A Testimonial, and a Confession
First, I have to admit some bias here. When Diablo 2 came out over a decade ago, it was my favorite game for quite some time. Its expansion pack only cemented its position as the best game of all time, for me. It's key to note here, that Diablo 2 was only the best game ever in my opinion, and eventually it aged and got to the point where it was nigh unplayable on modern computers. I even tried going back several times in the past few years, and just found it too archaic to function properly on modern hardware. It desperately needed either some patches or a successor to bring it up to date.
When Blizzard Entertainment announced Diablo 3, I couldn't have been happier. At last, an updated version of the best game ever would be available. However, something felt odd about Diablo 3 even before I ever played it. Blizzard kept reviews at bay until after release via a restrictive NDA. That's fairly common, and not enough to raise suspicion alone, but still odd that there weren't more early peeks allotted to the usual media channels. Even after its release, the demo was only available by invite. I couldn't even download the demo for Diablo 3 unless someone who had already bought the game gave me a code. Now something smelled fishy. So I held onto my sixty dollars, which while would be a small price to pay for the best game ever, it seemed like Diablo 3 wouldn't be that game. Eventually I was able to wrangle a demo code from someone who had bought the game and wanted to lure me into playing it. I didn't get very far into the demo before I got a quest just to use a waypoint. Perhaps they didn't realize that I have killed Diablo and his brothers dozens if not hundreds of times already. I know how to work a waypoint. I need monsters to kill. Out of respect for the franchise, I kept on. I even finished the demo, but by the time I did so, it was clear to me, that Diablo 3 was going to be a giant let-down for me. Whatever fun I had with Diablo 2 was done and gone, and would stay in the past.
I had had the good fortune of playing Torchlight, and like just about everyone else, my biggest complaint was that the game had no multiplayer. Other than the lack of multiplayer, I thought it was just about perfect. Given my previous love for Diablo 2, this shouldn't be any sort of surprise. So now at long last, Runic has released the multiplayer-enabled Torchlight 2. Similar to the old "Open Battle.Net" games of Diablo 2, you can play the same character in single player, LAN, and internet games. This proved to be key, as on release day, Runic's servers melted from the onslaught of players. Internet games were finally enabled a couple days later, but in the meantime, plenty of single player and LAN games were had. Through the creative usage of some VPNs, I was even able to play LAN games over the internet.
Once More Into the Fray
The game starts off in the ruins of the town of Torchlight. Wait a second, didn't I save the town from Ordrak at the bottom of the mines and whatever else was down there? Well, it turns out that I did, so long as I wasn't playing an alchemist. The alchemist, on the other hand, was corrupted by the heart of Ordrak and immediately knew that he had to burn down the town, and leave a path of death and destruction across the land as he began his new plot to destroy the world. Okay, so the plot isn't Hugo Award caliber stuff here, but neither was "Diablo lived somehow, and you have to go kill him again," nor was "Hey, why don't you just run on into this dungeon and fetch me the Amulet of Yendor." Really the plot is just a means to goad me into venturing into areas that I haven't already taken it upon myself to go explore and kill everything in.
That brings us down to what the real fun in any point-and-click ARPG is. Taking on and killing hordes of enemies at once, securing an area, and then reaping the immediate rewards in the form of experience and loot. The Torchlight series has traded in the grimdark setting of Diablo for an art style that's a bit more cartoon-like, but the core gameplay survives. This is a feature that Torchlight 2 recreates flawlessly. Combat is fast, frenetic, and visceral. Enemies have a chance to explode into a pile of gibs, leaving bloodstains on the ground. Frozen enemies can be shattered into chunks of ice. Often the action happens so fast, that creatures can be slain before I'm even aware they exist. It's exactly the opposite of the first act of Diablo 3, which comparatively felt like drudgery.
Building the Perfect Warrior
There's four classes to choose from in Torchlight 2, and while they follow some archetypes, they're also rather configurable in how they're played via skills and weapon choices. The embermage is a classic spellcaster who uses staves and wands, and can learn many different spells to put down his enemies. The outlander is a ranged class that excels at nearly every sort of ranged weapon. The berserker is a melee damage class that can gain bonuses from using two weapons of the same type. And last but not least, is the engineer, a versatile class that can use shields, two-handed weapons, and even cannons, or some combination of those, depending on skill set. It's important to note here, that every class can wield every weapon, there's just not always a bonus for doing so. You're free to make a berserker who uses shotguns, for example, there's just not many skills for the class to support it.
Skills aren't tied to any sort of tree structure like they were before. You only need to be of a skill's required level to unlock it. Active skills such as spells, will also confer a bonus after investing five, ten, or fifteen points into them. Leveling up a character also isn't the only way to gain skill points. As you gain in fame from killing bosses and random named mobs, you acquire a skill point for every level of fame you've achieved as well.
Keep Going Back For More
It took me a little over 20 hours to save the world, on my first trip through on normal difficulty. Normal difficulty was still rather easy, and I think my next trip through the world will be at the veteran level. There are however, still a number of activities for my first character to do. Completing the game unlocks the Mapworks, a robot-run area where you can load custom maps to complete. It's also possible to create a new world that begins at your current level, so I could start a new game with that character where the first monsters would be around level 50. Because the dungeons and open areas outside towns are randomly generated, a second playthrough manages to still feel somewhat fresh. Combine that with a character class that you haven't played before, or a new set of skills for one that you have, and there's lots of reasons to keep replaying.
But is this the new best game ever?
In short, yes. I've spent time reading people's meager, whiny complaints about this gift of the gods that has been put on sale for a mere twenty dollars. Sure, you can only reallocate the last three skill points you've spent, and you can't redo all your stats and skills once you're leveled up. That's so that you learn from your mistakes and go back and play the game again. There's no one to hold your hand to find the area where the quest is at. There's a marker on your map for you to aim for, and that's more than any player deserves. The quests are still rather simplistic, and of the form to go kill someone or a group of someones, or to collect a thing, or a group of things. Again, the quests are merely a vehicle to get you into new areas. If you happen to kill the guy that advances the plot, that's a bonus. If you stop to talk to an NPC, the world does not stop for you. Enemies will continue to attack you as you choose your quest reward, because you were too stupid to clear out the area of any possible threats before sitting down to talk. I think I've now sufficiently debunked any negative points I've read in other reviews. If you don't like point-and-click ARPG games, you're not going to like this one. No one is going to change the entire genre to enable someone's crazy ideas. Well, unless it's Diablo 3, and look how that turned out. Sure it sold well, but I would now have to waterboard my friends into admitting that they fell for purchasing it.
My biggest complaint about this most perfect game, is that there's no Mac or Linux versions, yet. I say yet, because three years after the first game was released, we even have a Linux version now. You can pick it up, DRM-free, right now for a limited time, for the price of whatever-you-want, as part of the Humble Indie Bundle 6. You can donate some or all of the price to the EFF as well. Shameless plugs aside, it may take a few years but eventually Torchlight 2 should make the rounds as well. Runic Games has a lot in store for the game yet, such as console versions, as well as Steam Workshop integration, which will enable easy mod installation. Mod support will presumably let players redo their skills and stats, and cheat if they want to.