Blog 689: Titan Quest

My quest for the perfect action-RPG, the elusive Nox-killer, continues. I’ve heard a lot about Titan Quest over the years, constant rumours of its goodness, but it was never purchaseable so I shrugged and moved on.

I think you already know how this story begins. A remaster appears on gog.com, it is deeply launch-discounted, and gosh, I’m not playing anything right now.

Titan Quest

Alas, this is the point where I need to stop searching for good action-RPGs and concede that what I want from the genre is at absolute odds with what everybody else in the entire world wants from the genre (and thereby gets produced).

Every time somebody said “action-RPG”, somebody else whispered “Titan Quest“, and the forum thread collectively sighed with longing. Even Dionesiist said it was good, and he knows his stuff!

I don’t understand it. Titan Quest is, like all the other “good” action-RPGs out there, flat.

I bet it's "more fun in multiplayer" too.

I bet it’s “more fun in multiplayer” too.

This time, you are born into the world only having chosen your gender and the colour of your tunic. Choice of class comes when you level up for the first time, after having smacked a couple of satyrs around the head. I picked Storm Caller because a few lightning bolts seemed like a good way to perk up a warrior, then added Defence later on for the Shield Rush ability (Bull’s Charge by any other name would smell as sweet?).

Enemies are scattered liberally but regularly across the countryside and a succession of characters will send you trouncing through them along the main quest. Sometimes they’re satyrs, sometimes they’re centaurs, sometimes they’re just crows and pigs — but whether it’s an enemy camp or a cave or open fields, as long as you haven’t been there yet, it’s full of enemies.

I think this is one of my major gripes — because the scattering of enemies is so uniform there’s no texture to your travels, no spikes and lulls. You just exist, trudging onwards, rinsing and repeating the same dull actions without variation and without end.

To be fair, most of the world seems to be composed of bandit camp anyway.

To be fair, most of the world seems to be composed of bandit camp anyway.

And those action are very dull. It has the same irritatingly ambiguous left-click-does-everything control scheme as every other action-RPG, where you just hold down the left button until the thing under your cursor deigns to fall over.

Sometimes you cast a spell, but casting a spell requires you to activate it and then click a target, rather than just firing forwards, so it breaks the flow of combat something awful. The buttons are not entirely responsive either, so sometimes spells will fire off in the wrong direction for no good reason, or if you didn’t notice the spell was in cooldown you’ll start attacking an enemy you only wanted to blast. This is another point where Nox wins: when you press a button the action happens in the direction of the cursor, giving it a sense of immediacy and sharpness that just isn’t possible with this more common control scheme.

Skills are as uniform as the enemy placement anyway. “Improving” skills by putting points into them may make them deal more damage, but it similarly increases their mana cost and enemies gain more hitpoints too so you’re never actually getting better — only spinning a statistical hamster wheel where everything is proportionally stable. What’s the point?

Some of the enemy creature designs are all right I guess?

Some of the enemy creature designs are all right I guess?

Death is irrelevant as usual, only a minor inconvenience as you wake up at the last Rebirth Fountain (yes, not even an attempt to dress it up in the fiction). This is invariably barely a minute’s run away from where you died — and since you’ve already killed everything it’s not even an eventful minute.

Because death is meaningless there’s nothing to fear, and with nothing to fear there is no tension. Is that a boss enemy that might take some effort to defeat? Meh, I can die or not and what difference will it really make? Five minutes more? Whatever, I can buy more potions while I’m in town.

We all complain about grind in games, but to me grind is just an expression that  the core loop is unsatisfying. If combat is enjoyable, then there is no such thing as grinding, only fun repeatedly tackling challenges with a good set of tools. Here, there are thousands upon thousands of enemies but the tools available are just a bit cack.

Your destiny lies... through another few miles of samey countryside with identical enemies.

Your destiny lies… through another few miles of samey countryside with identical enemies.

Loot, at least, seems to be items that were actually carried by the enemies you’ve just dispatched. Wild animals drop related charms that can be applied to your items to boost them, while civilised enemies will drop the weapons and armour they were using before you murdered them.

There’s even inventory tetris, which in another time would have pleased me but here feeds straight back into the absolute pointlessness of everything. You can portal back to town, any town you’ve visited, any time you like, with no limits and no fear. As if the negligible effects of death weren’t bad enough, the trials of organising your inventory are irrelevant because you can jump away and sell everything in seconds — and even use your portal to get out of difficult combat if you like!

Level requirement limits can get to fuck.

Level requirement limits can get to fuck.

The Verdict

I just don’t understand what it is about this particular formula that seems to get everybody else foaming at the mouth but leaves me cold. Loki was a pile of shit with a few nice ideas but now I can tell how much it just aped Titan Quest. Torchlight II is at least slick and stylish and pretty, but ultimately it’s as hollow and pointless as this.

I don’t want to hate action-RPGs. My love for Nox may be evergreen but I would like to play and love other things too, things that refine and tweake and evolve that formula. Instead, everything has chosen to evolve this formula; this formula which is (to me) fundamentally bland and uninspiring. Despite the praise, Titan Quest has turned out to be just another notch on the same old boring, empty bedpost as all the rest.

I refuse to believe that I am the only one in the sixteen years since Nox was released to think its ways are worth developing. Even if nothing major followed its lead, then where at least are the mid-tier games, the hidden gems that didn’t make the mainstream? They must exist. I can’t be the only one to even attempt to follow the trail Nox blazed. No. Fucking. Way.

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8 thoughts on “Blog 689: Titan Quest

  1. Okay, I guess I have to try NOX at last – it is in my GOG library since ages and I am somewhat curious about your love for the game đŸ™‚ (I myself never liked ARPGs that much and only played some titles for a few hours; the latest one was PATH OF EXILE, which really was mindless clicking until death).

    Did you try SILVERFALL? Well, it was just another Action RPG from around ten years ago, a bit better than LOKI according from the reviews (but only with the add-on which did fix some problems – while the original add-on for TITAN QUEST made things worse according to some players).

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    • Hmm, no, I’ve never heard of Silverfall. Looks like it’s a 3rd-person RPG though? I’ve had a lot better luck with those over the years, so I’ll definitely add it to my wishlist. It seems to be the top-downs specifically that can’t get things right.

      And yes, you definitely should try Nox! Of course, after all my hype, I’ll be worried you don’t like it. :E

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  2. I remember enjoying Titan Quest quite a bit. But I think I got it as a rental and after finishing it never felt the need to return to the game. It had some good stuff, but the level design wasn’t great. I enjoyed it more than torchlight, but that might be due to having played it earlier.

    Finding a game that can much up to your all time favourite can be difficult. My favourite action-rpg is Secret of Mana and I can say with confidence that no other game since has quite matched up. Not it’s sequels nor it’s spritial successors.
    The games that for me have come closest in feel are actually very different games: Little Big Adventure 2 for it’s story and Ori and the blind forest for the balance between action/story/music.
    Wait, I’m forgetting about Zelda. That’s the one that’s actually the closest, except that it’s story feels less epic.

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    • The thing is, if I want a cheesy late-90s FPS there are thousands of them to choose from, all generally starting from an acceptable baseline even if they don’t go anywhere particularly special. Sure, none have ever toppled Unreal Tournament, but I’ve still found lots to love along the way.

      Whereas, it feels like the in the action-RPG genre there is no chance that even the basic functionality is going to be engaging, let alone the rest of the game layered on top of that. But there are thousands of games like this, I’ve played too many of them, and I still don’t understand why this setup managed to proliferate so much.

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      • I think that it’s because the base gameplay is more complex than with shooters. With shooters, you can notice most of the important things as soon as you start moving and shooting*. With a-rpgs, you usally start out with only part of your package, you switch gear etc. It’s harder to balance and it’s more easy to mistake what’s the really important stuff. More of the gameplay is tied to content.
        It’s also an issue of people liking games without really knowing why and then trying to recreate them, which is much more prevelant with complex rpgs than with shooters.
        With shooters, people often remember the shooting. With rpgs, they often remember the loot and the story and get a bit foggy on the action bit.

        *amazingly, even this a lot of shooters fail at. (though not as many as platformer that fail at jumping <.< The easiest physics to implement!) But there's just so many shooters that the really bad ones don't even get heard of.

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      • I don’t think the base gameplay really is that much more complex in an ARPG, though. It’s just movement and attack; click to move, click to attack vs. arrows to move and click to attack. Maybe a shooter puts more emphasis on aiming and an RPG swaps that for a more tactical element, but there’s still not much in it in terms of player input. That’s why I find it so odd that the basics are so consistently janky across the years.

        I also disagree about gear adding anything meaningful to that — changing gear doesn’t touch that core loop, because it just fiddles numbers in the background. Yes, this speeds up or slows down how quickly you/enemies die, but generally in such infinitessimal increments that it’s not worthy of comment. It’s just a constant hum of background noise. You’re right, no wonder it’s hard to balance, with so many numbers everywhere not doing very much (not being allowed to do very much?).

        So, uh, yeah, I still don’t get it.

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      • That’s what I mean. The numbers/fuss. There’s so much stuff that people often don’t see the important things. Same with 4X games. That’s why I like Age of Wonders so much, they know their strength is in the tactical combat and everything else in the game relates to that in one way or another. A lot of people who like 4x games don’t like AoW as a result, but the people that do like it like it a lot.

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