Thursday, July 27, 2006

DIABLO IN A TOGA

Posted on Thu, Jul 27, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Titan Quest for Windows XP
Publishing House: THQ
Rated: NONE
List Price: 49.9900
WorkNameSort: Titan Quest for Windows XP
Platform: PC

The year was 1996, and the sound of constant clicking heard emanating from desktops and dens across America was that of a lonely warrior ' or mage or Amazon ' assailing the undead-infested dungeons of Diablo. Blizzard's seminal PC game (and its even more amazing sequel) didn't just help to revive the flagging role-playing genre, it created a hack & slash genre all its own.

Now it's 2006, and that sound of clicking you hear? It's that same hack & slash gameplay, all dressed up in a Greek toga and resurrected for a next-gen audience. Give a shout out to Iron Lore's Titan Quest, a mythology-themed paean to Diablo that feels like the video game equivalent of a well-crafted VH1 retrospective or high-school reunion. Some things get old ' Star Jones and Jessica Simpson, anyone? ' but that click-click-click never does.

Hope you have your copy of Bulfinch's handy. Instead of traipsing through the depths of hell, Titan Quest sends you on a tour of Greece (and Egypt, and Asia) in an attempt to capture a nasty ol' Titan who has inconveniently broken free of Zeus' prison. Even though you know there's absolutely no depth to the endless clickety-click, you find yourself compelled to blaze through the endless bestiary of gorgons, centaurs and zombies, just to see what the next level holds ' or to experience the visceral thrill when a particularly well-cast ice shard sends a bleating satyr hurtling several feet into the air. (Love that physics engine, guys.)

The gameplay hasn't advanced over the last decade, but the presentation sure has. As day spins literally into night, it's hard to miss how lush, detailed and gorgeous the environments are ' or, depending on what cave or ruins you've stumbled into, fetid and disgusting. Sometimes all this beauty comes at a cost: The environment hiccups every now and then, the gorgeous backgrounds looking like a rug that's been momentarily bunched.

Given the ridiculous amounts of loot you'll stumble across ' you practically turn the Greek countryside into a weapons-and-armor landfill as you progress ' the game's puzzle-piece inventory system is a little frustrating. Luckily, the town portal system also made the cut here, so you're usually only a few moments away from a trader who's willing to convert those rusted gladii into glittering gold.

Character development is Titan Quest's smartest hook. Once you've reached a certain level (specifically, Levels Two and Eight), your hero can begin developing skills in up to two masteries chosen from a menu of eight ' four of which favor a bash-'em melee style and four that favor magical effects like hurling flame waves and summoning earth elementals. The mix-and-match approach opens up huge RPG vistas ' it's possible to play through as a brawny naturalist who bashes, then heals, or as an elementalist (my personal fave), mixing ice and fire magic. Best of all, there's a mechanic for undoing your ill-conceived decisions ' and it's not a button labeled 'new game.â?� Wishing you hadn't spent your skill points on a particularly useless spell? If you've got enough gold, no problem: You can simply visit a town mystic, who'll happily rearrange a few points to your liking.

Unlike Chris Taylor's Dungeon Siege series (a party-based RPG that tried to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the player and ended up with a game that virtually played itself), Titan Quest scores by simply serving a classic dish in a shiny new package. It's not the sort of trick that'll work every year, but just running into your old crush at those high school reunions once a decade works just fine.

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