When the original Diablo game came out in 1996, the RPG genre in PC gaming was on the outs as the new guys (the real time strategy and first person shooter genres) were taking PC gamers away from the sometimes slow and repetitive role playing designs. Blizzard North created a new sub genre, the action-RPG, with the original Diablo and that game and its sequel in 2000 sold millions of copies and reinvigorated the RPG genre.
So when it was announced that the main designers behind the Diablo games had left Blizzard North to form their own company (to be later called Flagship Studios) in 2003 there was naturally a lot of curiosity about what these guys could do for an encore. As it turn out, the encore was Hellgate London a full 3D action-RPG that takes the Diablo formula and places it in an all new setting. We have played the game at many press events this year; CES, E3 and most recently at the big press event at the game's co-publisher Electronic Arts (Namco Bandai Games is the other publisher). However with the recent opening of the beta of Hellgate London to outsiders we have had an opportunity to play the game for a long period of time as opposed to just a few minutes at these press events. The result is a mixed reaction at first but also nothing that can't be dealt with some extra work at the final debugging stage.
The game is set in a London of the near future that for some reason has been invaded by demons from another dimension, transforming the capital of the UK into a burned out urban landscape with bio-mechanical ships flying overhead and hordes of monsters and creatures of all shapes and sizes (indeed some monsters we encountered actually change their size while in battle). Humanity's fate now lies with groups of resistance fighters who are based inside London's subway system and who try to find a way to kill as many creatures as they can while also figuring out how to stop them from emerging from these dimensional gates. Flagship has six character classes for the game which mix high science with magic in various ways, from the engineer class that can create cool mechanical devices, including robots, to the blademaster that gets up close and personal with high-tech swords. For our beta character we created an evoker which uses handheld Focus items to fire spell and energies at enemies. Creating a character should be a fairly quick process; there's options to change a person's hair style and color, skin color and facial hair but its not an overwhelming list of options as you might get with, say, the City of Heroes game. There's a brief tutorial that gets you the basics of the combat, skills, and inventory before you head out on the quest.
Hellgate London is an RPG which means attacking foes in the game is based on your skill set which grows when you level up in a character and make the adjustments. However it's also a twitch-based action game as well. Combat occurs in real time and you can play the game as either a over the back third person action game or as a first person shooter (and yes you can circle strafe). Hellgate London has done away with ammo for your characters; you can fire as much as you want and never run out which again speaks to the fast paced design of the game.
Quests are given out by NPC who you talk to via the game's text based chat interface. While there seems to be a big story arc in the game we did find it hard to follow and scrolling through a lot of text in the chat go tedious after several NPC encounters. Of course there are also side quests that you can do in the game that have nothing to do with the main storyline, from killing mini-bosses to fetching items. Flagship has put in some humor in some of these quests (someone is a fan of the movie Strange Brew; you will have to play the game to find out) which help alleviate the dark and serious tone that most of the game has.