order to kill everything with a single hit, while looking in puzzlement at the low level defensive skills I had absolutely no call to even consider using, other than purely from curiosity or experimentation.


Randomized Levels and Outdoor Enormities

The other really cool thing was the size and variety of the outdoor areas. I was able to fairly thoroughly explore one of them twice in my three games, and I would not have known the area was random had I not been told by the devs. 1) It looked hand-crafted, with all the little nooks and crannies; canyons, valleys, rocky knolls, monster villages, ponds with fishing holes, graveyards, random dungeons, etc. 2) It was so large I didn’t have time to fully explore it in either game, and couldn’t possibly have remembered if it had had the same layout both times.

While the dungeons I saw in Torchlight 2 were fairly similar in dungeon shape/size to those of Diablo II or Diablo III, the surface area was much different. Much larger and more varied than any I’ve seen in Diablo III, and so much more detailed and natural and realistic than the big rectangles with perfectly straight borders that made up the surface areas in Diablo 2. (With the possible exception of the Act Three jungle.) The only large surface area we’ve yet seen in D3 was the desert in the 2009 demo, and who knows how its shape and size may have changed since then. I do hope/think that we’ll see some really large surface expanses in D3, though.

As I said, I would not have believed the TL2 surface areas were randomly generated. Perhaps with more play time I’d have begun to recognize the shapes and jigsaw-like pieces that make up the levels, but that didn’t happen during my limited testing time. Some elements of the areas were similar; the little graveyard with a mini-quest, one rocky hilltop where a bunch of demons came leaping down to attack me, and a lengthy narrow pass through a sort of valley, but they were connected very differently, and played differently as well.

The early area was outdoor and grassy, with lots of little hills and canyons and paths through rocky passes and around huge boulders. The terrain is very much a factor in the play; monsters constantly appear atop hills you can not shoot up, and come leaping down to attack you. You can get to the hilltops yourself, after you run around a bit and find a winding path up there, and sometimes you could catch the beasties still on the top and engage a half dozen or more at a time. The point is that the levels are all accessible area that you can explore; they don’t just have spawning points that monsters appear from that you can’t access.

There are lots of smaller sub-areas as well, full of monster camps where the enemy density increases greatly. These seem a bit “lived in” as well; I found a few ogre-sized demons lying down, sleeping near campfires. They got up when I drew near, slowly climbing to their feet so they could fall back down once I bloodily hacked them to bits.

There are plenty of quests in the surface areas, most of them tied to various random dungeons. Quest design is one place that Torchlight 2 doesn’t seem to be expanding much on Torchlight 1, with fairly basic “go there and get something for me” type missions. (The dungeons were usually two levels, with a big boss on the bottom, near the glowing quest item.) The useful twist came from the quest rewards, since the NPCs offered several items and asked me to pick one.

That’s not so amazing, but the big break with RPG tradition came in the items themselves, which were actually quite desirable. Not just some crappy magical boots, but items that were the equivalent of good rares in Diablo III. (Not that there are any good rares in Diablo III, but hypothetically speaking.) The best twist was that some of the NPCs would have four or five items, ask me to pick one, and offer several Set Items. This is part of the game’s approach to the perpetual problem of making more than one piece of an Item Set available while it’s still of a level appropriate to your character.


Combat and Monsters

Combat is fast, fluid, and frequently-chaotic.

Speaking about the design, Travis Baldree stressed his desire to run around shooting and staying very active in combat. He clearly likes it when monsters are coming at you quickly, in great numbers, and usually from multiple directions. This keeps the player quite busy, with always something new happening.

Monsters often spawn from set locations in great numbers, or the normal “scattered around the dungeon” types are supplemented by others that issue steadily out of a drain pipe or leap down from a high wall. This often happens during quite busy encounters, so you’ve got the regular hordes, and then from the lower right (or wherever) a new skeleton or other beastie appears every half second. This keeps the player from feeling real settled or dug in during combat, with always something new happening to change up the battle equations.

Another nice touch that they debuted in TL1 is the way monsters materialize once you are within range. It’s not exactly a stealth/cloaking type thing, it’s just a normal spawning matter, as you move around the map and monsters appear when you are near them. It’s kind of a “fog of war” type of reveal, and it works in Torchlight 2 to keep you from spotting the monsters when they’re still harmlessly far away.

I think this is essential in modern aRPGs that allow high resolutions, since otherwise you can see monsters long before they’re capable of fighting, giving ranged characters a big advantage. That’s something I’ve found unsatisfying in the Diablo 3 beta; that my Wizards, Witch Doctors, and Demon Hunters can constantly spot, and usually shoot, monsters at the top corners of the screen, long before they can see me. It feels like an exploit in D3, and it’s nice that you don’t get that unfair advantage in Torchlight 2.

One other monster feature that was much improved over its Diablo III form were monsters with shields. They can block in Torchlight 2, and quite effectively. Skeletal Shieldmen are fun in Diablo III, but only to see the “block” text appear two or three times as your overwhelming offensive onslaught withers them. In Torchlight 2 you soon learn to fear monsters with shields, since they’ll absorb a good two-thirds of your offense, advancing on you while protecting other monsters behind them. I didn’t see any such items, but if there were modifiers that gave bonuses to shieldbreaking, I would so consider loading up on them, even if only on a spare weapon, to switch it in for those key moments. (Yes, of course there’s a DiabloWikiweapon switch hotkey in Torchlight 2. Did you really have to ask?)


Conclusion

First of all, you didn’t really believe that intro, that this would be a short report? Don’t you know me better by now? (It was supposed to be. Really. But I kept thinking of other stuff I wanted to mention.)

That said, I’m only scratching the surface of the game, and in a very scattershot way. Torchlight 2 is nearly as big and feature-rich as Diablo III, and it takes a much more no-nonsense approach to things. If you’re an experienced ARPG player and you want a fast action, fun, variable-difficulty dungeon crawler with a lot of cool features and a delightfully-low price, you will love Torchlight 2. If you got any enjoyment out of TL1, you are guaranteed to enjoy the sequel, as it’s just so much more in every way.

I’m excited for the Torchlight 2 beta (no ETA), and if I had it right now I’d definitely play it over the Diablo 3 beta, though much of that is since I’ve already thoroughly played the D3 beta, and since the TL2 beta will feature more content and can be fun/challenging right from the start.


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