In action RPGs like this the player explores a series of randomly generated dungeons (or outdoor areas), battling monsters and collecting loot. There is usually a story about some great evil or other but the important bits are fighting, levelling up and collecting the lovely, shiny valuables that litter the ground. Action plays out in real time and the player is controlled with a click of the mouse to make them move or attack enemies and hotkeys to select which skills to use, potions to drink etc. The plentiful treasure is mostly randomly generated and weapons and armour can be common, magical, rare or unique - with each category denoted by a different colour.
Loot, glorious lootThe temptation here is to compare Torchlight II to Diablo III - not only because they are being released so close together but also because the Runic team includes people who worked on the first two Diablo games. However, I don’t really want to do that as I think that this game deserves to be treated on its own merits and, probably more pertinently, I wouldn’t be able to anyway as my experience of Diablo only extends as far as the recent beta. All I will say is that it will be possible to play Torchlight II in single player mode without any internet connection, you can choose different difficulty settings from the start, there will be no real money auction house, it will cost £15 / $20 to buy and I had no problems logging in at any point in the whole process.
So, that said, what’s Torchlight II actually like? Well, it takes everything from the first Torchlight game and does what a sequel should do. It makes it bigger and better. To start with there are now more, completely different, classes. Players can take their pick from Embermage, Outlander, Engineer or Berserker – all with differing skills and options. I didn’t have time to complete the beta with all four classes but I did with the Engineer, and the class can take a number of different paths, from tank to summoner to melee specialist. By the end of my playthrough I had a small robot army following me about, with a healing bot, a gunbot and some extremely useful suicidal spider mines which threw themselves at any visible enemy before exploding. Great stuff.
Ah, look at his little face!
And, of course, you have a man’s (or woman’s) best friend - your pet. You can choose your companion from lots of different animal types, ranging from a mundane cat or dog to a quite odd velociraptor / cassowary mix, called a chakawary; and with panthers, wolves, hawks and ferrets also available there really is a pet to suit everybody. You will soon come to rely completely on them. They are good in a scrap - often better than your main character and you can give them special pet equipment to protect them and enhance their abilities even further. They can cast spells for you (there is no finer sight in the world than a dog summoning some zombies to lend a decaying hand) or carry all your excess goodies and take them back to town to sell them - which enables you to stay out in the field for longer. You can even give them a shopping list of items to buy in town. Run out of identify scrolls or healing potions? Tell Fido to stop off at the shop and get you some! “What’s that Lassie? They’re stuck down a mine and they need four... no, five healing potions?” “Woof!”
Ah yes, my favourite holiday destination
Players are also no longer confined to Torchlight itself. The action is much more expansive and takes place over a much wider area - including (gasp) the outdoors. This makes a nice change from the original game’s often quite claustrophobic tunnels and gives a much greater sense of exploring and travelling to specific destinations, rather than just getting to the next set of stairs going down. The beta offered a number of different, and quite distinct, areas to explore, from steppes to mountain passes, and the full game will offer many more. Some of the areas are really quite large and contain a number of sub-quests and side missions which you can complete before getting on with your main task. They can also include some special randomised locations, such as abandoned altars, which provide rewards when conquered.
Multiplayer has also been added, and this is the mode that was being tested during the beta weekend. It works in pretty standard fashion, with players able to join games that others have set up or set up their own. You can protect them with passwords and set it so that only your friends can join, or you can join in with a bunch of strangers and run around killing things together. Loot is discrete, in that each player will receive their own stash, and enemy difficulty scales according to how many players are in the area. This all ran very smoothly during the test, with little lag or other problems. As other games have shown, this may change when the game is actually released - but so far, so good.
Ultimately what Torchlight II does is boil gaming down to its essence. It provides you with an endless, relentless stream of enemies to kill and rewards to gather – all just by clicking the mouse. There is something almost primeval about it, it appeals to that bit of the brain we share with lizards. Every few seconds you progress in some way - whether it’s a new weapon, another level or just some gold, and everything increases exponentially the further you get. Your damage goes up, your level goes up, you get more powerful, the monsters get harder, the weapons get better and it keeps going up and up and up in an unending addictive spiral of death, destruction and cute (but vicious) animals. The great achievement here is that, despite it being simple, Runic manage to make this so much fun that you forget what it is you’re actually doing and instead become focused on getting to the next skill, the next level or the next weapon. Torchlight II is a blast to play. Runic have another hit on their hands.