Torchlight 2 preview - Goodbye labyrinth, hello world

Runic Games’ freshman offering Torchlight was a fantastic action RPG--not surprising considering its development team included creators of the Diablo franchise, itself the genesis of the modern dungeon-crawler. But Torchlight was also a lonely experience, one that confined players to solo adventures through an ever-expanding labyrinth. Sure, there was plenty of loot to be gained by murdering legions of skeletons, demons, and teleporting vampire bats that shot electric bolts from their faces, but those monstrosities (and their hoards of loot) resided in the same-looking recesses of ruins long forgotten.

Torchlight II, however, vaults over its predecessor’s shortcomings by offering cooperative gameplay (supporting up to six players either online or via a LAN connection) and shedding monotone environments in favor of an expansive outdoor world and new, unexplored dungeons.

In terms of story, Torchlight was rather shallow; and now, its geared-up hero has been corrupted by an evil force and is rampaging around the world like some loot-fueled Godzilla. Your quest? To stop that jerk from ruining everyone’s day. The story is propelled by new animated cutscenes (produced by Klei Entertainment, the developer of Shank and Mark of the Ninja), and its simple motivation will have you travelling across a number of visually distinct environments. From expansive deserts populated by the ruins of ancient civilizations to foggy forests full of hidden dangers and poisonous plant creatures, there are tons of new areas to scope out (including, of course, new dungeons). The variety here is a much-needed change of pace from the first game.

Keeping with the theme of diversity, Torchlight II allows you to customize the appearance of your character, and each of the four playable classes has unique skill trees that allow for an array of playstyles. Upon creating our Embermage, for example, we invested lots of points into traditional magic abilities, such as fireballs and an ice storm skill perfect for AOE damage when dealing with large groups of enemies. But we also allocated points into melee-centric skills, opting to summon a giant hammer made out of magma to smash anything that got too close.

Likewise, the Outlander uses a variety of firearms and traps to take out baddies, the Berserker is an animalistic dual-wielder with super-swift attacks, and the Engineer swings giant, two-handed weapons while employing steampunk tech to enhance its Hulk-like strength. We had a blast dropping spider mines and summoning a healing bot to keep us up when huge skirmishes went down.

All of these classes also have a distinctly different Charge Bar that acts as a super meter of sorts. After using enough regular attacks, the meter fills and grants temporary special powers to your character. Playing a Berserker? Fill your Charge Bar and you’ll temporarily have 100 percent critical hit chance, dealing double damage to foes as you pummel them with lightning-fast attacks. Regardless of class, this bar turns you into a force to be reckoned with for a brief period of time--and if you and five friends activate these powers simultaneously, a screen full of enemies will quickly turn into a screen full of bodies. And loot. Lots of beautiful, shiny loot.

Torchlight II offers plenty of content to keep you busy--monsters to kill, side quests to complete, and random events to undertake. Explore a map and you’ll occasionally encounter an NPC that needs help fending off attackers or finding a magical item; assist them, and they’ll provide tangible rewards in the form of new equipment and gold. Because these events are completely randomized, you’ll encounter some that many others may never see.

All of these things provide experience points for further developing your character’s stats and abilities, which now provide tiered bonuses for every five points you invest in them. For instance, slotting a fourth point into the Outlander’s Rapid Fire skill provides a marginal damage increase—but drop a fifth point into the skill, and you get more damage and the first tier upgrade: an increase in the ability’s attack range. Three tiers exist for each skill, and choosing which to pump points into adds an extra layer of strategy to building the ultimate monster murderer.

The pet system has seen improvements, too. Before, your pet would assist in battle, as well as store and sell loot while you continued exploring dungeons. Now, you can equip your pet (of which there are eight adorable animals to choose from, including a Bulldog, Panther, and helmet-wearing Ferret) with stat-increasing collars and tags, as well as attack abilities. You can even use your pet to buy consumables, such as Identify Scrolls or Healing Potions, so you can stay in the thick of the action without having to portal back to a town to restock your supply.

Best of all, the character you play in single-player can instantly be used online or in a LAN connection. Hopping in a game with friends ramps up the difficulty of monsters, and you don’t have to worry about sharing loot, as item drops are instanced for each individual player. There’s no auction house like in Diablo III, but you can trade gear with your buddies.

Even if you beat the game’s New Game Plus mode, finish it on its hardest difficulty, or--most impressively--manage to complete Hardcore mode (which features perma-death), you still won’t run out of things to do. Runic Games is releasing the very toolset it used to create the game, meaning the modding community can create an infinite number of dungeons, outdoor maps, and even new skills for each class.

A never-ending dungeon crawler? Sure sounds like a good way to spend $20—but we’ll find out for sure after Torchlight II launches on September 20.

Associate Editor of @GAMER Magazine