Hellgate: London Beta Impressions

by Nick Breckon, Oct 02, 2007 2:39am PDT
Related Topics – Hellgate: London, MMO

Hellgate: London is a long-needled shot to the blackened, burned-out veins of every past Diablo II addict. It's a fresh brand of juice for MMO players tired of tawdry gameplay that promises the world and serves up a thinly-veiled smorgasbord of boring. It's a brooding, blood-soaked crawl, with ripe, fat-bellied zombies, and wicked monsters that are all too satisfying to hack and shoot to pieces. It also needs a good deal of work. Currently infested with more bugs than a Homeland Security cocktail party, and lacking in several areas at which its forbear, Hellgate isn't perfect. But it possesses the all-important spark of greatness--that intangible whiff of an addictive quality, like the smell of good cigarettes, or the manual for a Civilization game. With a release date looming in the not-at-all-distant future, the next month will be critical for the team at Flagship Studios. If the devs succeed, Hellgate is poised to capture the hearts and fingers of click-happy gamers everywhere. Unfortunately, that "if" is as big as any one of the many bosses you'll find in the game--that is, if the dungeon loads.
From the first of these loading screens, Diablo players will feel at home in Hellgate's cold, post-apocalyptic London. Choosing from a handful of classes, which range from rifle-shouldering, robot-constructing Engineers to sword-wielding Blademasters, your character is dropped into a Beksinkski-esque portrait of rotting buildings and decaying flesh. Right away there are plenty of brain-addled creatures to explode at whim, and right away the combat in Hellgate is proven fun. Whether you're blasting away with rifles or slicing it up with swords, it's an experience every bit as violent--and, yes, addictive--as was the first squash of an imp inside the front door of Tristram's church. No, Hellgate isn't Diablo III, but it could be its gun-toting limey cousin, and he's pretty fun to hang out with, too. Following in Diablo's footsteps, you'll have plenty of skill and attribute points to spend per level, slowly working your character into a demon-eating machine. And you'll be exploring randomized dungeons, with monsters tall and small, and sub-bosses dropping any combination of color-coded loot, each item possessing its own unique attributes. These items can be augmented and modified by any number of modifiers and processes, ensuring a broad spectrum of customization that looks to keep the game fresh for years to come.
Lead by ex-Diablo devs, Hellgate developer Flagship Studios has clearly not gone in a radically new direction. Some in-game assets--such as the user interface--are clearly derived from the previous efforts, while other specific elements are unarguably direct transcriptions. Identifying scrolls have become Analyzers. Town portals have turned into Personal Relocation Devices. Hardcore mode is, well, Hardcore mode. Even the infamous Wirt--and his leg--make a humorous cameo early on. With so many similarities between the two franchises, it's far easier to focus on their differences, likely the most significant change being Hellgate's firm rooting in a 3D space. As such, the top-down camera view is all but gone, present in only one oddly-chosen video. Instead, you'll be at street level, either looking over the shoulder of your avatar, or witnessing the hellish landscapes directly through his or her eyes.
In many 3D RPGs, the first person view mode seems thrown in for the sake of another feature, and generally goes unused. To my surprise, Hellgate's firefights are equally enjoyable from either the third or first person view. In the third person it's an Oblivion or Max Payne-ish affair, complete with broadsword swipes and dual-wielding pistols. It's not quite Doom in the first person, but it's a strafed step closer than any RPG has gotten in the past--or future. The reason why it all works so well is simple: there is no auto-aim, "soft" or otherwise, as in the shooting-focused MMO Tabula Rasa. Each enemy has a visible hit box instead, over which your targeting reticle must hover to guarantee a hit. In other words, you'll be working a little more for your kills, which is naturally more exciting. Also unlike in Tabula, no ammunition is required for firing guns--just hold down the mouse button and go to town. In other words, you'll be working a little less for your fun, which is naturally less painful.
There are some limiting factors. Rifles will steadily grow less accurate after a long spray of bullets, the reticule expanding a la Rainbow Six. And each weapon has a standard attack speed, which results in a steady stream of damage over time. However, coupled with the requirement of aiming your implement, these merely add to the experience. Rather than behaving like spell-casting weapon models, your high-powered rocket launcher feels like a dangerous weapon, that you'll have to arc properly for the perfect long-range strike. Once you've tackled the nuances of combat, progression is a simple matter of following quests and leveling up your character--two things which any RPG fan already knows more than enough about. Hellgate's towns consist of subway tunnels, and its NPC denizens remain your only contact with somewhat-rational human beings, other online players included. In these cramped corridors, you will have a selection of quests--denoted by the now-standard crowns of exclamation and question markers--to plow through one at a time. These missions serve as more excuses to lead you into new zones than actual riveting reading material. Sure, there's always story in there somewhere, but who has time to read dull RPG quest descriptions these days? In the interest of sanity, every quest can be added without so much as reading a single word of inane NPC babble. Those who wish to participate in the "lore" can click through a series of dialogue boxes.
It's here that Hellgate already begins to set itself far apart from Diablo, following the MMO tradition of forgettable textual quests rather than Diablo's uniquely crafted and voice-acted storylines. Also lacking is any sort of driving, notable musical score. And though captivating at first, Hellgate's repetitive environments don't hold a candle to the Diablo series' varied overworlds. Set in a dead city, the game struggles to mix up subways and street corners with a few blazing, gothic portals to hell, or a handful of marble labyrinths. None of these diversions are particularly interesting, or even much divergent from the grayscale aesthetic of the decrepit urban pathways. Of course, this flat palette has its bonuses. For one, the in-game advertising is nearly transparent. After momentarily stopping in a subway tube to mess with my settings, I was surprising to find I had been running past poster ads for Dark Horse Comics and the like for hours. Not once had I noticed these fittingly-aged signs, and even after taking note of this, they still seemed unobtrusive.
If only the bugs went as unnoticeable. Dwelling on fixable issues before a game's release is certainly taboo in the gaming industry, but with only a month left to go, Hellgate should feel farther along than it does. Even many devout fans, who have been testing the game for months, have voiced their concerns. Rumor has it that Flagship is running a build internally which corrects many of the errors--which range from character models refusing to load, to client crashes, to entire zones which fail at random--but at the moment the game is plagued with an epidemic of errors. The situation grim, one hopes that it can somehow be smoothed out in time for the title's October 30th release. Rocky starts to online games aren't exactly rare, but in a year--and month--filled with fierce competition, Hellgate's first impression will be key to its success. However, to end on the game's faults would be a shame. For all its problems, there is a fantastic work hiding just around the corner. Hellgate does some wonderfully subtle things that may not make the back of the box, but certainly will delight fans of the genre. Tired of clicking on corpses and picking up your loot manually? Monsters in Hellgate simply spill their contents onto the ground, and with a tap of the "F" button, the treasure is automatically pulled up into your backpack, like Samus sucking in a powerup with her charged beam. Not a fan of running back to your body every time you die? In addition to being provided a free respawn at your last visited town, you can also choose to pay a few coins and immediately reincarnate at your point of failure. For a relatively affordable sum, you're back up and running, without a single "rez plz."
Maybe the best thing I can say about Hellgate is that I wanted to keep playing. Even after putting up with a horrendous spate of annoying bugs and a torturous amount of downtime, I was still hooked. It grabbed me from the first moment, and though it's been doing its best to shake me free, I'm still looking forward to hitting that next level. All this drug of a game needs is a round of QA and an expanded soundtrack.