Summary: Hellgate London is almost upon is and Johnny boy won the naked wrestling match for the right to play the beta. Here are his impressions.
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.
So what's playing the game like so far in the current beta? At the moment its about what you would would expect from the makers of the Diable games. Players enter into zones after going through a portal (with some loading time) and see usually a ton of enemies on screen at one time, from human zombies that charge at you to rat like creatures that jump up high to attack you from above to imps that fire both magical and high tech weapons. At times you cross over into the demon's dimension (and that's actually rather seemless with no load times) which is even worse that London's destruction with red skies and gothic architecture. There's no doubt that the game's art design is first rate with some pretty amazing looking creatures to look at and fight. Some creatures have a mystical shield that you have to break through in order to kill them. However the AI for Hellgate London's creatures is mixed with many just charging in without thinking. One time while fighting a mini-boss in the beta we cornered him and was able to keep firing at him while the beast just stood there, with no attacks or movement. Ouch. If you die (and you will likely die a lot in the game) you have three choices; go back to the Underground Station hub; reappear at the state of the level as a ghost and move to where you died last to be resurrected or pay up some money to be restored to life right where you died.
The game's level design can be rather repetitive at times. Sometimes you feel like you never want to see yet another burnt out London city scape ever again. There is some variety in the visuals at time but you will be seeing some of the same locations over and over again. Graphically the game will support both DirectX9 and DirectX10 and both versions have some impressive effects, from weapons and spell fire to water effects. However the game is still in beta which means we encountered more than one desktop crashing incident as well as some issues with framerate and performance. With the game coming out on Oct. 31 we hope Hellgate London's dev team will be able to get most of the kinks out of the code before it ships to stores.
While you can play the game by yourself Hellgate London, like the Diablo games, supports online multiplayer and that means you can gather parties at the game's station hubs to take on the quests and gain more loot more quickly. Much has been written about how the game will still be able to be played online for free but will have an optional $9.95 per month component that will add new content and features to the game right off the bat, along with periodic content updates in the coming months. It remains to be seen if that extra fee will be worth taking up.
As we said our time with the Hellgate London beta has been a mixed experience. The game itself is still buggy, some of the locations can blend in with each other and the AI of some of the monsters is suspect at this stage. However there's no denying that the pull of "just one more level" or "just one more quest" is still there in the game even with all of its pre-release issues. Hellgate London has a ton of options and lots of things to do and most importantly it's fun to play which is of course what all good games are supposed to be. We think that Diablo players or PC gamers looking for an entertaining experience still have a lot to look forward to in the game and we hope that the final version meets our rather high expectations.
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