Titan Quest Review
Pentium M 2GHz CPU
2GB DDR2 RAM
GF Go 7800 GTX Video
Every six months to a year or so, some game is released that no one's heard of yet winds up being much better than anyone might have thought. From Far Cry to Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, from Mercenaries to No One Lives Forever, it's always a pleasant surprise jumping into a game that's instantly addictive, engaging throughout, and holds up over time. Titan Quest from THQ and Iron Lore might not wind up in the same league as these games, but it's still a great game that few people saw coming.
If you read the box for Titan Quest, you'll learn that it's the brainchild of Age of Empires co-creator Brian Sullivan and his new development team Iron Lore. They've set out to create an action-RPG title in the vein of Diablo II but with more, more, more. With amazing full-3D graphics, lush environments, ragdoll physics, and sharp animations, they've definitely got the visuals down - but does it have that intangible addictive quality that makes all of Blizzard's games so fun to play over and over?
The one-sentence description of Titan Quest goes a little like this: "real" Greek Mythology meets Diablo II (although the game branches out into Egyptian and Asian mythology as well). Sure, the graphics are way beyond Blizzard's classic action-heavy RPG title, but many of the simple, addictive elements that made D2 so infectiously brilliant have been reproduced here. From the portal system, to the three difficulty levels, to the ALT-key holding to see the dropped items, to the different types of loot to be had, you'll see a lot of similarities. But to start, it seems pretty unique: character creation requires you to make only one real choice: male or female. After a couple of easy quests where you simply have to beat on some low-level demons, you'll achieve level 2 and will get to choose one of eight masteries. This is like your character class, but you will also get to pick another mastery at level 8. Your choices are: Warfare, Defense, Nature magic, Earth magic, Storm magic, Hunting, Rogue, and Spirit magic. You'll find that some combinations of masteries will be more difficult to get working effectively, especially if the stat requirements for the two you pick conflict with each other.
Progression in Titan Quest involves lots of clicking to kill monsters. Sure, you can put any attacks you want on either mouse button or on your number keys, but too much finesse early on is wasted: just keep smashing things to have the most fun. Later on you'll have to mix up certain spells or abilities to really do some damage, but in this respect Titan Quest is very accessible early on. And monsters always drop whatever items they're carrying - if a Satyr has some beat up, old axe, then when he dies he will drop it for you to pick up. You might not want it, though, because many items are of a "broken" quality which makes them worth almost nothing at the store, but it's also really cool to see an enemy using a really nice weapon and knowing that when you kill him, that weapon's yours for sure.
When it comes to spells and abilities, Iron Lore has taken some liberties with the Diablo / World of Warcraft formula of a skill or talent tree. Sure, you've still got a tree of different skills you pick from, where some work as prerequisites for others, but you'll get many more skill points in this game. And you'll also have to "unlock" new tiers in your masteries by dumping points in to a separate bar to get to the next level. The points you put in to unlock these new skills don't feel wasted like you might think, though, because they give you bonuses to your stats as well. And you'll also be able to directly increase your five main stats - Health, Energy (just like mana in other games), Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence - as you level up, but you can increase them through your skill tree as well.
The ability to choose a second mastery creates the opportunity for thousands of unique character builds in Titan Quest, and you can even buy back points you've spent in skills that you can't stand. The cost gets massively expensive if you keep doing it, but at least you can fix minor mistakes without blowing too much gold.
From a technical standpoint, TQ is both wonderful and frustrating at the same time. The full-3D engine is pretty demanding and requires a very powerful system to run at full detail and high resolution, and going down from High detail to Medium sadly takes away a whole lot of the game's visual splendor. But if you can run it on high, you'll see some great shader effects for spells and other battle elements. One of the best things in this game is doing a massive fight in a field with several players and pets versus a dozen monsters, where the grasses sway realistically as you keep fighting and blowing up enemies. Combine this with some hilarious over-the-top ragdoll physics, and explosions just become that much more fun. There is also no loading-time transitions from one area to another, and going indoors causes a cool transparency effect where you can see your chracter through the roof of whatever you're going into until you totally transition indoors. Of course, there is a somewhat-rare crash bug related to these transitions which can sometimes kill off the coolness of that effect.
High detail is tough to achieve on a mid-range computer in many cases, as there aren't too many tweaking options overall here to fine tweak detail versus performance. Then there are the bugs. Titan Quest shipped to stores with a bug that can corrupt your character's save file, and while this bug's not terribly common, it's unacceptable. I've found solutions on a couple of forums that can fix the corruption, but you can't expect gamers to figure this out. A patch is confirmed to be on the way which will fix the save game corruption, but this is the kind of bug that either needed to be fixed before release, either in a super-early patch or just out of the box.
The sounds in Titan Quest are very satisfying, and most of the sound effects are all new; I haven't heard any that are obviously borrowed from "stock" effects libraries. The music will come and go, helping to immerse the player into the game's atmosphere a little bit more. Major boss battles will bring up some appropriate music, but even then it's overall little more than functional. There are plenty of NPCs you'll be able to talk to as well, many of whom aren't vital to the story. This voice acting ranges from decent all the way down to abysmal, but it's more of the former than the latter in my opinion. Still, the hours of dialog included can be completely skipped if you want with hardly any impact on the game's fun.
One of the draws of some past RPGs was a randomization system that changed the layout of areas you entered every time you played. That's not the case with Titan Quest, though, as these are not randomized like we saw in the Diablo series. This winds up being both good and bad; if you're going to play this game for months and months then it's bad, because you'll have memorized much of the game's layout after a couple of plays through. But if you're not in it for the long haul, then it's good because the developers were able to create environments that are much more lush and "believable" in the context of the world. For example, if you come across a gang of Satyrs, then you're likely to also find a camp nearby where they would actually live. With a fully 3D game engine, Detailed rock formations and higher or lower terrain also give some true "depth" to the world in a way that Blizzard games previously couldn't.
Much like Diablo players might expect, Titan Quest has a ton of different types of loot. Gear comes in a base style, which is also modified by what it's made of (a Copper Shortsword is not as good as an Iron Shortsword, despite being the same basic item). Then there are many different magical effects that some items come with, sometimes mixed and matched - these are known as suffixes or prefixes in the Diablo world - as well as uniquely named items with custom-made special abilities. There are thousands upon thousands of different types of items in all, and your character's got plenty of spots for armor and jewelry, as well as two switchable slots for weapon combinations. And you'll be able to hold down a key to see the names of all items you've dropped, and even hold down one of two other keys to filter better- or lower-quality items as well. I want to mention, though, that in online games anyone can pick up any item that drops, so if you're having problems with people ninja-looting your good stuff, then you'll have to either join a different game or just get faster at clicking.
You'll start off fighting low-level demons in Titan Quest, but it's not long before you're taking on classic mythological creatures. Many implementations of these creatures, like Harpies and Cerberi have been cherry picked by other fantasy games over the years, but this game puts together something of a more cohesive environment by sticking pretty close to the whole Greek mythology thing. To name some of the creatures you'll just start off with, there are Satyrs, Centaurs, Cyclopes, Gorgons, Harpies, many forms of undead, crows, boars, cave-dwelling little creatures, insectoids, and that's just in the first act. Eventually you'll be taking on larger bosses and on to the Titans themselves throughout Greece, Egypt, and finally the Far East.
But let's ask the question again: does Titan Quest have that infectious quality that made Diablo so indescribably addictive? Some will disagree with me, but I'd say that it most certainly does. Higher difficulty modes are very tough, and the bosses will require you to consider your equipment, skill and masteries builds, and will keep people coming back. The flaw in this is that unless Iron Lore makes some massive changes to how internet play works, that won't last long at all.
In Titan Quest, you can go it alone or join a LAN or internet game with support for up to six players. Now, it was the battle.net play that really made Diablo II incredible, as you could get into random games with other players and just keep playing, trading for better items, and improving your characters all online. Now I don't know if it's whether Iron Lore & THQ weren't sure about how successful this game would be, but multiplayer seems so far to be little more than an afterthought. Sure, the number of character choices make it so that six players fighting together is going to be really exciting, but from an infrastructure point of view it's not nearly as promising.
Titan Quest also has another fatal issue with its multiplayer setup: internet games are only hosted by other players and are joined via an online interface that simply doesn't really promote long-term online play. And the worst part is that character data is stored on the client's computer rather than on a central server, which opens the game up pretty largely to things like hacks, duped items, and other game-ruining shenanigans that many players who simply can't stop themselves will fall into. I'm really hoping that maybe with brisk sales of Titan Quest that THQ might put together a more secure, solid interface for the game, but I'm not going to hold my breath on that one.
PvP is always a good way to increase the life of an online RPG, and for some reason Iron Lore decided to basically hide PvP combat completely in Titan Quest. To enable it, you've got to edit your game shortcut and add "/pvp" to the Target line - then you can start joining games with PvP enabled. But from what I can tell, the game is so horribly out of balance when pitting players against each other (plus, it won't be long before some very major cheats start affecting Titan Quest's very insecure multiplayer mode) that it hardly seems worth bothering at all. In fact, online modes are actually pretty barebones overall; while Titan Quest mimics many games of the genre with three difficulties made for increasing player levels, the lack of an official PvP mode or any kind of "hardcore" mode reduces the replay value of this game down to weeks when it otherwise could've been months or even years.
What does help to redeem the game's failings in multiplayer is the inclusion of a full set of tools for creating your own levels and quests; a really ambitious modder could theoretically recreate the whole game with new maps and even some original ideas for monster placement, but time will tell if the community really picks this one up. I've seen many games with great modding tools and plenty of players on launch, yet no one really bothered with making any mods at all. It seems like a good possible bonus, but I wouldn't buy this game on the possibility of mods alone.
Due to some critical flaws in the multiplayer mode, Titan Quest winds up being a blast for you and your trusted friends for at least a couple weeks if not more, but it just won't go any further than that without Iron Lore doing some serious work on the online play. The graphics are amazing, the story's pretty damn good, and the action's satisfying - these are all hallmarks of a great clicky-click action/RPG - but this one just lacks some vital components that could have made it a true Diablo II killer. I'm still impressed and very surprised at Iron Lore's success with their first shipped game, however, and I'll definitely be looking forward to their next game.