Pre-E3 06: Titan Quest hands-on

One of the secrets to making a great game is to keep things simple. After all, the action RPG Diablo, which arguably grandfathered the whole modern action RPG genre, was almost comically uncomplicated. The player pointed their computer's mouse in the direction he or she wanted the in-game character to go, then clicked on any creepy-crawlies that popped up and collected whatever goodies splurted from their lacerated corpses when they died. It was easy to pick up and impossible to put down.

Titan Quest may be wrapping its considerable Diablo influences in a toga and sandals, but it clearly shares the same mantra of simplicity. When you start the game, there is no overly complex tutorial or insane training mode. You just start playing, exploring beautiful countrysides and chopping big holes in evil critters. After the first level, you are given a choice of skills from which to choose. It is here that the game's depth starts to become apparent.

Titan Quest looks to offer a lot of mouse-clicky, hack-and-slash fun, but it is the flexibility of the character system that pulls it to the forefront. The game has no character classes. Instead, there are just skills that you learn, and the skills you've chosen dictate what you're good at (and in turn, what role you should play if you brave the multiplayer waters, where up to six players can play co-op).

There are eight types of skill in all, and you select first one, and later a second discipline to make your specialty. The key is that you choose it all yourself. If you want to start out learning Earth skills, which give you access to fire magic and enable you to summon an earth elemental, but then add Warfare skills, which are all about physical offensive attacks, you can. You'll end up with a character that is uniquely yours.

You may have trouble deciding which two skill sets to cultivate, though. In addition to Earth and Warfare, there's the lightning and cold magic-focused Storm, as well as Spirit, which enables you to steal life or summon a lich. Hunting skills are based mostly around speedy, ranged attacks with bow and spear, and Defense gives you better chances of deflecting or shielding off enemy attacks, or disabling enemies entirely. The final two skill sets are the poison-loving, assassin-y Rogue, and Nature, with which you can cast healing spells and summon forest creatures to guard you. There are also modifiers to the individual skills. For example, one player might have a fireball, but another might choose a blast with a shorter range, but that explodes into a mess of firey splash damage.

In-game monsters are just as varied, with the designers promising more than 100 unique beasties to battle, many with multiple variations. Combat is the typical point-and-click variety, however realistic physics apply - in other words, don't be surprised when defeated creatures go flying. It is even possible to kill an opponent by knocking it off a cliff, though doing so typically means that you forfeit any chance at loot as whatever the creature is carrying goes over the cliff with it.

Another very welcome bit of realism is that enemies will drop the actual gear that they are using. Thus, if you're fighting an enemy with a crazy-cool fire sword, chances are good it'll drop that exact sword when you kill it. It's much more rewarding than the typical situation, in which mutant flamingos belch forth chain mail and some ogre king whose battle axe shoots lightning while you're fighting him drops only a rusty letter opener once you've chopped his head off.

Perhaps best of all, though the world of Titan Quest is vast, the game is going to ship with the same editor used by the dev team to create the game. Iron Lore is hoping that some players will use the tools to create everything from simple levels to full-on quest modules, complete with original voice acting. It's everything a budding level designer needs.

This time of year, we hear a lot of hype surrounding new games, but Titan Quest looks to have some substance behind its flash. Sure it's pretty and shiny, but with a solid gameplay pedigree it should provide hours of entertainment when it hits stores this June. And its ease-of-use features should make it, as the developer hopes, perfect for players who loved The Sims, but didn't quite make it to more hardcore fare.

May 11, 2006