The Action RPG has fallen on hard times of late, but if your memories are yet to be dulled by encroaching old age or rampant narcotics abuse, you may remember a time when it was cock of the PC gaming walk. It was all about Diablo, of course - the fantasy click 'em up was nothing short of a phenomenon. As moreish as Sour Cream & Onion Pringles (well, I like them) and as simple as the thought processes of the average Big Brother housemate, it entranced millions of gamers (many of whom played it online for years after its release) and made a shitload of cash for Blizzard. Diablo got its sequel, of course, and there have been the two D/ob/o-apeing Dungeon Siege titles released in the years since, but the genre's stock has never reached the levels of those heady days where the big thing in PC gaming was to guide a man around a dungeon and make him kill thousands of monsters in rapid succession.
Titan Quest is supposed to be the game to change all this. Developers Iron Lore -whose head Brian Sullivan was also the brains behind Age Of Empires - have tried to create a top-down clickfest of epic proportions, unburdened by the likes of party management, confusing class and skill systems, complex storytelling and, well, anything else that interferes too much with the real business of destroying evil beasties.
Want an example? Take the first thing you do in the game: create a character. While most RPGs ask you to choose a race, class, skill-set, some stats and perhaps even model yourself a face, all Titan Quest asks is that you choose a man or a woman and a colour for his or her tunic. That's it No need to pick out hair dye and choose whether or not they keep their nails in good condition -you decide if you want your character to have breasts or not and five seconds later you're in, looking down at your character standing in some ancient Greek countryside.
Oh yeah: if you haven't already worked it out Titan Quest isn't set in your standard orcs, elves and quasi-medieval castle-filled fantasy world. Here, you'll be doing all your questing, slaying and looting around the ancient world: Greece, Crete, Egypt and beyond. Instead of introducing ogres to the pointy end of your blade, you'll be kicking the living poo out of mythical creatures like satyrs, minotaurs and harpies, and you'll be visiting Athens, Memphis and Babylon.
Greece Is The Word
The story, such as it is, is that olden days Greece is being invaded by a veritable horde of the aforementioned mythical creatures and it's your job to find out why and put a stop to it. The form that this investigation takes is pretty simple: you kill everything in your path and occasionally a friendly person will stop by and tell you where to go next. You can also embark on short, optional sidequests, but you never have to wander far from the main quest route to do so.
The gameplay is strikingly reminiscent of Diablo: it's an RPG stripped down to almost pure combat, with a bit of levelling-up spice thrown in. You get the odd stroll through a friendly town or city to catch your breath and admire the fantastic visuals, but the developers have ensured that you're never more than 30 seconds away from another fight. What bits of background information there are can be ignored should you wish, as they're irrelevant to the plotline.
Fastest Finger First
In fact the game is so stripped down that you can easily play through it without once touching the keyboard (except to type in a suitably heroic moniker for your character at the beginning - something like Ajax or, er, Domestos). Left-clicking on a patch of ground moves you there, or performs your normal attack if the pointer is hovering over an enemy, while the right mouse button can be bound to perform a special move or spell. -The mouse wheel controls the camera zoom (it can't be rotated, incidentally). That's pretty much it, control-wise. You can make things a little more complicated (or simple, depending on how your brain works) by assigning power and special moves to the number keys, but otherwise it's merely a case of left-or right-clicking and enjoying the beautiful ragdoll carnage that ensues.
So you move your character around the gorgeously realised world and fight gorgeously modelled and animated creatures, usually in waves of four or five basic grunts with the odd specialist class or mini-boss chucked in here and there. Say you're currently encountering a load of halfman, half-goat satyrs, for instance: some will be bowmen, some will wield axes or spears, one or two will be spell-chucking shamans and once in a while, a hulking, muscular brute will crop up. As variety goes, it's hardly amazing, but what is niftier than a nifty thing is the fact that the enemies and the weapons or loot they carry are somewhat randomly generated. We say 'somewhat' because certain kinds of creature (satyrs, undead, insects, demons etc) will always inhabit certain areas, but the actual specific creatures will be different each time you play through.
Who's The Boss?
An action RPG wouldn't be complete without its boss fights, and Titan Quest does well here - at least on the visual front. The first huge foe you fight is a Cyclops (see 'Die Cyclops, die!', above right), and he's BIG. In fact, to show you how hard he is. he bashes in the skulls of a few pathetic hoplites before turning his one-eyed gaze on you. Later, you face a giant minotaur (in the middle of a Cretan labyrinth, natch), skeletal princes, scuttling spider-queens and - shades of Ray Harryhausen here - animated statues. All of them look eye-gogglingly impressive, especially when they die in awesome ragdoll fashion.
The only exception is the Telkine, a hugely powerful titan apparently created by the developers. Before meeting him, several people inform you in panicked tones about what a badass he is, but for some reason, Iron Lore have made him look like (we kid you not) an evil version of Orko from He-Man. As well as being a bit silly, it looks out of place, smacking more of a traditional sword, sorcery and beard-ridden fantasy setting than one based on real myths and legends.
Repeat, Relax, Rinse
The real disappointment with the bosses is that when it all boils down to it, you fight them in the exact same way as you fight anything else in the game - by giving your mouse a good old bashing. .They just take a bit longer to fall down, that's all. If this game does have a serious flaw, it's the fact that, as the boss fights illustrate, it's extremely repetitive. Every bad guy, no matter what kind, can be killed in the same way as the last and, with nothing meaty in the way of plot or character interaction to break it up (your guy/gal doesn't ever speak), it becomes almost hypnotically relentless.
What helps to keep you going, as was the case with Diablo, is the fact that you develop your character's skills and collect shinier and sharper weaponry as you progress through the game. Each monster you kill, and each side-quest you complete, rewards you with experience points and loot, be it weapons, armour, rings or simply cash to spend later on weapons, armour and rings.
Bags Of Character
Stuff your experience sack with enough XP and you'll level-up, allowing you to bump up your stats and increase your powers and spells. There isn't a strict class system here: you choose one mastery at level one and a second at level eight. Each mastery contains its own powers and abilities, which can be picked and chosen as you see fit.
I created a magic-using character (did the Greeks have wizards?), able to summon a hard-hitting buddy made out of lava and rock, shoot fire out of my hands and turn enemies against each other, but the ' possibilities are pretty much limitless given the amount of customisation. You can be a rogue-type fellow specialising in stealth and ranged attacks, a masochistic bastard able to lap up massive amounts of punishment ora graceful fighter, slicing and dicing your way through legions of blade-fodder with a sword in each hand.
Add the customisable weapons and armour (see 'Charm School', opposite) and you're laughing. Yep, character development is the one part of Titan Quest that feels semi-innovative. That's not to rubbish the game at all - after all, Iron Lore never set out to make Oblivion, Fallout or Planescape Torment. They didn't even set out to 'reimagine' the action RPG genre - they just wanted to make a big game that was as simple and as enjoyable to play as Diablo. I In this, they've succeeded. While the story (penned by Braveheart and, er, Pearl Harbor scribe Randall Wallace) be more hackneyed than a man repeatedly driven over by a fleet of black cabs, the game feels huge and some of the set pieces and locations look suitably epic. In fact besides Oblivion, it's the best RPG around in terms of its presentation.
What A Boar
The music score is stirring, the sound effects solid (a dying boar sounds exactly as we imagine a dying boar would!) and the graphics are utterly beautiful. The ragdoll physics add immeasurably to the fun of the game - I couldn't stifle my cackles as my beefy rock-and-lava sidekick punched a blueskinned woman off a cliff and into the sea hundreds of feet below - and there's simply an overall feel of a well-made, quality product It's also incredibly accessible - Iron Lore have said they wanted to make a game that your mum could pick up and play (actually they said, "your mom"), and to their credit they have. Everything is tool-tipped to death, but you'd have to be a halfwit to have trouble understanding what's required of you here.
But, needless to say, it won't appeal to everyone. The lack of a gripping storyline is a minor flaw for a game like this, but it's a flaw all the same. There's also the danger that eleven or so hours into things, the sheer repetitiveness (and dare I say it, easiness -I died on about two or three occasions the whole time I played it) of the game might have worn you down to such a state that you might decide to put the thing back in its box and go back to the non-linear likes of Oblivion. These things are linked, of course - a plot laced with twists, turns, intriguing characters and powerful themes (you know: revenge, love, lust, betrayal) can drive a game on when the gameplay itself starts to become a bit of a chore see Baldur's Gate ID. You don't get that here.
Then again, nice as it would be. you shouldn't really expect it This is a pure action RPG with huge production values, great visuals and a fairly diverting levelling system. It doesn't rewrite the rules of the genre because it isn't supposed to. Allow me an analogy, if you will: if Oblivion is a gourmet dish with a rewarding taste that needs some acquiring, Titan Quest is a Big Mac - it's pretty tasty and fills a hole, but it isn't going to provide any huge surprises.
Download Titan Quest
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Imagine, For a moment, the traditional roleplaying game setting. Picture it in your mind. We're guessing that you're probably visualising a quasi-medieval world populated by greenskinned orcs, gold-loving dwarfs, bearded mages and sexually ambiguous elves. There are probably lots of skulls lying around for dramatic effect, and potions with spindly writing on them that have to be quaffed. And possibly enchanted swords. Enchanted swords that are on fire. The world - or should we say 'realm' - is probably called Tiranna or Belmara or Calvados. Are we anywhere close?
It's all getting a bit tired, we think you'll agree. Yes, JRR Tolkien churned out some books that many of us might admit to liking a bit, but the legacy is so widespread it's ludicrous. Consider what's on offer in terms of goblin-ness - Dungeon Siege II, World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, Dungeons & Frigging Dragons Online. It's all dungeons, hammers and eldritch - and enough to make you want to hunt down and torture the nearest hobbit.
Walk Like An Egyptian
Which is why we were immediately intrigued by Iron Lore's forthcoming debut effort, an action RPG set in the ancient world. Think about it: the rich, evocative settings of Greece, Egypt and Crete. A cast of fickle gods, gargantuan titans, brave/wily heroes and the weird and wonderful monsters we all know from classical myths and legends. This, we thought, sounds more like it. And so, trusty noil-enchanted dictaphone in hand, we ventured forth on an odyssey of our own (or at least a flight to Boston and a cab ride to the Iron Lore studio), to get a first glimpse of Titan Quest in the flesh.
"As far as roleplaying goes, the fantasy genre's been a little overdone over the last 20 years, Iron Lore head honcho Brian Sullivan tells us. "We think ancient history is a nice refreshing topic for the genre. With his rosy cheeks, dazzlingly white teeth and tightly coiffed blond hair, Sullivan reminds us strangely of Lethal Weapon and Predator 2 actor (and prize nutcase) Gary Busey. Thankfully, he decides not to hold his hand above a fag lighter before fighting us bare-knuckle on Danny Glover's front lawn before developing one of Hollywood's most famed coke habits. Instead, he opts to run through a demo of the game he's been working on for the past half decade.
Labour Of Love
I ron Lore has been working on Titan Quest since late 2000, and I this lengthy production period ' shows in some almost worrying attention to detail. Sullivan kicks off ZONE'S walkthrough of the game by taking the hero around a Creek village buzzing with activity. Beautifully animated jugglers juggle, storytellers perform in the sunshine, merchants hawk their wares, street urchins dart about and dogs forage for scraps. Everywhere you look you see movement, from the lush backgrounds to the sauntering characters gently swaying vines hang from walls and fishing boats slowly rock at the quayside.
While women with snakes for hair and lizards with magically restorative necks aren't entirely historically accurate, the architecture in these hub' parts of the game certainly is. You'll be standing next to all manner of Ionic, Doric and Corinthian pillars - nattering with the ancients and finding out which part of mythology you're next destined to smite.
"We want to give people a feeling for what it was really like to live in the ancient world," says Sullivan. "So we spent a long time making very detailed, almost photorealistic worlds. We have tons of books of just the flora and fauna of Creece and Egypt."
Not being experts on ancient Eastern Mediterranean vegetation beyond what an olive looks like, we take his word on the accuracy of the plant life as our hero moves from the safety of the village into a more rural area. "Creating cities is a relatively easy thing to do, if you have great artists," Sullivan continues. "However, the scary part is creating a great-looking outdoor world."
Let's Co Outside
Now this wo can attest to. Iron Lore appears to have pulled off the great outdoors brilliantly. Rather than the terraced slopes and blocky fences of yore, gorgeous water effects and gently rolling hills are the order of the day.
The insane level of detail remains -aside from the oft-mentioned green stuff there are abandoned carts, campfires and tents - and again, your eye catches little movements everywhere. Birds circle overhead, strands of corn sway to the side as our hero or his foes wander through unharvested fields (having ignored clear signs indicating a nearby public footpath we might add). To complete the picture, Sullivan pauses to unleash some kind of area effect spell, its blue blast sending a convincing ripple through the blades of grass nearby. Nice stuff.
And so to combat, the thing that you'll be spending most of the game's 30-40 hour lifespan engaged in. It seems to be a simple affair, with the requisite hammering of the left mouse-button being used to attack with whatever weapon or spell you've equipped at a particular time. We saw axes, swords, javelins, bows and shields durinq the visit, and Iron Lore is quick to point out that the works of Homer don't shy away when it conies to pointy implements of death.
Titan Quest's lighting effects come to the fore here, as the entire place is bathed in eerie glows. When mummies die and their bandages catch fire, the shadows from the ribcage beneath spread across the floor. Another spell is unleashed, summoning a magma-bodied friend to help the main character out. The way this guy erupts from the ground is yet more eye candy heaped on to an already laden plate.
Shake The Room
After Sullivan lays waste to a couple more eye-catching baddie types (spirit-infested statues and a priest soil whose magic allows him to pick up and hurl stone blocks), the demo finishes off with a teasing flourish. We hear a snatch of booming laughter as an enormous statue at the back of the room tears its feet (the only part of it we can see, incidentally) from the floor and begins walking towards the hero. We fade to black.
It's terribly impressive stuff from a visual point of view, but where a game like Titan Quest lives or dies is with gameplay. Can the straightforward point-and-click combat appeal to hardcore gamers as well as the casual fans that Iron Lore is so keen to ensnare? Sullivan tells us he wants the game to attract Sims fans as well as enthusiasts, while one of his cohorts claims that the game will be simple enough "for your mum to play. However, the highly customisable skill and class system Iron Lore showed us seems a little too in-depth for the average post-pub player, let alone a mother who struggles with the concept of a TV remote.
An engaging story could certainly play a big part in this, although Sullivan and co were remaining frustratingly tight-lipped on the matter of plot and background. Although weie fairly certain there are Titans involved somewhere. And probably a spot of questing, too.
From Aesop's fables to that brilliant one your mate told you in the pub the other night involving your mate's dad's brother's cousin twice-removed, the llama and the marmalade, we all enjoy a good story - and stories don't come much older or grander than those of Greek mythology. Why they haven't been the subject of more games we're not quite sure, but sitting in the conference room of our Athens hotel, we're hoping that a combination of Brian Sullivan's insight - Iron Lore's head honcho - and a stab at playing their historical/ mythology-based RPG for ourselves will show us what we've been missing out on.
The first thing that's noticeable is the lack of start-up choices. Normally, RPGs overflow with options when you kick-off, but there's no time wasted here on deciding which class or hairstyle to pick, or what skill to put that last point into, as the only choices you're given at this stage are gender and the colour of your robe. It still takes me an agonising five minutes to decide (hey, I'm a woman!), but I finally plump to deck out my fierce Greek warrior woman in a fetching baby blue. In the same way Krispy Kreme doughnuts are a feast for the stomach.
Titan Quest is most definitely a feast for the eyes. Far away from the smog and the insane Athens drivers buzzing around swearing at each other, the on-screen action shows a very different Greece to what I've experienced so far. Cypress branches rise into the air, grass parts at my feet as I walk, stone walls mark off fields, shadows dance along the ground and trees wave gently in the breeze.
Here To Help
As I make my way along the paved road, a stranger approaches and asks for my help in rescuing his horse. Since we're about 2,000 years away from the RSPCA helping out I eagerly dive into the nearby field and polish off the two animal-abusing satyrs (half-goat, half-men) with my bare fists.
Picking up a dropped weapon, I continue along the road and soon come upon a small Greek village where the inhabitants are nervously going about their day-to-day business and local guards stand alert at the village borders. Grabbing hold of a talkative local, I'm informed that their farming land has been over-run by pillaging monsters and they're in need of help.
Unable to shake off my responsibilities as a former Brownie, I hack my way through the despoilers and eventually dispatch the satyr mage who's been leading the band. Returning as the village hero, I chat to a village elder who points me in the direction of Sparta and the main quest begins.
Leaving the relative safety of the village and heading off into the Greek countryside, it soon becomes clear that although the route to the next main area is quite clearly marked, there's plenty to be found off the beaten track. Enemy encampments, treasure chests, spectacular hillsides offering views over lower-lying bits of landscape (enabling you to see tiny little enemies in the distance), as well as underground caves that demand exploration litter the landscape and invite plentiful footage.
But of course, such wanders will also bring you into contact with many of the locals, and there aren't that many who you'd class as 'friendly'. "We've got 85 types of creature in game: skeletons, centaurs, cyclops, hydras, gorgons, harpys. Pretty much all the stuff you see in a Harryhausen movie, you'll see in our game," explains Brian Sullivan, before laying out the 'monster proxy' system that does the hard work of deciding which enemies you should face.
"It looks at your level, how many people are in your party, what their levels are and then decides which type of monsters to spawn, how many to spawn and what level they should be."
With Iron Lore having worked hard at a 'tactile' feel, combat is fast-paced and action-packed with multiple enemies, dazzling particle effect spells and opponents you've dealt with catapulting off in comical ragdoll fashion. If you've played Diablo, it'll all be familiar stuff (albeit liberally sprinkled with a 21st century dose of graphical splendour), as you click on enemies and watch your character hack them to pieces.
For once, there's also a link between what you see and what you get, so if one of your enemies is wearing a tasty helmet or using a hefty sword, they'll drop it for looting once they've bitten the dust Every once in a while you may also stumble upon a Relic as well; a small fragment of a legendary item such as Achilles' spear, which you can use to enhance your weapons or armour with power from that hero.
Game Of Skill
Soon after starting, you're faced with your first of two choices in skill mastery. Choosing from eight options (Defensive, Earth, Hunting, Nature, Rogue, Spirit, Storm and Warfare), your choices define what type of hero you become, enabling pure-bred battle-hardened warriors to co-exist alongside buff-heavy rangers or healer rogues.
Once you've chosen, you can spend your hard-earned skill points on either general mastery which unlocks more of the 20 abilities, or pumping up your lower level skills, expanding and increasing their effects. Gone is the idea that these lower level skills will become useless some way into the game; Iron Lore have concentrated on making sure that all abilities unlocked early on are made useful throughout the entire game. This will also be clearly represented on-screen.
"Our special effects are scalable, so at the beginning of the game when you only have one point in 'fireball', it's going to be quite a small fireball," explains Sullivan, waving his arms as if he's handling his very own imaginary flaming sphere. "When you add more points to the fireball, the special effects will get bigger at different levels. With high-level skills, there are sometimes huge pyrotechnic effects that dominate a third of the screen."
Then, without much further ado, we're transported to Ancient Egypt - a level more than a little different, especially with its breathtaking start-up harbour environment Gigantic ships line the jetty, gorgeously rendered water laps the shores, towering Egyptian statues guard the entrance to main buildings and local wildlife flitters, lopes and strolls alongside the waterfront Journey further through the sun-baked mud huts of this level and you find yourself battling jackal warriors, giant scorpions and malignant spirits in some spectacular Egyptian libraries and tombs. All this and no-one tries to sell you souvenirs once.
It doesn't stop here either, with other levels plucked from Titan Quest's pack of 24 featuring legends like the Hanging Gardens Of Babylon, with its regimentally organised sections of flora amid trickling streams, peaceful waterfalls, mosaic wall scenes and winged Persian sphinxes. The China level is also a bit of a looker with its ornate oriental palaces, cherry trees in blossom and even the first game setting to be visible from space - the Great Wall.
As is the fashion with such hack-and-slash beasts, Titan Quest is set to ship with an advanced level editor which will give the njod community their chance to create any tall tales they feel have been missed out Sullivan is quick to sing its virtues: "It's the most powerful and easy-to-use editor that's been released yet so we're hoping that people do create a lot of content" He also divulges that: "We've already had people actually talking about re-creating every single mythical story in ancient Greece using the editor." We're keeping our fingers crossed for a Clash Of The Titans mod...
The only piece of the jigsaw left is the storyline, about which Iron Lore are keeping decidedly tight-lipped. We did manage to gather that the Titans (gods before gods) will feature, as they have escaped from their eternal prison to wreak merry havoc upon the world and its inhabitants.
Sullivan also confirms that, "you'll be kicking some Titan butt by the end of the game", so it looks like the story will (again) depend upon your hero going all out to save mankind and the Earth. Luckily, Iron Lore have brought in some writing talent in the form of Randall Wallace (screenwriter for Braveheart and Pearl Harbour), so at least the story that ties everything together should be an epic yam.
Titan Quest's beautiful looks, easy-to-use combat and lack of gore are bound to attract players of all ages and abilities to the game. However, we have our reservations about how much the mechanics of a ten year-old game will still appeal, but Sullivan is adamant that the tried-and-tested formula will work just as well with today's gamers.
"The play mechanics are similar to Diablo because it's been established that it works. You don't break something just to be different - and if you look at the skills, the bosses and the places you go to, you can see that Titan Quest is a different experience." Only time will tell whether Iron Lore's belief in the undiminished appeal of Diablo-play will prove correct, but whatever the case, our large, unblinking Cyclops eye will remain focused on the project Unless Titan Quest stabs out that eye while we're sleeping and escapes from our cave pretending to be a sheep.