Back in 1996, Blizzard purchased a small company called Condor and renamed them to Blizzard North, months before releasing their first game – Diablo.
Diablo saw your hero entering a beleaguered town infested with monsters, and heading down into deeper and deeper catacombs until you finally smashed enough bad guys to pieces and stole enough of their stuff to satisfy yourself. Four years later Diablo II came out — still made by the same team — and featured you chasing down the hero from the previous game who had turned evil, and who wouldn’t stop until you’d smashed enough of his minions to pieces and stolen their stuff.
So let’s talk about Torchlight. Torchlight releases in 2009 from the same key members of Condor/Blizzard North, now calling themselves Runic Games, and sees your hero entering a beleaguered town infested with monsters and heading down into deeper and deeper catacombs until you’ve finally smashed enough bad guys to pieces and stolen enough of their stuff to satisfy yourself. Now three years on we have Torchlight II, which features you chasing down the hero from the previous game who has turned evil, and who won’t stop until you’ve smashed enough of his minions to pieces and stolen their stuff.
On genres, perfected
Torchlight II is a love letter to Diablo II in the same way as Torchlight was a love letter to the original Diablo. It’s a game built on a deep understanding of ARPG’s, an understanding that you’re bound to have at a company which somehow wound up making the same two games twice. Torchlight II is the alpha and the omega, it is the beginning and the end: it defines the genre so perfectly and nails the mechanics and psychology with such elegance that the British Museum should probably buy a copy just so then can store it in an archive for future generations to marvel at.
Torchlight II is the textbook definition of a sequel. There’s more of everything. More classes (well, one more). More pets. More maps — so many more maps. More skills. More items. More potions, fish, sockets, magic attributes. More people to play with. More randomly generated maps available for purchase through the Mapworks system. It’s exactly what everybody expected, and pretty much what everybody wanted. Oh, and did I mention it has full mod support? And it’s still only $20?
It’s difficult to really level any proper criticism at Torchlight II – it’s so wholly representative of its genre that criticising it would be like criticising the genre itself, which boils down to subjective and ultimately stupid arguments like “action RPG’s are dumb” or the witty rejoinder “no, you’re dumb” and I’d like to think we can elevate our discussion a little higher than that.
The one area in which it does fall patently and objectively flat is the storyline: “something-something the bad guy is going different places follow him and beat him up” is about as much as I can remember and, while I have a deep and abiding hatred for people who write off the hard work of developers with one quick stroke… there’s not really any alternative here. The story is irrelevant and pointless, and it only gets in the way of the delightfully slick shank-em and loot-em festival that underpins this whole exercise. Difficulty levels also seem like they need a bit of work: I opened on Veteran and barely found myself actually challenged, whereas playing on Casual or Normal is just painfully easy.
A thousand ways to kill
Where Torchlight II distinguishes itself from the pleasant-but-mindless coma so inherent to the genre is in the sheer variety of things to do as you play. From everybody’s favourite fishing holes to the introduction of new phase beast challenges — portals which pop out of a defeated phase beast and take you to an arena where you have to perform a set task — there’s always something to do in the world beyond just slaughtering more enemies. Each level is littered with things to click on, random chests that only open if you find a ghost somewhere, a golden key, levers to pull, buildings to burn, secret passages. And sidequests — oh sweet lord, more sidequests than you can poke a stick at.
Co-operative gameplay is as easy as hosting a LAN game and then jumping right in, or even going for the slightly-more-complicated online model of creating a Runic account and then jumping right in. It just works: there’s no faffing about with ports or lag or regions or DRM or always-online or currency conversion or planetary alignment.
Skilling up and starting over
Mechanically Torchlight II strikes a half-half compromise with its skill trees, giving you a variety of abilities to put points into so that you actually have to make choices, but only allowing you to rewind up to three choices at any time. Levelling up, then, becomes a matter of experimentation: put a point into something, try it for a while, and head back to town to remove it if you find it doesn’t work. It’s an interesting design decision and for the most part works, but there’s been times when I’ve been frustrated by my inability to suddenly take my character in a wildly different direction. Fortunately, this problem has already been solved by a mod which adds respec potions without flagging you as a cheater. Again, we are reminded that mod support is literally the most important thing a PC game can ever include. Game has a feature you don’t like? Fix it yourself.
Aside from the lack of native respec support — which probably would have been at the top of Runic’s feature list if it had only been present in Diablo II — the system is great. You’re not locked out of any skill tree by picking any of the others, and there’s no pre-requisites on the skills beyond a level requirement so there’s nothing to stop you blowing all your points in one tree and then cherry-picking a few skills from another once you get high enough.
I’ve been playing an Engineer in the Bots, Bots and More Bots style that Bane discusses in our first Class Guide: stomping through the levels, firing salvos from a massive two-handed cannon and throwing robotic spiders at people while my army of walking turrets and healbots swarms around me. I have a bulldog named Winston, who I specced for tanking so I could wander around with impunity. And do you know how many annoying, repetitive lines Winston sprays out every thirty seconds? None. I love it.
A fitting (hopeful) end
While Torchlight II deliberately held back from releasing even in the shadow of the juggernaut that is Diablo III, it had the unfortunate result of ending up releasing right next to Borderlands 2, another slot machine masquerading as a co-operative gameplay experience. My Steam friends list has been filled with people playing Borderlands 2 instead of Torchlight II, and I fear that it may be overlooked as a result of accidentally swapping out one loot-em-up rival for another. Still at $20 — and let’s be honest, it’ll probably be on sale on Steam in about six weeks time — it’s ridiculously good value.
Torchlight II’s greatest strength is, ultimately, its greatest weakness: its rigid, dogmatic adherence to a decade-old formula. There’s a lot to be said for ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but Torchlight II sticks to the script with a glassy-eyed enthusiasm that screams to be called into question. When I saw that the games’ primary antagonist was one of the previous games’ heroes, I accidentally facepalmed my own nose clean into my skull. Really, Runic? Really?
Here’s the deal: I get it. You made Diablo, then you made Diablo II, then you left Blizzard, and then you re-made Diablo again. Now you’ve re-made Diablo II, for 2012, with 2012 sensibilities. I get it, really. But please… stop. You’ve done it. You’ve mastered the genre. You’ve hit the peak. You’ve polished it until it shines. There’s nothing left here, there’s no more blood in the stone, and the stone is now a diamond. Just.. let it go. There’s already another developer on the market who makes a living by releasing sequels which are mostly polished reworkings of their original games, and they used to be your boss. Ironically, Diablo III delivered more innovation (even if a lot of people didn’t like it) than Torchlight II does, which is a weird position for a small indie team to find themselves in.
If there is a Torchlight III — and there probably won’t be, if this Reddit thread is anything to go by — it will be a crying shame, because it will represent the distressing waste of what is a clearly talented development team on re-upholstering the same couch that they’ve been sitting on since 1996. You’ve proven you can tackle the genre, and you’ve left the keys to the kingdom in the hands of the modders. It’s time to move on. I can’t wait to see what you’ll do next.
- It’s pretty much the textbook definition of an ARPG
- Hours and hours of monster-slaying, mindless fun
- A bewildering amount of things to do in each map
- Bigger and better in almost every way
- Full mod support, and no DRM
- LAN play!
- It’s ridiculously good value at $20
- Storyline is just irrelevant and mostly forgettable
- Occasional map regeneration problems
- Feels a bit too easy for the experienced ARPG player
- Let’s be honest: it’s Diablo II for 2012