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“Hellgate: London” review

by on Mar.23, 2010, under PC Game Reviews

Game: Hellgate: London
Developer: Flagship Studios

A first/third person action title that has the potential for greatness but lacks polish.

The developers of Hellgate: London have been in the news lately for a host of unfortunate reasons. Within the last month, Flagship Studios has terminated most of the company staff, and ownership of their intellectual property is being contested by at least one investor. Throw in the copious amounts of criticism being thrown around about how the online portion of the game is still incomplete and buggy after nearly a year in stores. Savour the dubious distinction of having your company name used as a metaphor for “being screwed over in a laughable way.” While the end result of this highly anticipated 2007 release may have been less than favourable, there is still a playable single player experience embedded in the heart of the game. Given that the long term future of the online servers is still in question, I decided to ignore all the online brouhaha associated with the game and embark on a review focusing purely on the offline single player aspects.

[A few caveats related to this review should be noted before we proceed. I played through the entire game as an Engineer character only and dabbled with the other five classes to a much lesser degree. Accordingly I have made no distinction between the pros and cons of each character class and have generally focused on game-play and issues that are common to all character classes. The end result is a perspective achieved after 12-15 hours of game-play with the latest single player patch.]

The Game
Hellgate: London is, at its core, an attempt to consolidate all of the developer’s previous experience with Blizzard’s Diablo franchise into a 3D rendered first/third person Action RPG. Rather than repeat the usual fantasy world settings common to this genre, like Diablo’s Sanctuary, Flagship Studios set their creation in a near-future London, twenty years after a demon invasion straight from the pits of hell! The remnants of the stoic English citizenry now cower within the vast underground train network of the British capital, defended by three mystical factions, the Templars, Cabalists and Hunters. As a member of one of these factions, your mission is to free the world (well London anyway) from this long-anticipated demonic incursion.

You’ll spend most of your time exploring various locations linked together via London’s ubiquitous Underground train system. Each location is randomly generated from a collection of geomorphic map segments that are linked together to make each areas combat zone. Scattered throughout these maps are hordes of demon entities to fight, scattered palladium (the in-game currency) to collect and piles of phat lewt to fill up your limited inventory space. Between forays into these demon infested levels, you can return to nearby underground stations to rest and recuperate from your ordeals, deal with vendors and receive quests that will progress the game’s back-story.

In many ways, the game plays in a similar fashion to a 3D version of Diablo. Players will quickly notice that each character class has its own unique skill tree that effectively controls that individual’s game-play style through specific abilities and mystical powers. When you level up your character you get the same number of attribute and skill points to assign to your character just like Diablo offers. The infernal denizens lurking throughout London have similar powers and abilities to their Sanctuary based brethren. They also enjoy lugging around armour and weaponry that’s of no use to them, giving you ample reason to mug them, relieve them of their excess baggage and clad your buff physique with some extra protection and firepower. You have a stash (that’s accessible from every base location in the game) where you can temporarily store all the really nice items that you can’t use until later in the game. The game’s answer to Diablo’s Town Portal scrolls are nifty Personal Transport Devices that you can trigger to create a return gateway back to the nearest Underground Station so you can vendor off your ill-gotten gains. Even the loot “drop” sound is identical to Blizzard’s classic game! In essence, the developers have unashamedly applied every feature that has made Diablo the successful franchise it is, into their own composition.

Given the similarities between the two games, it’s safe to say that Flagship Studios were hoping that their debut release would become just as addictive and successful as its spiritual progenitor. After playing through the game for the first half-dozen hours or so, I have to admit that Hellgate: London engendered a similar level of gaming addiction and pleasure as any game in the Diablo franchise ever did. It was relatively easy to level your character up, the combat was visceral and compelling and the regular drops of enhanced, legendary and unique items kept me plugging away, hoping for yet another potential upgrade to that Ameliorating Harmonic CVC I’d been wearing for the last hour.

Nevertheless, as the game progressed I gradually noticed that the initial sensations of excitement and immersion were rapidly devolving into fatigue, ennui and, dare I say it, unadulterated boredom. What started as a riveting gaming experience that I looked forward to each evening rapidly became a tedious grind that was looked upon more as a chore than a relaxing pastime. In the end, the only thing that forced me to finish my play through was the fact that I wanted to write up a totally honest assessment of the game. After some careful reflection, I’ve identified what I think are the three main issues that caused me to lose interest in what could have been a classic action RPG. These are: the bizarre storyline, the overly repetitive game play and the game’s lack of polish. Let’s take a look at the story first.

Identity Crisis
Anyone who has played a game from Blizzard Entertainment (Warcraft, Starcraft or Diablo) knows that the comprehensive back story, history and setting form the foundations upon which each game is built. The advantage of having an appropriate “Bible” for each world gives designers every opportunity to create a coherent world and story around which a game can be based. Unfortunately for this game, it would appear that the design team didn’t follow a similar approach because I’m struggling to figure out if there is anything resembling a story (apart from killing the end-game boss) within the game at all. Hellgate: London is nicely book-ended by some spectacular cinematic sequences suggesting a dark and sinister saga in which you are forced to preserve the future of the human race. But once you start playing the game, you’re faced with a near comedic and light hearted RPG romp through a post-apocalyptic modern day London. If you based your expectations for the game on the introductory cut scene, you’ll be sorely disappointed as the quests and story in-game border on the ridiculous. It’s like every design team member was asked to think up a dozen stereotypical characters with which to populate all the Underground stations. Each character is a selfish self-absorbed individual as there are virtually no linkages between them in the game. They also lack substance, literally, as you can walk right through them, unlike the demonic inhabitants of the rest of London. There’s the mad Scotsman whose dialogue looks like it’s been created by a bugged version of the game’s random word generator. There’s the foul-mouthed resident of Liverpool Station who has an intimate knowledge of every expletive ever uttered. My personal favourite is the love-struck soldier who will use a different metaphor for “having sex” in his monologues each time he sends you off on a mission to set him up with his love interest. Obviously the designers noticed these character flaws at some stage during development because some of the NPCs will apologise to you for the rather irrational and disturbing behaviours that have afflicted most of the surviving populace. Each character has very specific needs in his or her life that they would like you to meet. These “quests” invariably revolve around you needing to travel to a specific location to either explore most of the map, kill “x” number of a specific demon type, collect “y” items of some value or click on “z” devices oddly located in the middle of a street. Congratulations, you know now how to complete 99% of all the quests you’ll find in the game as they follow this repetitive and lacklustre recipe to the letter. The remaining quest consists of a time consuming boss fight in which you hop in a turret, aim at a hovering leviathan and hold down the fire key for a few minutes. There is also a pair of badly conceived real-time strategy stages that have been thrown in to provide a bit of variety, but frankly, the game would lose nothing by their absence. The rewards you receive for completing quests are also woefully inadequate and you’ll invariably gain more experience and nicer weapons and armour just by killing the randomly generated bosses that frequent each zone.

Rinse and Repeat
Any game that generates extended game-play by randomly generating levels needs to ensure that each created milieu is sufficiently different from its predecessors. Otherwise, players will have a hard time generating any “suspension of disbelief” as they progress through the game. Once again, Hellgate: London suffers from some serious issues in this regard. While there are different thematic areas to explore, there is not enough different map areas used in their creation and you’ll see the same components used half a dozen times or more in each level. Apparently all near-future London streets are bracketed by identical three story apartment buildings … and those that didn’t survive the initial demonic assault twenty years ago appear to have collapsed in identical fashion! The streets are littered with porcelain toilets that have managed to weather the elements just as pristinely as the large number of lounges that appear to have set up residence on the curb. It’s also self-evident that the original London inhabitants were sociopathic pack-rats as the entire London business district is covered in crates packed with enough armour and weaponry to arm a minor super-power. While Blizzard managed to figure out a rationale for scattering loot containers throughout the various regions of Sanctuary, Flagship Studios just didn’t even bother to make the attempt with this title. Even the item placement points are hard-coded within each map segment; I can literally navigate every apartment building blind-folded and still manage to shoot and destroy every potential crate found within. The developers did create a few set piece zones that are key to the main story however there aren’t enough of them to distract players from the multitude of “cookie cutter” streets, tunnels and dried up segments of the Thames estuary that they will have to navigate ad-nauseam.

Buff the Silverware
Flagship Studio’s decision to use a proprietary engine to power Hellgate: London could be described as a challenging design choice. While this allowed the developer to enable the specific game play elements that they wanted within their product, it also added considerable labour to the development timeline. After working on the engine for three years it would appear that, while an operational game engine was completed successfully, a lot of the polish that you would normally expect within an AAA title failed to get applied when the game was released in October 2007. Now that nearly a year has passed (and several patches released,) the continued presence of these bugs has become even more noticeable.

Opening our “feature” list is the preponderance of explosive barrels littering the streets that do absolutely no damage to your character, even if you’re squatting on them when you fire. I’m guessing that this was a necessary step to take to preserve the melee class characters that people might use, but it still feels like a design “cop-out.” Engineer’s can deploy inhibitor drones that slow down demons and prevent you from being overwhelmed. All well and good … except that if you kill a jumping frog demon that is being affected by such a drone, the target will be slowed down so much that the corpse refuses to land on the ground! And while we‘re on the subject of jumping, your character can also safely fall three stories without even mussing her hair-do. You cannot auto-recover item drops if there is some obstruction in the way, even if you are three meters away from the item in question. Identical items don’t automatically stack when you move them to and from your stash, requiring an extra set of clicks to free up inventory space. To top it off, you cannot unstack items either, meaning that you selling these items are an all or nothing proposition. Items in the quick slot bar don’t reset when you lose the items that were dragged there (like usable quest items 😉 I even ended up with a couple of Nano-shards appearing there for the latter ½ of the game, even though I never dragged them to the bar! If your Engineer toon ever decides to give your bot a weapon, toggling the inventory or skill screen will randomly display either your character or the bot’s paper-doll inventory without any discernable pattern behind this choice.

Many of the quests involving non-player characters are bugged. For example, at some stage you will need to rescue Brandon Lann from a horde of festering demon spawn. Unfortunately he doesn’t appear to learn from his experiences as a quick trip back to the rescue point will show him still there, kneeling with sword in hand waiting for some passing hero to save him. Another major NPC still appears in various underground stations even though he’s technically dead. For that matter, I didn’t even KNOW he was dead until well after his demise because I didn’t see the event that killed him during the quest he accompanied me on; presumably there was no cut-scene attached to that episode. Finally, there are some spectacularly bad pathing issues for accompanying NPC’s; the developer’s answer to this apparently unsolvable issue was to have the NPC teleport in front of you if they couldn’t keep up.

Undoubtedly the highlight of any Diablo-like action RPG should be the copious piles of armour and weapons that you’ll find during your travels. Hellgate: London manages to provide a wide variety of these items as rewards for completing some of the story quests and for eliminating many of the more challenging bosses. Unfortunately, trying to determine the relative value of each item becomes an exercise in advanced numerology as each has a dozen or more statistics attached to it and no clear indication as to what each value is for. Each item also has minimum attribute values that the character must possess in order to effectively use it. Rest assured that you will spend a lot of time in your inventory screen trying to juggle your armour and weaponry to keep within these mandated requirements. At this point you would probably be thinking that your alter-ego will be spending most of their gaming life in an endless quest to garner more powerful and impressive items to defeat an ever-increasing demonic army. Unfortunately, the developers have made this strategy redundant by introducing two overpowered in-game machines, the Nano Forge and the Augmentrex 3000, which effectively remove any need to hunt down better loot. The Nano Forge is a nifty device that allows you to upgrade any item to a higher quality by tossing salvaged components and the item into the machine hopper and clicking the upgrade button. The Augmentrex 3000 adds a random ability to an existing item if you’re willing to pay the necessary fee in palladium. As we mentioned earlier in this review, every nook and cranny of the city is inundated with excess loot, so players will have no trouble amassing as much salvage and palladium that they need to use both of these game-breaking contraptions on a regular basis. The end result is a character equipped with passable mid-level gear that has been augmented and upgraded so many times it bears little resemblance to its initial form! As an example, my Level 30 Engineer can now clear any zone of demons by simply holding down the fire button on my maxed out Volt Rifle and navigating the map!

See No Evil, Hear No Evil
The graphics are quite acceptable throughout most of the game (the DX10 visuals are noticeably better) however the textures are lacking in detail and don’t look as clear and crisp as they could be. The Necropolis levels were almost too dark to navigate, and tweaking the gamma settings didn’t help to clear things up either. This, admittedly, may have something to do with the various driver sets that I used for my nVidia card as I tried five different video drivers post-release and regularly encountered driver stability issues and crashes to desktop using all of them. The character models are much better than the environment textures although the half-dozen gestures they make when you talk to them don’t add anything to their personality, and the less said about the voice acting the better. The games audio assets are well presented with some spine-chilling demonic howls and thumping weapon effects counterpointing the thematic soundtracks used throughout most of the zones. For the record, I still get the bejeebers scared out of me each time a pack of Fellbores spawns into reality 3 meters in front of my face!

Final Verdict
In summary, Hellgate: London was released as, and to this day remains, an under developed action RPG, that probably needed another 6-12 months of polishing to allow it to transform into the game that the designers originally envisaged. While there are definitely faint glimmers of potential present, you’ll spend most of your in-game time struggling to see these gems through the piles of grit and grime that obscure them from view. As it currently stands, player’s will find it difficult to maintain any interest in grinding through this dull and repetitive experience once, let alone re-visiting the game with a different character class. If you’re already addicted to playing the game online, pray that the owner’s don’t decide to shut the servers down anytime soon. The rest of us might want to fire up our old copies of Diablo 2 to get us warmed up for the impending sequel.

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