Spoiler: I'm giving Torchlight 2 a half-star less. The game makes some minor missteps in design, and I don't think the pacing or the scope matches up to that of Diablo 3.
I say that right here in the beginning so I can move on to a different point: Ratings and comparisons aside, Torchlight 2 is an accomplishment by this studio of less than 30 people, a feat that's impressive regardless of any other long-awaited dungeon crawlers that arrived earlier this summer. It's an excellent follow-up to the popular first game in the series, and at a ridiculous price of just $19.99 it demands to be played both by fans of the genre and of great PC games. Torchlight 2's best new feature isn't in any of the game's systems, but in the world you explore as you hack down foe after foe. The last game simply walked you through stacked floors of one big dungeon, but this game carries you out across the world of Torchlight itself. Runic has done an amazing job on the art and design of each of the game's major settings, and while it is a little strange to venture back out into a desert in Act 2 (just as Diablo 3 did), everywhere Torchlight 2 goes is colorful and inventive.
The enemies, too, are beautifully designed, not only in their new tactics – some larger beasts will lumber in swinging a gigantic club, while more spindly enemies will jump in and out of battle, or teleport around the battlefield – but in their animations and movements. Everything in the world of Torchlight 2 really feels like it belongs where it is, from the humanoid roaches swarming through underground sewers to the rotting dwarven soldiers defending an awakened clockwork fortress. And enemies seamlessly enter and exit battle realistically. Rats sneak out of huge nests to attack you, while insects fly out of gigantic, sentient hives that keep spawning bugs until you've taken them down.
With everything this world has to offer (not to mention pets for everyone, and five or six minions for my engineer), things get chaotic often. Boss battles, especially, can get nuts, and there are a few really interesting moments where Runic tries something new, like a little pseudo platforming, or a phase beast that, when killed, opens up into a bonus arena level or even a pick-a-door premise. The action is almost always joyous and raucous, and almost never overwhelming. Torchlight is a vibrant, fun, steampunky world, and exploring it is an absolutely addictive pleasure.
Combat is satisfying, though you won't find many new tricks here if you've played Torchlight. The classes have been renamed and revamped a bit, but in general the abilities simply do damage in more distinct ways. The original Torchlight, with its pets and map systems, carried the genre forward from Diablo 2, whereas Torchlight 2 takes us back before Diablo 3 to tabbing between two right-click spells, hitting potions instead of health globes, and using more traditional skill trees.
The skill tree itself is where Torchlight 2's combat system misses the most. You can respec up to the last three points spent in town, but any points before that are set in place, so bad decisions early on can definitely handicap your character. Finding a great piece of gear that you're not specced for can be a problem as well. I originally started with a large mace, but then decided to use a two-hand cannon for a while, leaving my stat points spent half-and-half. While Diablo 3 wisely put in an easily reconfigured skill system and multiple ways to recycle unwanted gear, Torchlight 2 generally just has you selling it off and hoping something better drops.
The one exception to that is the game's updated transmuting system. A vendor in town will kindly combine up to any four items for you, and those items can make new ones of any type. Combine three health potions, for example, to make one that's a level higher, or combine three gems of one level to make one of the next (gems no longer have quality - a note in the game says that technology has been lost to time). You can also combine gems with an unsocketed item to add a socket to it, or create other items with different recipes. The system isn't as deep or complicated as a full crafting system, but it does, at least, give you a chance to upgrade your stuff rather than just vendor trashing it.
One place where Torchlight 2 doesn't have an issue is in the amount of content. The game is rather bottlenecked at the very beginning: Your only option at first is to play through the game's twelve-hour or so campaign (and a story told by those beautiful Klei Entertainment cinematics). After that's done, however, you can go through the game again with a New Game+ option, and you get access to the "Mapworks," which offers up hours and hours of randomized maps and levels with various tweaks to the player and enemy abilities. Add in the certain flood of PC mods and player-created levels when the editor finally arrives, and there will be enough Torchlight 2 to play until long after you've gotten your $20 worth.
For all of that content, the scope of the game itself still seems small. That's not bad at all, but I do wonder what Runic could have done if it tried to make as big a jump in the genre as it did with the original game. The pet system alone was a brilliant jump in the common task of hauling loot back to town, but there are no such leaps in the sequel.
The online multiplayer, though a very welcome addition to the series, isn't handled very smoothly. While Blizzard's Battle.net made joining games a snap in Diablo 3, Torchlight 2 goes back to a lobby system, and there's no level or quest matching once you're in game, so players will need to coordinate themselves to play together. Also, while Runic made it clear that the pre-release review version was still being worked on, I experienced quite a few disconnects while playing online. I hope that won't be an issue after the game officially launches.
Those complaints aside, Runic has made a phenomenal game here, and fans of the original will be overjoyed to find that most of what they loved is still here, with lots more of it. Yes, Runic may not have had Blizzard's multimillion dollar budget, or the thousands of highly paid developers working on getting the game systems just right, but it has made an exciting indie dungeon crawler here. It will live on for a long time through countless DRM-free LAN parties and user-created mods and levels. Complain all you want – I'll keep that half-star for myself. You just go get this game.
This review is based on a pre-release version of Torchlight 2, provided by Runic Games and available on Steam for $19.99.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.