[Note to Massively readers: The “no-holds-barred Thunderdome deathmatch” was cancelled, the honeybadger called in sick. We’re having a tea party instead. If you are looking for a post complaining about Diablo III requiring you to be online to play, go read this.]
Runic Games had a Torchlight II beta event this past weekend. A beta event during the first weekend after Diablo III launched. Crazy, right?
Maybe, and maybe not.
Certainly there is a lot of anti-Blizzard ire in the air after the rocky launch day made error 37 the banner around which those angry about the always “connected nature” of Diablo III could rally. Torchlight II, as detailed in this comparo chart, offers up online, LAN, and offline modes of play. The latter seemed pretty attractive last week.
While I had seen updates from Runic about the beta, I was not planning to join in on it. You know… first weekend of Diablo III and all that. But they sent me a key for the event, and the download was pretty painless at 750 MB… versus 7GB for Diablo III… which is a little over an hour of file transfer with my internet connection.
The download went while we ate dinner, and when the time finally came, I was able to sit down and launch into Torchlight II.
I logged in (the beta is online mode only, so just like D3), made a character (berserker, the melee class), picked my pet (wolf), got into the game, and spent about 10 minutes running around.
At that point I was a bit dismayed with the graphical style so logged off and went off and played Diablo III for the next three hours. And D3 was glorious. I got through most of Act II, played with another friend for a while, and had a great time.
In the light of the next morning though, I felt that I had, perhaps, given Torchlight short shrift. So I went back and played it for a couple of hours, just to be sure I got it. And it was a good thing I did, as Torchlight II really has much to recommend it.
The key difference between the two games is what each team decided was important to continue the legacy of Diablo II.
After the break, a long discussion of how they differ, which I attempted to organize. I did not do a very good job.
Begin wall of text.
I’ve harped on this topic a couple of times, and how important it is to the Diablo franchise. And if I was disappointed that Diablo III did not live up to the standard of gloom and shadow set by its predecessors, where light sources were important things, and where casting a fire spell actually lit up the room, then Torchlight II falls further behind in that department.
While Diablo III dungeons appear to lit by indirect lighting, the level of detail that went into the art, and the amount terrain that breaks, explodes, or just falls apart when you battle over it make up for the lighting choice for the most part.
And then there is the blood…
Torchlight II dungeons also suffer from the same interior design lighting choices. They seem a bit brighter at times, but not annoyingly so. The prime difference between the two games when it comes to dungeon atmosphere is more a matter of the budget dollars than anything else. Blizzard had the money to make exquisitely details interiors, and that money paid off.
A well lit dungeon
Outside of dungeons though, Blizzard keeps up its atmosphere ambitions. The game feels gloomy and oppressive when it suits. And the epic battle on the ramparts at the start of Act III is amazing. Torchlight II, on the other hand, is more modest on the surface world. It can be gloomy… but sometimes it is bright and sunny and the grass is green and the flowers are blooming and it might be “Happy Elves go on a Picnic” that you are playing… at least until the bad guys show up.
But that just goes with the art style choice that the team at Runic Games has adopted, which clearly owes more to Team Fortress 2 than Diablo II.
The Diablo series is a story. The story was pretty simple in the first game. It became an integral part of game play in the second, as you were guided through four acts, each with their own story quest line.
How story gets handled this time around clearly separates the two games.
For Blizzard, story is all consuming. The whole game takes story up several notches from Diablo II. There are more cut scenes, more references to back story, more quests, more stages per quest, and much more dialog. You are never left to go wander around for a couple of zones worth of content looking for some location or item as you were in Diablo II. You are always reminded that you have a task to accomplish, even as you pick up those side events, loot every corpse, break every barrel, and so on. And it is so well tailored and immersive that it really works well for me in a way that MMO quests do not.
And the story also cements the relationship with the series. I raised an eyebrow about having to visit pretty much every location from Diablo II again. But it is a continuation of a story, and that story takes place in a world already defined. I can see how running off to some new location might not help with the bond Blizzard is attempting to create.
Torchlight II… at least as far as I played into it… seems to take a bit of a step back from the Diablo II level of integration with story. They are not quite at the original Torchlight, where the town seemed to be a parody of an MMO quest hub at times. But you end up with a few quests at a time, which may or may not be related and which may or may not have anything to do with the over-arching story. While Blizzard limits and controls any distraction from story, Torchlight II keeps a much looser grip on your tale. It isn’t a sandbox by any stretch of the imagination, and if you want to play the game through, you’re going to have to take up the story and your character will have to act out their pre-ordained part. But story isn’t as all consuming.
Whether one or the other is better is a matter of taste. I am enjoying Diablo III‘s focus on story, but the light feel of Torchlight II has its benefits too.
Characters and Skills
Both games have finally decided that you can be either sex for a given class. A victory for all of us I think. I could never play my Diablo II Amazon in multi-player.
Diablo III has five classes, Torchlight II has four. Each has the requisite melee, ranged weapons, and caster class covered as barbarian/berserker, demon hunter/outlander, and wizard/ember mage. The other classes do not really overlap. The engineer in Torchlight II is sort of steampunk melee, while the monk in Diablo III gives you martial arts melee and group healing. And Diablo III’s witch doctor seems to be geared towards those who delight in throwing jars of spiders at people.
Aside from the spiders, the classes are reasonably on par. The barbarian and the berserker are especially similar, but how far wrong can you go with a crazy melee class?
The path between the two games diverge when it comes to how you develop your classes.
Torchlight II is clearly in the old school Diablo II camp. You get talent points to spend on talent trees, there are three trees per class, and the items on these trees unlock or enhance your skills. Likewise, with every level you get points you can apply to your stats, and there are stats that are clearly better for any given class. And you will run into gear drops that are stat constrained; e.g. You must be this strong to wield the Coyote Sword of Obliteration.
Diablo III went down a new path. You do not spend points on talents or stats. Stats go up as you level. And as you level up you also unlock abilities. Abilities are sorted by type, and are abilities of the same type are mutually exclusive, you can choose only one. In the end you can have six abilities active, one from each grouping. You also unlock runes for each skill which gives that skill an additional effect. So for my my main melee attack, I chose the skill that hits up to three bad guys in front of me, then added the rune that makes anything I kill with that attack explode (!!!) like a bomb, damaging those around the victim.
For somebody like me, who dislikes the classic talent tree (I always choose badly early on), the Diablo III system is a thing of beauty. You have to make choices… hard choices… as you can only have six skills active, and each can only have one its runes selected. But you are not locked into any given skill. You can open up your character window and change things up at will.
Random Game Mechanics
As with characters skills, Torchlight II saw fit to leave a lot of the Diablo II mechanics alone. So you have health potions, scrolls of identify, scrolls of town portal, vendors, and the whole lot, all in the Diablo II vein. Spells are different… but they work the same way they did in Torchlight.
In the end, it is a lot like Diablo II, down to the red and blue health and mana balls, now moved out to the edge of your peripheral vision just like in Diablo II.
And Torchlight II seems kind of obsessed with levels, in a very MMO-like way. Quests, zones, mobs, all have levels visible. which are sometimes brought vigorously to your attention.
Are you leveled up enough for that zone?
Diablo III has done away with the scrolls, having made town portal a skill and identify something you apparently do by staring really hard at an item for a few seconds. (Which makes a sort of sense… it is a friggin’ axe, how tough could that be to decipher?) Vendors are the same, though aside from the occasional ones you run into in the wild, they almost never have anything for sale that you need. I am always wearing better gear and I have yet to run out of health potions.
And then there is the auction house. The gold driven one. It took me a bit to figure out what would drive this in a game that rains loot on you in every battle. There are a few factors, but the one that I think makes the big difference is that all of the yellow gear that drops… that is the good stuff… shows up usable by a character many levels below yours. In the his mid-20s, my barbarian is getting yellow drops usable by level 14 characters. They are showing up almost too late to be useful for him, since he is getting blue drops as good or better.
But those yellow drops make a great gift for a lower level alt! And hey, if you want to pick up a meaningful piece of equipment for your main, the auction house has plenty of similar items at your level.
As for the RMT driven auction house, which isn’t open as of yet… a couple of people will likely do well out of it… or will tell you they are doing well in order to sell you a guide so you’ll know how to do well. I think the most likely buyer will be somebody seeking the in-game currency, since Blizzard fixed the gold glut that was in Diablo II.
In Diablo II, by the end of the second act you probably had more gold than you could carry. There was nothing to spend it on really.
In Diablo III you have the auction house, expansions for your shared stash, and leveling up your crafting NPCs. The glut is gone. Now I have more things to spend gold on than I have gold. And that feeling, the need for gold, will drive people to spend real money. The so a new generation of gold farmers, now working legally, will arise.
Finally, just to finish a comparison started above, Diablo III seems to go out of its way to NOT look like it as obsessed with levels as an MMO. Zones, monsters, quests… none of these things display levels. But they all have levels, Blizzard is just hiding them. I thought they might be scaling things, but the word on the street is that levels are still the in thing.
Both games have branched off from Diablo II when it comes to companions.
Runic Games added a pet companion in Torchlight, where you could choose if you were a cat or a dog person. This has been expanded with Torchlight II. You now have more choices, including an adorable ferret pet that my daughter loves.
It has little goggles!
Aside from different skins however, it is the same as the Torchlight pet. It assists you in battle. You can teach it spells, which is pretty cool. And you can load your pet up with drops and send it back to town to sell… though, of course, then you are standing around in the dungeon without your companion for 30 seconds to a couple of minutes.
Diablo III has curtailed the Diablo II companion vendor and has given you three companions, the scoundrel, the Templar, and the sorceress.
Hanging with the companions…
You meet each as you progress through the story. Each has three skills that you can choose as they level up, and there are some clear match ups. The Templar is a tank with some healing, the sorceress is a caster that has a healing choice, and the scoundrel is a ranged DPS rogue.
So for my barbarian, the clear choice of companion is the sorceress… or maybe the Templar to get healing.
But I always group with the scoundrel.
Because the companions have personalities… as does your own character. You do not get to choose who your character is, you play the personality of the class you choose.
The barbarian is dour and fatalistic. He is on a quest, he is going to slay evil, and he fully expects to die in the process. He is the unsmiling Arnold Schwartzenegger character, all muscles and determination.
Meanwhile, I have nicknamed the scoundrel “Ford Prefect.” He wants to loot some gold, make time with girls, and get in out of the cold. He comments on the trail of dead bodies in our wake and moans about the state of dungeons, but when push comes to shove he is there with me, a few steps back, shooting up the bad guys with his crossbow, shouting “That’s how we do it in Kingsport!” at then end of a fight now and again.
The interplay between the barbarian and the scoundrel is endlessly amusing to me. They have some regular repartee along with scripts that go with certain events. The only downside is that when you join up with a friend, you companion goes away. I am pushing ahead with my barbarian solo for now in part to see how their relationship unfolds.
Yes, the whole thing is scripted , and not exactly written at the James Joyce level, but it is fun. And I wonder how the other companions react at similar events… and how they interact with the other character classes of each sex. Too many possible variations!
Blizzard made a drastic choice with Diablo III by making it always online. Straw Fellow has a good write up on this, so I will try not to belabor the point. I will just say that it is a classic “less is more” choice. Blizzard decided that Diablo III was a multiplayer game, and that playing with friends was the key feature. So they made playing together as easy as possible by forcing everybody to be online. And my own time spent with the game over the weekend showed that it seems to work. I spent a lot of time playing with friends primarily because it was so easy. There was no need to coordinate; you see your friend, you jump on in.
Runic Games, on the other hand, wants Torchlight II available for all of the Diablo II play styles. So you can play offline. You can setup a game over the internet privately. Or you can log into their own version of Battle.net and play in their public space.
The catch is that all this flexibility will keep “playing with friends” from ever being as easy as Diablo III has made it.
But Torchlight II has some additional things to throw into the pot. For one, you can set the difficulty mode of your game to any setting without having played through the lower settings. If you want to start off in hard mode, go right ahead. With Diablo III… which outside of bosses seems kind of soft in the initial difficulty setting… I am not sure I will want to play through the whole game twice just to get to hard mode.
And the other key item is that Torchlight II will let you have up to 8 players in your game, versus 4 in Diablo III. For those of us with a regular group of 5 or 6 people, this will be a boon.
Other Random Items
Diablo III has achievements, and making achievements feel worthwhile is something that Blizzard does well. You get them for the usual things, and the special events you expect, but they also throw in a good number or cool random ones. At one point I had a quest to free villagers who had been caged up in their town. I only needed to free 8, but after I finished I noticed that there were more and I could still free them. So I did. And there was an achievement for freeing all of the prisoners. It almost solves the sixth slave issue.
Torchlight II, in addition to normal experience also has fame… sort of notoriety ala LOTRO… as did Torchlight. You get that for slaying bosses and other special monsters. And I would tell you what fame was for… but I totally forgot.
Diablo III takes crap screen shots. The compression is set really high… hey, another feature LOTRO shares… and so the fine detail looks much worse in screen shots than in the game. (And the damn cursor is in all the screen shots… see the companions shot above.) But Torchlight II doesn’t take screen shots at all… at least not yet. So I had to get Fraps out… which takes great screen shots since I can control the quality, so I should probably run that with Diablo III as well.
Neither has what I consider the definitive MMO feature, which is the ability to turn off the UI. So they are not MMOs. Hah!
Same for both games.
Click on shit until it dies.
Press a button for a health potion.
Press another button for a spell or something.
But mostly just keep clicking, just keep clicking.
It is the simplicity of combat and the non-stop slaughter as your hero… and in both games you are clearly not just another feeb fresh off the turnip wagon, not another noob in the starter zone, but a full fledged hero… tears through the bad guys that sells the genre.
If anything, both games step up the pace of action over Diablo II, and that is a beautiful thing.
What Do I Recommend?
I will be playing both.
Diablo III continues the franchise story, a story in which I was already emotionally invested. Not playing the game never even occurred to me. That it turned out to be a great game that adds to the genre is simply a bonus. Anybody saying that Diablo III brought nothing new to the table clearly isn’t playing the same game I am… and I would bet that most aren’t playing the game at all, but just complaining from the sidelines.
My big question is what will Blizzard do with the game they have created? Eventually it will be played out for most people. Will it get expansions or new game modes or new games on the same platform? Time will tell. [9/20 Update: time says that Blizz dropped the ball here.]
Torchlight II is light and awesome and the game I will play with my daughter. (Diablo III is a bit too grim for a 10 year old I think.) While not endowed with Blizzard’s art budget, it is still a superior example of the click action genre. And with a $20 price tag, I have no doubt the instance group will give it a try.
And, being open for mods, it will likely find new life as time goes along as a platform for people to do their own stories.
But either way, I think I am pretty lucky to have both games available to play this year.
This will definitely cut into my MMO time.