Torchlight 2 vs. Diablo 3: on welcoming the player instead of locking them in
It’s hard not to bring up Diablo 3 when talking about the just-released Torchlight 2. Key members of Runic Games left Blizzard before the company merged with Activision, and both games feature similar hack and slash game play. When someone says that they like Torchlight 2 more than the juggernaut that is Diablo 3 there is a certain amount of rooting for the little guy, but you can’t ignore everything the game does right. Diablo 3 is the game you expect when you filter Blizzard’s designs through Activision’s love of money. Torchlight 2 feels like the sort of game Blizzard used to make, with all the fun details and freedom that entailed.
These aren’t small things
The major difference between the two games, outside of the more lighthearted aesthetic of Torchlight 2, is that you can play Torchlight 2 offline, while Diablo 3 requires a constant Internet connection. When this was announced we were told it was to cut down on hacking and to allow the existence of the real money auction house, which was something few gamers had asked for in the first place. For those of us who like to get their Diablo fix in hotel rooms, on planes, or even just in disconnected LANs, this was bad news, and the auction house was even worse. It was like being told we needed to be punched in the gut so it would be easier to slap us in the face.
During a recent question and answer thread on reddit, the team at Runic Games described some of their differences in opinion when it came to game design.
“While I think [Diablo 3 is] a tremendous accomplishment, there’s a couple things they did that really hurt my personal ability to keep playing. The auction house, even the regular one, detracts from my own loot gathering,” Erich Schaefar, co-founder of Runic Games wrote. “I hate seeing all the great stuff that’s so easy to purchase and is so much better than what I can find on my own.”
Diablo 3 also features a skill unlocking system that leads to character progression that is the same for every player. You get to be creative with which skills you equip during battle, but your character is just like every other character of that class in the game, save for your loot. “I really have no clue where this idea that what AARPGS need is fewer customization choices came from. I want to make a character that succeeds or fails based on my decisions. And after that I want to make another and then another that are totally different,” Schaefer explained. “I guess there a lot of people that don’t want to carve their own way through these games, but for me it’s critical.”
You get to build your character in Torchlight 2, and you must carefully weigh where you spend your skill points. You unlock different active and passive abilities as you level up, but you won’t be able to put points in everything. I spent a significant amount of time building my Berserker to deal well in solo situations; my points have gone towards skills that continually heal my character so I can wade into mobs and lay them to waste. The game allows you to re-spec your last three points spent for a set amount of gold, but that’s it; you’re locked into your decisions prior to the last three points. Your character is yours, and if I wanted to play a character that is aimed at co-op play, which the game offers with up to six players total, I’d have to roll an alt. This is something I’m looking forward to doing anyway.
“My favorite characters from the Diablo universe are every character I created and developed, and chose skills for, and equipped, and kicked Diablo’s ass with,” Schaefer said. “I have no love for the NPCs other than Cain. And the cocktail midget.” I actually very much enjoyed the character progression system in Diablo 3, but I had no idea how much I missed building up my own character until I jumped into the full version of Torchlight 2. It’s fun to have long conversations with your friends about decisions you made as you level up, and to compare loot and abilities. Loot which you can’t buy, by the way. You have to earn everything in the game.
The game is yours
It’s easy to feel like you’re trespassing on Blizzard’s playground when your Internet connection hits a burp and dumps you out of your game, or that you’re being allowed to play as long as you respect their long list of rules and regulations. That sort of control can take the fun out of the game, especially when Torchlight 2 seems designed to allow you to enjoy the game how you would like. The game is open for modifications, so you’re invited to jump in and start playing around. There’s nothing stopping you from playing with 15 of your friends and giving yourself god-like powers, or creating your own levels and dungeons. The core game is already fun, but I can’t wait to see what the community creates in the coming months.
My friends and I also organized small LAN parties on a semi-regular basis, and Torchlight 2’s support for offline LAN play makes doing so much easier. It’s an inclusion that should be a no-brainer, but is becoming rare in modern PC games. To play with your friends in Diablo 3 everyone MUST be online, and you MUST use their servers, and you MUST kiss the ring before you’re allowed to play. It’s the difference between your mean aunt not letting you sit at the adult’s table and the indulgent uncle who smokes his pipe and pretends not to notice as you play dress up in his clothes.
I could go on and on, but I don’t want to spoil any of the game for you. There are the bosses of Torchlight 2, and they are lumbering horrors who are fun to take down and present more variety than what we saw in Diablo 3. The lighthearted side quests, and the ability to level and customize your pet all add character to the game. My pet is a wolf named Arya, by the way.
There’s also the small issue of price: Torchlight 2 is $20, and there is nothing about it that feels like a budget project. $60 gets you four copies of the game, along with Torchlight 1.
The quick keys are easy to learn, and the game knows how to get out of its own way in the user interface; you spend more time hacking at monsters than you do organizing your inventory, and our pet is always available to sell or buy spells and items. While Diablo 3 often felt heavy and ponderous, Torchlight 2 feels like a fun adventure. Where Diablo 3 felt like game design wrapped around monetization strategies, Torchlight 2 feels like the work of a team drunk on the fun of creation. There are so many little details and fun asides that are easy to miss, but add to the joy of the game.
There is also no invasive DRM. “I don’t think anti-piracy measures work super well in general. Being nice and transparent about what we do, and charging a reasonable price, seems like the most effective way to convince people to buy our stuff,” Runic’s Travis Baldree said via reddit. “That, and a demo. I mean, we have DRM. But it’s not super-draconian. It’s mostly there to allow a mechanism to continue playing after you unlock the demo, which is the same download. It will, of course, be cracked within minutes. It probably already HAS been cracked!”
Blizzard created a game that feels like it should be hung in a museum, along with a guard who will shush you if you speak loudly or eject you from the premises if you try to touch it. Torchlight 2 is a Bob Ross painting complete with happy little trees, with a creator who smiles and invites you to pick up a brush.