Last week brought the bombshell announcement that the MMOARPG Torchlight: Frontiers has been rebooted as simply Torchlight III, a more traditional ARPG with single-player and co-op modes. The dream of a Torchlight MMO is dead.
Firstly, if you’re the sort of person who is interested only in MMOs, this is only bad news. I, however, am not that kind of person. I play a lot of MMOs, but I wouldn’t call myself an MMO-only gaming fan per se. I’m a fan of good games period. Some are MMOs; some are not. How many players a game can support in one space is not an objective measure of quality; how multiplayer a game should be is subjective to each title.
The developers claim this change was made in response to feedback from alpha testers, and while I don’t find that an entirely implausible claim, I suspect it has more to do with publisher Perfect World Entertainment not wanting Frontiers to compete too heavily with its other MMOARPG, Magic: Legends (which looks really cool, guys).
Regardless of the reasoning, for me the question here is does this make Torchlight III a better or worse game. Obviously we can’t know for certain until it launches, but we can make some educated guesses.
The first and most obvious change is the reduction in the multiplayer elements in the game. Most zones are now private by default, so it seems you’ll only encounter other random players in hub zones. If you’re adventuring alongside other people, it will be people you chose to group with.
Some may disagree, but I don’t think this is a bad thing. It’s possibly even a positive. From the sound of things, you can still group with your friends as much as you want. That kind of socializing is intact.
All you’re missing out on is encountering random strangers out in the world. The value of that in a PvE themepark is dubious at the best of times, and in ARPGs in particular throwing too many random people into an open world zone just turns an already chaotic genre into a baffling mess of flashing spell effects and spraying loot.
What I’m less pleased with is the removal of the non-linear progression promised by Frontiers in favor of vertical progression and a standard act structure. Frontiers‘ horizontal progression sounded unusual, and I’m not sure how well it would have panned out in practice, but we badly need new ideas in this genre, and we won’t get it if developers keep playing it safe. Shifting from horizontal to vertical progression is definitely a disappointment.
Furthermore, story-telling has never been Torchlight‘s strong suit, and I question PWE’s ability to deliver a compelling linear narrative, especially one that’s been shoe-horned in so late in the development cycle. This setting would have been much better for small-scale, stand-alone stories to flesh out the world and its characters. That’s something a non-linear MMO could have done better than a more traditional RPG like Torchlight III has become.
Let’s shift back to the positive: Offering a purely offline mode does have its advantages, the most obvious being players will now have the option to play Torchlight III even without an internet connection. Useful for those days when your modem decides it’s had it with life.
An offline mode also means the potential for mods. I’m not much of a mod guy, so it doesn’t matter much to me, but I know many people are very passionate about modding and that previous Torchlight games did have a thriving mod scene. This will undoubtedly be good news to someone.
The patch that introduced these changes to Torchlight III‘s alpha also added the fourth class, the Sharpshooter. As a class-focused on bows and magical artifacts, it sounds a lot like my beloved Outlander from Torchlight II, which is pretty much exactly what I wanted from the next class.
However, this is confirmed to be the last class to be added before launch, and that’s disappointing. Four classes is not exactly a robust selection, no matter how original they may be. Worse still, if this is not to be an MMO, then the odds of many new classes being added post-launch are low.
That brings me to my next point: post-launch support. For me, perhaps the single greatest appeal of an MMO is its persistence and growth. It’s wonderful to be able to keep coming back to a game you love as it expands and evolves, rather than just moving on once you’ve finished it.
Now that we know Torchlight III is going to be more like its predecessors, it seems unlikely we’ll get much support after the game launches. If we’re lucky, we might get one or two DLCs or expansions, but that’s nothing compared to the years of ongoing content updates and improvements a true MMORPG would see.
In my opinion, taking all factors into account, I think the conversion from MMO to Torchlight III is more bad than good, and I do find myself a bit disappointed. I won’t necessarily miss the multiplayer aspects, but it’s always sad to see a developer back off from innovative designs.
However, there are silver linings. Many of the changes are bad, but not all of them, and the core of the game still looks really fun. I don’t think it’s fair to say the sky is falling. It’s become a less promising game, but it’s still a promising game, and I’m still interested in playing it, though it may not be a day one purchase for me.