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Game Name:  Titan Quest
Developer:  Iron Lore Entertainment
Publisher:  THQ
PC Release Year:  2006
Review Date:  June 27, 2016

It is funny to consider how a little thing like a weekend getaway can break someone out of a routine and rekindle long-forgotten interests.  That is exactly what happened to me before the birth of our son, when we decided to spend the weekend in Chicago to see the Field Museum’s roaming exhibit on classical Greek culture.  This ultimately served as a gateway back to my historian roots, reminding me of all those quiet undergraduate days spent reading and writing about the ancient cities of Athens and Babylon.  Now I am hooked, and have sought to incorporate this subject matter into my gaming, with recent retrospectives on Rome: Total War and Age of Empires: Rise of Rome the end result.  As enjoyable as it was to lead a civilization to greatness in these titles, I wanted to find a subject for this post that was outside of the strategy genre; something that explored this time and place at a more human level.  So it was that I picked up a copy of Iron Lore Entertainment’s ode to the action-RPG, Titan Quest, which if I am being honest, turned out to be one of my better gaming-related decisions.  Not only did it give me the chance to wander the dusty trade routes from Greece to China, as I had been yearning to do, but it allowed me to experience one of the absolute finest Diablo clones ever made.

In some respects, the passage of time has been kinder to Titan Quest than most games of its age.  It certainly helps that its graphics engine was a form of future-proofing, as a look back at high-end video card reviews from 2006 reveal a tendency to have used this as a benchmarking tool.  Few systems back then could coax smooth framerates out of this application at maximum settings, and while I chalk it up to poor optimization with modern NVIDIA drivers, my own GTX 970 ran surprisingly hot while it rendered all the colorful landscapes and impressive shadows.  In a broader sense, though, the tastes and preferences of today’s gamers are different enough from what they were ten years ago to change how this game is currently received.  Back at release, the original reviews panned it for sticking too closely to the classic Diablo formula.  How were we to know then that the players who had graduated from action-RPGs to the insanely popular World of Warcraft would eventually lose interest when its developers began sacrificing mechanics and gameplay to expand their casual subscription base?  How were we to know then that it would be another six years before the release of Diablo III, and that when that fateful day arrived, millions of gamers around the globe would come to understand that the shuttering of Blizzard North had resulted in the death of the franchise’s soul?  Hard knocks like these, and a dearth of quality competitors in this genre space, have only served to show the world what a gem Titan Quest really is.

Like most of the titles that receive high praise on this site, Titan Quest does not succeed because of some truly unique and novel gameplay mechanic.  Rather, it boils an overdone genre down to its base components before building it up into something special with an array of small improvements.  Players hack and slash their way through thousands of monsters on the road to saving Olympus, in what to outside eyes may seem like senseless, boring violence.  To insiders though, it is that type of perfectly-paced escape from the daily routine; never so challenging with heavily-armored enemies that the action slows down, and yet never so easy that the player can disengage, thanks to a cooldown system on the consumption of health potions and spells.  The appeal of an action-RPG is character development, but it is tricky to get right since the enemies have to scale with the player or the game becomes a breeze.  Iron Lore Entertainment not only made the search for epic loot enjoyable, as it explodes out of treasure chests in a feat of visual splendor, but they trickle out just as many powerful items as are needed to make players feel like they are diverging from the mean.  Then it becomes a fascinating puzzle to equip this gear, as a new weapon may require a little extra strength that has to come from swapping out one helm for another.  Of course, all of this fails to mention a character development system that puts the control into players’ hands, as classes are ultimately determined by the selection of two otherwise disparate talent trees.  It was incredibly satisfying to do something unconventional, like calling down thunderbolts from the heavens while I ran around in melee range using my rogue abilities, rather than being pigeonholed into some type of tired fantasy archetype.

Of course all of this fails to mention Titan Quest’s raison d’être, which is its wonderfully realized world of myth and magic.  Sure, just like any action-RPG, there are more skeletons and satyrs than players can shake a stick at, but its stylistic tone provides a completely different experience from Diablo’s religiously-infused gothic horror.  I am frankly tired of the claustrophobic passageways, perpetual darkness, and extreme seriousness that traditionally defines this genre, so a bright sunlit world full of silly creatures that pay homage to Ray Harryhausen’s work, on films like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts, was a welcome breath of fresh air.  If there is one flaw with the level design, it is that a disproportionate amount of time is spent traveling through Egyptian tombs and Greek temples, which I can only surmise is a byproduct of our western culture’s familiarity with these people's mythology.  While players do get the chance to square off with genies, weretigers, and magically-controlled terra cotta warriors once the action works its way to China, it would have been amazing to make a sojourn into ancient India to see the Ramayana come to life.  Even without such a diversion, it was just plain fun to see the likes of Polyphemus the cyclops or Chiron the centaur leap out of my memories from 9th grade English class, especially in a living world full of friendly NPCs to converse with throughout the adventure. 

If you look at Titan Quest in a broader context and compare it to other games in the genre, like Dungeon Siege for example, it is easy to find some of the same flaws present.  After all, the playthrough clocked in at what would normally be an unbearable 27 hours, there is absolutely no explanation for the hero’s motive to leave home in order to save the world from a vengeful titan, and there is no banking system between towns so any and all extra gear needs to be kept in the player’s inventory.  Then there is the elephant in the room that is harder to deal with: The frequent crashing that occurs because of conflicts with modern drivers and anti-virus programs.  I almost opted not to provide a recommendation on this basis alone, especially after a particularly frustrating lockup resulted in me losing an hour of progression and an epic ring that I had been lucky enough to find during a side quest.  In the end, though, solid gameplay and amazing polish, like seeing enemies drop a sword if they brought one into combat and watching day turn to night in rhythmic cycles, is just too much to ignore in an already stellar gameplay experience.  There are few development houses that have managed to make a better Diablo than Blizzard has, but Iron Lore Entertainment has done just that with Titan Quest.

Verdict:  Recommended