Torchlight 2 preview

Torchlight gained attention for scratching the Diablo itch, but it became a hit in its own right. With Diablo 3 on the horizon, Torchlight 2 is continuing to forge its own path in the dungeon-crawler space. The sequel iterates on the first game's sharp style, adding a more living world and new classes to occupy them.

During a hands-on at PAX East 2012, I was struck by the open environment. Runic Games has mentioned the overworld, but it was much more impressive to experience it for myself. Rather than feel corralled in a specific direction, I was given more choice than I knew what to do with. I could actually go any direction I wanted, and find enemy encounters no matter where I roamed.

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"We wanted to make the game feel a lot bigger," CEO Max Schaefer told Shacknews. "What we've shown here is just a tiny fraction of it. There's desert areas, snowy areas, woodsy areas -- all kinds of different terrain variations as well as tons of new dungeons. So the variety of it is what's fun for us as game makers, as well as the level designers."

That visual variety helps distinguish areas from each other. While Torchlight sported plenty of layers to the dungeons, each area would look internally similar. Sometimes environments would be so unchanged it was easy to backtrack without realizing it, or lose my way. Torchlight 2 has more unique vistas with distinct locations to explore, making for easier exploration and more of a visual treat.

That world will also be better fleshed out with a better-defined story, delivered through stylized cutscenes and the main quest lines. Schaefer claims it's "a lot more coherent," thanks in part to the studio's decision to hire a dedicated writer.

I split my time between two of the classes: the Embermage and the Engineer. The Embermage was most similar to my previous Alchemist class in the original, though his powers felt more impactful from the start. The Engineer, meanwhile, fulfills an interesting role. Her cannon was a tool powerful enough to dispatch enemies with the ease of a stronger tank-like character, but with a respectable range to it. If enemies managed to get too close, a close-range burst attack would clear them out. I was fortunate enough not to run into enemies with a longer range, though, because they will clearly be the balancing force for the class.

"There has to be something new [in each class] that you haven't seen before but there has to be some intuitive sense, just by looking at it, how they play and what their style is," Schaefer said. "We tried to make things that were understandable and yet novel."

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As for competition with Diablo 3, Schaefer says the newly announced date is a relief. "We're really bad at estimating when we're going to be done, but we think it would've been right around then," he said. "So we're going to give them a little bit of a wide berth, because we don't want to come out on the same weekend -- that would be really dumb. We're just going to use the time to finish up our polish pass so when we do come out it will be legitimate competition."

Runic Games wasn't sharing its release plans yet, but the game already carries itself with a sense of grace and confidence. It's colorful and charming, so as long as it avoids butting heads with Blizzard too directly, it's poised to continue carving out its own dedicated niche.