Gamers have been aching for the release of the next Diablo for a good eight years now, and it's no surprise - the addictive balance of loot drops, skill trees, and randomized dungeons that started with the first two games has been mimicked often, but rarely with the same polish and balance of a Blizzard production. That may soon change for PC fans willing to shell out $20 for a smaller-budget title with much of the same care and pedigree behind it, as we delve into the first project by Runic Games, featuring Diablo designers Max & Erich Schaefer, music by Matt Uelmen (also in Diablo), and the creative direction of Travis Baldree (of Fate). It's a tight-knit group who've been working on their new game in one form or another for the past three years, and the brothers Schaefer have the advantage of not only being huge fans of the Diablo franchise, but actually having founded the studio that made the first two games. Their next project promises three classes, a host of skills, and a dungeon created by ancient civilizations layering upon one another in their obsession for magical ore.
Hit the jump to learn a lot more about Runic Games' Torchlight.
Around 2003, a company started with a lot of promise and plenty of good names behind it: Flagship Studios was formed by Bill Roper and Max & Erich Schaefer, among others who were intimately involved in the creation of the Diablo franchise. Even more promising, in a year when MMOs were reaching their peak, was the announcement of their first project: a 3D MMO with a some Diablo-like elements and optional premium pricing by the month.
Sadly, for various reasons, Hellgate: London was not destined to succeed. It's possible that letting players play for free on massive servers while also expecting frequent content updates wasn't actually a workable idea for keeping the lights on, or it could be the game's own flaws which many have pointed out. Hellgate's servers officially closed 16 months after the game's rocky launch in 2007. Then, even while under duress of a failed MMO, Flagship found itself indebted to its Korean partner Hanbitsoft - the company responsible for the publishing of many popular titles there, chief among them StarCraft. The collateral for funding Flagship as a company had already been written into contract, however. Hanbitsoft acquired the rights to two promising intellectual properties: Hellgate: London and a smaller project called Mythos.
Mythos could be considered the first phoenix to arise from what was Flagship Studios. It was the pet project of a subsidiary group, Flagship Seattle, which Bill Roper's San Francisco studio had acquired in 2006. From the screenshots, it looked like someone had zoomed out World of Warcraft and simplified the combat, adding Diablo-style loot and combat to a persistent online world with quests and crafting to match. The financial concept was going to be similar to Hellgate - no monthly fee, but with a separate tier of premium 'bonuses' to aid the players who wanted to shell out. The premium-supported model has worked for quite a few Korean MMOs in the past, but Mythos didn't get a chance to try it here on a similar scale: the game was reportedly near the end of its closed beta when Flagship was shut down.
While the assets and codebase for Mythos were lost to Hanbitsoft as part of the settlement, one can imagine that there are many overarching, intangible elements to creating a Diablo-style game, with its simple balance of combat, rewards, and presentation, that are inherent to the experiences of its designers. One can hope that the spirit of Diablo can not be exported.
That ineffable dedication to design is what kept every single member of Flagship Seattle together after their parent company's dissolution - even though all their physical work into Mythos had been sold off, they immediately began work on a similar project under the flag of Runic Games.
'Torchlight' was originally thought to be a temporary name for the project early on in development, but it's proven to be crucial to the game's narrative: it's also the name of the mining town that is the setting for the history and conflict in the game's world. As the story goes, underneath the city of Torchlight are massive deposits of a rare ore, Ember, which is valuable for its use in magic items, but which apparently corrupts those who seek it. As many interviews have already stated, the player quickly learns that the heap upon which Torchlight is bulit is not merely rock and magical ore - the catacombs below are made up of civilizations long gone who've also been tempted by the Ember and then succumbed to its magical properties.
To explore these ruins and attempt to uncover the mystery of Ember and its world-destroying properties, you'll play as a Destroyer, Alchemist, or Vanquisher, using melee, magic, or ranged skills respectively. As is natural, you'll be see loot of various types, including rare, unique, socketed, and set-type gear as dropped by the myriad mobs at your disposal in the dungeons below Torchlight. There are also a few bosses to be dispatched, and the level generator includes larger pieces of dungeon to include NPCs, switches and other elements to make the randomized areas seem more natural and less like a "crossword puzzle that's been extruded upwards." You even get a dedicated pet (whether you're a cat or a dog person) to fight at your side, who can be sent back to town on their own to pawn your excess goodies.
Despite these fabulous features, it's important to note that only one part of the experience of Torchlight is coming out soon: the singleplayer. Even though Mythos was planned to have a persistent online world from the beginning, starting the engine again from scratch led Runic to develop only the single player campaign of Torchlight so far, considering it a preliminary taste of the later online world. With all the balance, networking, and funding issues that go into making a game in the MMO space, it's little wonder that the fledgling studio wants to stretch its wings with a solid solo experience before taking off with all the online components.
Obviously, I'm someone who's been carrying the torch (hah) for Mythos and Torchlight for quite awhile, but I'm convinced that, among an army of games with loot tables and click-combat interfaces, this is as close to a reimagined Diablo-like experience as we're likely to get in the next year (or two). I was pretty crestfallen when I found out Flagship Seattle had gone down without hold of the rights to Mythos, and I was equally as delighted to find out that the release date for their next effort had snuck up on me.
While the Mac version is "running" in studio but lacking a release date, PC Gamers get a chance to try Torchlight via downloadable distributors in just a few days, on October 27th.