After a long series of delays, Runic Games’ Torchlight 2 has finally hit Steam. I played it a bit yesterday, and I thought folks who were Diablo 3 fans might like to know how Torchlight 2 compares.

Torchlight 2 by itself

If you’ve played Torchlight 1, or any of the Diablo series, you know what you’re in for – killing all the dudes and getting all the loot. There’s a pseudo-Steampunk angle to the world so you’re just as likely to fire a gatling gun as draw a bow. You’re also blessed with a pet from the very start of the game which has a remarkable impact on gameplay.

Versus El Diablo

It’s really hard to write much about Torchlight 2 (TL2) without reference or comparison to the Diablo series. I might as well bite the bullet and get into the comparisons.

The first thing you notice is money, in few contexts. Torchlight 2 is only $20, whereas Diablo 3 hit shelves at $60ish. You can buy a 4-pack of TL2 2 on Steam for the same price as Diablo 3. Then from the intro screen, you can tell that while TL2 got a lot of love, it didn’t get anywhere near the budget that Diablo 3 (D3) had. While the music in TL2 is fine, you can tell Blizzard shelled out for a full orchestra to really smash that opening screen. Same sort of thing for the sound – while it’s quite good in TL2, it lacks some of the variety and quality that D3 has.

Curiously, TL2 has a very similar art style to Blizzard’s biggest earner: World of Warcraft. Textures are fairly simple, colourful but evocative. D3 had that wonderful painterly feel to everything (if you didn’t zoom in too far) whereas TL2 retains a video game feel. By eschewing any dedication to realism, the TL2 guys were able to be a lot more creative with the different enemies and landscapes that you see. You cycle through both pretty quickly so while not individually engaging, it constantly feels fresh. D3 rooted itself in areas, soaking up a particular atmosphere that the artists tried very hard to capture.

The main difference as I see it is that Torchlight 2 wants to be fun, whilst Diablo 3 wants to be hardcore. I think TL2 wins in executing this and being my kind of game. One of my issues with D3 is I wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. A lot of the gameplay and theming was structured around being hardcore. Percentages are quoted to 1 or 2 decimal points. You have to prove your worthiness of later difficulties by finishing the lower ones first. Bad guys are routinely tougher. If you want to go to town you are punished by a long wait and potentially decaying loot drop chances. Every patch to D3 tries to finely balance all the different class and skill choices. Heck the whole online-always thing was to ensure a level playing field for everyone in what is ostensibly a single-player game.

But then the execution of D3 was uneven. The auction house blew away any sense of difficulty, progress or achievement if you had the cash. The very grimdark storyline was too serious yet not interesting nor carefully crafted enough to warrant it. In the midst of a very serious battle that might determine the fate of the world, you are encouraged to smash up Heaven in order to find a few extra dollars. When you save the world by beating up the Prime Evil himself you get a bit of thanks, but mostly they care about what Tyrael does next. You’re just some dude. A set of bad guys and their related achievement are named after the Three Stooges. Your character will have a serious contemplation about the afterlife whilst punching someone’s skeleton out. The NPCs have more social interactions than you do. The mix is all wrong.

Torchlight 2 doesn’t take itself anywhere near that seriously. The cinematics are cartoons, which is not to say they aren’t great, but D3′s realistically-rendered cutscenes demanded a certain amount of gravitas whereas the Big Bad Guy in TL2 explodes a few buildings with his staff on the way to punching up someone. While TL2 has the same sort of thin story that it tells fairly straight-faced, it doesn’t insist on it as strongly as D3. It revels in the secondary detail that D3 loves but is supposed to be too serious to lower itself to. For example, in one area you fight a ghost pirate called One-Eyed Willy (which is a joke in itself), but a drop you find nearby is “The Other Eye of One-Eyed Willy” which is basically a rare gem you can shove into your weapon. While D3 had similar rare champions and gag loot, they seemed out of place.

TL2 is really just there to have fun. The first 20 odd enemies I fought I could one-shot kill them (and they’d explode in a shower of gore). You’re encouraged to wield gigantic shotguns or grindstones strapped to logs. A nice way to get loot is to go fishing and the fish you find polymorphs your pet into various crazy creatures. Occasionally, just apropos of nothing, you’ll fight a phase beast enemy that will open up a portal to a mini-game. Socketed weapons come thick and fast. You are encouraged to use gems as soon as possible because they don’t allow gem combining (although they do allow you to recover either the gem or the item, but not both). Identify scrolls are basically instantaneous. Portals back to town are instantaneous and semi-persistent. The town itself isn’t a chore to navigate and basically once you’re outside the gates, it’s combat time.

TL2 allows local, LAN or Internet play and totally doesn’t care what you do. You are strongly encouraged to mod the game and use other people’s mods. While they offer much the same gameplay options as D3, you don’t have to grind for them. Hardcore and harder difficulty modes are available immediately.

You can craft your own character however you want. I have an engineer chick that has specialized in hitting things with weapons as big as her, and robots. With a different set of skill choices, I could have made her a pseudo-knight hitting things with a sword and doing all sorts of shield-bashing, or taken an entirely different route and made myself a damage sponge distracting the enemies while a horde of robots cleaned up. And this is just one class of four!

If you realize quickly enough that a skill choice was not for you, a guy in town will allow you to respecialize your last 3 choices. They don’t really care so much about a level playing field so all the pros are evenly matched. They want you to have a good time killing things. Speaking of levels, you gain them at a good pace, which is a great contrast to D3′s general grind.

Pets are great. You have a choice of ten different species (dogs, cats, wolves, hawks… even freaking ferrets with hats!) They’re all very adorable. While mechanically they have a lot of similarities to the paladin/brigand/enchantress you could have in D3, they feel quite different. Like in Torchlight 1, they can be loaded up with extra items and sent to the store while you keep bashing things. Interestingly, they can also buy consumables for you. The town felt like a chore in D3, whereas you can avoid it entirely in TL2.

Pets can be given very simple gear, but more importantly can be given spells to learn. While thematically weird, it means that my wolf can cast a Summon Skeleton spell while I’m summoning a small horde of spider mines. I’m rocking out with an entourage similar to my witch doctor from D3, but my character is more than able to handle herself. I could have chosen the Summon Skeleton spell for myself, but in the chaos and finite amount of mana I have, it’s great that my wolf can provide a skeleton at a moment’s notice.

While this review was supposed to be a quick TL2 vs D3 bullet-point comparison, I had too much fun pointing out the things I liked about Torchlight 2. I think this is very telling. I appreciate the effort that went into D3 and the game Blizzard were trying to make. However, I felt as a player Blizzard was keeping me at arm’s length from their game, lest I sully its very important sheen. They were building the game for the obsessive 1000-hour players and making me work for entertainment. While they both revel in the fairly mindless hack and slash emblematic of Action RPGs, Torchlight 2 wants everyone to come in, make yourself comfortable and have fun.

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