I posted a review a couple of weeks ago on Critical Gamer for Runic Games' RPG sequel Torchlight II. As the review attests it's a superb action RPG in the vein of Diablo etc. Despite the much aggrandised looting I actually found the most exciting and enjoyable aspect of the game to be the combat. This was mostly down to two things:
1) lots and lots of enemies
2) variety of enemy attack patterns.
So a lot of the time during combat I was a bit lost amidst the flashing colours; which also left my puny laptop struggling for breath. But I never felt like my many, many deaths were unfair; my mortality only ever recalled thanks to me taking my eyes off the Diablo style health-bubble-thing for too long. It was a lesson quickly learnt - though also one surprisingly easy to forget when being pummelled by masses of tentacley djinni-beings.
However my interest post-reviewing Torchlight II was the high regard I found myself slapping all over this game. Looking further afield to other reviewers I also found the same was true of them - all of which earned Tl2 a (all hail the) Metacritic score of 88% (the exact same score as Diablo 3 - weird, no?). Just as importantly I also found that when reading these reviews they almost always stated that the game does very little which feels particularly new.
John Walker, of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, wrote: "It's perfect at being something we already know. It really makes no effort to take the genre anywhere new." While IGN's Charles Onyett concluded: "Torchlight II doesn't do anything radically new, but does everything incredibly well." And Game Spot: "Torchlight II doesn't innovate and it doesn't surprise..." You get the idea. These reviewers, and several others - this one included -, concluded that the game manages to achieve greatness not through innovation but refinement of its genre's mechanics. This is nothing new in the history of computer games, especially considering most publishers' fondness for tried and tested formulas, but what fascinates me about Tl2 is that it almost entirely gets away with it.
Not that it shouldn't, it's an amazing game, but many other games have become synonymous with fan-rage (if also a little bit of record-breaking-sales) due to an equal lack of innovation. I am of course talking about those pithy little Call of Duty games. But innovation-deficiency isn't always so maligned. Turning to the Fifa series or, for that matter, the regal Dragon Quest series its apparent that these games, like Tl2, more than deserve the praise they get for their playability and refinement of their original mechanics. But they also lead us to an interesting question. What is the best approach to developing a computer game within a genre? Is it best to innovate or refine?
As a lover of games I find myself conflicted. I generally prefer games which, even to the detriment of the gameplay, choose experimentation as their raison d'être. I love Deadly Premonition for its ambition and experimentation with mechanics and story-telling, but as a game - as a functional game - it's a bit like a split tennis ball. And yet despite these problems with pioneering ambition, I have generally believed that these are the games which progress the industry in terms of mechanics, aesthetics, and story-telling.
However! I think I might be doing a disservice to games such as Tl2 and Dragon Quest when I see innovation as somehow "better". What the Torchlight games did (and do) is to approach the genre of Action RPG and try to refine it so that the experience becomes more playable and more enjoyable. Though it might seem a bit of a truism to say it but this approach is arguably just as important to the development of computer games as innovation. While Tl2 doesn't provide us with any particularly original mechanics it does slightly change the mechanics of the genre, providing a specific take on that approach to interaction. Runic seem to be refining and subtly changing the mechanics to fit what they believe (I imagine) to be the best way of running an ARPG.
In this respect the game develops the genre as a functional means of playing. If a cricket bat is a means of playing cricket, its development as a tool is one in which it becomes better and more refined as a means to do that. Similarly, games such as Torchlight, Dungeon Siege and of course Diablo 3 work very tightly within the structures of the genre to make the tools better; to make the game more playable. There is certainly a sense that within such games there is very little elaboration upon these mechanics but the incremental changes are important to our experience. The skills tree, for instance, can be quite different and therefore have a certain impact on how we play the game.
Comparing the skills available in Diablo 2 and Torchlight 2 we can see that the two are quite different. In Tl2 unlocking one skill doesn't lead to the unlocking of the next, instead providing a level based progression which allows for, I believe, greater experimentation and focus on the part of the player's chosen approach. It is important to state that in many ways these changes are not better or worse but instead provide a slightly different take on the ARPG.
These decision, which may seem small, become the developers' expression - their decision as to what element works; how to better implement a mechanic. Creativity (mechanically speaking - of course Tl2 looks great too) here lies within these small decisions and it must be admired that a team would work so closely with a set of staple mechanics in order to subtly change them, or, in their mind I imagine, advance and improve them.
Therefore! Should we even really be including criticisms along the lines of 'same old thing'? Well, yes, if that is important to the game. But, as with most angles of criticism, I think it must be important to determine the role of the work. When playing Tl2 I never felt like the game was meant to provide dramatic innovation, and in some respects it thrived in the gaming portion of my brain because it lacked innovation. What was great about the game was its subtle yet decisive way it approached the tried and tested ARPG formula. If it had included a serious form of innovation - I don't know, like...a talking hippo - (actually that's shit isn't it?) - then it no doubt would have functioned remarkably differently. This, again (again!), is rather obvious but what I'm driving at (remarkably efficiently I might add), is that games which choose to refine, choose to use an established rule set which they believe can be improved, however slight that improvement may be, then that is how we should regard their work. The question I suppose is how well do they achieve that?
So, to sum up, I found myself after playing Tl2 once again in love with games which simply play incredibly well. It is a position which I'm sure the vast majority of gamers happily occupy but it's one which I've never given its due (not that it needs it from me). So: Here's to great games which have no desire to drastically innovate their given genre! hip-hip Hooray!