On last Thursday, Runic Games, a subsidiary of Perfect World, launched the highly-anticipated action-RPG Torchlight II for Windows PC, just over two years after the game was originally announced, and almost three years after the launch of the original. It's currently available for a mere $20 as a digital download on Steam, Runic Games, Perfect World, GamersGate, GameFly, and GameStop.
Just a day after its release, the reviews were already pouring in, with GameSpy giving it a 5/5, IGN giving it a 91/100, and Ten Ton Hammer giving it a 93/100, just to name a few. So far the overall Metacritic score is a 90 out of 100, undoubtedly a success for the indie game developer. But there are a lot of comparisons to Blizzard's own ARPG offering, Diablo 3, leading us to investigate the two games' similarities and differences.
For starters, there's a reason why Torchlight 2 might seem so familiar. As most of our PC gaming readers might already know, the Seattle-based developer was formed by Fate creator Travis Baldtree, Blizzard North co-founders Max Schaefer and Erich Schaefer, Peter Hu, and Erich Schaefer along with his former Flagship Studios team which worked on Mythos before it closed.
That said, the mention of Blizzard North should speak volumes about the Diablo influence in the Torchlight series. I played the original and had all intentions of playing this new sequel, but what really sparked my interested was when Max Schaefer said that Torchlight II offers more than Diablo 3, another ARPG I'm currently playing. He touched on the key differences between the two rival games, saying that players may prefer one or the other.
"I think that Diablo 3 focused a little more on super-polished mechanics and balance and look and art direction," he said. "They're on a Blizzard level. They're seriously good. But it's at the expense, a little bit, of the replayability."
For a time, that replayability aspect was one of Diablo 3's major downfalls. Players consumed the ARPG like a kid on Halloween night, and when they were done – completely done – they were like, that's it? "There needs to be something else that keeps people engaged, and we know it's not there right now," community manager Bashiok stated at the time. "We recognize that the item hunt is just not enough for a long-term sustainable end-game."
Blizzard fixed the issue with the v1.0.4 patch, adding a new max-level progression system called Paragon. "When a hero reaches level 60, experience earned will begin to count toward Paragon levels," reads the description. "There are 100 Paragon levels in total, and each level will reward players with a permanent bonus to Gold Find and Magic Find as well as core stat increases."
Still, it's not really new content – which leads us to Torchlight II's best feature: TorchED. Now let's pause for a second here: this won't be a review of Torchlight II. I didn't receive my copy until late Tuesday night, so I haven't put in many hours thanks to an already packed schedule. Still, there's enough for a hands-on, and so far I have to agree with the current review scores: it's just that good.
But getting back to TorchED, this tool, scheduled to launch soon, will allow gamers to create custom content – we don't have to wait for an expansion pack or a patch filled with a little dose of content. Assuming it's like the original for Torchlight editor, users can create custom levels, new GUIs, alter classes and more. That leads us to Torchlight II's second-best attribute: multiplayer.
As with many fans, the lack of an online multiplayer component left me wanting more, especially with modders creating custom maps which, had there been an online component, could have allowed gamers to visit different realms together. That was one of the things I loved about the Neverwinter Night series: the ability to be able to jump online and visit someplace new. I really want to see that with Torchlight II instead of visiting the same storyline and environment over and over.
Still, multiplayer is a very welcome component, and players have the option of playing online, or launching multiplayer sessions on a LAN. That's right – LAN support. What other PC games do we know that currently don't support LAN. That means Torchlight II also supports offline play, another feature a rival developer/publisher refuses to implement. That's not saying Torchlight II contains no DRM – that merely means you don't need an internet connection to (1) play single player offline and (2) to play LAN games.
Another feature that will keep Torchlight II fresh for a long time to come is level randomization. This means there will be new layouts, paths, loot, and monsters every time you play. Diablo 3 is seemingly a mixture of static and dynamic maps to keep certain game elements in place while randomizing other aspect like dungeons. So far I haven't seen the extent of Torchlight II's randomization, but I'm betting it's similar to Diablo 3.
Another key aspect I love about Torchlight II is the pet system. I was a big fan of this in the original Torchlight, and it's even better in the sequel. I suppose Diablo 3 has a similar sidekick option too who actually carries on a conversation with your character, but I find loading down the pet and sending it into town to purchase and sell items a bigger plus than scripted dialog. Call me lazy, but teleporting back to town and leaving the current dungeon just doesn't turn me on.
Probably my biggest beef with Torchlight II is with the visuals – I knew this going in having played the original. But after hacking through Diablo 3's four acts, it's a drastic change from Blizzard's gloomy, highly-defined characters and environments to Torchlight II's loose, cartoonish feel. Still, it's this characteristic that sets the two appart, and an understandable choice for Runic Games given that several members worked on the first two Diablo installments and the Diablo-like Mythos.
To some degree, the simplified graphics gives the Torchlight series a unique charm. It's almost like playing through a classic Disney movie: the characters look a little goofy and the scenery isn't exactly true-to-life, but you forget all that and lose yourself in that world, you connect emotionally with the characters and relish the way the backdrop deepens the mood or the way a tree looks sad and depressed. Torchlight II does exactly that for me thus far, something I'm just not getting with Diablo 3.
Don't get me wrong: I can lose myself in Blizzard's ARPG easily too, and the scenery is thick and creamy like a tasty tub of chocolate frosting. But I'm not connecting with the story or characters – I'd rather just hack away from a visual distance and search for the best loot. Eventually I'll wander back into town and load all the rare items into my chest, and eventually I'll be brave enough to jump into Diablo 3's Real Money Auction House and generate some cash for my wallet. Nah.
"A lot of people are very competitive," Schaefer said. "They want to play in a competitive game's economy. For them, Diablo 3 is the answer. We're not trying to create a secure economy. We don't have to have these crazy protection mechanisms in place."
On the character selection front, Diablo 3 has this game beat. Blizzard's ARPG offers both genders of the Witch Doctor, the Barbarian, the Wizard, the Monk and the Demon Hunter. In Torchlight II, players can pick the male or female version of the Engineer, the Outlander, the Beserker and the Embermage. Both games have their own level of tight character customizations and development, but Diablo 3's roster seems a little more unique and detailed, a bit more premium and robust.
Diablo 3's user interface is a lot better as well. Don't get me wrong: Torchlight II's interface is a vast improvement over the original, but Blizzard's version just seems easier to read for me. Most of what I need is built into the strip along the bottom whereas in Torchlight II, I have to choose options from the left edge, from the center strip and from the right edge. I don't need a second spell side-loaded, and I don't need the game verbally telling me I'm dead. No kidding. Really? I never would have guessed seeing my character's corpse slumped in a heap on the grassy floor.
Finally, Diablo 3 currently has a better social structure. Granted it comes with a cost: an always-on Internet connection. While we may bitch and moan about having to stay online and the inability to play the single-player campaign if the connection is severed, there's always some kind of social aspect going on even when you're hunting solo. It's almost like an MMORPG, yet you have to manually set the game to allow online players if you're in the mood for actual company.
So far the only socialization I can see within Torchlight II is when you connect to a multiplayer game. There you can chat with other players, but it doesn't appear to be possible when playing the single-player game. There also doesn't seem to be any kind of way to see if your friends are online when signing into the game – Steam players can tell through the external chat client.
As I said before, despite its length, this isn't a review – it's a hands-on that points out some of the key differences. Torchlight II is highly addictive thus far, and simply writing about it make me want to jump right back in. Fans will be glad to know that the virtual world is larger than before, allowing players to progress from one area to another rather than rooting the character to one specific, central town. This is where I’m hoping modders will take cue and create additional adventures to endure and new lands to explore.
Despite the raving reviews and the addicting gameplay, Torchlight II's biggest selling point is probably its price. A cheap $20 price point does not make a game cheap in quality. Instead, it makes the game more obtainable to an audience that otherwise doesn't have the funds to lay down $60 for a PC game. Torchlight II has seemingly narrowed the gap in regards to quality/quantity per dollar, setting the bar higher for similarly-priced PC games.
And like the original Torchlight, the game runs incredibly smooth. The system requirements aren't steep at all, demanding an x86-compatible 1.4 GHz or faster CPU, 1 GB of RAM, a DirectX 9.0c compatible GPU with at least 256 MB of addressable memory, and 1.2 GB of free HDD space. All shots provided in this article were taken on my personal laptop.
With the game already on the market for a day, the studio has now released a demo which can be downloaded directly here, or though Steam here. The soundtrack can also be downloaded for free right here, although the site currently seems to be having an issue.
So far Torchlight II is awesome, and the $20 price point makes it even more so. Naturally you're going to compare this game to the Diablo series, and at times the soundtrack even hints to the original Diablo's iconic music (and maybe some Quake too?). While the graphics are top-notch, they're not in the same class as Blizzard's ARPG which strives for a more realistic, detailed environment. The combination of LAN and online multiplayer capabilities plus the TorchED editor should open up new worlds for Torchlight fans, and the fact that it can be played offline should make it an ideal choice when Diablo 3 gamers have had enough of internet "blackouts."