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Hellgate: London (PC Game)

Hellgate London(click for larger image)Reviewed by Mr. Dark

Available on PC

Developed by Flagship Studios

Published by Electronic Arts


I’m not exaggerating when I say this is the most difficult review I’ve ever written. There’s a reason why you’re just now reading a review for a game released on Halloween. Hellgate: London is truly innovative in that it tries to reinvent several different types of gaming in one single product. On top of that, they’re using a business model for game development that has never been attempted. To put the icing on the cake, all of this is being done by a completely new company: this is their first product, despite being made up of seasoned industry vets.

All of this makes for a very confusing mix of triumphs and failures that is impossible to analyze in a conventional game-critic sense.

The only solution I have is something unique: I have to give this game two entirely different scores. I’ll explain them when the time comes, for now, let’s get into it.

I’m sure the vast majority of our readers are familiar with the Diablo franchise. This legendary game and it’s sequel, as well as sundry expansion packs, remains a top-seller today, almost ten years following the most recent release in the series. The reason why you haven’t seen Diablo III yet is simple: virtually everyone responsible for the series bailed from Blizzard after Diablo II’s release to form their own company, Flagship Studios. Hellgate: London is the first release from that company, several years in the making, and wildly anticipated since its initial public debut at 2005’s E3.

HG:L is Diablo in 3D at it’s most rudimentary level. Many of the familiar Diablo trappings are here: randomized level layouts, endless varieties of ‘loot’, and an act-based story structure. The similarities really end there, however, as the jump to a 3D world changes the game profoundly and both elevates the whole affair as well as causes the majority of the problems with the game.

Hellgate: London (click for larger image)Like Diablo, the story is rather simple: gate is opened, Hell is coming up, bad things are happening, demonic creatures are everywhere. In this case, the settings is the London of the future, some 20 years after human occultists opened the Hellgate and brought forth demonic horror on the world. Mankind is in shambles, and is losing the fight. Three factions stand against the horrors of hell: the fanatical Templar knights, revived from their ancient roots; the technological paramilitary Hunters, who rely on firepower and gadgets to defeat evil; and the Cabalists, humans who have decided to use the dark powers of Hell against itself by tapping into black magic and enslaving demonic forces to their will.

That’s just about all you get for a setup, and it’s really all you need. Much like the Diablo series, the story isn’t the compelling feature here, it’s the addictive if repetitive gameplay.

I mentioned that HG:L reinvents several kinds of game mechanics. The first is that it is sometimes a first-person shooter. When playing a range-weapon character, you can zoom into a FPS view that is no different than any other shooter. However, all character types can use a 3rd-person view from behind, and melee weapon users are forced to stick with this. This brings to mind a World of Warcraft MMORPG style of play. In both cases, many elements of play are identical to Diablo. The health and ‘mana’ meters are viewed and managed the same way (although mana is now ‘energy’). Potions and other immediate use items are managed in a toolbar, special spells and skills are managed via the same toolbar, etc. This, again, gives it more of an MMORPG feel, even using the FPS-style interface. I’ve never seen these two normally-different gaming interfaces blended interchangeably, and based on character type.

The primary innovation here is that while you do have a single-player campaign, virtually no one will want to play it. This is where the game has more potential than any in history, and is currently failing worse than any in recent memory.

It’s nothing new to have a single-player campaign that you can take online to go through with others in multi-player. What is new here is that multi-player is free…for the most part. However, if you want to drop an additional monthly fee, you get, essentially, a stripped-down MMORPG. Content and features unavailable to free users are immediate, and future updates and events are promised as time goes on, just like WoW or any other MMORPG. Because the solo campaign and this ‘multiplayer’ campaign can both be completed entirely without teaming with others, this brings the relevance of the solo campaign to virtually nil. Why play the solo campaign offline if you have Internet access and can play the same thing, but with more items and content? Who would play WoW offline and forsake any new content, other players, or special events?

Aye, there’s the rub. It’s clear what Flagship was attempting, and it is an incredible goal. They want to start a new MMORPG without actually having an MMORPG. By expanding on the Blizzard concept of Battle.Net which began with Diablo, they keep the basic multiplayer mechanic that continues to be popular to this day but also add the extra dimension of disposing with expansion packs and instead collecting monthly cash from users to provide content over time. The only way to describe it would be episodic gameplay without set episodes, strung out over time as long as they want to keep collecting money. The business model is genius.

The problem is that it all depends on execution, and right now, almost a month in, that execution is a complete and total disaster.

At the heart of it, the game is good. You get that Diablo-esque feel, fast action mixed with complex equipment management (the search for better loot) and a decent story. As an FPS, it’s also pretty solid. Many different weapon types, all customizable, for the first time bringing true RPG elements such as damage type, resistances, and armor vs. shield to a straight-up ‘grab a rocket launcher and start blasting’ shooter. This part of the game is pure fried gold. By allowing you to constantly keep three different weapon configurations stored on your character without taking up room in your inventory leads to great flexibility. My Engineer has a grenade launcher for short-range splash damage to multiple enemies (great for clearing rooms) but also keeps a sniper rifle for long-range shots and a high-powered automatic rifle for medium and close-range combat. While the player skills aren’t the most useful I’ve seen, complaints regarding them are a little overdone: I use my skills, with regularity, and with great success. I’ve been saved many times by popping a Napalm Strike marker into a group of critters that were about to have me for dinner.

Since you can tune your weaponry to augment specific skills, the amount of variety between character ‘builds’ is massive. As opposed to most MMORPG’s, you don’t have to build a character for a specific purpose. My guardian, when combining skills with weapons, can be a healer with a ranged attack one second, or a hearty tank pulling aggression off other team members while packing a close-range punch the next. This helps in the solo and multiplayer game, as different areas require different strategies to survive. If you have a character and weapon set built specifically for electrical attacks and run into a level full of electrical-immune critters, this ability to switch tactics on the fly is a lifesaver.

Hellgate: London (click for larger image)It must be said that repetition is much more apparent here than in the Diablo games. Flagship’s answer always seems to be that Diablo had more environment and enemy repetition that HG:L, but that repetition is far more apparent and annoying in a full 3D first-person environment. It’s inexcusable in this day and age to play one identical environment (abandoned subway tunnel) off and on for the entire length of a game this size. No texture updates, nothing, they look the same at the end of the game as they do at the beginning. The quests suffer the same fate, with most being different excuses to go kill X number of Y critter in Z level. Some more variety here would have helped a lot.

All in all, the core game is a solid one with a huge amount of promise.

I just wish that was the only game here to review.

The multiplayer game is a disaster of epic proportions. This game wasn’t ready to ship, period, and Flagship is clearly unable to support what they’ve released on any level. They can’t support the day-to-day issues multiplayer games run into, and they certainly can’t support it in the current condition, which is a broken, buggy mess.

Day 1, they didn’t have the ability to subscribe working. When it did work, you were often double-charged…or more. Many opted for the $150 ‘Founders’ subscription, which is a one-time-only lifetime sub. Many of them were double-billed as well. Eventually, a week or so later, this was worked out and everyone could subscribe who wanted to, and everyone who was multiple-billed had those charges reversed.

By the time the subscribers were in, a couple of the subscribe-only features were released to free users as well. No big deal, but then as time has gone on, virtually all of the subscriber-only features have been released to free users. At this point, only two small aspects of the subscriber features still remain limited to subscribers, outside of the promised ‘ongoing new content’. The one event only subscribers got to experience was a Guy Fawkes Day event that was a catastrophe. Players were left for a week with constant ‘drops’ of recipes to make special event ‘treats’ that supposedly gave special temporary abilities. I say ‘supposedly,’ because nowhere on those treats or blueprints did it say what you actually gained by creating then using them. Most subscribers did very little with the ‘official event’ activities and spent our time cleaning out virtual junk mail from our inventories. In a game that is as inventory-intensive as HG:L, it’s a massive headache to manage things like this event. It was proof that the event was barely planned at all, and clearly hadn’t been thought out. The fact that it happened less than a week after launch day when there were still critical show-stopper bugs waiting to be addressed was insult to injury.

And yes, I said show-stopper bugs. I don’t use that term lightly. Crashes, a particularly nasty memory leak, quests not completing properly and being stuck in your queue, main storyline quests suffering from the ‘stuck quest’ problem that literally trapped you at a stage of the game, invisible teammates in multi-player, a useless chat feature and a very difficult trade function…the list goes on, and the vast majority of what I just listed are still not fixed almost a month in. That’s inexcusable on many levels. Many of those issues are restricted to the multiplayer game, but some aren’t, including some of the nastier crash bugs and the memory leak. What’s more, the multiplayer game is being patched…but the single player game is, for some reason, behind on the patch schedule. That’s right, the same game now has two completely different versions running within itself. It boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

You could say that due to the sheer scope of the innovation here that one should expect some bumps. This is true, but these aren’t bumps. You have a base of paying players who have effectively been given a ‘bait and switch’, especially the poor saps who paid $150 for the Founders ‘deal’. In the bizarre priorities needed to support the odd multiplayer model, you have players who purchased a $60 game that cannot play the single-player, offline version due to the fact that all resources are dedicated to fixing the multiplayer side of things.

Right now, there is no way in good conscience that I can recommend anyone to buy this game. It’s broken, incomplete, and so completely frustrating that I gave up attempting to finish the campaign prior to this review, something I virtually never do. One look at the HG:L official forums will show that my opinion here is one of the more tepid views. The fires of the ‘Gate itself couldn’t rival the mass bad vibes over there, and it doesn’t show any signs of getting better soon. There still has been no official announcement regarding the bait and switch on subscriber features, for example, which is a sign of mass confusion an chaos.

All that said, I heartily recommend that you look into buying this game…in six months.

Hellgate: London (click for larger image)That’s right, I’m scoring this game twice. Were it any other game, if it had any less promise, if there were any less chance of greatness, I’d give it a single knife and leave it at that. But this… this, my friends, this remains a great shining light of hope in the future of gaming. An MMORPG for those of us who don’t have a kazillion hours to grind out a level 70 in WoW. An action game for us who want a little more depth than ‘grab biggest gun can find shoot everything stay alive’ FPS gaming. Even games as excellent as Half-Life 2 don’t have the potential depth of play available in the core of HG:L, unless the next episode allows Gordon to modify the crowbar on the fly with an add-on that makes him mostly immune to grenades and adds a toxic punch when used on an enemy.

They’ve created something that has an incredible amount of potential, should they survive this initial disaster. And there’s every chance they won’t. If they scare off enough subscribers, they won’t have the capital to invest in making the game what it could be, and that’ll be that. Another Daikatana down the tubes. But if they do, oh, if they do…this could make meth look like Splenda. Because of this innovative model, they can fix not only bugs, but basic design complaints. They have the ability to push new textures and level designs. They have the chance to tweak faction balances and skills. This is stuff you rarely find in a patch for a stand-alone game, because those are evolutionary changes over time, only gained through feedback created by an ongoing player base. MMORPGs do it all the time. The blend of ongoing, perpetual online world and single-player design would bring the best of both those worlds. No forced grouping, no need for PVP, a solo player can cruise through the HG:L world just as well as massive guilds with the finest gear. It staggers the mind.

But that time isn’t now. Now, it’s a rather pitiful mess. In six months, well, they have a good chance of remedying most of these problems. Get the subscriber situation sorted out and make it worth spending $10 a month. Push new content to make things more diverse and keep the levels from becoming tedious. Most of all, plug the hell out of these major leaks that are sinking the ship right now. If they do all that, and you should definitely check on the state of the game prior to purchase, if they do…this is a must-have.

Game as of Now

1 out of 5

Game in 6 Months from Now

4 1/2 out of 5

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Mr. Dark

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