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Monday, March 13, 2017

Titan Quest: The "Neapolitan Ice Cream" of Action-RPGs

Titan Quest is a hack-n-slash action-RPG based on ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Chinese mythology. It seemed to fly under the radar back in 2006, and yet somehow, for some reason, publisher THQ decided to release a massive free update for it 10 years later in 2016. Dubbed the "Anniversary Edition," this new version is a complete overhaul of the original game with performance tweaks, improved functionality, new features, and better balancing while also throwing in the Immortal Throne expansion. The core gameplay follows the traditions of Diablo, where you work your way through a series of levels fighting enemies, collecting randomized loot, and investing points in skill trees when you level up, all in an overhead axonometric view with a mouse-driven interface and real-time combat.

Action-RPGs aren't usually my cup of tea. I played some of the original Titan Quest back in 2007 (the "Gold Edition" box is still sitting on my shelf) as well as a few others in the genre (Diablo, Diablo 3, Dungeon Siege, Dungeon Siege 2, Path of Exile), but in each case I only played for a few hours and then lost interest. Titan Quest: Anniversary Edition is the first of this type of game that I've actually played to completion, and even then, I still technically haven't completed it because I stopped shortly after finishing the base game's campaign, having no desire to continue further with the expansion content. That should give you a pretty clear idea of how I felt about the game: I enjoyed it enough to play it through until the end, but not enough to keep going when it tried to get me to stick around for more.

Since I'm not a super-seasoned aciton-RPG person I can't get into much detail about how Titan Quest stacks up to other games in the genre, but even with my limited familiarity with these games I still find it difficult to talk about Titan Quest as its own entity because it seems like such a bog-standard, formulaic action-RPG that most of what I'd be saying about it could apply to all action-RPGs in general. I feel like this is the type of game that I could just say "it's Diablo but set in ancient Greece, Egypt, and China" and you would intuitively know if you'd like it or not. Still, I have some observations that might help shed some more light on the game and perhaps explain the Neapolitan ice cream comparison in the title.

Fighting cyclopes while ascending Mount Olympus.

Titan Quest takes place over the course of three acts, with the first act being set in Greece, the second act in Egypt, and the third act in China. You play as some random dude or dudette starting on the outskirts of town, helping a farmer whose livestock are being attacked by satyrs. As you head into town you learn that monsters have been unleashed on the world, and that there's a greater plot by some mysterious figures to release the Titans from their imprisonment so that they can destroy the world. The rest of the game is a matter of following leads from historic location to historic location across Greece, Egypt, and eventually China en route to fighting a Titan as the final boss.

I can't comment on the story because frankly I did not pay attention to it. There's a ton of dialogue in this game (or more accurately, monologues, since you never engage in conversation yourself -- characters just speak at you), with quest-givers offering backstories for their quests and other NPCs who exist to dump mythological lore on you, but after the first 30 minutes I stopped caring and starting skipping all the dialogue. I'm sure you can learn a lot about history and ancient cultures by playing this game, and maybe there's some hidden depth in the main story and it's not just a cliche "bad guys want to unleash devastating monsters on the world, you must stop them" plot, but none of it seemed to impact the gameplay in any way since everything is just an excuse to make you fight through levels to find an item, kill an enemy, or talk to an NPC.

Pulling the camera down to get a closer look at an NPC.

The game's pacing is mind-numbingly slow to begin with, and sitting through long monologues makes the game feel even slower. Movement is slow, combat is slow, progression is slow, everything is slow. You're always moving forward to new areas, fighting new types of enemies, finding new loot, and improving your character through skill trees, but it takes so long to make any kind of significant progress. Most of the loot drops you come across are completely worthless, either because they're weak "common" stuff or they don't fit your build, and so there's usually a lot of time between equipment upgrades, and when you level up you're often just improving your stats or skills by a few meager percentage points. This is a game where you can play for a few hours in one session and come away not feeling any stronger than when you started. 

One of the best aspects of the "Anniversary Edition" is that it speeds up some of the animations to make the game a little bit faster than normal, and it takes it two steps further by adding a "game speed" option to the settings menu. With that, you can bump the game up to "fast" or "very fast." "Fast" gives the game a nice boost, and "very fast" is useful for moments when you're just running long distances to reach somewhere, but can make combat a little too fast. With the game on "very fast" I occasionally found myself going from full health to near death in one second, and so there's not always enough time to react to powerful spells or a sudden change of enemy tactics. If you're going to play Titan Quest, then I'd say you absolutely have to play with it on "fast," bare minimum. 

Combat is pretty slow and simple, especially in the beginning; you're typically only fighting a few enemies at a time, most of which are basic trash mobs that simply wear you down over time, and so you just kind of lazily click on things and hold down the left mouse button until everything dies, then press a button to automatically pick up all the gold and potions, and then slowly wander to the next cluster of enemies to do it all over again. Active skills can give you more things to do in a fight, but due to a mix-up with my friend, with whom I was cooping the game, I ended up going a full summoner route, which may be the most boring thing ever because my summons did all the work for me automatically. It quickly reached a point where, any time I was playing the game, I'd put on a TV show or listen to a podcast, and probably pay more attention to the show than the game.

Fighting undead in a tomb somewhere. 

I really didn't have to pay attention to what I was doing because the game is so easy for so much of the main campaign that you can breeze through everything with minimal effort. I made it all the way to the third town, for instance, without investing a single skill point, improving any of my attributes, or even picking a class. Once I did all that, I became practically invincible, easily killing everything before it could so much as dent my or my summons' health while I sat on literally hundreds of healing potions. And then, for whatever reason, the difficulty suddenly spiked so high in the middle of the third act that the boring tedium of lazily killing everything in sight turned into boring tedium kiting circles around enemies popping potions and waiting for the cooldown on my summons to recharge because they (and I) were getting destroyed in seconds. So the difficulty balancing hits extreme ends of the spectrum, starting out way too easy and suddenly becoming obnoxiously hard, while never hitting a desirable sweet spot in the middle.

Quests are literally straightforward; every quest that you pick up always points to the next area of the game, and since you follow an extremely linear path from start to finish you conveniently pick up and complete every single quest along the way. You can completely ignore the quest monologue and never read the journal entry to know what your objective is supposed to be, and still complete the quest as long as you go everywhere possible before moving on to the next area. You never make any choices during a quest, and there's never any risk of failing or missing a quest. The same holds true for exploration as well; there's little thought or effort involved because you just mindlessly follow your progress on the automap and make sure you don't leave any unexplored areas before moving on.

All of that sounds like pretty stark criticism, but it's not all bad. In fact, the game has some nice, clever things going on that are worth praising. There's a sensible logic to the way loot drops, for instance; enemies actually equip the items they use and drop them when they die, so if you're an archer and you're looking to get sweet archer gear you're better off fighting enemies that are obviously shooting bows and arrows at you, as opposed to a group of mages. Dropped items can't be examined or picked up unless you toggle their text display with a button, which is nice for cutting down on screen clutter and keeping all the loot out of your way when you're clicking to move around or to attack an enemy. Additionally, you can toggle different loot filters so that only loot of certain rarities and above will ever be displayed -- again, highly useful for cutting down on the clutter since you don't even have to see all the crappy "broken" and "common" items you'll never pick up.

So many crappy items that aren't worth picking up.

Titan Quest uses a dual class system; at level one you pick a starting class from one of nine choices (hunter, rogue, defender, warrior, necromancer, druid, storm mage, earth mage, and dream seer), and then at level eight you pick a second class from the remaining choices. For the rest of the game you can put points into one or both skill trees, which allows for some fun, creative hybridization and unique build diversity, and each tree has several worthwhile options to choose from every tier. But of course, you don't get enough skill points over the course of the game to be a master of everything, so it forces you to specialize and really think about what skills you're taking, and how you plan for the long haul.

I also really like the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Chinese setting. It seems like 90% of the games in this genre are medieval, sword-and-sorcery fantasy themes, with only slight variations within existing archetypes of that genre, and even fewer that try to do something completely different. Titan Quest stands out as a rare example of the latter, and it's just such a refreshing change of pace to play one of these types of games in a colorful, brightly lit environment. The three regions are all strongly themed after their own mythologies: in Greece you go to the Parthenon in Athens and fight minotaurs, gorgons, and cyclopes; in Egypt you go to the pyramids of Giza and fight mummies, scorpions, and dunewraiths; in China you go to the Great Wall and fight tigermen, dragonoids, and terracotta warriors. Each area looked and felt dramatically different from the last, and I really liked seeing how the designers tied each areas' ancient mythologies into the gameplay and aesthetics.

Fighting terracotta warriors in a Chinese village.

My criticisms may seem to outnumber and outweigh my praises, but none of the game's issues ever really bothered me, except for maybe that obnoxious difficulty spike near the end when I was ready to be done with the game. For the most part Titan Quest is a relaxing activity where you can shut your brain off and just play a game without burning yourself out. This is the type of game you play after a long day of work when you don't have the energy to play something more intense, and indeed that's basically how (and why) I kept playing -- because it was a nice and simple game I could play late at night when I didn't feel like stressing myself out with the survival-horror tension of Resident Evil 7, or piecing together the story of SOMA, or the intense action of Serious Sam, or the mental aerobics of managing my party in Wizardry 8. It seems completely average gameplay-wise, but it's serviceable enough, and there's enough interesting things going on with its unique theming that it kept me playing all the way through the base game.

Titan Quest is a bit like Neapolitan ice cream, in the sense that it offers simple, familiar flavors -- it doesn't do anything too crazy or exciting to mix up the standard formula, but it gives you variety in one package, and sometimes that simple combination of familiar flavors is all you really need.

2 comments:

  1. Wow, absolutely fantastic blog. I am very glad to have such useful information. Thanks. For more information visit extreme incense

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  2. It's amazing that you actually managed to finish this game. I quite like arpgs but this is one of the most boring game I've ever played, everything is so dull, it lacks flair, hitting things don't feel good, the skills all feel underwhelming. Maybe in co-op one might find enjoyment but I certainly don't think playing alone you can actually manage to enjoy it.

    You should've played something like Divine Divinity or Torchlight 2, the former has an interesting world and writing while the later has brilliant and fun gameplay. I can't help but feel you wasted tons of time on an unremarkable game which will never have any significance for you.

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