"The new entry is going to be an MMO". That could be among the most feared announcements in the industry, more so when it's related to a very classic, very traditional formula. When you play always-online, always-connected, the game you've come to know and love can turn into something quite different, overwhelming even, and not many studios succeed when taking this path. In fact, they usually fail.
However, Torchlight Frontiers seems different. First of all, because that was the goal from the very beginning, as we learned by talking with Echtra Games' Max Schaefer at Gamescom last week. The first Torchlight was built so that the team to define the base gameplay systems and introduce the franchise, while the second one went multiplayer as a middle-step towards the final goal. The developer's track record, therefore, suggests a more trustworthy message.
Secondly, Torchlight Frontiers plays and feels just like your usual Torchlight experience, even though it's getting expanded and, of course, puts a lot of emphasis on the shared, persistent adventure that you'll be embarking upon. Thousands of players could be connected online, but this is still all about you and your party (Schaefer says four is probably the ideal size), with that party growing from being you alone to teaming up with a handful of others who you meet on your journey.
The classic action-RPG fan (the one who puts Diablo II and Torchlight above all others and who goes up in rash just by hearing the word "online") should then find a much less hostile experience here, as it's a matter of learning the classes, looting the dungeons, and killing the monsters... and after that they can always find more depth and new challenges in the public areas and via their more customisable, upgradable properties, such as the forts.
Gameplay is king, and we quite enjoyed our time spent with the first two classes we were introduced to in Cologne. Dusk Mage combines dark and white magic and you have to keep an eye on their specific meters to get the best effect. Just down to the way it moves, we had even more fun with Forged, which is the first pure mechanic class in the franchise; it walks just like Incy Wincy spider with its crab legs and allows you to switch its different robot parts to suit your needs.
Two other franchise staples that have been expanded and enhanced for Frontiers are the random elements and the pet system. Levels are once again randomised "a little less so in the public areas, a little more so in the private instances and dungeons that you go into," as Schaefer explains, but they always looked to us pretty well integrated for a varied but yet still believable environment. In terms of the pets, they're now collectable via your own stable.
Further new features include a fully functional day/night cycle - which is not just cosmetic anymore, as it now means different monsters and harvestable resources - and also the fort, which houses your whole account with different characters and, of course, acts as a stash for all your gear. Another nice touch is the fact that it gives you skills and buffs the more you use it, and it even shows up randomly in other players' worlds for them to visit.
We entered publisher Perfect World's booth at Gamescom with one eyebrow raised thanks to yet another game-turned-MMO pitch, but we left impressed with Echtra Games' work so far. Given the beautiful graphics, the engaging gameplay and, above all, the way Torchlight Frontiers makes it so easy to embrace the online concept, we're looking forward to more when the public testing starts in early 2019.