Grim Dawn may still be a good few months away (currently perhaps at the end of August), but I've had my hands on some early alpha code to get an impression of this furrow-browed, grimly serious action RPG from the former Titan Quest developers. You can see my thoughts below.
The first time I heard about Grim Dawn was when Kieron spotted it in August 2010. A few members of the Titan Quest team had bought the rights to the engine, and were set to make another game - this one a far darker, more hardcore action RPG. I got in touch with the team and suggested that it might be good if we could visit their studio at some point. Which was when I found out they were working out of a garage.
Leap forward a couple of years, and after Tim Schafer invented Kickstarter there was a way for the game to receive the financial boost it needed. In fact it nearly doubled its target, making over half a million dollars. Presumably they're not in a garage any more. And now: I've been playing it.
This is alpha code, and just the first third of the game, but it's enough to sate my need to finally play the thing. And gosh, that title's appropriate. It is, mostly in the right way, grim. Dark, gloomy, and mercilessly tough, it's the game I'm certain so many furious Diablo fans wanted D3 to be when they found out that had planned to feature colours. There seem to be two central pillars here: traditional, and difficult.
Which is a mighty good thing, I should add.
It's extremely dark and bleak environments at first can look a little primitive, but you quickly realise the detail comes with study. Much has been done to the old Titan Quest engine, not least freeing the camera to rotate on the X axis, and you don't need frills when it's serious business. So you really already know what to expect: A Tetris inventory attached to a character sheet of square slots, basic stats embellished by a sprawling choice of skills, and hundreds and hundreds of monsters to left and right click all over.
Structurally, there really are no surprises. Portals take you back to town, inventories get bursting full with items incrementally better or poorer than those you're currently using, combinable gems to slot into weapons and armour, and everything else you might expect. And blimey, that's always a pleasure.
While Torchlight 2 has done a splendid job of fulfilling most people's needs for a classic aRPG, at the same time it remains a very breezy, light and cheery game. Grim Dawn is its aesthetic antithesis, far less immediately friendly or becoming. It growls at you, where Torchlight offered a warm hug. And as I've mentioned, it's far more challenging. Perhaps, I'd argue, at this point a little too challenging.
As I've been playing, and having a thoroughly good time, I realised I've been forming a shopping list of features I'd love to see tweaked or improved in the remaining development time. There's always a danger when this happens of ending up writing one of those shopping list pieces, in which you just list them all out and what's already a very decent game can end up looking like it's a collection of problems. So instead I thought I'd just write a shopping list.
These really do fall down to balancing issues at this point. My experience with the Soldier class - offered alongside Demolitionist and Occultist - was so difficult that I eventually restarted, going for the more mixed abilities of the Demolitionist. Soldiers should really be the tank character, but he was very weak against larger gangs of enemies (and you can be fighting upward of fifteen at a time), with no ranged abilities of much use. You can, after level 10, mix in another class, but even the Demo ability I picked was still not enough to stay alive quite long enough at this point. Restarting with the Demo, I've had a much better time, although again around the level 10 mark the difficulty really kicked in. Get to 12, however, and suddenly things even out again.
Not that it's a bad thing, of course - an ARPG can be a tedious affair if there's no challenge, and Grim is obviously aiming to be on the much tougher end of that spectrum. But there's a line between high difficulty, and not having enough fun, and with the Soldier at this point I was dying so frequently that the repeated runs from the last rift gate became pretty frustrating. And that's furthered by the slow addition of new skills. It would seem ideal if you were adding your third ability to your roster by level 10, rather than 12-13, but unless you've left your current skills extremely underpowered, you're not there yet. It's not a huge deal - it's only another 45 minutes play - but spikes like that can need smoothing out.
Although I really do wonder how much would be fixed were there only more health potions. Obviously the genre is well known for having players just spam the things, and clearly a greater emphasis on tactics, running away to let the rapid heal kick in, and just being better at the game, are all an improvement on that. But health is so prohibitively overpriced at the start, and the rarest of rare drops as loot, that using one feels like quaffing the precious bottle of wine you were saving for the birth of your first kitten. There's also an enormous cooldown on them, meaning proper health spamming is just impossible. Good, in many ways, but when combined with the issues mentioned above, it leaves me feeling extremely helpless.
Like I say, these are just balancing issues, most likely born of the team being so good at their own game they've forgotten that new players at the very start are going to need a bit of a warm up. Beyond this, absolutely everything is in place for a great action RPG. Right now this is early alpha, complete with bugs and all, so absolutely no judgments can be made for the long-term. In the short-term, it's already shaping up as a properly challenging game in a genre that's recently become perhaps a little over-user-friendly, and that's a very welcome thing. Grim as it is.