Developer: Iron Lore
Release Date: June 30, 2006
I like surprises. Do you like surprises? Yeah, me, I like surprises. Not bad surprises, like opening a bill and discovering that you actually owe over a thousand dollars on your phone because your roommate has questionable taste in 1-800 numbers. No, I can do without those particular surprises. What I love is the “I just found 20 bucks” type of surprise, or in this case the “I didn’t even know this game was in development and it’s ruling my world” sort of surprise. The topic of today’s review is exactly that; a game I didn’t see coming at all and it’s so good I’ve been able to do little more than slavishly click my mouse into oblivion. Created by one of the Age of Empires crew, written by the guy who wrote Braveheart, developed by a team called Iron Lore; Titan Quest is the best of the best of the Diablo 2 clones. I suppose I should explain why, yes?
Now, we’ve all played Diablo 2. Well, I assume we all have, I’m just taking it as written that you know the drill; you create an avatar, you click on monsters, killing them in the process and gaining experience for doing so which levels you up over time and usually results in an ever-widening array of different methods to kill even more monsters. These defeated bad guys drop loot like gold and items of varying quality, which you collect and use to craft your character into the best hero it can be. Titan Quest follows this exact formula, and it’s set in the mythology of ancient Greece, Egypt, and China.
You play one of eight different classes, fighting through armies of monsters that have been unleashed on the world, the by-products of a prison break-out the Gods would have just as soon not happened. According to the pre-history of the game itself, the world was at one point ruled by Titans, a race of powerful and malevolent giants. When Zeus and his Godly posse came on the scene, the Titans threw down and a terrible war ensued that ultimately ended with the eternal imprisonment of the Titans. History has proven out many times; you can’t keep a Brother down; the Titans break out at the beginning of Titan Quest and sever the only line of communication mankind has to the Gods. The armies of the world have their hands full just defending the cities from mythological shock troops, so that leaves you to single-handedly defeat those beings the Gods could only put in the ‘time out’ corner.
I mentioned the eight class arrangement; that’s not quite as fixed as it is in other action-RPG’s. At level eight, you get to multi-class if you so desire. This provides a much wider array of choices for your avatar. You can be a fire-ball lobbing healer, a life-leeching assassin, or a dog-kennel lord with a chilly disposition. The classes are broken into ‘skill masteries’, which you tweak as you level up, three mastery points per level.
Here is a rough breakdown of the skill masteries: “Earth” covers fire and stone, with skills that increase damage or armour. “Storm” is essentially the sister mastery to Earth; lighting and cold based spells. “Warfare” deals with damage-per-second based melee fighting, and “Defense” is the other side of that coin; how to soak damage versus dishing it out. “Nature” is essentially the ‘druid’ archetype, with abilities that let you summon wolves as well as heal companions. “Spirit” is usually called ‘necromancy’; it deals with the summoning of the dead and with stealing life energy from enemies. “Rogue” is typically referred to as ‘assassin’; all the skills in this tree are related to high-damage poisons and bleeding cuts. Finally, “Hunting” is very ‘ranger’ oriented; to quote Napoleon Dynamite- “sweet bow-hunting skills”. Now, mix and match all of those, and you can see how this system is deeper than we’re used to seeing in this genre of gaming.
I can’t think of how to smoothly segue from the skills to the graphics, so instead you get this clunky gear-shift. Three cheers for poetic writing skills. Anyways, the visuals are amazing. High detail, beautifully designed, and arranged in such a way as to take advantage of perspective in a way I’ve never seen before in an action-RPG. Traditionally, isometric style games tend to come across like a slightly tilted flat board, but Titan Quest plays with height to such an extent that often you’re walking along cliff-faces overlooking majestic waterfalls or gazing down into massive ravines. This might seem like a minor feature, but it adds such an elegant sense of realism that it makes a huge difference in the overall quality of this title.
A quick scroll of the mouse wheel allows you to zoom into the action as well, and the details not only scale properly, but they increase to such an extent that you can see breast-plate clasps and inlay-sculpting on your weapons. The lighting effects are superb as well, with flickering shadows cast by torchlight that helps make the occasional tomb extra creepy. I’m running out of positive adjectives to describe the visuals, so I suppose I should break down and point out the downside. The flip to all this graphical acuity is the stuttering frame-rate lag. Every so often, for no reason that I’ve yet been able to isolate, the screen comes to a choppy halt, then snaps back into itself and performs smoothly again. Sadly, this is too common of an occurrence, even on my X800XL. Perhaps you lucky owners of dual-SLI rigs can avoid this, but for us common folk it’s a necessary evil that needs to be tolerated.
Going straight back to the good stuff, we have the excellent writing and voice-acting. Now, it helps that a proven Hollywood-blockbuster scriptwriter penned this game, but Randall Wallace could have easily done the bare minimum and sat back waiting for his percentages to roll in. He did not, and as a result there is an excess of clearly-written dialogue that again adds a sense of immersion and realism never before seen in the action-RPG genre. Just about everyone in the ancient world has something to say about what’s going on, and it’s always from the point of view of what that person does. Farmers worry about their crops, soldiers worry about tactics, wives worry about husbands, young men worry about how soon they’ll be able to go and fight, and old men laugh at the foolishness of the young men. Each and every one of these NPC’s is also given an emotive voice-actor who can properly convey the sense of drama and tension inherent to the situation. In an ocean of bad actors, it’s a blast of fresh air to be treated to excellent voice-over work.
Now before it seems like all I have to say is fervent fan-boy leg-humpery, I will take a moment to address the remaining flaws in Titan Quest. Firstly, there is the multiplayer. It’s excellent in design, but atrocious in execution. It’s co-operative in structure, which I love. However, the stock GameSpy server browser is low on options (you can’t specify a server by IP address, for example), and I haven’t encountered disconnects and lag this bad since the old days of Doom 2 and Duke Nukem 3D. Multiplayer definitely needs some “lubbins” via patches. There does seem to be some class balance discrepancies; from what I’ve been able to absorb so far the Rogue and the Hunter classes aren’t anywhere near as powerful as the others, at least not as primary options. They do have some impressive back-up abilities, but they are certainly a far cry from equal to the rest. Finally, there is no in-town “treasure chest” storage. You do gain extra ‘bags’ for your inventory as you level up, but the constrictive amount of room you have to store your loot in seems out of place in a game that does so much so flawlessly. It’s a glaring oversight that hopefully will be remedied either in a patch or an expansion-pack.
When it comes to Diablo clones, I’ve played them all; Sacred, Harbinger, Blade & Sword, Dungeon Siege, and Space Hack. I’ve also loved each and every one of them for reasons unique to each. Titan Quest is easily the best of the lot, simply for doing everything this type of game requires and doing it better than all of its contemporaries. The fact of the matter is, I feel that this is the first title within this “genre” of sorts that is actually as good as Diablo 2. It’s beautiful, it sounds great, it’s superbly written, and it’s drenched in timeless mythology. It even sports endlessly entertaining rag-doll physics; I never grow bored of striking a monster so hard that its corpse is thrown through the air into a little heap. Sometimes you can even knock them off of cliffs! The three flaws Titan Quest suffers from are all issues that can be easily remedied via patches, and Iron Lore has already proven their willingness to support this fantastic game. A little patience and we’re set. In short, if you love action-role playing games and Clash of the Titans, then Titan Quest is without any doubt a must-have title. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some punishment to dish out in the deserts of Egypt.
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