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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Titan Quest   PC (Steam) 

Sisyphean    2/5 stars

I love ancient Greco-Roman mythology, as should be obvious from the fact that I have multiple college degrees dedicated to analyzing the stories, cultural traditions, and religious nonsense contained therein (a skillset which also comes in handy for analyzing videogames). I initially bought “Titan Quest” (“TQ”) and the “Immortal Throne” expansion pack a couple years ago, based solely upon popular acclaim that gushed over how painstakingly accurate the game’s mythological ties were, despite it being a “Diablo”-style Hack ‘n Slash – one of the many RPG subgenres for which I hold no appreciation. It sat in my backlog until Chris decided to pick it as our coop game… actually, Chris picked the “Anniversary” edition of “TQ,” but since THQ Nordic decided to give away free copies of the “Anniversary” edition of the game to everyone who already owned the original (they are, quite literally, the same game), I already had it in my library as-is. I was kind of looking forward to experiencing this modern-day myth with my friends… but then we actually played it.

Presentation
“TQ” is a top-down, isometric, fixed-camera Hack ‘n Slash. The game is built in proprietary, 3D polygonal Hack ‘n Slash engine by developer, Iron Lore, which has since been farmed out for use in other games, like “Grim Dawn.” Character models and environments do have a striking amount of detail, and the various types of weapons and armor the player characters can equip all have different polygon models as well. Unfortunately, due to the fixed camera, which can only be zoomed in and out, the player will never actually see and appreciate these nicely-designed models, as the necessity of keeping the camera zoomed as far out as possible makes most things on-screen incredibly small and samey-looking. I didn’t realize the character and enemy models had any significant detail to them until the game’s closing credits, where a rogues’ gallery of enemies sits next to – and distracts from – the boring list of names. Character design for the player is, however, extremely limited and lacking in options.

The player character can be male or female… and that’s the extent of the customization. I was the only member of the group who picked a female character, and I had a very hard time telling the other guys apart. Hell, sometimes, I had a hard time telling my character apart from the male characters due to the presence of bulky armor. Enemy designs frequently stray far away from anything accurate, with such egregious flaws as maenads represented as anthropomorphic cat-women straight out of James Cameron’s “Avatar” instead of the drunken, frenzied female acolytes of the Wine God, Dionysus (who frequently wore leopard skins… so I guess that’s where the cat-folk thing came from).

The audio in “TQ” is passable. There’s a decent amount of voiceacting during cutscenes and long-winded NPC conversations. Unfortunately, moving away from an NPC while they’re talking just cuts the conversation short, instead of allowing them to continue to read their script while the player does other things (like shopping and inventory management). The voiceacting is decently done, and doesn’t feature any budget-busting big name actors, but the ethnic accents frequently come off as incredibly cheesy. The soundtrack, on the other hand, may as well not even exist. There is background music in “TQ,” but I can’t come up with a single bar of a single rhythm, it’s so forgettable and understated.

Technically, “TQ” is something of a disaster. Even the “Anniversary” edition, which was released a DECADE after the original launch, contains bugs, glitches, balance issues, crashes, and all sorts of other holdovers from PC gaming’s unpleasant and sordid past. We had to make sure everyone was online and in the chat before even starting “TQ” each week, as ALT+TAB-ing out of the game would cause it to crash so severely that sometimes a full system reboot was required. Even when we refrained from doing things that we knew could crash “TQ,” we had issues. It crashed once for me (as host) out of the blue, which naturally disconnected everyone, since it’s a P2P game that still somehow requires a third-party log-in (presumably so hosted games will appear on the game browser list). The other guys all experienced frequent disconnects, where they’d suddenly be kicked out of the game for no reason. We all experienced rubber-banding and lag. Sometimes enemies wouldn’t do their death animations and actually die if I (as host) wasn’t close enough to them (because I died and was back at the last checkpoint). The whole thing was just an unpolished slog that was a pain to struggle through.

Story
When I heard from fans that “TQ” has an incredibly faithful story set in ancient Greece, I went into it expecting something like “Apotheon,” which blew me away with its respectful and mindful adaptation of ancient stories and art to a modern conveyance method.

“TQ” is something of an unfunny joke in this regard. First of all, the game only partially takes place in ancient Greece. Out of the three Acts that make up the base game, only Act I is set in Greece, while Act II is set in ancient Egypt (which is acceptable, as the Greeks had a reputation for idolizing anything and everything that came out of Egypt), and Act III is set in… CHINA?! The expansion pack, “Immortal Throne,” which is included in the “Anniversary” edition, takes the action back to Greece at least, and then delves into the mythological realms of Elysium and Hades for the bulk of its content.

“TQ’s” central narrative focuses on some Telchines – fishy-footed, dog-headed mythological creatures born alongside the Titans, BUT ARE NOT ACTUALLY TITANS – escaping from the underworld and using their knowledge of magic to make a play for rulership of the world in the absence of the gods.

Yes! For whatever reason, the Olympian gods are gone, and it’s up to mortal heroes to trail these Telchines across the world and put a stop to their wicked schemes.

And that’s really it.

Sure, each of the game’s towns has a character or two who will spout a summary of a myth or two, but these aren’t the high-quality quotes-in-translation from primary sources that “Apotheon” used. Plus these snippets of Greek myths HAVE NOTHING TO DO with the central story about the Telchines.

After trailing the Telchines across the world and killing them (What, you thought the good guys would lose?), the heroes return to Greece, only to discover that there’s a bit of a daemon problem. It turns out that not all of the Olympians withdrew from the world: Hades is still around, and he has raised an army of faithful daemons (Who are treated simply as demons in the game – WHICH IS NOT ACCURATE!) to help him conquer both the mortal world and the Elysian fields (e.g., Ancient Greek Heaven). While I can believe that Hades would do such a thing – after all, he was quite maltreated by his siblings in the pantheon and never received the respect he deserved from mortals – the handling of this story arc still isn’t particularly good. Still, it’s a significant step up from the base game, so I guess there’s that.

Between the base game and the “Immortal Throne” expansion, “TQ” takes about 60 hours… but the blandness of the game’s narrative and gameplay make it feel much, much, MUCH longer.

Gameplay
“TQ” is a “Diablo 2” clone. Not “Diablo,” not “Diablo 3,” not other Hack ‘n Slash games like the ‘Torchlight’ or ‘Dungeon Hunter’ series. This game wants to be “Diablo 2,” and it wants it really, really badly.

“TQ” is a very by-the-books Hack ‘n Slash. The fixed camera can’t be panned away from the player character. EVERYTHING is accomplished by clicking the mouse, be it movement, basic attacks, or triggering special abilities (though the latter do have hotkey options). Players drag their character around by the mouse, click on things to kill them, and click on treasure chests, bone piles, and other containers to open them. Loot then hemorrhages forth, like a malfunctioning slot machine. “TQ” has so much loot that there is actually a dedicated keyboard key (Z) to turn on/off the ability to see/interact with/pick up loot. You’d think with all that loot on the ground that gearing up would be easy and fun, like a piñata… but it isn’t. The typewriter/mouse interface for “TQ” is cumbersome and awful, but the game has no native controller support, despite numerous threads in the Steam forum that make it appear to be a priority request among players. I played with a custom Steam controller setup that made the gameplay mechanically tolerable, but it was still not particularly fun.

“TQ” follows a similar basic loot color scheme as every other loot-based game ever made. Gray, White, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple. We never saw a single piece of Purple loot, because it doesn’t drop in the Normal difficulty (and clearing Normal is required to unlock the next difficulty, and clearing that one is required to unlock the final difficulty, so they aren’t so much ‘difficulties’ as higher-level laps through the game, a la ‘Borderlands’). Even worse, the game constantly, incessantly, nauseatingly drops a perpetual, unending stream of Gray rarity loot. Gray loot is absolutely worthless. It literally has such a low sell value at merchants that it isn’t worth the time it takes to pick it up and teleport back to town in order to sell it. Yet this Gray loot lies scattered across the ground, making all other mouse-clicking activities just that much more tedious.

“Well, why don’t you turn off your Z!? Only turn it on when you want to pick up loot!” Yeah, that’s not a good idea, because, unlike newer Hack ‘n Slashes, “TQ” doesn’t feature private loot drops. Instead, everyone playing in a group has to share the loot drops, and anytime something other than White or Gray drops, there’s a mad dash to click on it first. Indeed, the only “fun” I actually got out of “TQ” was listening to Nick complain about having loot sniped out from under him while using a typewriter/mouse. I feel very vindicated in my love of the Steam controller!

The only way in which “TQ” stands apart from every other generic, bland Hack ‘n Slash trying to be “Diablo 2” is its class system. Instead of picking a character class at the start of the game and being locked into it, players are given the opportunity to pick Specializations at two milestones within the course of the game. There are a large number of Specializations, and the two Specializations picked for a character can combine in unexpected ways, providing access to skills which synergize well… or they can kind of suck. It’s possible to pay an NPC shop to reset Specialization points, so mistakes in character building aren’t quite as tragic as they were in “Diablo 2.” I went with a summoning-focused character with a lot of pets. By the end of the game, I had 4 AI companions following me around (two wolves, a nymph, and a lich), but really only one active attack skill and one healing skill, which was fine by me, as I hate cumbersome hotkey-centric gameplay. Each level-up provides three Specialization points as well as two attribute points, which can be spent to increase a character’s Health, Mana, Strength, Intelligence or Dexterity. These attributes affect performance in battle, but are primarily used as blocks (along with generic character level) to prevent characters from equipping loot not suited to their strengths. And speaking of Strength, “TQ” loves to drop gear for Strength focused characters more than anything. As an Intelligence focused character, I found loot far less often than the team’s dedicated melee beatstick… but the two guys on the team with Dexterity focused characters had it even worse.

Unfortunately, playing “TQ” with a team of friends is something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’ve got more people doing more damage and providing more targets for the brain-dead AI enemies to relentlessly chase. On the other hand, “TQ’s” difficulty scaling for more players is absolute overkill. When I encountered a bug that prevented an Act I quest from completing, I played a bit of “TQ” by myself in an attempt to fix it. The experience was far easier (read: actually balanced) than playing with a team of four. The worst thing is, “TQ” actually supports teams of up to 8 players simultaneously… and we got a taste of that due to a bug that would cause “TQ” to ‘forget’ to remove one of the party members from the enemy scaling equation in the event that they got kicked from the game and rejoined. So if one of the team of four got kicked and rejoined, “TQ” ‘thought’ there were suddenly 5 of us. After 2 kicks and rejoins – with “TQ” thinking there were 6 of us instead of 4 – the game became unplayably difficult, with enormous swarms of enemies capable of one-shotting the entire team. On NORMAL difficulty.

Overall
Even if you play the “Anniversary” edition, “Titan Quest” is a long, buggy, clunky, boring slog of poor loot drops, poor storytelling, poor controls, and Sisyphean tedium. This game embodies pretty much every obsolete thing about the Hack ‘n Slash subgenre that I don’t like. Not even a group of friends can redeem this stinker of a game thanks to horrendously unstable netcode and unbalanced cooperative difficulty scaling. It’s almost as much fun a rolling a boulder uphill for eternity.

Presentation: 2/5
Story: 2/5
Gameplay: 2/5
Overall (not an average): 2/5

 

 


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