Torchlight II
E3 2012 Hands-on Preview/Interview
"Torchlight II might boast one of the most satisfying left clicking experiences in the industry."

Erich Schaefer was one of the masterminds behind Diablo 1 and 2 back when Blizzard North existed. With Torchlight, he helped Runic Games storm onto the scene. Now with the highly anticipated Torchlight II beta complete and a smashing success, the question foremost on everyone's mind at E3 is "when will you release?"

"We're proceeding faster than we anticipated through the rest of the content," Schaefer replied when we posed the question to him directly. "We're looking right now at late July/early August."

This is great news for fans of the original Torchlight and action RPG fans in general. Having already played the beta, I can say that Torchlight II is at the very top of my list of most anticipated titles.

In my previous preview I tried to address one of the basic questions folks might have about Torchlight II – why play it instead of Diablo II? Erich Schaefer had his own thoughts on that topic.

"The differences between the games has gotten more and more evident," Schaefer said. "It's a different atmosphere – it's a little more lighthearted.

"The whole construct of the ARPG is sort of a comedy anyway – what are all these monsters doing carrying chainmail? It's kind of nice to not have it be so somber." The graphics and overall tone of Torchlight II is certainly more cartoonish in its presentation, and the comparison to Diablo III makes that difference even more stark.

But the differences are far more than cosmetic.

"We have offline play, lower system specs, LAN play, you can use your character through all of them interchangeably... for 20 bucks," said Schaefer.

While Diablo III has moved away from assigning skill points in the interest of a more streamlined experience, Torchlight II has positively embraced the former.

"One of the fun things for me is making weird builds," said Schaefer in reference to character customization. "I'm not a min/maxer. If I make a weird non-optimal build, that's sometimes more fun. You can make your crazy builds and get more ownership of your character."

While on the subject of character builds, I asked Schaefer what his favorite class was.

"They're all fun, but I end up with the Berserker ultimately because he's maniacal and you wade in and itís carnage," he replied. "We got stats from the beta and they were pretty evenly split between the classes. The lowest was 21% and the highest was 28%." This is a good sign that Runic is doing something right since the classes are all fun to play.

In the Runic meeting room at E3, the game was playable with four PCs hooked up together via LAN. LAN play is something almost unheard of in this day and age, and I asked Schaefer why this was something Torchlight II offered.

"We're not a big company so we don't have a portal to funnel you through and sell you – there's no real reason NOT to do LAN play," replied Schaefer. "We have the editor and an open architecture. We want people to play however they want to play.

"A surprising number of people like LAN play still and no one really does it! You get far better performance and less lag – it's been a really popular feature," Schaefer continued. "We're a little bit puzzled why more people don't do it... other than they want to run you through their portal."

One thing that makes Torchlight interesting to play even today is the ever present modding community. Runic plans to take that even farther with Torchlight II.

"It's the same editor, way more vastly improved," Schaefer said. "It's what we used to make the game. Since this is multiplayer, we expect the mod community to be that much more engaged. It's much more powerful now. With Torchlight 1 you couldn't do anything with the UI – now UI mods are totally easy. There's more access to the game than we had before." He was clearly excited to see what the community will do with the editor once it is in their hands.

There is one drawback to this more open approach, however. When asked about a possible Xbox version of Torchlight 2, Schaefer was not optimistic.

"Multiplayer stuff and increased poly count make it less likely," he said. "It couldn't just be a direct port like Torchlight 1 was – we'd have to resample all the artwork downward and do a lot of work to get it to function on the Xbox. We made money on it, but it just wasn't a big enough thing that it's the best use of our time. A better use would be an expansion or getting more content out for the PC version – which is a shame because it was really fun on the Xbox."

Torchlight II is clearly taking such a different approach to the action RPG experience from Diablo III that I was curious what would be next for Runic after this one is out the door. Did they have plans for an expansion?

"We're deliberately not thinking about that right now. Our plan is to get this out, do the Mac port, do the language translations, get everything stabilized, and get the pulse of the world. Do people want more Torchlight II? Then maybe we'll do an expansion. But we really want to get the pulse of it and see where our heads are at – we may be so sick of Torchlight we want to do something else for awhile... but I doubt that," said Schaefer with a laugh.

Spending some more time playing the latest build of the game, I am beginning to think that Torchlight II upon release might boast one of the most satisfying left clicking experiences in the industry. The 20 dollar price point is completely insane for a game of this quality, and if you aren't excited yet for Torchlight II you might want to consult a doctor immediately.

Hands-on Preview
"When faced with the choice of the Torchlight II beta and the actual release of Diablo III, Torchlight II has been winning my mouse clicks."

If one were so inclined, one could make the case that Diablo III isn't the real sequel to Diablo II at all. Max Schaefer and Erich Schaefer, co-designers on Diablo I and II back in the day, surprised everybody in gaming when they teamed up with Travis Baldree (designer of the terrific game Fate) to create Torchlight. The accessible price point and ridiculously streamlined, addictive gameplay made it a critical and commercial success. And from a personal standpoint, it's been one of my go-to games for years – right up until the beta invite to Torchlight II, that is.

Torchlight II was originally envisioned as "Torchlight with multiplayer," but after playing the beta, I can see why the release has taken as long as it has – this is much, much more than that. In fact, I can now say with perfect frankness that when faced with the choice of the Torchlight II beta and the actual release of Diablo III, Torchlight II has been winning my mouse clicks. Handily.

Torchlight II will feature 3 different game modes. The first is the anticipated Internet game, which allows you to connect online and play with others. The second is a single player mode that will allow you to play offline. The third is a somewhat surprising LAN mode, harkening back to the days of old school LAN parties when multiplayer PC gaming was often done in the same room with others.

There are four character classes in Torchlight II, which approaches the leveling up process in a way that is more similar to Diablo II than it is to Diablo III. Skill points can be assigned by the player to 4 attributes on each level up, allowing a high degree of customization. This is key, because each class has 3 skill trees that can be mixed and matched to a character builder's delight. While Diablo III has taken a more streamlined approach to leveling up, Torchlight II sticks with the older model of allowing for more player choice, leading to greater variety between characters of the same class. Right at level 2, you'll have 6 skills available to you to put your first skill point into – a big difference from the automatic ability progression in Diablo III.

Out of the box, the classes seem familiar: the Outlander is a gunslinger/rogue type class, the Embermage is a wizard, the Berserker is a dual-wielding barbarian type, and the Engineer is a tank. But depending on the skills one chooses as the game progresses, the 4 classes can play wildly differently. For example, the Engineer can be built like a front line defensive tank, or can focus on building mechanical companions to surround him. Each class also has a "charge" capability that allows them to store up power based on hitting foes and then release it through certain skills. If you use these skills correctly, you can demolish piles of monsters in just one shot.

Loot collection was one of the best-executed aspects of the original Torchlight, and I'm pleased to say that the quality hasn't dropped at all in the sequel. In fact, loot has never been more fun than in Torchlight II. Backpacks are divided up into 3 sections: one for weapons and armor, one for potions and other consumables, and one for spells. Every single item, no matter what it is, takes up one slot in your inventory, just like they did in the original Torchlight. If you are a fan of "inventory Tetris," you will be disappointed here, but if you just want to get through your copious loot quickly and without fuss, this system is excellent. Your pet also has a 3 part inventory to store stuff you don't want – a simple shift-click sends junk from your own inventory straight to your pet's. If your pet's inventory gets full and you don't want to interrupt your hacking, you can send your pet to sell your junk goods just as you did in Torchlight I, but with the added bonus that you can give your pet a shopping list. No more returning to town just because you ran low on potions. This encourages a "grab everything" playstyle, since having enough space for loot is rarely an issue. You can manage space in your inventory quickly and easily and leave the tedium of buying necessities and selling junk to your pet while you focus on killing things.

Speaking of potions, hotkeys for potions provide a fantastic example of the little details Runic has thought of in their game. Pressing "Z" consumes your most powerful health potion, while pressing "X" consumes your most powerful mana potion. Great for boss fights, and it frees up your traditional number keys for actual powers and abilities. There are lots of little touches like this that make the hacking and slashing experience a joy.

The original Torchlight consisted of one dungeon that went down 32 levels, followed by an infinite dungeon that was unlocked after you completed the first. The layout in Torchlight II is different, with zones connected to a central hub that acts as the main town. There are lots of additional dungeons that will appear in those areas, so while you are pursuing a quest in a certain place, you are likely to encounter another very large, often multi-level dungeon or two with additional things to do on your way there. I haven't decided yet whether I like this approach better than the original, since getting to the hacking was so delightfully straightforward in Torchlight I, but there is a waypoint system in place to get you where you need to go that should be familiar to any Diablo or Torchlight player. In a multiplayer game, you can use the waypoints to teleport directly to any player, which is handy when you join a random game and want to team up.

The action is fast and crisp. This is the most difficult thing to describe to somebody about Torchlight II, as it simply needs to be played to understand in fullness. Everything just feels right about it. The sound effects are satisfying, there is no delay between pressing a button and seeing your actions performed, the animations are beautiful and smooth, and enemies die in a massive variety of aesthetically pleasing ways. The experience of left-clicking simply shouldn't be this gratifying, but somehow it is.

Compared to Diablo III, the graphics certainly lean more toward a cartoon with bright and vibrant colors. There is also not much of a plot to speak of in Torchlight II – just enough to give everything a little bit of context.

I think there is plenty of room for both games, as they take a very different approach to the hack and slash genre. Torchlight II sticks with some of the older tropes of allowing a high degree of player customization, while Diablo III streamlines certain aspects of character building. Both approaches have merit, but I certainly hope Torchlight II does not get lost in the logjam that Diablo III will no doubt create for players' game time. It's a game that will deserve your attention when it is finally released, and for only $20, you really can't miss.

© 2012 Runic Games, Perfect World. All rights reserved.

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