About two weeks back I spent some time with the Torchlight 2 beta. Let's break down the things that did, didn't, and might work, all while trying to avoid comparisons to Diablo 3 (spoiler alert: there will be comparisons to Diablo 3). Keep in mind that this is not a review or representative of the release product (since that's not really possible yet...) it's just a collection of the ups and downs that I experienced in my few days with the beta.
What I did: I played with all four of the game's classes: The Outlander, the Engineer, the Berserker, and the Embermage. I took three of them to about level 13 and took the engineer all the way through the beta's content, which went up to about level 20. I played on the “Veteran” difficulty (one higher than default, one lower than the hardest).
The world. The story is setup from the get-go, you have a sense of purpose, and the landscape is filled with interesting characters, some of which offer you side quests and fun little backstories to go with them. Be it in a dungeon or the overland areas (new to the Torchlight series), this is a world that just begs to be explored.
The art. Don't let the cartoonish vibes fool you – Torchlight 2's art has got some real legs. It was more than capable of conveying a sense of dread and gloom to match the game's story, which starts off in a similar fashion. Characters look fantastic in their various bits of equipment, with rare and powerful items giving an equally significant bit of visual flair to let your enemies know what they're up against.
The skills. Packed within the traditional 3-branched skill tree are a bucketload of skills that are fun to use and even more fun to look at. Even the lowest-level skills look dramatic and feel powerful enough that they'll maintain their usefulness even as you start unlocking new skills.
The loot. That sweet, sweet loot. A steady supply of level-appropriate equipment poured out of chests and defeated foes, and oh, it was glorious. I was even able to complete a 4-piece set by level 20!
Things That Concern Me
Permanent builds. Much like the orignial Torchlight (and almost all other ARPGs since Diablo 2), gaining a level in Torchlight 2 gives you points to spend both on your characters stats and their skills. However, once you make those choices, they are pretty much permanent. There is a very limited skill respec system (unlimited respecs up through level 10, and no respecs at all after that) and all stat point allocations are permanent. It turned what should have been the joyous experience of leveling up into a bit of a worry, as each new level brought a decision I would have to live with forever. Coming from Diablo 3, which allows me to try out new builds on a whim, I found the added stress most unwelcome and incredibly disappointing.
Character development railroads. Advocates of Torchlight's traditional leveling system will be quick to argue that it allows for more creativity with builds than one might find in recent AAA action RPGs (yes, I'm talking about Diablo 3), but Torchlight 2's stat system simply has too many shoehorns built into the stats for that to be true. For example, the “Focus” stat increases elemental damage, expands your pool of mana (spent to use skills), and, if you're dual-wielding similar weapons, increases the odds that you will perform an “Execute” attack that attacks with both weapons simultaneously. However, if you're playing as a character that doesn't dual-wield or do a lot of elemental damage but needs more mana available for skills, you're out of luck. Sure, you could put points into Focus to get the mana you need, but doing so puts you at a relative disadvantage, as you're only able to capitalize on a fraction of the what the Focus stat is all about. So you have a choice – either put points into focus and effectively cripple your character's other stats (it take a LOT of extra focus to get a meaningful bump in mana) or forego Focus and stick to using your basic attack, which uses no mana (and would be incredibly dull).
The potion spamming. Not since the late great Titan Quest has a game so heavily relied on potions as the main mechanism for managing resources. One thing I love about Diablo 3 is that the ebb and flow of health and mana (or its equivalent) is central to the gameplay and is handled via cleverly designed skills, not potions. Torchlight 2, on the other hand, has a pretty simple “spend mana on skills, get it back with potions” setup that just feels hollow. One major exception to this is the Engineer class, which has an absolutely incredible charge mechanic that elevates the game above the potion-fest (see my other post, Why The Engineer is the Best Thing About Torchlight II for more on that). Worst of all, boss fights usually come down to the question, “did I bring enough potions to win this fight?” which is just criminal.
I'm On The Fence About...
The “Charges”. All four classes build up a charge as they damage enemies. This charge's effect varies from class to class – Embermages, for example, gain the ability to cast spells for free (and with some extra oomph) when their charge bar is full, while filling up the Berserker's charge bar grants him a brief period of fury in which every attack becomes a critical hit. While the Engineer's and Berserker's charge effects add a great deal to how those characters play, the effects for the Embermage and Outlander (who simply gains passive damage bonuses based on how full the charge bar is) feel pretty lousy. The Embermage's charge might be more satisfying if it were functionally different from drinking a mana potion, which has a measly seven second cooldown.
Enchanters. Instead of having an enchanter in town who can add random effects to your items for a cost, you find enchanters scattered about the game world. While it's nice to have a huge reward for exploring the world, I'm not sure I like the idea of having to venture out into the wilds every time I feel like enchanting something or the fact that I might just not find any enchanters at all (only one of my four characters found an enchanter at all).
The difficulty. The good news is that combat is more about surviving consistent damage, which is more fun than Diablo 3's all-or-nothing spike fest. The bad news is that the difficulty can be all over the place. Things jump around between too easy, too hard, and right-on-the-money without any real explanation. Some bosses are pushovers, some are near impossible, and others just require you to keep downing potions as the fight drags on and on and on...
The gems. To encourage you to actually use your gems (which can be placed in socketed items to gain bonus effects), Torchlight 2 has done away with the practice of combining multiple copies of a gem to create a more powerful version of that gem. So now you can just throw a gem into a socketed item without worrying about the fact that you're actually throwing away an opportunity to create a better gem down the road. The only downside is that I didn't see any way to remove a gem once it had been inserted into an item, meaning that if you want to replace that poison damage gem with a fire damage gem, you're out of luck.
My Final Comments:
All in all, my time with the Torchlight 2 beta was huge fun at times, but far too uneven. At the moment it definitely feels like a step forward from Torchlight, but the original Torchlight was itself a mere step sideways from other action RPGs. Coming from Diablo 3, the Torchlight 2 beta definitely felt old-fashioned, and while it does the old-fashioned stuff as well as it's ever been done, it still feels far behind the times overall; for example, it's got some great skill trees, but it doesn't fix the issues that have plagued skill trees since the dawn of time (one-point-wonders, buyer's remorse, etc). I'm hoping that between now and release that Torchlight 2 can move from being a good Torchlight game to being a properly great action RPG.
And hey, don't forget to check out my other article, Why The Engineer is the Best Thing About Torchlight II, which talks about... well, you can probably figure it out.