Titan Quest on Consoles is a Sad Thing
A great game degraded to “barely okay.”
I love the original Titan Quest. It’s a classic PC action RPG that was state-of-the-art in 2006, combining new ideas and technologies with a design that sought to improve on Diablo II.
The new console port, released this year on PS4, Xbox One, and Switch, found all sorts of exciting ways to take a rock-solid foundation and mess it up.
Two years ago, THQ Nordic and Pieces Interactive surprise-released Titan Quest Anniversary Edition on PC. It was a 10th anniversary celebration of a deservedly-loved game. It combined the original game and expansion into one package, cleaned up the interface a bit, added some light new graphical touches, and made the whole thing much more compatible with modern systems.
It also laid the groundwork for a brand new expansion, Ragnarok, which launched in 2017.
This year, Black Forest Games (makers of the recent Giana Sisters games) was hired to take that Anniversary Edition and put it on consoles. It was the second time that Titan Quest got a port to a non mouse-and-keyboard control scheme, the first being a mobile port done by DotEmu a couple of years ago.
DotEmu’s port was very true to the original vision. Unlike this new one.
The new Black Forest Games port launched in a very rough state, coming to Xbox and PS4 in March and not hitting Switch till the middle of summer. To be fair, it has improved by leaps and bounds since its original launch thanks to a long series of patches.
But with how solid the core game was, there’s no excuse for how many problems this new version has.
I’ve purchased all three versions because I love Titan Quest and hate myself, and I’ve been desperately trying to finish at least one of them across my standard PS4, Xbox One X, and Switch for the better part of half a year now. Here are some of the many reasons why I’ve failed…and also a bit about why I haven’t yet given up.
LOADING TIMES OH NO
Titan Quest is a game about loot. Early in the game, your character has a limited inventory space that fills up very quickly, and as you reach certain milestones you earn new bags that expand your carrying capacity. The limited inventory space is mitigated by a magic stone you can drop on the ground, creating a portal that lets you zip back to the last town to sell off your junk.
On a PC, even on a modest mechanical hard drive, the loading screen takes under 2 seconds.
On consoles, the loading times are so profoundly extended that it all but kills the entire flow of the game.
The Nintendo Switch is the worst offender, with fast travel loading screens that regularly take 20 seconds.
That means you’ll drop the stone, click on it, wait 20 seconds, sell all your stuff, click the return portal, and wait another 20 seconds to get back into the game. It’s agonizing. When you only have one bag in the opening hours, you often need to make multiple runs in a row to sell everything.
I guess I could just not pick up the loot, but then I wouldn’t get the gold I need later in the game.
The base PS4 does a lot better…relatively speaking. The average load screen during fast travel is about 10 seconds. That’s still kind of long, but if you play it right after playing the Switch version, the reduction is dramatic.
On Xbox One X, load times average around 6 seconds. Which is pretty good! Not PC good, but still just above what I’d call good. Until you think about the hardware you’re using. The Xbox One X has a fast CPU at its disposal, and enough RAM that it should be able to hold basically the entire data of the game in memory at all times.
Instead it’s forced to push its way through whatever issues exist in the code just to offer a tolerable experience. A 12 second round trip feels like light speed compared to 40 seconds on the Switch. And since you’ll be doing that so often, it adds up to a truly sad number of extra minutes over the life of a ~60 hour game.
Part of the charm of Titan Quest is that it takes place in a large seamless open world, and the fast travel times need to be short in order to keep the fun and the illusion alive. It’s great that you can still run from one end of the world to the other without loading on the consoles…but sad that it’s sometimes faster to run back into town rather than fast travel there.
WEIRD VISUAL CHANGES
I liked the lightly-touched up graphics in the 2016 PC Anniversary Edition. The textures were a bit cleaner thanks to access to raw art files, and the lighting engine got a modest overhaul to bring shadows and shading more in line with modern games, while still retaining the look of the original.
In contrast, it feels like Black Forest Games just took a paint bucket full of shader effects and dumped it all over the game when creating the console versions. Have you ever seen videos online of people messing around with shader injection software on PC games?
It’s kind of like that.
All of the lighting is now harsh and blown out, with over-bright bloom everywhere. Ambient occlusion is applied with zero care or subtlety, making each field of wheat look like a field of black goop as the shadows struggle to resolve around every plant. Many surfaces that have no business being glossy, like the back of a horse or the skin of a monster, now glisten as if they were polished with car wax.
At first glance it’s a big “improvement.” The effects they’ve slathered onto the game certainly make a noticeable difference. But in practice, a lot of the nuance of the art is lost.
The Switch version comes closest to matching the look of the original game, but only because the effects were toned down a couple of notches in the name of performance. At least in that department, there aren’t any major issues. The game runs at a solid framerate on all systems, and in 4K on Xbox One X.
Sidenote: Weirdly, even though the game runs essentially locked at 4K60 on the X, there are user options to turn the resolution down to 1080p, as well as lower the framerate to 30, if you want to. There’s no reason to check either of those.
But they spent time making them anyway. Time they could have spent on the UI.
Adapting a mouse-based game to a controller is hard…but it’s been done well by the likes of Diablo III, Path of Exile, and Van Helsing, among others, in the past.
I feel like Black Forest learned almost nothing from those games. The basic movement feels fine, though at initial launch it had an awkward momentum to it and you had to stop moving in order to pick up items. Both of those things have been fixed.
Combat is where things start to get a little kludgy. The game relies heavily on an auto-targeting system, trying to intelligently select the nearest enemy you’re pointing at but frequently getting stuck on whoever it feels like. If you’re playing a melee character, you can basically just hold the attack button down and watch your guy run from opponent to opponent without doing anything else.
It’s not super engaging. And it all feels a bit like playing the game with your hands in a bowl of pudding.
Targeting ranged abilities is done either through the auto-targeting system, or through a vision cone you can bring up by holding a button down. You sweep the cone around and target who you’d like.
It’s slow and clumsy compared to other games in this genre…and so is the rest of the UI. Bringing up the inventory, the thing you’ll do the most often, doesn’t have its own hotkey. Instead you have to press Menu/Plus/The Touch Bar to bring up a radial menu, then use that menu with the analog stick to select the inventory, and then press X/A.
Other menus are accessed in a similar fashion. It all feels at least one step slower than it needed to be. I find myself desperately wishing for a tabbed menu a la the last two Assassin’s Creed games, rather than this multi stage selector.
Two smaller points about the menus. Firstly, when selling items to a merchant, you can’t also equip items. In the PC version, you totally can, saving you one extra step if you find you’d rather equip something than sell it, or if you decide you want to use the new sword you purchased right away.
Second thing: pressing Menu/Plus/Touch Bar a second time doesn’t close the radial menu. You have to press B/Circle, or make a selection.
If I instantly decide I don’t want the radial menu open, I have to move my thumb and press a different button instead of just rectifying my mistake with the same input. The same thing happens with the secondary menu that lets you save your game. Accidentally opened this or didn’t mean to yet? Too bad move your thumb!
This is the kind of stuff that testing/design experience usually weed out. At first I was inclined to think that maybe Black Forest just didn’t have the budget they needed to make this port the right way. But after seeing the numerous patches and improvements…well, I don’t know what to think.
Titan Quest on consoles has numerous new bugs that weren’t present in the PC original nor the Anniversary Edition…even after several big patches. Some of them are of the crash variety, though overall stability has improved.
The easiest bugs to spot revolve around asset streaming. On all three platforms you’ll see bits of the environment jittering and flickering around. Sometimes things won’t load at all, leaving either a gray or checkerboard mesh in their wake. Similarly, sometimes spell effects won’t load and you’ll hit your enemies with squares instead of fire.
My least favorite/most-annoying bug is also really stupid. Every time you close the merchant menu, the merchant says two of their canned goodbye lines, right over the top of each other. If you keep opening and closing the merchant, this bug eventually stops. Until you visit the merchant again later.
It’s easily repeatable, it’s in all three console versions of the game, and it’s not in the PC version. I’m not a QA tester and I could write a coherent bug report about it, so easy is it to encounter.
It’s dumb and I have no idea why it hasn’t been fixed. It’s one of many sound bugs in the game.
Oh also, the game has all of the content from Ragnarok in it…but you can’t buy Ragnarok as of this writing. Meaning that enemies frequently drop inventory items you’re not allowed to pick up, and that there’s a whole skill tree in the menu that just taunts you and asks you to buy the expansion.
When your character comes face to face with a Ragnarok item and you try to pick it up they just awkwardly freeze and you have to try and nudge them around it.
POSITIVES AND A THEORY
In spite of all my complaining, perhaps the most frustrating part is that Titan Quest’s brilliant original design, gameplay, and visuals still shine through enough that I’ve spent many many hours with these ridiculous ports. I still intend to finish the game (probably on Xbox) and finally write a review.
The game manages to be fun in spite of itself, and in spite of so many obvious ways in which the port could have been better. Rarely have I seen such a good PC game reduced to such a mediocre one on the modern consoles. It’s the sort of thing I thought had died in the 360/PS3 era.
In fact, I have a theory about it. Titan Quest on consoles has a splitscreen mode, something the original developers of the engine (who now make the excellent Grim Dawn on the same tech) have said would be very hard to do. I almost wonder if Black Forest Games made the bold move of porting the whole game to its own new engine…or at the very least making substantial changes to the codebase in order to enable splitscreen and console online multiplayer.
It would explain why the game has so many new glitches.
But maybe that’s me being optimistic and giving them too much credit. I don’t know, and we may never totally know. I’ve seen some of the devs talking on Reddit and they seem like very nice people who are very aware of how wrong their port went. And also, years ago when they were known as Spellbound Entertainment, they made Arcania, a game I enjoyed very much.
So I don’t mean to nail them so badly. But man.
If you’re waiting for my review, for now I’d just suggest that you play the game on PC if you can…or check out other console action RPGs like Diablo III, Victor Vran, Van Helsing, Shadows Awakening, Vikings, or Warhammer Martyr if you’re looking for a loot fix. I am also hopeful that the upcoming console versions of Grim Dawn and the new Torchlight game will be good.
I personally keep coming back to Titan Quest on consoles and playing around with new character builds every time a new patch comes out, before I’m eventually overwhelmed by how obviously wrong this conversion went in so many key areas. I’d love to know what really happened here. If it is running on a new engine, I probably would have chosen to advertise that. I’ve seen a lot of diehard fans way more upset at these ports than I am, and they might be more forgiving if they knew the truth…
…As long as that truth isn’t “We really screwed up all of these things and we don’t know how to fix the merchant sound bug.”