reviewed on PC
In 1996, Blizzard Entertainment released Diablo and gave birth to the Action RPG genre. The game industry has never been the same. Developed by Iron Lore and published by THQ, Titan Quest is the latest entry following this ten year old pattern. But, not all patterns are created equal.
You start the game by creating your character. Visual character customization in Titan Quest is virtually nil. You choose between male and female, and one of a handful of colors for their tunic... and that's it (eventually, you're given the ability to buy dyes to change your tunic to better colors). Aside from gender and color preference, all characters start the same in the eyes of the gods, with nothing but a dagger, your wits, and a handful of coin to lead you to victory. At least, until you start slaughtering every aggressive creature in sight.
The leveling system in Titan Quest manages to be both refreshingly free and curiously rigid. There are eight masteries from which to choose - Storm, Earth, Warfare, Spirit, Defense, Nature, Hunting, and Rogue. You are allowed to chose one mastery upon reaching the character's first level, and another upon reaching level eight. Each level yields three skill points, which may be spent on the mastery's skill (ie, Warfare Mastery), or skills in the mastery's tree that for which you qualify (ie, Weapon Training, Battle Rage, Onslaught). Theoretically better skills require up to 32 points in the mastery skill - these points also grant stat boosts relevant to the mastery (Warfare Mastery grants Strength, Dexterity, and Health). While the initial choices are somewhat few (one point in a mastery's skill unlocks only three skills), they quickly open up to a dizzying array of possibilities. Luckily, the game allows you to reallocate points spent in the various non-mastery skills for a modest sum of gold; but you're not allowed to remove points spent in the mastery skill itself (so you could take points out of Weapon Training, but never Warfare Mastery).
This might sound a little confusing, but it's really quite simple: choosing a mastery is like choosing a class. Putting points into that class unlocks skills, which can then have points invested in them. Those skills can be purchased back at Oracles, but you can never retrieve the points spent in the class. This is unfortunate, because you can't take back a poor Mastery choice, but that makes your Mastery choices all the more important, and gives players something to look forward to in new characters. Leveling also grants the character two ability points which can be spent to raise Health, Magic, Strength, Intelligence, or Dexterity. Strangely, these points can not be reallocated at all.
The depth of the leveling system comes at the price of it being somewhat easy to create a weak character. While Titan Quest is not a 'hard' game in the sense of a constant challenge, the boss creatures can be radically more difficult than 90% of the other creatures you encounter, making these fights a potential exercise in frustration for bad character builds. The Oracles can't help if you place too many points in a Mastery skill, and not enough in the skills themselves - or if you choose to place all your abilities in something like Health, which lets you live longer but doesn't help you use better equipment. Why Iron Lore chose not to allow the player to reallocate ability points and points out of a Mastery skill is beyond the knowledge of this reviewer.
From the fields and light forests of Crete, through the deserts and oasis of Egypt, across the Silk Road and down into the thick jungles of China, the environments of Titan Quest are simply marvelous. I looked forward to each new location with bated breath, in the hopes that the next would outshine each previously stunning entry. Even the comparatively drab dunes and sands are livened up with terrain features - such as the iconic Sphinx, tumbled masonry from partially completed stone structures, palm trees and the infrequent oasis. As the sun rises and sets, shadows from the objects in the landscape shrink and grow appropriately (though not so with the player character's shadow) - between this and the different colors of the ambient light (rose for the rise and set of the sun, a blue for night, a bright glow at noon) added another rich layer of stunning beauty. The in-game map does a splendid job of recording where you've been, and the size-adjustable compass shows the player the direction of interesting landmarks. Both are welcome additions and make navigating the game world a breeze.
Of course, this is not a sightseeing game, and your character is assaulted on all sides by monstrous creatures from myth and legend. Satyrs and wild boar may greet you in Greece, but by the time you have completed your quest, a dizzying array of man-beasts will lie dead by your hand, and - of course - hordes of the undead will have been put to their final rest. The models and animation are all well done, though the physics engine's ragdoll animations can sometimes be awkward and often seem silly. Smaller creatures can be punted across the screen with a well-placed hit, bouncing off the scenery or falling off of cliffs or into water. Unfortunately, the frequency of unreachable terrain and relatively loose physics
means that sometimes desirable loot will wind up inaccessible as well.
The story of Titan Quest is what takes you on this journey, and while adequate it doesn't stand out as much as the graphics. Insanity has broken out; help thy neighbor, help thy country, then save the world. However, it is told against such a rich backdrop of history and lore, it's difficult to bring any fault to it; those who stop to speak with all the NPCs in a town will inevitably find a storyteller who spins a tale appropriate to the land. Those in Greece sing of the Muse, Gods, Titans, and how they believe the world was made. The Egyptians talk of Set, Ra, Horus, Osiris, Isis, and more. It's like a miniature history of ancient religion - the Chinese speak of The Way, the Jade Emperor, The Monkey King, creation myths and other bits of religion and mythology. It makes for a somewhat surreal playing experience, to hear the folklore and then kill the creatures from it. The visual excellence blends with this rich history to preset the feeling of a snapshot of mythical history through ancient eyes - not as in fact it was, but how it might have felt to those that lived when people still believed in titans and gorgons and minotaurs. The interaction with this 'history' is very one-dimensional (point, click, kill), but it captured this reviewer's imagination.
No Pros and Cons at this time