Game Review: Torchlight 2

Sometimes the world of gaming seems to be one of feast or famine. Either you're eagerly anticipating one or more upcoming releases, and seething to various degrees if and when said offerings are delayed, or you glance back at your homescreen/watch/phone and wonder how it's possible that you've been engrossed in a game for that many hours. This phenomenon tends to reign supreme in the realm of video games, as the development costs alone often make leveraging certain shopping seasons a tacit necessity, and we're presently on the cusp of the last onslaught of releases in the year 2012. If all continues to go well, we'll have more games than we know what to do with by mid-October. Challenge accepted.

The past few weeks have delivered a pair of long-awaited sequels into our hot little hands in the form of Borderlands 2 and Torchlight 2. While I wish I had reviews for each ready to go, graduate school and my <ahem> limited experience with first-person shooters truncated those ambitions. Fear not though, for Torchlight 2 will get plenty of much-deserved attention.

While I'll readily admit that I came into the fold of aRPGs relatively late in my geeky tenure, the genre had near-immediate appeal and my first ventures into said realm (via Titan Quest and Torchlight) quickly succeeded in sucking away a not-insignificant quantity of time. That being said, I can confidently assert that the guys and gals over at Runic Games did a wonderful job with the follow up to their beloved original title. Of course, you'd expect nothing less from the some of the same guys who brought you Mythos and Diablo II. While it's common, and probably only natural, to see parallels drawn between this latest release and this year's much better known new kid on the aRPG block, the majority of my breakdown will compare Torchlight 2 to its predecessor.
Initially, Runic Games intended for this title to be a MMORPG but quickly shelved those plans when they 1) saw that people loved Torchlight in its original aRPG form 2) realized their own organizational shortcomings with regard to MMORPG development as Torchlight could not even accommodate LAN co-op nonetheless a gaming tier based entirely on multiplayer use. The company partnered with the Chinese publisher Perfect World and put their MMORPG plans aside in favor of developing Torchlight 2.

The sequel does almost everything that you hope a succeeding volume will do: preserves the stuff you loved about the original while adding elements that you wished were present during your earlier playthroughs. Runic, contributing to the trend we've seen a bit of this year, made it very clear that they heard the concerns and complaints of their constituents and took that feedback to heart in order to create a game worthy of the Torchlight moniker. A new rendition of the often moving and deep soundtrack beloved in Torchlight features prominently and, while the graphics have been fine-tuned, players will likely find the overall look to be simultaneously striking and familiar.
Set an indeterminate number of years after the events in Torchlight, players return to the much-maligned town to find that the previously playable Alchemist has been corrupted by Ordrak's lingering influence. When this former champion lays waste to Torchlight, players find themselves fleeing the destruction and fighting for their lives amidst cadres of unwholesome beasties.

As in the original, players begin by selecting a class then run rampant over a series of successive levels in order to complete quests and gather wondrous loot. The format and base mechanics are essentially identical to Torchlight and most other aRPGs. Also akin to its predecessor, the actual adventuring is the active driver of the game rather than any storyline. Though the latter is present, it isn't exactly the deepest narrative you've encountered, but this probably won't even register since you'll likely be consumed in various dungeon crawls and perusing your skill trees.

Speaking of which, the skill trees are one of many considerable features Torchlight 2 brings to the table. Players can still configure their accumulated experience points into one or more of three distinct trees but the depth of the potential synergies and utility of stacking effects brings not only a new dimension to your current run, but sets the stage for experimentation that encourages multiple playthroughs within even a single class. The number of "oh I've got to try that" moments add up with remarkable speed. The available options feel weighty enough to be exciting, but don't cross over into so-complex-it-needs-a-wiki territory.  Other great improvements/additions in Torchlight 2 include the following:

Replayability: As mentioned above, the diversity of the skill trees alone will probably foment the desire to play certain classes several times. Add to that the new class options (more on this in a moment), new difficulty levels, a host of tantalizing achievements, and a randomizing feature that reconfigures the maps/spawn points each time you play and you've got an effective rebuttal to one of the biggest complaints for Diablo 3. A single playthrough also walks that fine line between being long enough to get a sense of accomplishment and value when you finish, but not so long that multiple runs would seem onerous.

Customizable Avatars: Though the customization features aren't the most comprehensive in the genre, they are leaps and bounds above the stark three gender/class pairings available in the original. Players can now select between genders and choose from a sampling of face shapes, hairstyles and colors. As in Torchlight, can also give your avatar a unique name or let the game come up with one for you.

Pets!: The classic wolf companion is joined by seven new options: a standard housecat, a bulldog, a papillion, a panther, a hawk, a chakawary, and a ferret. The actual in-game effects of each species don't seem to vary, but there are a wide array of fish (yes, the fishing mini-game still features prominently) to transform your pet into a number of new elementals and fantastical creatures.
The Engineer can lay some serious smackdown


New Classes: Though it may seem at first glance as though there's only one addition to the stable of playable classes, it quickly becomes apparent that the classes themselves are more substantive. Yes, you do have your traditional party roles: mage/cleric, ranged, and melee, but there are a few nuances built into Torchlight 2 that, in conjunction with the reworked skill trees, make for a robust playing experience. Players can select from Embermage (mage/cleric), Outlander (ranged DPS), Berserker (pure melee), and Engineer (heavy/tank). All of the classes are highly versatile and, with enough tweaking of your skill tree, you can finagle ways to get skills that meld elements of other classes if you so wished. 

Multiplayer**: As mentioned above, the lack of even a two-person co-op option caused gamers to rail against Torchlight. So prevalent was this gripe, that Runic actually made it the focal point of their marketing materials leading up to Pax East 2012. Given the original overarching goal of Runic Games, it was clear that they were going to have to demonstrate their capability to host multiplayer games and foster a good community of regular participants. Torchlight 2 does provide players with both a LAN and a general internet multiplayer option but, in all honesty, this is the portion of the game that has consistently caused the most frustration. When the multiplayer does work, it works smoothly and makes for a highly enjoyable playing experience. However, getting an internet game to work is often wrought with disconnects and error messages. Additionally, gamers have to create a separate login for Runic Games that is supposed to have the ability to link with their Steam account and manually add friends (even if the friends are on Steam AND even if you bought the game on Steam). So why not just allow players to login with their Steam account? This is also assuming that a successful link can, in fact, be made, something that several gamers found to frustratingly not be the case. Torchlight 2 patrons have also noted that if they experience a disconnect during the course of an internet multiplayer game they are barred from re-entering the online multiplayer lobby, as the game does not recognize them as having logged out. These unlucky players frequently have to wait up to an hour to be permitted to rejoin the lobby. As it's only been a week since the game's release, I'm willing to cut the developers some slack as they work out a few bugs. However, if these issues aren't addressed in the near future it will likely have some unfavorable repercussions for Runic.

Other intriguing but less obvious additions include the high degree of modabbility allowed by Runic Games. The creators are passionate about allowing their customers to express themselves via the game and actively support player developed content. The layout of the game itself is also far more open. Without the confines of a downwardly spiralling mine shaft, players will find that the maps they are presented with contain considerable open space, something fans of Titan Quest may find especially enjoyable.

Torchlight 2 is a very enjoyable and highly addictive adventure well worth the potential, and hopefully temporary, frustrations occasionally associated with the online multiplayer. At only $14.95-$19.99 (USD) you'll definitely feel as though you got your money's worth while simultaneously lending your support to a small studio passionate about creating quality games.

**UPDATE: After several patches, the multiplayer (both LAN and internet based) has improved by leaps and bounds. Aside from the occasional, very infrequent disconnect the multiplayer is now highly stable and very enjoyable.

Happy Gaming!
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Nerd Life: A Geeky Balancing Act

Hidey-Ho Nerderinos! (Sorry, couldn't help myself :-P) You may recall that last week's post started off with some tongue-in-cheek but simultaneously semi-serious wistfulness about the change in seasons and the associated return to reality after the halcyon days of summer. Passing observational remarks notwithstanding, we tend to accept these transitions without much thought, moving along to the next phase of the year, as we all recognize at some level that time will progress with or without our consent. (note to self: get back to work on that flux capacitor) The same can be said of any number of transmutations that we each undergo during the course of our lives. Though a small number of societally lauded evolutions get special regard as a coming-of-age or hallmark events, the vast majority of our growth as individuals takes place within the purview, but beneath the notice of, those around us. Take this in conjunction with that whole relative time as a series of Lorenz Transformations phenomenon that seems to occur as you get older and it'll come as no surprise that many of us will periodically pause to say: What in the name of Mogo have I become?

(Ok, if you're still in undergrad or grammar school this all probably sounds like a cacophany of elderly kvetching. That's fair. But, not to get all crotchety on you, this stuff is worth your consideration, as it will happen to you in all likelihood.)
A happy nerd is a balanced nerd
We've done a bit of talking about what defines a nerd/geek and our role as a cultural subset currently acting as fodder for major commercial undertakings across a variety of industries. While these are important, as they're the foundation for generations of geeks to come, they're really only half of what defines us as a subculture or demographic. This portion that has, until now, gone unaddressed is being a nerd/geek on a micro level: the actions and decisions that form the basis of your nerdiness day in and day out. This is the stuff that gets dismissed out of hand as mundane to most of us. You've always loved Lord of the Rings or painting Warhammer minis or a rousing game of Arkham Horror with your friends. What of it? What's remarkable about these aren't necessarily what exact geeky things we choose to do (though these are all awesome), but the manner in which we go about doing them. For many of us, partaking in our beloved pastimes is part of a delicate balancing act that we perform in order to function in a society in which non-geeks are the majority.

You may be nodding your head knowingly, recalling that high wire act from earlier years or even from earlier today. The act of concealing or offsetting your nerdiness amongst non-geeks (a.k.a. normies or muggles) as a self-preservation device is certainly nothing new. Indeed, my contention is that this little dance of faux-acclimation is something that we undertake in various forms and in differing degrees throughout our entire lives. Taken in aggregate, our freedom to pursue the desires of our nerdy hearts unfolds something like this:

From the moment that you abruptly realized that your hobbies and preferences weren't considered cool or acceptable to your peers you were faced with a choice: to continue outwardly expressing your true nature or to mask such in any number of ways. The demographics of your grammar school likely influenced your decision. Similarly, the composition of any post-secondary educational institution may have colored your choices to re-engage your geeky tendencies in the public sphere. Again, nothing really novel here. Kids tend to be mean to one another and we get to discover or reevaluate ourselves upon gaining a modicum of independence.

It's the years the follow that are the murky, largely unexplored territory. What do you do with all the freedom of legal adulthood, but also the responsibilities that said liberty entails?

We all face down this dilemma at one point or another, nerds or no. Most of us enter, or attempt to gain entry to, the workforce and spend the hours once occupied by homework trying to reconcile what makes us happy against what pays the bills. The added wrinkle to our potential experience is that what we consider enjoyable, stress-reducing, and, for some of us, sanity saving, is regarded as frivolous, obsessive, and fundamentally inappropriate for someone residing in anything but a dormitory.

That last bit is the real dividing factor as to how geeks and muggles try to balance avocation with tangible real-life demands. Spending an entire Sunday going through a case of beer while watching an American football game with friends is acceptable, devoting the same amount of time (and potentially beer) to a segment of a Pathfinder campaign or a round of Twilight Imperium with friends is not. Despite the fact that both sets of activities can be inherently social and gaming has been shown to assist in developing useful real-world skills, the latter is generally regarded as juvenile. As such, there is a legitimate potential for financial/professional harm when your favorite pastimes are equated with fantastical escapist childish notions wholly divorced from reality. Admitting that you're excited about the release of Borderlands II or an upcoming convention firmly places you into the category of Other: a wild card that does not adhere to socio-cultural standards. At best you're 'quirky' or 'eccentric' and, at worst, you're a potential threat to productivity incapable of assuming responsibility. The stereotype of the awkward basement-dwelling man-child may haunt you even if you've been fully independent since you turned 18. It sucks, no doubt about it. We can rail against that hypocrisy and latent unfairness all we want but, even in the midst of the Nerdaissance, this remains as the unfortunate state of affairs.

A lucky few of us are engrossed in careers that allow for freedom of nerdy expression, but most of us have to be chameleons, tempering ourselves in accordance with the demands of our surroundings. The byproduct of this sometimes complex dance is the not-uncommon bifurcation of "work self" and "home self". Many people experience the same phenomenon regardless of their geeky affinities. However, there seems to be a tendency amongst our brethren to try and overcompensate for the rigors of interacting with the muggle world, delving wholesale into games, movies, and costume-making to the exclusion of most other things. While this may help undue the stresses of the day, this behavior may be a contributing factor to some of the less savory behaviors that we've come to be known for. Most of us at the crux of the Nerdaissance are no longer carefree undergrads, but regular working shmoes struggling with this exact issue. We demand more from the properties we love because our free time is precious and if we're going to play/watch/read something then it better be good…damn it. Our purchasing power becomes a dual-edged weapon that can just as easily take down the drudgery of the day as bite into the hand that wields it. We partake in gaming so heavily that it stops becoming a stress reliever and instead morphs into an escapist portal that sometimes causes its own forms of stress. Our interactions with fellow geeks revolve exclusively around our shared passions because we have to be 'normal' for the majority of our waking lives but even this does not come close to ensuring our own happiness.

Damn…that's pretty bleak Kel.

Well it could be if we just accepted this as the only course of action available to us. But who says we have to do that? As with many of the other thorny issues facing the whole of Geekdom, a little mindfulness about our potential choices goes a very long way. AND, since most of us are very clever ducks, we can make a lot of progress into our communal headspace with remarkable speed. While the demands of life have only a limited amount of flexibility…that whole eating and not freezing to death thing…the way in which we perceive the less conspicuous requirements of our authentic selves can help create equilibrium.

I call this the Nerd-Life Ratio (NLR): essentially the proportions of geeky and non-geeky activity that make you happiest. Very few of us can be 100% nerdy all the time, so most of us exist on a sliding spectrum of geekiness. What we need to do is discern our individual Nerd-Life Ratio by taking a good hard look at what it is that makes us our most joyful, truest selves and trying to assign a narrow range. This range should be bookended by your maximum capacity for all things nerdy and the barest traces of geekery required in order to prevent 'binge nerding' or pushing beyond the reaches of your authentic self and burning out. The majority of that range is the proportion of time you need in order to be a happy, healthy geek on any given day.

Example: I work in an industry that generally frowns on most geeky things, but intellectualism and personal freedom are lauded. Taking the rigors of the work week and other basic domestic/familial commitments into account, I find that I prefer nerdy activities and interactions about 75-80% of the time and find that remaining 20-25% to be a refreshing and enjoyable change of vantage on occasion. This would make my NLR between 75/25 and 80/20.

This may seem difficult but, with a little planning and incremental effort, it's entirely possible to attain your desired Ratio most of the time. Furthermore, once we arrive at our own Ratio, it's critical to recognize that the majority of other nerds, even your close friends, will likely not have the same metric. We need to foster that same introspection in other geeks and support one another. Most importantly, we must respect the differences in our respective ratios. Just because someone has an NLR of 65/35 nerd does not make them a poser somehow otherwise lesser to your 85/15. Seriously guys, the Golden Rule is occasionally tough, but non-Newtonian physics it is not.We can do this and it's to our benefit to think this out.

So what's your Ratio?
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NomNoms! How to Make Lamb Samosas

Oh reality, we all have to return to your purview sometime. With the majority of this year's convention season, the Olympics, the summer (in the Northern Hemisphere) and its traditional accompanying reprieve from academia behind us, it's understandable to want heave a wistful sigh. However, the passing of some of these things opens new opportunities, or at least presents chances to encounter favorite seasonal activities and foods for the first time this year.

Here in New England, the transition from summer to winter is typically demarked with certain pastimes and events held so dearly by so many that they become associated with the region itself. You've got your apple picking, harvest festivals, pumpkin carving and, of course, the glorious explosions of color generously provided by our deciduous floral neighbors. These are all wonderful in their own right, this time of year rocks serious socks, but there are definitely a not-insignificant number of mundane little things that muster renewed appreciation when the weather turns cooler. Cooking is definitely one of these aforementioned things that I tackle with vigor after a few sweltering months wherein most food was either grilled or delightfully frozen.

With this in mind, I wanted to share a personal favorite mentioned a while back when the brilliance that is the personal pie maker first graced this blog. Oh pie maker, you are in your own class of phenomenal. Though this recipe is more difficult than any other currently in the Kitchen Codex, the tricky portion is limited to a single element of preparation and the end result makes this effort very worthwhile. Like all the other recipes posted on Care & Feeding of Nerds, this one easily accommodates variation and lends itself readily to experimenting. <cranks the Dr. Horrible soundtrack>

Difficulty: Advanced
Availability of Ingredients: Will Vary Geographically
Gadgetry: Recommended
Feeds: 2-8 Nerds
Time Till Noms: 45-60 Minutes

Required Equipment: A large frying pan, a 2-quart saucepan, rolling pin, colander, a microwave-safe mug or small saucepan, personal pie maker*, small sauce brush, muffin tin**
Optional Equipment: pie lifter*, spatula**

* mini-pie maker version, **non pie maker version

Ingredients
1 pound lamb (may be ground or whole)
4-6 medium-to-large white potatoes
1.5 cups of frozen peas
1 Tablespoon curry powder
2 teaspoons of salt
1/3 cup milk or cream
Crushed black pepper to taste
2 nine-inch (22.86cm) circles of pie dough (pre-made or your own)
6 'sheets' of phyllo dough
1 Tablespoon of butter (melted and cooled)

Optional bonus spices
1/2 teaspoon of each of the following:
Garam marsala
Ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon of each of the following:
Tumeric
Cardamom

A pinch of cayenne pepper for those Scoville unit aficionados out there.
The foundation of samosa goodness
Prelude: Before beginning any of these steps, remove your phyllo dough from the freezer if it was being stored there. The dough will need to be completely thawed before you can work with it. If you're using this recipe to make mini-pies with a muffin tin, preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit (218.33 degrees Celsius). If you're employing the muffin tin to get your mini-pie fix spray the cups with a light coating of the non-stick spray.

Step 1: Wash, then cut the potatoes into 1/2 inch [1.27cm] pieces. Once cut, give the potatoes a quick ice bath (see Stage One here for the how and why we do this) before them into your saucepan with enough water to cover them and a few shakes of salt. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and have the potatoes simmer in the background while you get to work on the next steps. Melt the butter in the microwave or on your stovetop in a small sauce pan. Set aside immediately after the butter has melted (this should only take a minute or so).

Step 2: If you're not using ground lamb, trim your cuts of lamb to remove the bones and/or as much of the fat as possible before cutting the meat into 1/2 inch [1.27cm] pieces. Toss the meat into a large frying pan with a pinch of salt and pepper, then brown the meat (about 8-10 minutes). 
If your mixture looks like this, then you're ready for potatoes

Step 3: After the meat has browned, toss the frozen peas into the pan to soften them. As the peas thaw, check the potatoes to see if they're done. They should give a little when poked with a fork or the utensil of your choice, but not be entirely squishy. Once the potatoes are of this texture, remove them from the stove and drain in a colander before adding them slowly to the frying pan with the lamb and peas.
Step 4: With all the ingredients in the pan, it's time to add the spices. Add as many or as few spices from the above list as you like, then add the milk or cream. The latter will help deglaze the frying pan, which will almost certainly be coated with bits of lamb and potato at this point. Fold all the ingredients together until they are well mixed, then remove the pan from the heat.
Post step 4 yummies
Step 5: This is the tricky part. Phyllo dough is usually sold in thick 'scrolls' that are comprised of dozens of tissue-thin 'sheets'. For every four pies you make you will need three 'sheets' of dough. The dough itself is extremely flimsy and prone to misbehaving (not cutting along a given line, clinging to countertops, etc). It will come coated in flour which will form a sticky paste when combined with your melted butter.

Mmm...delicious painting
Take a single 'sheet' of phyllo and gently paint the side facing up with a thin layer of melted butter. Now take a second sheet and lay it atop the first. They will stick together on contact, so be careful about lining up the edges as best you can. Paint the you-facing side of this second layer of dough with a coat of melted butter, then place a third 'sheet' atop the second. With a knife, cut your tripartite creation into quarters. These will be the tops of your pies. If you are making a full batch of eight pies (the yield of this recipe as listed), then repeat this step with a second set of three 'sheets' so you end up with eight pie tops.

Step 6: Unfurl your pie dough on your countertop. Gently press, stretch, or roll the dough until it's as flat and even as possible. Cut the dough into circles about 5 inches (12.7cm) in diameter. If you're using a muffin tin, test one of these 'rounds' in your tin to ensure a good fit and adjust succeeding rounds as needed. Cut eight of these 5-inch rounds (or as many as needed for the muffin tin).

Choose your own adventure!   Are you: Using a pie-maker? (Go to paragraph π) Using a muffin tin? (Go to paragraph τ)

Paragraph π: You preheat your pie-maker. You may want to return your rounds of pie dough (NOT the phyllo dough) to the refrigerator if your pie-maker is slow to heat, as pie dough is far more cooperative cold than warm. Once the pie-maker is hot and ready, you remove the dough rounds from the refrigerator and carefully place the 5-inch rounds into the appropriate places on the pie-maker griddle (you use a pie press if you have one). Carefully spoon out the filling, dividing it evenly amongst the four future pies. After dividing out the filling, you gently lay one of your quartered phyllo dough creations atop each would-be pie, then close the lid of your pie-maker. You wait with mounting impatience for 10 minutes while the pie-maker does its transmutation thing, then you open the device to reveal golden pastry nirvana. You try not to inflict second-degree burns on yourself by sampling prematurely as the pie cools.

Paragraph τ: You quickly test one 5-inch (12.7cm) round against the circumference of one of the cups of your muffin tin. Success! They are an approximate match (you adroitly adjust if they do not). You line the cups of your muffin tin with the 5-inch rounds then giddily spoon the savory curry filling inside. You cap each filled muffin cup with one of your quartered phyllo dough creations and gently press around the circumference to seal the flavor inside. You place the muffin tin inside your preheated oven, then ponder the true nature of human existence for 10 minutes as heavenly scents waft throughout your kitchen. You check your muffin-pies after realizing that hunger is a more pressing concern than the musings of the existential self. Brilliance! You are rewarded with flaky, flavor-filled delights. (You return the pies to the oven if they are shy and unready to be welcomed into the world...and your stomach).

Nomnoms ahoy! Wootz!

FAQs

I'm a vegetarian/vegan/non-red-meat-eater. Do you absolutely have to use lamb in this recipe?

No. You can definitely substitute the lamb for another meat BUT know that the flavor will shift accordingly. Also, if you decide not to use meat at all (which is totally ok) I would recommend adding vegetables, lentils, or chickpeas to the mix rather than tofu or another non-flesh solid protein, as the latter tend to do funky things to the overall texture of the samosas.

Just how optional are those so-called 'optional spices'?

The only spices you absolutely should use in this recipe are curry, salt and pepper. Whether or not you add anything else is entirely up to you. Depending on where you live, it may be very difficult or prohibitively expensive to acquire the spices, so I tailored the recipe to stand on its own without them. If you can get your hands on any of the optional spices then I'd recommend giving them a go, but if not you're not going to miss out.

Where do I find phyllo dough? Does it go by any other names?

You can find phyllo dough in the frozen foods section of the supermarket, most commonly near puff pastry and frozen ready-made pie crusts. While phyllo does go by many different names, phyllo is the most prevalent nomenclature.

I can't find/don't want to use phyllo dough. Can you recommend any substitutes?

Puff pastry will work in this recipe if phyllo dough is a no-go, but this type of pastry dough is often pretty expensive. You can also use standard pie dough for both the tops and bottoms of the pies. If you have a Indian/Asian market nearby, you may be able to procure frozen roti, which would also work well.

As always, have fun with the recipe and happy nomming!
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