Iron Lore founder Brian Sullivan will admit that the first time he saw Diablo, Blizzard's classic action role-playing game, he thought that it would quickly become one of the most copied games in the industry. Surprisingly, he was wrong. While there have been several attempts by other companies to capture Diablo's addictive and frenetic gameplay, most of them have fallen flat. And with online role-playing games now dominant, few companies seem to be in a hurry to make more Diablo-style games. So Sullivan, who was one of the cofounders of Ensemble Studios and also one of the creators of the incredibly popular Age of Empires series, decided that his new company would take a crack at making the next Diablo. That game turned out to be Titan Quest, Iron Lore's debut title, which is due out this summer. We recently traveled to Iron Lore's offices, located outside of Boston, to see Titan Quest first hand, as well as sit down for an extensive play session and get some of the first details about the game's third act.
Of course, it's hard to avoid the Diablo comparisons when talking about Titan Quest. This is a game that looks like a beautiful 3D version of Diablo, from the hack-and-slash gameplay mechanics that require you to kill as many monsters as quickly as you can by clicking on them from the game's top-down, isometric point of view. Your job is to create a character and then basically run through an ancient, mythological world, battling countless monsters along the way. Yet we discovered that the game is brimming with depth, which is what you might expect out of a game from one of the cocreators of the highly replayable Age of Empires series. Titan Quest has a much deeper skill system than Diablo, one that's designed to let you practically create your own custom character class as you play.
Getting into Titan Quest is designed to be fast and easy. That's because the developers want to get you playing immediately, rather than spending half of forever trying to figure out character creation, which you do in so many role-playing games. Right off the bat, all you need to worry about is choosing a name and a gender, and then you'll find yourself fresh off the boat on a tiny island in the Aegean, where you have to help out a village under siege. This involves a fair amount of monster slaying, and at the end of this initial quest is when you'll flesh out your character by choosing what kind of character class to play. There are none of the standard role-playing classes in Titan Quest, such as a fighter or a rogue. Instead, you must select two masteries for your character. Masteries are groups of associated skills. So the warfare mastery contains lots of attacks and weapon skills, while the spirit mastery includes lots of magical-type skills. Since there are eight masteries in the game, that makes more than 20 possible character combinations. This means that instead of the rigidly defined, traditional character classes found in most role-playing games, you can create versatile, mixed classes that can take advantage of different traits, such as having fighters that also specialize in magic (which is generally rare in most role-playing games) or creating a healer rogue.
Moreover, each of the character classes can be played differently, depending on how you choose to upgrade your character's skills. Each mastery consists of 20 unique skills, which means that you potentially have 40 skills for your character. You'll only start with a handful of skills, though, and you'll need to spend points (which are accumulated as your character levels up in experience) to unlock new skills. Or, you can choose to use those points to upgrade existing skills, making them much more effective. Since the skills are designed and balanced so that they're useful throughout the entire game--rather than seeing the beginning skills rapidly become obsolete and unused--this means that you have to make some hard decisions about where to invest your skill points. Do you decide to increase the power of all your first-tier skills, or do you invest a lot of points to unlock a few, higher-tier skills? The choices you make will affect how you play the game. You can play the same character class twice and come up with a completely different skill set, which goes to show just how far you can customize and personalize your character.
Of course, being able to create your own unique and distinct character is but a part of Titan Quest. Your main job in the game is to take that character and carve a swath across the ancient world. The game's first act is set in Greece, where you'll battle many creatures and monsters from Greek mythology, such as the cyclops and the gorgons. The second act then takes you south to Egypt, where you'll plunder temples and pyramids and battle mummies and other creatures from Egyptian lore. The game's third and final act will take you east. Iron Lore recently revealed that Asia is the setting of the game's last environment, and you'll get there by first battling along the famous Silk Road, the ancient trading route that linked the East and the West. Once you reach Asia, you'll experience some of the game's most-beautiful environments. Whereas Greece is arid and rocky, and Egypt dry and desert, Asia is lush and green and filled with all sorts of interesting settings, such as the Great Wall, as well as imperial cities and towns.
We were able to play through some of the Asian levels, and we saw battles atop the Great Wall itself (and thanks to the game's graphics engine, you'll see battles raging on sections of the wall further down at the same time), as well as battles in lush, green bamboo forests. As you'd expect, the enemies and monsters took on an Asian theme, and we battled various evil spirits, as well as yeti-like monsters and primitive human beings along the mountainous parts of the Silk Road. The level of detail is pretty incredible throughout the game, but it really comes to life in the Asian environments. Zoom in close, and you'll see roosters atop houses, or you may see the shadows of leaves swaying on the ground. Surprisingly, while you might expect this Asian setting to appeal to Asian gamers, the opposite is true. The folks at Iron Lore told us that many Asian gamers find European settings appealing, whereas the opposite is true for Western gamers.
Have Sword, Will TravelThough you battle countless mythological monsters, Iron Lore is going for a sort of logical reality to the game world. Monsters--there are more than 85 different types, with multiple variations of each type--will be able to use many of the same skills and weapons that your character can use, which means that what's good for you is also good for them. If you can use a net to slow them down, the monsters will be able to do the same to you. Moreover, if you see a monster using a specific weapon, odds are you'll be able to recover that weapon from them when they're dead. There will no longer be any more of those random "drops" seen in other games, such as when you would kill a wolf and they would drop a two-handed sword. There are over a thousand unique, hand-crafted items in the game that the developers designed themselves. That's in addition to the countless randomly generated items that the game comes up with on the fly. Together, this ensures that there will be tons of loot to sort through, and you'll spend a lot of time hunting for that precise piece of equipment that will complete your character's collection. We should also note that each of the game's three settings has its own distinctive armor and equipment, which means that your character's look will evolve from Greek to Egyptian to Asian as you pick up themed gear.
One of the neat things that we learned is that the game's physics engine scales, so the more lopsided the fight, the greater the physical effects. So let's say you came across a group of low-level monsters, but you've got a high-level character. As you'd expect, you can plow right through them and the bodies will fly. The members of the development team told us of stories where bodies would hurl through the air and land in the branches of trees, or go splat against the face of a mountain, only to slide slowly down. You can also use the physics engine to knock opponents off edges and cliffs, which will quickly become something of a sport, we're told. But you'll want to be careful, because monsters will drop valuable items, and they're affected by physics as well. Level designer Tom Potter told us of a moment where he watched an incredibly valuable piece of equipment slowly roll down a mountain, with him in hot pursuit, only to watch it reach the edge and fall off.
The world of Titan Quest is vast, and it's dotted with settlements. Villages, towns, and encampments will let you meet up with merchants who will buy weapons and other items that you salvage from monsters, as well as sell you the latest weapons and equipment. Also, quest-granting non-player characters will give you missions to undertake. We're told that the length of the campaign depends on how much exploration you do, but the single-player campaign should provide a lot of gameplay. Once you finish the single-player campaign on the normal difficulty level, you'll be able to play through again on the epic difficulty level, and the monsters and encounters are going to be much harder to defeat. Complete the epic mode and you'll unlock legendary difficulty, which is something that you'll probably want to play in cooperative mode with your friends to survive. Speaking of which, cooperative multiplayer is going to be very important in Titan Quest. The game will support up to six players in co-op mode, and that should result in some wild moments online with six characters running around the map.
Titan Quest's beautiful 3D graphics are, of course, a major feature of the game. There's an impressive amount of detail in the game world. The environments are vibrant and colorful and varied, and you'll travel through gloomy caves, high mountain passes, and dusty Egyptian towns. Monsters look just as sharp, and you can't help but notice the little touches, such as the cloud of feathers when you take out a hostile crow to the animated snakes on the gorgon's head. There are also intricate lighting and shadowing effects at work, as well as an advanced particle system for spell effects. Performance will scale depending on the hardware that you have, of course, but we're told that you'll need a GeForce 3-level video card as a minimum, which is reasonable considering that it's five-year-old technology at this point.
Titan Quest will ship with a very sophisticated editor. Basically, it's the same editor that the level designers themselves used for the game, only more user-friendly, as one of the last things that the team will do is gussy up the user interface. As a result, Iron Lore firmly believes that it will be the most powerful and easy-to-use editor in a game. Indeed, from what we've seen, with some practice it will be possible to create levels that are as detailed and lush as those created by Iron Lore. A quest editor will also ship with the game, meaning that you can create your own quests, complete with custom dialogue and sound effects.
It's been noted that the appeal of Diablo was that it satisfied two of the most basic human needs: the need to shop and the need to kill. That looks to be the same case with Titan Quest. Like any addictive game, Titan Quest has you always being caught up with doing something in the game. Just as you kill one group of monsters or open up one chest, you'll spot another group of monsters and another chest up ahead. There are plenty of quests to perform, monsters to slay, and loot to be recovered and sold. We found ourselves caught up in our gameplay session, and we easily lost track of time, which is always a good sign for a game. Combined with the game's deep skill system and multiplayer, there's potential in Titan Quest for tons of excellent gameplay. All-in-all, Titan Quest is a good-looking, fast-paced game with a surprising amount of role-playing depth, and it looks like it should fill the shoes of Diablo quite nicely. Expect Titan Quest to ship this summer.