Diablo challenger or stop-gap?
Those familiar with Torchlight will know it to be a stylish, steampunk-style dungeon crawler which offered a bargain RPG experience when users first started discovering it in Steam sales. After multiple plays and hundreds of hours squeezed from the budget wonder, fans will be happy to hear the sequel is on its way, heavy-laden with all the improvements they’ve been dreaming of.
And for all intents and purposes that improvement is co-op. Sidelining the suggestion of a Torchlight MMO for the time being, Runic say Torchlight II will be a single-purchase multiplayer experience, free of the subscription fees many feared. Co-op has long been the most demanded feature among the multitude of addicted players, but rather than being an afterthought to placate fans, Runic have said that Torchlight II will in fact be ideally played as part of a 2-4 character party.
Four’s a party
While this decision appears to be a no-brainer, a lot of effort has in fact gone in to adapt Torchlight’s gameplay to the multiplayer mold. Loot drops are still typically abundant, yet each player will only be able to see the items that result from their kills, thereby eliminating the scrum for items which can undermine the atmosphere of co-operation. Items can then be dropped to share them with comrades and you will often come across items and portals which have been left by your fellow players. The HUD displays the current activities of your allies at all times, which detracts a little from the uncluttered design of the original but the trade-off is undeniably convenient.
This focus on multiplayer functionality isn’t to say that the traditional single-player experience is now irrelevant. The four new classes each have hybrid disciplines, offering enough balance and flexibility to survive in solitary questing. Relegating the three original classes to NPC cameos, Runic have chosen to adorn the sequel with all new classes – two of which have so far been revealed. One will be the Railman, an engineer melee character with charged ’ember’ energy attacks; the other, the Outlander, a ranged type with low-magic attacks. One aesthetic change is that now all classes can be played as male or female, and customisation is also possible both in appearance and choice of animal companion.
PC correctness gone mad
While all of this will be music to the ears of the initiated, the release date will not. Slipping past the scheduled May/June window, Runic CEO Max Schaefer now expects a July release, naming the Xbox version responsible. ‘Having to do the extra work with the interface, has pushed us back a little bit’ says Schaefer, and early adopters who were playing Torchlight long before it graced XBLA may well curse the console for this intrusion. However, for those planning to join the ranks of Portal 2 PC gamers with pitchfork in hand, Schaefer adds that ‘optimisations and technical improvements’ that were made in the Xbox version’s development have now also been implemented on the PC, perhaps offering some vindication for the delay.
Whether this description of XBLA’s influence is indeed accurate or just a tactful attempt to quell the fury of PC gamers scorned, the improvements made since the previous game are already clear in the few existing videos. Dungeon crawling veterans currently jonesing for Diablo III may scoff at the humble graphics, but Runic have managed to substantially tweak the new visuals without endangering the popular, super-deformed art style. New lighting touches give dungeons some much-needed variety, and the effects associated with your attacks and spells have an increased sense of impact. However, the distinction between titles is most apparent when you escape the dungeons for new overground areas, which include day/night cycles, changing weather conditions, and random events to add a feeling of being in a moment in time while you are questing.
Time, money and goodwill
There’s an obvious attempt to give a true feeling of adventure in Torchlight II, which wasn’t entirely possible in the repetitive dungeon trawling of its predecessor. Random dungeons still make an appearance, but with four separate lands currently planned – each with their own cultures, creatures and central town – the progress you make should feel more tangible as you travel from one area to the next. The plot reflects this dungeon break-out, as you leave the town of Torchlight on the trail of the Alchemist – a playable character from the first game – who has disappeared to seek out the corrupt force that is destroying the mystical Estherian race. Syl and the previously playable Destroyer are both expected to make early appearances, which should provide returning players with enough continuity to the previous game as they embark on an adventure away from the eponymous hub town.
Torchlight II appears to be a downloadable title destined to live up to its dungeon crawler pedigree. While many will wait for the inevitable demo and Steam sales to pick it up there already exists a goodwill towards the previous game that could see many players pre-ordering as an act of good faith after the experience they enjoyed so cheaply. Here’s hoping Torchlight II proves itself worthy of not only that investment of money and goodwill, but the time it will inevitably devour from those previously converted.