Nothing sucks the air out of a brilliant game like its inevitable clone backdraft, and nowhere is that more evident than in the case of Blizzard’s Diablo. Nox, Restricted Area and Sacred pleasantly plagiarized in the past, while more recent games like Dungeon Siege and even the Champions of Norrath series gussy it up enough to almost feel like new experiences. Regardless of their success, though, they’ve all borne the weight of their demonic ancestor upon narrow shoulders.
And now, the techie torch has been passed to THQ and Iron Lore, who have dubbed it Titan Quest. While this latest mob farmfest heralds seamless multiplayer, interesting character-class blending and a world editor of epic proportions, its gameplay falls short of hitting the addictive hack-and-loot formula of its impressive forbear.
[image1]The first tweak is in its backdrop, which is equal parts classic fantasy and just plain classic. The Titans, having broken free from the bonds enforced upon them by Zeus and the gods, are now running amok, squishing god-fearing humans in a vengeful rage against their own immortal creations. In the process, they somehow release all sorts of mythological monsters, from satyrs to centaurs to giant spiders, who, luckily for us, are bursting at the seams with all sorts of loot to plunder. In these dark times, a hero rises to fix the gods and claim the goods by relentlessly pounding on a mouse button, and as fate would have it, that hero is you.
But all the gold in them thar hills can’t buy you much of a character creator. All you get is a choice of gender and tunic color. Sure, every one of Diablo II's necromancers looked the same, but that doesn't let Titan Quest off the hook. The last Diablo was released six years ago - at least let me give my female brown tunic warrior a tan.
Such pleas get silenced quickly, however, when you see how effectively Titan Quest handles its class and skill building. When you gain your first level and earn your first skill points, you'll predictably have the option to spend them in one of eight classes: warrior, defender, hunter, rogue, fire mage, frost mage, druid, and warlock.
What's interesting is the way points are allocated. Not only could you spend your skill points on gaining new skills or upgrading old ones, but you can also put points into a general "class mastery" skill, which jacks up your general attributes befitting that particular class, like strength, intellect, dexterity, etc. So if you're unsure how helpful it would be to have a really powerful wolf pet versus being a great healer, you can just put points into the general class mastery since more attributes are always welcome. Spending skill points this way also count toward learning the higher level skills in any class, giving it an extra payoff.
Things get even sexier at level 8, when you'll able to choose a second class to blend in with the first one. The prospect of being a druid/warlock - being able to heal and leech life while summoning a dire wolf, dryad, and lich familiar - is irresistible to all but the hardiest of geeks. Or you can blend a warrior with a fire mage and just nuke away without a worry. Or make a rogue/defender for some high damage, low risk farming. Or...well, you get the point.
[image2]But the quality of any dungeon crawl is also measured by its loot, which is where Titan Quest sadly gets bogged down. Practically every monster you kill pops outs a treat, a smidgen of heroin, kind of like swatting at mini-piñatas. The problem is that they hardly ever just drop gold, which you can stack in basically infinite quantities since it's just a number. Most of the loot you get comes in the form of common items like helmets, chest pieces, staves, etc. That might sound exciting, but after killing scores of monsters, all that loot gets to be really cumbersome. If you want to make a lot of cash - which you obviously do - you're forced to go into your grid-based inventory and shuffle the pieces around just to squeeze in another dagger, then portal back to town, sell all the stuff, portal back to the killing field, then squeeze in the rest of the loot for a second haul. It’s not a new problem for a dungeon crawl, but it’s still an annoying one.
The devs clearly knew this, going so far as to add three different loot filters. One only shows item drops that are uncommon and rarer, so you can travel as light as possible. Unfortunately, they removed the concept of magical loot identification. Rather than looting an unidentified item, excitedly schlepping it back to town and finding out it's a Gnarly Scarf of the Mankey, all of the drops are already identified, so you lose that sense of reward upon returning to town.
Since item hunting isn’t as fun as it should be, gamers can focus more on the story and quests. Each of the game’s giant land masses - Greece, Egypt, and Asia - are completely seamless. You travel from one town to the next through a bunch of monster-infested terrain, killing everything in sight without hitting a single load time. We doff our cap, though Dungeon Siege already did this. Once in town, you bug NPCs for quests. Whether main story or side quest, they all boil down to either "kill [Name of Enemy]" or "talk to [NPC], but you have to kill a load of unnamed enemies to get to him.” The variety is lacking, to say the least.
The hardcore types shouldn’t fret thanks to Titan Quest’s robust World Editor, though the ability to use it requires a nerd fluency so advanced, it borders on "new math." It's the same exact set of tools the designers used in making the single-player campaign, so it's no wonder it requires a 57 page .pdf tutorial to scratch the surface, which is thankfully included. It's as far from drag-and-drop WYSIWYG as you can get; unless you've used 3D Studio Max and programmed in any language (HTML does not count), expect to be overwhelmed. If you don't believe me, this is a picture of my desktop while playing with all the tools. Two monitors help, though a copy of Neverwinter Nights would help more.
[image3]Despite its wonkiness, this is all great for online file-sharing and multiplayer, which Titan Quest supports quite well. Up to six players can party up and quest out, old-school Diablo style. That means joining a game with your campaign character, hosting a game and waiting to ensnare hapless party mates with a Hungy Hungry Hippos loot system, since you can't set any loot rules other than what's available in single-player. Get ready to relive the Watts riots.
And get ready to go ghetto with the framerate. One of the tradeoff of no major load times is having a whole mess of tiny ones along the way. Encountering a large group of monsters, entering a cave, or experiencing daylight changes bog down the framerate even on the lowest graphical settings on relatively monstrous rigs. Pretty little particle effects, sand granules, and blades of grass cannot compensate for a smooth gameplay experience, and it's difficult to enjoy a simple game that chugs as much as Titan Quest does. On the plus side, it does an excellent job of surrounding you in its mythic, ancient atmosphere with groovy objects and coloration, a wide selection of accurately depicted mythical beasts, and NPCs speaking in Ancient tongues with music to match.
Come to think of it, “ancient” is a good way to describe this fun ripoff. For those special few who cannot get enough of the hack-and-click action RPG thing, Titan Quest will effectively scratch that itch. However, its lack of substantial innovation, problems with loot and technical hiccups keep it from conquering Olympus.