Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Torchlight. Oh, my.

I’m hoping that December is my “YESvember” follow up to my dismal “NOvember”. I’ve been traveling and playing games, but just haven’t had the gumption to do much writing.

Let’s jump right in to Torchlight. There’s lots to love about this game. First and foremost, it required me to return to the PC for some non-casual and non-social gaming. I’m trying to remember the last FPS, RTS, or RPG I played on the PC – and it might have been Portal (trying to check out community generated content) or even Rise of Legends (a game I worked on that shipped several years ago).

Don’t get me wrong: I still purchase and play games on my PC – they just tend to be casual games.

Anyhow, Torchlight loves:

  • Shareable loot. I got tired of my demo character and wanted to try a new one. I dropped off all of my loot at one of the shareable loot locations and it was there for my new character to grab. Nice way to accelerate my replay through the first few hours of game play. Kudos! This is soooo much more graceful than the cheesy way I accomplished the same thing in the days of Wizardry (create lots of characters, join them to your party, strip the characters, delete them, then start off with a rich and well equipped party).
  • Pet that “sells all junk”. I love the “sell all junk” feature that’s making it into RPGs. But this still requires a painful return to a merchant. Not so with Torchlight. Just send your pet away for a couple of minutes and you’re done. Sweet. Not as dismissive (or gleefully silly) as the Bard’s Tale system where looted items just magically morphed into coins, but effective and in support of a great user experience.
  • Camera lock. The designers specifically said: We don’t want you to have to worry about the camera. We’ll design levels (and provide items-display-behind-walls tech) to ensure that you never need to care about rotating or panning or zooming the camera. Hurray.
  • The initial pacing and balance on Normal difficulty was perfect for me (an experienced gamer who has played most of this game’s spiritual ancestors). Varied enemies, cool loot (and great loot rate), and my character felt powerful right out of the gate. There was no poking rats with a stick for 2 hours before I got my first cool move.

Some mostly minor annoyances of course appeared:

  • Swapping rings was tedious and confusing. You have new ring “A”. You have rings “B” and “C” equipped. You want to replace “C” with “A”. However, you can’t visually distinguish “B” from “C” at a glance – and you don’t get mouse-over comparison text when you have “A” selected and move the pointer over “B” and “C”. So it’s a 3-step process to swap a ring.
  • It’s great that you don’t need to micromanage the pet. However, it took quite a while for me to discover that you could equip the pet with gear and spells.
  • Pet as hybrid “mule” and NPC didn’t work as well as I would have liked. I wish that pets could have had a “junk” sack and a “use me” sack. Stuff in the “junk” sack would get sold back in town. Stuff in the “use me” sack would be used by the pet when needed (scrolls, potions, etc). It made me sad that my pet couldn’t use items.
  • I was also sad when I realized that I didn’t always notice when my pet had picked up some loot. I mostly assumed that stuff in the pet’s inventory had been placed there by me as “junk”. This meant that I inadvertently sold off as junk some items that were not junk because I never realized that I had received them in the first place.
  • Although the initial Fighter/Mage/Thief choice was easy to make, I had a tough time parsing upgrade paths. Specifically, class specializations didn’t seem all that coherent or compelling to me. I mostly just purchased abilities that looked cool. I would have preferred more concretely laid out class specializations that were well differentiated and compelling. In other words, there would be 9 class archetypes (3 classes x 3 subclasses) that evolved quite differently and had easily recognizable end game build outs (e.g., “this is the hefty, shooty guy who uses grenade launchers” vs.. “this is the agile, shooty guy who uses silenced pistols”).
  • As always, I found it hard to parse the spreadsheets when it came to upgrading attributes and abilities. Stats were either so precise and verbose that they became confusing (which is better: Weapon A that does 27-35 dps and has “fastest” weapon speed; or Weapon B that does 27-35 dps and has “slowest” weapon speed) or so vaguely worded that I couldn’t tell if the benefits were worthwhile.
  • Spending attribute points felt especially like throwing coins into a wishing well. Yes, there was help text that explained generally what attributes did. However, there was no clear relationship between spending points and whether or not the associated stat modifier increased or stayed the same. I had no way of knowing whether the lack of increase in associated stats meant I was throwing attribute points away, whether I was just one point shy of getting some other bonus (that I wouldn’t figure out until I leveled again and received more points to spend) or whether those points would help in other ways.
  • Merchant UIs were frustrating. There was no good way to tell which items I wanted/didn’t want at a glance, mouse over text was cluttered and made it hard to select items of interest, and there were no sort or filter options. It was clear to me that there was a carefully developed multi-variate color coding system in place to denote item strength, rarity, and equipability… But I could never figure it out.
  • Oh yeah, one more thing about pets. I totally screwed up twice when trying to teach my pet a spell. This resulted in me “burning” the expensive scroll because it bound to my character instead of my pet.

Over time (a few days) I slowed down my Torchlight playing in favor of Dragon Age Origins (Xbox version, more on that in a subsequent post). This wasn’t for any real usability or playability reason. It was more because now I tend to associated “click-fest” games with casual games. And I tend to want my casual games to be social games. And without the social – then I need other trappings to keep the game interesting. Like story, puzzle elements, platform challenges, etc.

All-in-all it was $19.99 well spent. I enjoyed it and will I’m sure play some more. I also want to investigate the editor some more – even though I’m rather fearful after my first experience with it. My technical ability (or lack thereof) requires more of a Never Winter Nights toolset and approach where first time users can get a playable level together in a few hours. But, we’ll see. There seem to be some decent developer and community resources out there.

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