Monday, May 21, 2012

Torchlight 2 - Beta Review

This is a more detailed look at the Torchlight 2 beta experience. I've already posted a brief first impression, but now I've spent more time with the game. I've completed the beta with the Outlander and the Engineer, and have spent some time with both the Berserker and Embermage.

I'll preface this by saying that when I compare the game to Diablo III, I'm comparing the Torchlight 2 beta experience to the Diablo III beta, not the fully released game. Diablo III didn't impress me, and I haven't purchased it. Bear that in mind if you disagree with the comparisons I make. Also I'm going to be using D3 and TL2 to refer to the games going forward, to save some typing. I'm also not going to spoils story, because I hate it when that happens.

Getting Started

The TL2 beta provides access to all four character classes and two major outdoor areas, each with a number of dungeons and side quest areas attached. Characters are capped at level 21. From the start, the game provides a very smooth experience. After downloading a small launcher, the client download and the initial install took about 30 minutes on my basic DSL connection. After a couple of patches and updates (including one hang that self-repaired after I restarted the launcher), I was up and running. I ran the game at very high resolution (1920x1200) and highest graphics settings without issue, but I have a fairly beefy machine. Once the game is up and running, you have a pretty standard set of options, Settings, Cinematics, Credits, New Game, Load Game, Resume (current game), and a Login option for internet play.

It's worth mentioning that the beta only supported Internet play, though the full game will support both Single Player and LAN modes. I played solo the entire weekend and had absolutely no connection issues, a big plus compared to the D3 beta. Internet games require a Runic Games login, which is pretty painless to set up.

/IT Hat On

Always use strong passwords!

/IT Hat Off

To create a character you have to go through the somewhat non-intuitive (*) New Game option, there's no direct Create Character selection. Character options are pretty standard, and though there are customization options to change face, hair style and color, and gender, the range of selections is pretty limited. The full game may offer more choice here (I'm guessing it will since some classes have more options than others). Once you've picked your class and appearance, chosen a map icon, and named your character, you can chose and name your pet, then move on to game selection. Pets are worth a mention here. There are eight to choose from, and they're all pretty awesome looking!

(*) Minor gripe one: Speaking of non-intuitive, Runic has, for some reason decided that Close button goes in the lower left and the OK button goes in the lower right for dialog boxes. This is exactly backwards from the Windows standard. A poor choice.

Internet Game Create / Join
Getting into a game is easy. You can either join an existing game or create your own. There's a convenient friends list displayed, though as you can see, I have no friends. All Internet games have a 'Friends Only' and Password options, so you can avoid the usual horrors of open games pretty easily. There are multiple difficulty levels and hardcore mode, which implements permanent death. I played all my sessions on normal mode, and felt it was reasonably tough.

To the Game!

Once you're in the game, controls are pretty easy to master. There are pretty standard health and mana globes, left- and right-mouse action buttons and ten additional action buttons. Upper left there's a pet window, upper right a mini-map. There are three tabs along the left and right sides, which expand to show pet stats, character sheet, detailed attributes listings, skills, inventory, and quest listings. All in all pretty standard fare implemented with a nice clean style. Controls can all be hot key assigned and work pretty much as expected. (*)

The controls with health and mana globes and charge bar

(*) Minor gripe two: Assigning skills / items to hot keys is a little clunky. The pop-up window for this action seemed a bit flaky to me. One of the very few places things did not work exactly as expected.

All characters operation off the same four stats, Strength, Dexterity, Focus, and Vitality. Each stat affects different aspects of your character:

  • Strength affects weapon damage and bonus damage from critical strikes.
  • Dexterity affects dodge and critical strike chance.
  • Focus affects magic damage, mana, and the chance to use both hands together.
  • Vitality affects health, armor, and chance to block with shields.
Attributes also affect the equipment you can use, as gear often has a level or attribute requirement before it can be equipped. If you played the original Torchlight, this should all seem pretty familiar. All TL2 characters also have Charge, an attribute that is filled by using abilities and powers. Charge effects vary depending on the character in play, but generally high charge enhances your damage output. The exact effects are sometimes difficult to figure out as Charge accumulation and use isn't completely explained in the various skill descriptions, something that I hope the full game does a better job of.

Each character starts with some basic gear and in short order you're off into the wilds, pursuing a quest and killing things to take their stuff. Movement through the gorgeous environments is left-click to move based and the mouse-wheel zooms the display. As you move your pet follows along nicely, or runs ahead slaying, depending on the aggressive/defensive/passive setting you choose. The outdoor areas are large -- I was fooled by the first connector area, thinking that was an entire level. It wasn't.
A typical outdoor area map

What you see to the right is a typical outdoor map. It's huge. I'd guess the area represented here is about four to five times the size of an outdoor D3 map, and the greater complexity makes it feel even larger. The maps also make good use of elevation with various sections elevated or sunken. Further you can actually traverse these areas, they're not just for show.


As you can see from the image at right, you can expand the map to cover a portion of the main display. Usually it sits in the upper-right corner, and I found that perfectly adequate. You can display the map as you like though, either upper-right, one of three positions on the main display, or not at all if you're feeling hardcore.

Look and Feel

I love how this game looks. Really. The graphics are done in a cartoon-ish style but with a bit more serious tone than the original Torchlight. Even in the sort beta there's tons of variety. I found myself zooming in during play just to check out how things look up close, something I almost never do in games.
Close up view of a conversation

The main outdoor environments you pass through in the beta include a sort of hilly, rocky green area and a frozen wasteland. The indoor areas include a sandy, watery underground cavern (Yarr!) A crystal-filled mine, a tomb, a spider cave, and a nasty demonic realm full of Cthulhu-esque mine-flayer creatures.

Speaking of creatures, there are a lot of them out there waiting to kill you: little rat-dudes, skeletons and zombies in many shapes and sizes, bear-things, spiders (creeping, leaping, webbing and swarming), goblins and armored dog-things, and my absolute favorites, the previously mentioned Cthulhu-beasts, who use tentacles, worms and shadow magic to kill you dead dead dead.


Yes, I admit it. I died during the beta. Unlike D3, which was face-rollingly easy, TL2 actually presented a couple of challenges, even on normal mode. Of the four characters I played, the Engineer (played as a two-handed weapon melee character) had the easiest time of it. the Outlander was a little tougher, since I played a dual-pistol wielder and getting swarmed meant a spot of trouble. (*) Creatures seem to come in several varieties: normal foes, tough versions of normal foes, bosses, and elite super-bosses. TL2 didn't pull any punches either, the design team had no qualms about throwing a pack of normal creatures and a couple bosses at you all at once. Things got frantic from time to time, and I was glad Runic implemented dedicated hot keys for Drink Best Health and Drink Best Mana potions.

(*) Minor gripe three: When using ranged weapons I found movement was sometimes a challenge as finding a place to left-click gets a bit tough on a crowded screen. Something felt a bit off, but I'm not sure if it was a bug or me not being used to the game.


So how do you fight? All characters have a normal  attack, which uses whatever weapons you have equipped. Most characters will use their normal attack regularly, and by default it's mapped to left-mouse button. Some might find the idea of using normal attacks regularly as a bit of a let-down, but I didn't have a problem with it. You can also assign skills to buttons, but skills generally use mana and / or charge, and you can drain your reserve pretty easily.
Embermage skills

The skill trees for each character have three tabs, each reflecting a sub-specialty for the class. As you can see from the image to the right, not all skills are implemented. Each skill allows up to 15 points to be allocated to it, and you gain one skill point per level and one per fame rank, just like the original Torchlight. There are no prerequisites, at least so far as I can tell. You can save your points and spend them in higher skills, though there are level-based limits on unlocking skills and spending points on them.

The 15 points per skill is a bit fiddly, each increase only has a minor effect, but I found the whole system pretty easy to figure out. There's a lot of variety here, 30+ skills per character class and while I didn't try them all out obviously, there's plenty here to support replay with different skills, even within a single class.

I'm not going to comment too much more on the skill trees, because it's clear they're not complete. The one thing I will say is that there are some very cool ideas here. I went with a very mana-passive build with my Outlander and by the end of the game I was causing things I shot to explode into poison clouds that killed enemies or to spawn shadow bats that slaughtered foes for me. Meanwhile my Engineer was unleashing devastating fiery hammer blows with his huge two-handed hammer while Healbot followed him around restoring life Healbot is going to be everyone's friend! I think there's plenty here to keep people interested. Compared to the relatively small skill trees offered by D3, TL2 is a win for me. I *like* complexity when it's fun, and this has fun written all over it.


As one would expect there are lots of items in TL2. It follows the pretty standard equip slots and inventory boxes model, with mundane, magical, rare, and unique items. There are also scrolls that provide town portals and item identification, though I didn't find much need for either, and magical embers, which you can place in appropriately slotted items to enhance their effects.

Items have a lot of modifiers. Much like Torchlight, the choices here are almost too complex. I found myself trying to decide between various bits without a good feel for which was really better. Part of that's familiarity with how things work and how skills are affected by stats, but perhaps it could use a little paring down.

Worth mentioning is the item stash in town. Each character has a private stash with plenty of slots for storage. In addition there's a shared stash which all characters can access. I'm not sure how this will work between Single Player, LAN, and Internet games though.


In addition to the skills each class receives, there are a bunch of spells available via scrolls. Each character has four spell slots, and using a scroll fills one of these slots. I honestly found little use for the spells I found (which is consistent with my original Torchlight experience).


Town provides a hub for the previously mentioned item stashes, as well as a portal (which connects to portals in each major outdoor zone), and a number of vendors. (*) You start the game with access to the standard potions and miscellaneous items vendor, and the weapon and armor vendor. As you progress you unlock additional vendors, including ember recovery, and enchanter vendors. There's also a basic fishing hole in town, which lets you catch basic fish types.

(*) Minor gripe four: The spawn point in the beta town is in a very annoying spot, right next to the exit back to the start area. It should really be more centrally located.

The Story

As I said, I'm not going to spoil the story, but there is, in fact, a story here. It ties to the events of the original Torchlight through the intro cinematic and carries on through the game. The beta doesn't reveal a lot of the plot, and you're not stuck with just one story, there are plenty of little side quests to keep you busy. There's nothing too deep here. Let's face it, the action RPG genre is more about action than story, but there's enough to keep you moving forward.

Loose Ends

This review has gotten far too long, and I haven't touched on everything I wanted to cover. Here are a few more bits and pieces to round out the picture:

  • Fishing - There are fishing holes in the wild where you can catch better fish and gear for your pet. Fishing is easy to do and requires no gear, just a bit of timing. Fish seem more useful and better explained than in the original game.
  • Not everything is obvious - There are some side-quests and areas within dungeons that are not completely obvious. I like this because it rewards paying attention and thorough exploration.
  • Variety - A common theme across the entire TL2 experience and in direct contrast to D3's pretty drab and monotonous beta, there's a lot to look at and experience here.
  • Pretty without being silly - Runic proves you can present a sometimes dark world without turning into a dull and lifeless place.

Torchlight 2 gets a big thumbs up from me. The excellent gameplay, stylish environments, varied monsters, and near perfect technology are a clear win over Blizzard's offering. I was anticipating both these games prior to experiencing the betas. After playing both, TL2 is the clear winner and D3 is not something I'll be buying in the foreseeable future. Kudos to Runic for a great first look at the game and here's hoping it's out soon!

Edit: A few parting thoughts here.

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