Torchlight 2 Preview: The Devil's Work

As Diablo enthrals, another dungeon crawler waits in the shadows.

This is ridiculous. I must've pressed the wrong button somewhere, selected the wrong option, because every time I step into the Torchlight 2 beta my experience is less akin to a game and more like an orgy of destruction, spiralling further and further out of my control until everything becomes a bloody mist of damage numbers and body parts. I feel like Caligula with a carving knife. I hope that's not my own voice I sometimes hear cackling.

The numbers just keep getting larger. All the stats increase, the body counts rise, the monsters enlarge, the percentages double and the sheer magnitude of the powers at my fingertips is only matched by the volume of the things I have to fight. And it never ends. And I never want it to, either, until I glance at the clock and, once again, see how many more hours of my life I've lost. Playing Torchlight 2 is like being drip-fed a powerful, soothing and hypnotic drug in ever-greater quantities.

That's not to say it's bad. Not at all. The game does one thing and it does that one thing very well indeed - that thing being hurling stuff at you to slaughter, carefully metering this carnage with rewards of commensurate size. Every other monster is a self-propelled piņata just waiting to gift you gold, a shinier shield, a deadlier dagger or a slightly sleeker pair of pants. (Although saying that, right now one of my characters has the most astounding pair of mechanical pants that I can't ever imagine trading in. I try to show off my pants to other players in the beta, but they never seem to want to stick around).

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Ram a magic gem into your weapon and socket to 'em.

This isn't quite as constant or linear an experience as it was in the first Torchlight, since the sequel has many more hub-like areas that are ripe for the exploring, but the basic experience is nevertheless still something of a marriage between a treadmill and an abattoir, forever propelling you toward more slaughter. All the fun is in killing bigger things with bigger weapons, pausing occasionally to micromanage your inventory and make the most of whatever new things you've collected and, well, that's it. That's all.

Sure, you can claim there are different quests to complete and distinctive bosses to fight, but these are all handled in the same way. Everything boils down to fighting and looting. Similarly, you're only exploring those hub areas because you'll find more to steal and more to stab.

Actually, that's not quite true. Torchlight 2 is looking very pretty indeed and on more than a few occasions I wanted to stop simply to admire the scenery. The art style, cartoonish but not overly cute, is excellent, while a plethora of monsters and magical items compliment the detailed and often gorgeous environments. You name it, you can kill it, whether it's a skeleton or a goblin or a giant wolf, using weapons from shotguns to spittoons.

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Cuirasser and cuirasser, said Alice.

And everything feels enormously satisfying to fight against or to fight with. Legless, lifeless skeletal torsos crawl after you and swarms of poisonous spiders scuttle all too fast across cold stone floors. You hack and you thrust at your attackers, scattering your enemies with your powerful blows. Bigger weapons feel bigger, and shotguns and cannons thunder in your hands, sending the hordes reeling. The game makes you feel like a hero, like the ultimate authority in arse-kicking, and it's this satisfaction that keeps you entranced, draws you further and further into the game.

That, and the pride that comes with knowing you built your hero yourself, that every item of their precisely managed inventory was personally selected by you. That gun I just unloaded in that zombie's face? I chose that weapon, I dropped that gem into its hilt that makes it fire poisoned bullets. Here, you say to a friend, let me take you through all the awesome stuff I've collected...

There are a few tweaks under the hood, such as your strength stat now determining all the damage you inflict, even with ranged weapons. There's also a charge bar that measures your momentum, gradually filling up as you kill more and more stuff, and maxing out to give you a special bonus. As a melee character, I found this much easier to fill with any ranged or magic character I used, but perhaps that's just a reflection on how I played. There's also a much, much clearer map, which is a welcome addition indeed.

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In melee it can sometimes be difficult to see exactly what's happening.

Most of the game is immediately familiar to players of the first Torchlight, but unfortunately this means your pet still looks like something of an afterthought, much as it did in the original. The animal that tags along, be it bird or bulldog, is never particularly distinctive and is still most useful as a pack-horse, shunting supplies back and forth, saving you from having to haul your plunder home yourself every ten minutes.

I couldn't care about my pet getting hurt because I knew it would never die, and I didn't care about what it did in combat because I couldn't direct it well enough anyway. In fact, whenever it killed something for me, I ended up feeling a little bit cheated. I wasn't able to notice any difference between the different breeds I could select and eventually decided that, as long as they hauled my stuff home and didn't make my PC shed actual hair, that was all I could ever expect of them. I'm hoping something more is made of this before release.

More on Torchlight 2

Now, if I was a smarter writer, I'd have been able to compose this feature entirely from paragraphs that all repeated the same point, but with increasing emphasis and ever more elaborate language. It would be like a jazz improv building around a theme, gradually reaching a crescendo, cleverly echoing the repetition and growing intensity of the game. I'm not that writer, though, and I'd come off like a fool, so instead I'll just say this: It looks like Torchlight 2 really is going to be good at that one thing it does, at being a game where you just bash your way through armies of tougher and tougher monsters, over and over. Though, like jazz, it will probably remain an acquired taste.

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The environments are frequently gorgeous.

I can't avoid making reference to Diablo 3, since the two are so closely related in style and release date, but I only want to say one thing: Torchlight 2 doesn't feel like a budget Diablo 3. It may be priced at a third of Diablo 3's download, but it holds its own. While Diablo 3 remains grimy and grim, perhaps seeming more mature by being so, Torchlight 2 simply celebrates its colourful excess.

For example, just before sitting down to write this, I cut down an army of increasingly powerful undead creatures, all summoned by a giant glowing obelisk. The last of them defeated, the obelisk manifested surrender by suddenly regurgitating a stream of twenty different magic items, vomiting them into the air like a violently ill volcano. I didn't bat an eyelid, simply filled my pockets, patted my pet and turned the corner to find the next, undoubtedly bigger experience, cackling as I went.

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