Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

10 Bad Things About Torchlight

As promised, here are ten things that are bad about Torchlight. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy playing the game or that I wouldn’t recommend buying it. The purpose of this post is to find things that could be done better in the future. It also concludes my mini-review of Torchlight that isn’t really a review.
Without further ado, like yesterday in no particular order – 10 bad things about Torchlight:

Loading screens
I hate loading screens. When I play a game I want to play the game and not look at a loading screen. Now, I understand that they might be a technical necessity so I’m not complaining about the loading screens themselves (though I do believe the game could load faster.) What’s annoying is their implementation. I have talked about one flaw on Friday already, the problem that the entrances of zones are not monster free. Meaning that when you go AFK on a loading screen, chances are that you’ll be dead when you return. But there’s more.

I don’t really understand the technical limitation that leads to preventing Alt-Tab on loading screens, but Torchlight is not the only game to do this. In World of Warcraft I can’t Alt-Tab during loading screens either, unless I have set the game to windowed mode and full-screen. But that solves it perfectly. I can select a character in WoW, go read blogs for a minute, Alt-Tab back in and find my character fully loaded in Dalaran. Torchlight’s loading screen occupies a full monitor and would force me to watch it all the time if I didn’t have a second screen.

Finally, Torchlight’s loading screens are SO 1990. There is no indicator of how far the loading has progressed and nothing to catch my eye while looking at the loading screen. Whether it’s a moving bar or the gradually brightening door of Diablo II’s loading screens, give me some indication of how much longer I will have to wait instead of just a rotating hourglass.

Procedurally created content
Procedurally created content has many advantages, especially that one session of a game is never the same as the one before. Torchlight, however, exaggerates it. The trick behind a good procedurally generated world is to have enough hand-crafted pieces and limitations to it that it doesn’t feel generic. Most Diablo II zones (there’s that comparison again, sorry) had some sort of landmark that made them unique even if most of it was randomly generated. In torchlight there are a couple of different tile sets (i.e. mine levels, goblin city levels, ruins levels) but those are pretty much the only differences one can see between levels. While this is somewhat bearable until you beat the main boss for the first time, it becomes terribly obvious once you enter the endless dungeon. I know that something infinite can’t be crafted by hand – but then you either need a much better algorithm (with a lot more unique pieces to it) or you shouldn’t include an endless dungeon in the first place. Except for the boss fights, the game feels incredibly generic and it really doesn’t matter what level I’m currently in. The gameplay is always the same.

Boring items
This is somewhat an extension of the previous point – the items in Torchlight are utterly generic. When I saw the distinction into uncommon (green), rare (blue), unique (golden), and set (purple) items I assumed that greens and blues would be randomly generated, but uniques and sets would be crafted by hand. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My vanquisher’s gun is called “Epic Fire Dragonne” and is clearly completely randomly generated. I’m unsure whether set items are random as well or not, but they are extremely unimpressive. One set item I found has some random stats (irrelevant) and then bonuses for wearing 2,3,5, or 7 pieces of the set. Instead of being interesting though, these bonuses are just increasing percentage increases of elemental damage. (And to make things worse the item doesn’t say “+X% elemental damage” but “+X% fire damage, +X% electric damage” and so on.)
This takes the fun of collecting completely out of the game. Instead of searching for certain items (and trading for them if there eventually is a multi player mode) you just equip whatever next best item you happen to stumble upon. I had to look up the name of my vanquisher’s gun above because I just don’t care about the items in the game at all. They are simply a tool for carnage and not interesting at all.

Scrolls of identification
Like in other games before it, you have to identify items in Torchlight before you can use them. This is done though the use of a scroll of identification which can be found or bought cheaply from a vendor. I can see identification becoming an interesting part of a game, but only if it is a meaningful decision. In Torchlight there is no reason whatsoever not to identify an item, since identified items sell for more. The whole system just adds the hassle of having to carry scrolls of identification in your inventory and using one on every item you find. Pointless and annoying.
If you want identification in your game, make it expensive or difficult to use (or limit the use in another way) so that players actually have to make a decision. Don’t require identification of every lowly uncommon item but instead limit it to rarer drops. Maybe allow players to equip unidentified items and find out the effects by themselves (and with that maybe add negative effects as well.)

Mana and health
No, mana and health are not bad concepts. In torchlight, however, they don’t matter. Potions are available in such high amounts that mana is never a concern at all – you can just drink a potion when it is empty – and health is only relevant as a measurement of how much damage you can take in one hit. After the hit you can chug a potion anyway. This means that there is no resource management in the game as far as I could see. You don’t have to choose between using a special or a free normal attack because the special is always better (and its cost doesn’t matter.) You don’t have to try and give your character some form of mana regeneration so she can continuously kill monsters because your mana will always be full from potions anyway.
Some levels have shrines that you can fill your mana or health at, supposedly a nice goodie that helps you while adventuring. In reality though, you never get to one of those with empty mana or health and even if you do, they only have the effect of a potion – and effect that is in abundance anyway.

Just like in Diablo II, items in Torchlight can have sockets and you can pick up various gems that fit into these sockets, increasing one stat or another. Just like in Diablo, these gems (for a very broad definition of gems. Some of them are eyeballs for example) come in different qualities and you can combine multiple lower quality ones to a higher quality one. Where in Diablo II you had the Horadric Cube (“Yes Cain, I KNOW I have found a Horadric Cube, thank you very much.”) to perform these upgrades, an NPC does it for you in Torchlight. This is a terrible mechanic. It forces you to fill your stash with various gems of different qualities, carry them to the NPC and upgrade them step by step for very little gain. It goes absolutely against the idea of crawling the dungeons without having to go back to town, because these gems will fill up your inventory quickly and you can’t make your pet put them into the stash or upgrade them for you.

If you need to have such an upgrade system, just let the player do it via right click, don’t ask them to jump through hoops for it. Even better, don’t use such a system at all. That way one would be a lot less hesitant to actually use those gems (no more “I could probably upgrade this and use it for better effect later”) and would allow one to just leave low quality gems lying on the floor. Apparently there are also other cube recipes available, but you either have to look those up on the internet or experiment wildly. Bogus.
Game developers – there has only been one good implementation of a cube in gaming history, and that is very likely to stay that way.

Loot mechanic
When you kill a monster or open a chest, loot will drop to the floor, ready for you to pick it up. You will see outlines of the items lying on the ground and you can click on them, or you can press Alt to see their names and rarities. This is where things go bad from a user interface perspective. For one, you can’t click on the name that shows up to pick up an item but still have to click on the item on the floor. Much worse though, if multiple items are close to one another the names will stack on top of each other. This means you have to pick up ever stack of normal or green items to see if there maybe is a unique below it, quickly filling up your inventory with trash. Diablo already did this much better; I don’t know why the same developers took such a step backwards here.
Aside from that, I would really like a threshold setting for what loot is shown when pressing Alt. There is so much stuff that drops, I’m not interested in normal quality items – everything below uncommon quality just clutters my UI and eventually my inventory. Titan Quest has shown you years ago how such a system can be implemented, why didn’t you, Runic Games?

Generic quests
The main storyline has handwritten (if often quite terrible) quests but you also get generic quests to fetch in town – both for the normal game and the endless dungeon. These quests are all in the form of either “kill this randomly selected named monster in the next level of the dungeon that you haven’t visited yet” or “find this randomly selected named item in the next level of the dungeon that you haven’t visited yet”. Could that be any more boring? The linear structure of the levels means that the right course of action is to pick up all these quests, mow through the level, open a portal before you go the stairs down to the next level, hand in the quests, get new ones for the next floor, rinse, repeat. The rewards for the quests are also random. The quests essentially add nothing at all to the game play except for encouraging you to visit the town once each level. (It might actually be more efficient to save that town travel time and kill more monsters for the same rewards instead. I haven’t done the math there.)

Pet transformations & fishing
You can actually go fishing in the game if you find a fishing spot in the dungeon. This starts a very simple minigame and rewards you with a random type of fish if you succeed. This fish can be used to transform your pet into another species for two minutes which gives it different abilities. First of all, why would I stop my killing to stand around and fish? Makes no sense to me. But well, I often do things that make no sense in games if the rewards are appropriate – but transforming your pet is also utterly pointless. There is no description of what which pet type does and transformations are only good for two minutes. That would mean that the player is supposed to use fish in special situations – i.e. a boss fight – to transform the pet into something that is of better use in that fight. This is neither necessary, nor practical, nor interesting. Your pet is a warm body that keeps monsters at arm’s length and provides a little bit of damage, nothing more. If you’ve played Torchlight and found a good use for this, please tell me. I don’t see it.

No online mode
I knew this before I bought Torchlight, but having a dungeon crawler that has no online mode is simply a bad idea. I can enjoy solo killing monsters for a while, but the whole aspect of collecting items and trading them is missing if there is no online mode. Also, playing with others tends to be more fun in general than playing alone. The official website says that there is a massively multiplayer action RPG in the world of Torchlight in the making, but that budget and time constraints limited Torchlight itself to a single player experience. I can understand that, and we get the game for a discount price after all. That doesn’t make it any less of a bad thing though.

And there you have it, the complete collections of things we can learn from Torchlight. OK, maybe it isn’t complete. I hope you enjoyed it anyway.

PS: If you expected me to rant on the new Blizzard pet store today, that’s not going to happen. I’m neither surprised nor appalled by the move, I simply couldn’t care less.

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