Thursday, July 17, 2008


I recently finished Hellgate: London, a pretty decent game that I can recommend with a lot of reservations. It's been out for eight months now, and while the game and online service were very buggy when the game launched, they're pretty solid now. Or rather, they were a few days ago. It was just announced that Flagship Studios has let go of almost all of their employees. The future of the game is shaky at best. They were readying their second expansion (it had been on the public test servers for months), and the game supposedly had a million paying subscribers, but apparently that wasn't enough. I imagine that the game will live on, but in what form, I can't say. Anyway.

The good news is that the gameplay is very solid. It's a Diablo-style action RPG at its core, and it doesn't disappoint in that department. Combat is fast, furious, and violent. Shiny treasures drop from your kills non-stop, and you can take down a hundred monsters in a minute, as opposed to two or five in World of Warcraft. It's a refreshing change of pace from most games I've played recently, since, well, Diablo II. The items and the way you use them are all very well-done. Weapons and their mods (gems in Diablo) have a lot more properties than "+10 to stamina" and "+15% damage"; there's a wide variety of characteristics, from increasing weapon accuracy and range to causing your shots to occasionally detonate in a shower of flaming darts that explode on contact or ricochet off walls. And unlike in Diablo, weapons are actually functionally different. By the time I finished the game I was using a sniper rifle, an electric minigun with an incredible rate of fire, and a heavy projectile launcher with significant splash damage potential. There are rocket launchers, grappler guns, flamethrowers, guns that shoot swarms of poisonous wasps, magical gloves that enhance your spells, weed whackers, cricket bats, and swords. Oh, so many swords.

The classes all play pretty differently. There are two melee classes that play in third person and swing their swords, two spellcasters that summon demons and fireballs and lightning and just tear up everything in sight, and two gun-focused ranged classes that play like a first-person shooter and actually requiring aiming, unlike the other four classes. I tried a little bit of all of them, but I finished the game as the Engineer, who constructs robots to do his bidding (like the druid or necromancer in Diablo II) and stays in back with a variety of guns and grenades, trying to avoid actually getting hit. It was a blast. And unlike in Diablo II (but like in World of Warcraft and Diablo III), you are very much encouraged to use a wide variety of abilities, instead of just sticking to a couple, though you could probably do that too. There are many little innovations that make Hellgate a great non-stop action experience, even moreso than Diablo; I could (and did a couple times) sit and play for five hours straight and not get bored with it.

But the game's not all rosy. In addition to taking many months before it was actually ready to be released, other aspects of the game aren't so good. The story is bad, and the writing is terrible. (Though, admittedly, there are a few bright spots here and there—the interactions with Techsmith 314 are all pretty funny.) For the most part I can overlook that, being an action RPG and all, but it's unfortunate. The graphics aren't that good—both in that nearly everything is grey, the official color of postapocalyptic London, and also that they're just not, well, that well-done. I can probably forgive the very low-resolution textures and low-polygon objects, since they're the reason the game still runs at playable framerates when there are a hundred zombies trying to get at my sweet, sweet brain. But the absolute worst part is that there's not enough content to justify how damned long the game is. At first that sounds odd, because the levels are randomly generated like in Diablo, so there's a basically infinite set of possible levels, but after my hundredth trip down deserted London alleys filled with trash, rubble, and barrels (sadly, no skeletons inside in this game), I'm about ready to kill myself. The game needs more locales, and it needs to be shorter. There are only a handful of types of locations, and they're reused ad nauseum. Before the end of the game you'll have probably made fifty trips to Hell, and every single area in Hell looks exactly the same. Every crypt looks the same, every deserted street looks the same, every warehouse looks the same, and every sewer looks the same, and there are tons and tons of randomly generated instances of each.

But, I still had a lot of fun. Repetitive scenery notwithstanding, there is great amusement to be had in mowing down wave after horde after swarm of demons and undead. I can't say that everyone who liked Diablo is going to like Hellgate. The near-future London setting is not as interesting to me as the fantasy settings of Diablo, though there is still plenty of plate mail and flaming swords, so not all is lost. I happen to very much like the game being in 3D instead of top-down 2D, but not everyone would. Some people will hate the two FPS-style classes, but the other four play more like traditional Diablo. Anyway, there's a demo out, and the game goes for twenty bucks right now (maybe less now that the company is dying off), so you'll still get quite a bit of game for your money. Like I said, recommended with reservations—it's a nice blend between Diablo and Doom. If that's what you're expecting, you'll probably enjoy it, at least for a while. If you do get it, you might want to stick to single-player mode for a while until the fate of the accompanying online service is more stable.

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