Written by: Stoo

Date posted: November 5, 2011

Surrounded by dragon-things, my elemental not making himself entirely useful.

This year hasn’t been a great one for productivity on my part. I’m not looking forward to Rik’s yearly review where in an embarassed manner he reminds us all that over a period of months all I wrote about was a half-assed CSI tie-in. Still, at least I’ve managed to work on the RPG section a bit. Which is good as it was always meant to by my area of expertise. Haha, “expertise”. But anyway I’ve covered a couple of the greats – story-driven masterpiece Planescape Torment and German Elder-Scrolls challenger Gothic 2. Here’s another and, well, it’s not great. But it’s not terrible. I’m making a lot of ehh noises and shrugging in a noncomittal manner. Read on and see why.

So then Titan Quest is an RPG of the action oriented sort. It’s very heavily inspired by Blizzard’s Diablo 2, to say the least. You have the same gameplay, a frenzy of mouse clicks as you dash around waving swords or firing off spells. There’s also a similar, if more detailed, tree-based system of building up your character’s abilities. In fact this looks liked a clear attempt to grab Diablo 2 fans at a time when that one was, while still popular, already six years old and looking rather long in the tooth.

The setting is an ancient mythology theme, with you starting off in ancient Greece., then moving to Egypt and the orient. It looks like malevolent entities called Telkines are on a mission to separate humanity from the gods. They’ve also managed to summon a Titan, one of the ancient enemies of the Greek pantheon. Your designated role as hero, is of course to put an end to this malarkey. To reach the Telkines you’ll have to fight your way through their monstrous armies, tackling the likes of satyrs, gorgons and harpies.

First up, the graphics still look quite acceptable. Certainly it’s a upgrade on the blurry sprites of Diablo. Greece is green and pleasant (well apart from the satyrs trying to murder you), with fields, olive groves and blue waters lapping at sandy beaches. Deserts later on look suitably parched, and the mountain passes crisp and cold. Although it felt a bit odd that my huge firey minion didn’t even leave footprints in the snow. You can zoom in for a more dramatic view of the action, or to appreciate details like lush knee-high vegetation, although as usual that makes it rather hard to tell what’s going on.

As for your character, the only choice you make at the start is dude or girl. As you kill stuff you gain experience points, usual style. With your first level-up you can stick some point in basic stats (strength for better hitting stuff etc), but also choose your first talent tree. There are eight in total, four based around physical combat and four on various kinds of magic.

Ambush in the fields of ancient Greece.

Within each, you can choose to spend a point on unlocking a new abilities like a special attack or a spell. Within Storm magic for example the selection includes rapid fire ice shards, a slow-recharging but devastating lightning bolt, a stun attack for giving yourself a chance to get away and a storm-cloud thing that does some damage and debuffs (that’s nerd-speak for reducing the capabilities of enemies within). Other talents are passive boosts, like +10% to any sort of lightning damage.

Instead of getting something new you can spend a point upgrading an existing talent for greater effectiveness. Also though you can spend on Mastery Rating. Rather than boost any particular ability this gives an overall increase to your stats, and also as it rises makes new tiers of abilities available. So spending on this is basically a long-term investment.

Oh, but there’s more. At level eight, you can start on a whole new talent tree. Now, I kept it simple and went for two flavours of magic, Storm and Earth. Since Storm provides plenty of offensive capability, the latter I picked primarily for the “pet”. That’s a big earth elemental that follows you around, gets enemy’s attention and takes the subsequent beating instead of yourself while you shoot them full of spells. However you’re quite free to mix physical and magic, if you for example like the idea of a tank-like defense-based warrior dabbling in nature magic.

Elemental being more helpful and distracting baddies away from me.

Not all combos seem to be equally effective – it pays to look for ways they might complement each other. For example, Earth’s pet makes up for the relative lack of defense of a Storm mage. Or of you’re already doing damage of the piercing type, does another talent have any useful bonuses to that? So character building is the bit of this game where you have to engage your grey matter – pouring over your available skills and spending points for best effectiveness. If your build sucks, you can alter it to some extent, although point spent on Mastery rating are stuck there. (But again, building it up is a good idea anyway).

Once your charge out into battle tho it’s a all pretty simple and repetitive. Encounter a group of monsters, fire off a collection of attacks, collect loot. Repeat several times over a patch of forest. Click your way through ancient Greece hammering the same few buttons over and over as yet more clumps of monsters stand before you. I was mostly either mindlessly mowing stuff down, or doing hit-and-run when facing a particularly big group or hard-hitting types. Certainly not much variety or tactical thought. The bosses do take a little more fathoming out, with their various nasty tricks, but the final one just dragged on with me running in circles chipping health away. Oh and harder difficulty modes might be more challenging but you have to finish normal to have access. And I’m not playing this game twice before I review it.

Also there’s very little in the way of story behind the action, and no attempt made to develop any characters. Towns are just pitstops for buying and selling loot and being told “oh yeah the baddies came this way”. Oh, and for being given quests of the most cursory “my brother was killed by tiger-men, please avenge him!” sort, from a faceless character you don’t care about. (and you’d probably kill those tiger-men along the way anyway). Okay, I get it, this is a hack and slash RPG and most hardcore fans are more interested in fathoming out the perfect talent build than a moving tale of a sibling’s desire for revenge. Still it could try a bit harder to engage with you in some aspect other than just click-to-kill. Even a bit of supericial storytelling would be appreciated. Diablo 2 at least managed some slightly memorable characters. All the fans know Deckard Cain.

too bored by this point to think of an enthusiastic caption

So then. There is an addictive quality to this sort of game, telling yourself to play a bit more in order to level up or finish another area. So to be clear, Titan Quest does covers all the core gameplay aspects quite competently. I certainly enjoyed blasting a swathe of lightning through hulking great crocodile warriors.

Still after a few hour’s play I’d start finding it rather stale, just mindlessly clicking my way forward, and would start wishing for a convenient place to quit and save. It’s the sort of experience that in large doses feels empty, and had me thinking just about anything must be more constructive. Like doing my ironing. Or even just playing another game! Such sessions stretched on over many evenings, and I appreciate RPGs are usually lengthy timesinks but here it was just dragging by the end. If I wasn’t playing to writeup here I’d have probably shelved it for a month until feeling refreshed enough to resume.

I’m pushed to think about Diablo 2 – if this is a copycat then my criticisms must apply to that too, right? Yet D2 was hugely popular, and I played it plenty myself back in the day. So would I hand a “yeahh it’s alright out of ten” to that one too? Maybe i just have less patience nowadays for this action-rpg formula? I just can’t enjoy six hour marathons then restart with a new character, the way I used to. Not when I have an ever-growing backlog of oldies I grabbed cheap online.

So I hummed and ahhed over scoring this one a bit. It’s an unambitious follower of a formula that might not have as much mileage as nostalgia tells us. But, despite my misgivings, if you want to kill monsters for a couple hours after work, it does fine. BOOM, lightning, and the tiger-men fall before your mighty hero. Lots of hack, slash and looting. Just don’t expect a lot more.