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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Titan Quest

Sisyphus or Dionysus?

Ah, Ancient Greek; shorthand for cleverness since 443 BC. If you want some more credibility for your discourse, whatever that may be, it's worth booting it in the direction of the Classics. Compare something profound with the Iliad, or be humorous about Hippocrates. If the click 'n' slash genre needs something to replace orcs and hobgoblins, what better option is there than a few Satyrs and the odd Cyclops?

I shouldn't really sound so cynical, because in this case the All Greek option works splendidly. The top-down, mouse button taxing RPG (a bit like the one Blizzard made in 1996) is well realised in its ancient mythological setting, and the believably craggy Hellenic backdrops are expertly furnished with swaying flora and suitably hostile fauna. It's semi-3D, isometric with a touch of camera zoom. The monsters are splendidly numerous and the embattled Greek encampments and cities are exquisitely drawn with that artful, painterly look that these games are so routinely capable of. For all the complaints that will arise about our familiarity with Titan Quest's linear RPG 'kill the wizard, bash the giant' formula, it's expertly presented and continually engaging. A Hollywood scriptwriter has apparently rubbed his golden brains all over Titan Quest's many words, which might account for the slightly-better-than average (although unremarkable) quest gibberish and resulting NPC chatter.

Anyway, presentation issues aside, the fighting is a fun time. Running into a campsite of beasts and butchering them all with an axe feels remarkably solid, even if the traditional 'right-click for health potion' remains typically unconvincing. Solo you're capable of taking on hordes of bad guys, and the valiant struggle against a dozen Ray Harryhausen skeletons or a grumpy gorgon is a stupendous time sink.

Killing beasts, killing beasts, killing beasts.

So yes, it's one of those games: you kill monsters, they drop stuff and you gain experience points (a term which we gamers cleverly contract to 'XP'). After a while you either get bored of dying too regularly, or it becomes completely compulsive. Get enough XP and you level up, allowing you to kill tougher monsters, and so on, and so on. If unlocking spectacularly snazzy pairs of leg-wraps appeals to some withered part of your gaming cortex then Titan Quest will delight.

This consumerist loot-hoover makes me think that the inventory could really be a bit bigger, especially when the action is so relentless and the enemies so ripe with bronze daggers. Relentless is the right word for it too, because it's a bit like game and soon film-farce Dungeon Siege, with a near-seamless world scrolling forever beneath your clicks. You seldom find a clean break to decide to go and make that sandwich, because you always amble smoothly into the next batch of death-mongering. Clever streaming technologies make it all blend together in one boundless belt of baddies, which is just how these things should be in 2006. (Although this information-handling trickery does seem to create some performance wobbles, as my PC had a stuttering tantrum every time I ventured into the numerous subterranean side zones - I heard similar grumbles from Eurogamer allies.)

But that's mere frame-rate quibbling - what is rather more important is how character development is delivered. Titan Quest takes an esoteric, if not unique, view of how to accomplish this. A rather Spartan introduction (no, really) leaves you with basic hero-in-tunic, and it's only as the game unfolds that you begin to work out how your character is going to evolve. As you level up you earn points to spend on the traditional strength/agility stats, and then you have secondary sets of skill trees which open up magic and combat powers. These allow for a kind of multi-classing system, since you don't have to concentrate on a particular tree. Of course you can specialise and spend more to open up higher-level powers, but you can also spread the wealth and allow yourself a rather more versatile toolset to play with. This is a fun kind of flexibility that only adds to the addictive potential of Titan Quest. "Just one more skill tree option?" Clickclickclick. "One more level..." Clickclickclick.

There's no donkey, which is a bit of a shame. Donkeys make adventuring more convenient.

Multiplayer facilities allow you to transfer characters across from single-player worlds, so you're able to break out of the realm of monster-mincing loneliness and scour the Greek lands with up to five other heroic chums. According to developers Iron Lore it is expecting lots of mods and player made maps, and it has tried to go some way to catering for that, making the additions easy to install and manage. Whether this will actually happen will depend on just how many people buy into this next-gen of the last-gen RPG, but since it's being touted as the spiritual (and mechanical) successor to a certain aged Blizzard RPG, the necessary over-popularity seems fairly plausible.

All of which versatility means there's plenty of scope for going back and playing through the campaign again. It's not exactly soul-stirring in its profundity, but the epic backdrop of re-imprisoning escaped Titans makes for endless heroics. The world is a beautiful one, and its giant spiders are exquisitely animated. Time is lost to Titan Quest, like cash is 'lost' from the wallet of a drunk.

And there's hours and hours of it too. If you complete Titan Quest without clocking more than forty hours of play then you are some kind of Herculean man-god with powers of patience and persistence beyond that of mortal gamers. I turned to stone after about ten hours, but I am well aware that other gamers have greater stamina.

Titanic conclusion? RPGs of this ilk have long been without a champion. Sadly they're also a bit crumbly and old hat these days, which makes Titan Quest less inspiring than it might have been a few years ago. Although pleasingly wrapped in all the right legends, there's nothing here that fully chains us to the PC. It's too repetitious, too derivative and too fiddly to exult, especially when there's so much more artful PC RPG fodder that I haven't yet defeated. Oblivion, my love, I'll be home soon.

7 / 10

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