There are laptop games and there are desktop games. Torchlight is most assuredly a laptop game.
When you sit down at a desktop PC to play a game, you are committing yourself to that game. Chances are your rig is tied to a desk and whatever you’re playing is being played with both hands. Whether it’s The Sims or Starcraft or Universe at War or even Bioshock, in the time that the game is on the screen, that game is what you are doing — it demands that you pay attention, and punishes you if you don’t.
On the other hand, the mobile nature of a laptop encourages movement. You can bring it into the living room or the bedroom or to a hotel room or wherever you need to be. You can pick it up, do what you need to do, and put it back down. The entertainment that you will typically glean from a laptop is passive entertainment, something you can do while you pay attention to something else.
Torchlight is at its best when you’re paying attention to something else.
This is not a knock against it by any stretch. Games demand more of us than they ever have. Take your eyes away from the screen for a couple of minutes in Call of Duty, and there’s a good chance that you’ve died five times over. Real-time strategy and dynamic role playing combat systems have replaced the turn-based systems of years past, and the increasing importance of narrative ensures that even during cut scenes our eyes stay glued to the screen. One can come away from a two hour play session feeling winded, as if the activity was running sprints. Torchlight, to its utter credit, is a throwback to a time when gaming was escapism and narrative augmented the experience rather than defining it.
This is a game that can play on almost every machine built in the last five years — it has a “Netbook Mode” for those who want to do some gaming on the go and don’t want to tote around a 10-pound gaming beast with them. It’s a game that feels familiar by the time that ten minutes have passed and second nature by 30. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can play Torchlight while you’re having a conversation or watching TV or eating dinner. If you need to take a quick break from it, you’re free to, as long as you’re not in the middle of a battle. Enemies are relegated to their own spots on any given map, and as long as you or your trusty pet don’t invade their personal space, they won’t invade yours. The game saves wherever you decide to stop and picks right back up again in the exact same place.
These are design decisions that seem obvious but are still welcome sights in what is essentially a budget stopgap of a release. Torchlight, as it happens, is a twofold stopgap of sorts, placating one very specific audience while courting another.
On one hand, this is obviously a “right place, right time” sort of release, what with nearly ten years having passed since Diablo II was released and at least another year before Diablo III arrives. We’ve had a few tries at hack ‘n slash ‘n loot games in the years since Diablo II that try to fill the niche that it dominated for what seemed like ages after its release, but none have been quite so faithful as Torchlight (with the possible exception of 2005’s Fate, which introduced most of the elements that make Torchlight such an engrossing experience). Torchlight is a game for people who miss not a universe, not a certain set of gaming lore, but a mechanic — a point emphasized by an utterly anticlimactic “ending” that does little more than urge the player to delve into a new dungeon that simply does not have an endpoint or goal associated with it. The only motivation to enter this new dungeon is to hack and slash some more and maybe find a truly bitchin’ weapon or three. For many, that’s all the motivation that will be necessary.
(Of course, the many ludicrous Steam achievements are an extra kick in the pants for those who need it.)
The other audience that Runic is courting, then, is that of World of Warcraft. Torchlight establishes the universe of an upcoming MMO by the people at Runic, and given the number of reviews of Torchlight that could be summed up by “it’s great, but it needs multiplayer!”, it’s hard to imagine that an MMO experience in the Torchlight world would be anything but a success. Anyone enamored with the Torchlight dungeon crawling experience would certainly be on board — how better to ensure that you won’t be playing catch-up to MMO veterans than by getting in on the ground floor of a game whose universe you’re already familiar with?
But I digress; indeed, digression is all too easy with a game like Torchlight, for which the gameplay is so much like second nature that it nearly ceases to exist. It’s a game that scratches an itch and little more, but it’s like scratching that itch with a superdeluxe backscratcher — it just feels indefinably better than all of the other ways that you’ve tried to scratch the itch before.