Runic Games is a tiny studio with big ideas and even bigger talent. Max Schaefer and the team delivered a stunning and streamlined loot grinder with Torchlight and its subsequent Xbox Live Arcade port, so I was rather excited to sit down with the ex-Blizzard developer and a cooperative LAN preview build in order to see how the sequel is shaping up. As it turns out, Torchlight II is going to improve on its capable predecessor in every conceivable way.
Not only that, but it's going to ship with full mod tools that will let fans change and add anything they're skilled enough to model and skin. This is going to blow the community wide open.
Torchlight 2 is set "soon after" the end of the original game, but starts with the original hub town being burned to the ground. The storyline revolves around pursuing the mysterious villains behind the attack throughout three hub towns, each of which lies atop its own set of dungeons and missions. In terms of size and scale, the first of these hubs will contain more dungeons and domains than the entirety of the original game.
Questing through randomly-generated dungeons and emphasis on collecting a constant supply of loot is still at the forefront of the experience, though four new characters will be making a playable appearance this time around. The Barbarian is a powerful and blindingly fast melee combatant who can summon spirit wolves to ravage his enemies - and on the other end of the scale, the Outlander deals serious stealthy damage at long range. The Railman has now been repurposed as an Engineer (now that the railway imagery and theme has been dropped), who metes out powerful two-handed close combat strikes and charges up electricity charges to augment his skills. A fourth new character who specialises in Ember magic is still under NDA (I want to tell you about him/her, dammit), but I'll bring you more details very soon.
Since the original Torchlight was brought to market extremely quickly by gaming standards, Schaefer feels that they didn't really have time to properly sort out the late game balance and item scaling at higher levels. This time, Runic will be focusing on making sure that the experience lasts a lot longer once the campaign is completed and that dungeon crawling is a lot more rewarding with more powerful characters.
Of course, one of the major criticisms of Torchlight was the absence of multiplayer, so Runic has gone to town in order to make sure that players can team up online or over LAN. Loot drops are unique to each player (no scrambling to steal the best gear for yourself), but can then subsequently be traded or dropped to make it visible to others.
As well as providing multiplayer, Runic Games will be releasing a massive suite of modding tools at launch; the same as the developers themselves used to create the game. Players will be able to create new levels, design new missions, change the item balance and even add new weapons and objects using 3D modelling tools. Runic will unfortunately have to step back from the scene for copyright reasons, but even so, it's set to be an incredible new feature that will provide true bottomless value.
Schaefer was also keen to point out that Torchlight definitely won't require a constant internet connection. Naturally. After all, no isometric RPG would force you stay online while you play... right? This good-natured dig at Diablo III aside, Max assured us that they're still huge mutual fans of Blizzard and the Diablo franchise, and that he personally took many lessons he took to heart while working at Blizzard North.
As well as learning the basics of what makes for a good RPG while working on Diablo II and taking inspiration from Diablo III's 3D depth for the level design, Schaefer also discovered the joys of working in a small, tight team. Runic Games only employ about 40 people, and Schaefer is absolutely convinced that this approach leads to better communication, better friendships and ultimately better games.
So what does the future hold for Runic? A Torchlight 2 port for the Xbox 360 would seem to be the most logical choice, but Schaefer believes that they'll have to completely rebuild the game and assets in order to work with the measly 512MB of RAM. The MMO is still in the works, and both Microsoft and NVIDIA are aggressively courting them to bring it to the Xbox 360 and tablets respectively. Whatever their choice, we fully expect that a thriving modding and player community will be on hand to meet it.