Hellgate: Going Underground

By Kieron Gillen on October 4th, 2007 at 1:57 am.

Some of you may be hoping I’m going to run out of rubbishy song-title references if we do many more Hellgate stories. Sadly, I could do this all year.

This is a press shot. It's not from the Beta. We used up our press quota yesterday on a gag. We are so bloody stupid.

Anyway – let’s get on with those Beta impressions I promised you yesterday, eh?

It’s just about possible you may not be aware of Hellgate: London, so here’s the quick one paragraph version to get you up to speed. Everyone else can skip-skip-away this paragraph. It’s the first game from Flagship, who are a group of Blizzard veterans who ran away from the land of World of Warcraft Money to do something new. To be incredibly, unfairly, blunt, it’s basically Diablo II in first person. In other words, one of the most addictive games that has ever lurked on a PC’s hard-drive, incredible co-op multiplayer, randomised levels (therefore abstractly infinite replayability) and so on. Selecting from six unique classes, you go forth into these areas and generally beat on monsters, take their stuff and either sell it (or break it into its parts) for better stuff or equip it, and then use it to beat on more monsters. For those who have trouble parsing titles, the excuse for all this carnage is that Hell has opened a gate to London. In other words, Diablo II meets Doom in old London town.

Now, I’ve only played a few hours of it. They’re actually a few more hours than I thought I would – I went in for a quick look around, and ended up playing for a good few hours before the game crashed due to my instant messenger program bringing me to desktop. Which was actually lucky, as I was starving and needed to stop and may have starved to death. A choice between mortal sustenance and playing around with the rocket-launcher I’d just found isn’t a choice at all.

In other words, it’s highly compulsive. My reservations are that I’m not sure that’s enough.

Firstly, while there’s moments of post-apocalyptic chic to it, it lacks atmosphere. I suspect the problem comes from a couple of places. Number one is that it’s only acceptably attractive and – in a few areas – seems even regressive. Monster death animations, for example. When a monster slumps to the floor I’ve often missed it and carried on shooting the corpse. In the days of ragdolling showing death clearly, this seems really retro. It looks pretty good for an RPG, of course… but the second you make an RPG which moves like an FPS, you’re moving into their territory and end up being compared to them. Hellgate comes off badly in such a comparison. The random generation explains some of it, sure… but it doesn’t remove the sensation. Number two, it’s a role-playing game that’s just completely capitulated to massively-multiplayer conventions. While the main arc of the story is a proper narrative, when I hit the first communal area I walked away with a half-dozen quests to go to X bit of the underground and kill Y number of Z monster (Or go to X bit of the underground and get Y objects. Oh yeah – you get Y objects by killing Z monster). Yes, each quest will take you to a randomly generated instance… but it feels completely artificial, as if Flagship just weren’t trying to think of ways to hide these time-sink grind mechanisms. I mean, they’re instances. Closed areas where abstractly anything could happen. The reason why MMOs use such repetitive limited quests is that, in a shared world, there’s a limitation. Using it as the game’s backbone is… well, not exactly conductive to a sense of place. It’s made worse by the stations themselves being claustrophobically small, with these people offering quests to collect the flotsam and jetsam of the underground being scant metres away from each other.

Secondly, the game’s a lot twitchier than games tend to be a month before release. Shacknews did a bit more about this, so read their Beta report. In short, Blizzard games are successful for many reasons, and it’s not all pure understanding of gaming mechanisms. It’s because they polish like no-one else on the PC. Hellgate, in late Beta, isn’t polished enough yet. It’s going to be a hard month for Flagship, however you cut it.

Thirdly, while the compulsion to play is acute, the excitement while you’re playing isn’t. Oh, it has intense moments, but generally speaking, I don’t feel threatened by anything Hellgate throws me. I hold down the triggers. I look vaguely in the direction of the monsters attacking me, backing away and firing. They die. I pick up their stuff. It continues. The character development looks as elegantly perfect as Diablo II, and the choices there work great. The deciding on what artifacts to lose, what to upgrade and what to equip are equally nifty. But the actual battles don’t feel like battles. The baddies don’t feel like baddies. They feel like mobile treasure chests, which I’ll open by holding down the fire button and seeing what interesting trinkets are left lying on the floor when they pop. In fact, I find treasure chests harder to deal with than the vast majority of the monsters because they open with a mouse-click rather than the F-key which picks up all the items off the floor and I have to remember to switch.

Now, I’ve barely started up the level tree – my character’s level 7 – and their character customisation has much more to offer. The plot is just kicking off properly. I’ve done the first couple of Hellgate “things”, but there’s much more there. How it’ll operate co-operatively is of fundamental importance – it’s a multiplayer game, after all, and I’ve been soloing it all.

Still, with all that, it hasn’t blown me away. Which is the thing. Hellgate, from what I’ve seen so far, isn’t a bad game by any measure. But this year has been a frankly incredible year for PC games and when compared to its peers, and against all enormous expectations, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Hellgate may be the season’s first genuine disappointment.

Fingers crossed.

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15 Comments »

  1. Luke says:

    Yikes! I’ve heard about the bugs, but you’re the first to express any level of disappointment with the gameplay. Sounds like killing in Diablo was more interactive than this. At least you had to release the mouse button to move to the next target.

    So, tell us about the in-game ads. You can see them prominently in one of the Shacknews screenshots. Do they suck? (don’t they always) Or are they bearable? I’m trying to gather feedback from journos that have experienced them firsthand.

  2. Simon Westlake says:

    I’ve already cancelled my preorder, which saddens me, as I was looking forward to this game.

    I wasn’t even as enthralled with it as Kieron though – I could tell pretty quickly it was unfortunately tedious and unexciting.

    It’s not just the ‘get X Y’s’ quests, but the game design has some horrendous low level flaws I don’t feel they can fix pre-release (like the fact that it makes way more sense to strap a big gun on their ‘spellcaster’ and run around shooting than actually.. you know.. casting spells.)

    I had high hopes and I was really rooting for Flagship, but most of the people I have played with so far have come away with no more than ‘ehh, it was alright.’

  3. spirit7 says:

    Hmm, that’s unfortunate. Since quitting WoW I’ve been so disillusioned by multiplayer RPGs in general (I blame WoW for that), and had high hopes for this title as possibly being a good mixture of the single-player plot/level design and multiplayer interaction. I hope they rectify some of the problems!

    Incidentally, here’s hoping the co-op is akin to co-op SERIOUS SAM.

  4. tom says:

    Kieron,

    Try putting semi-automatic rifles in your food cupboard or live grenades in your fridge. It might help you to go for food occasionally.

  5. Thelps says:

    Well colour me /cry. I guess in a way a randomly generated FPS environment never seemed all that promising to me anyway. If anyone can remember the old, old Apogee game Rise of the Triad (noted for its severed eyeballs striking the screen) that had a random level generator, not in the main game but as an deathmatch bonus. It didn’t really work all that well with some ridiculous results, and, far too often, much too claustrophobic level design. A part of me assumed that that wouldn’t be tolerated in an FPS that relies 100% on its random generator. Diablo’s isometric/overhead view was always going to lend itself better to this kind of thing, I guess.

    I’ll reserve judgement ’til I play it, since every so often I’ll fall in love with a ‘crap’ RPG (Demise springs to mind) and play it to death anyway. Heck, that’s unfair language, I’m SURE Hellgate won’t be crap, but I’m truly scared it’ll be mediocre.

  6. Bob Arctor says:

    I gave up ages ago when the first video came out. It seemed like you were just pumping the monsters full of colourstuff till they exploded. Rather than violently shooting them.

    The fact Bioshock is here and I haven’t completed it yet isn’t helping Hellgate’s cause. The combat in Bioshock is awesome and violent and fast.

  7. Natural Select0r says:

    Does that screenshot show a typical scene? I expected Hell Gate London to be a lot darker.

  8. Kieron Gillen says:

    The screenshot is a press one which I picked as it showed a lot going on. Generally speaking, it’s a lot darker.

    KG

  9. buman says:

    Remember that the versions that people have had access to where weeks old when they played them. This is stressed several times in interviews with the developers.

  10. Kieron Gillen says:

    The main reason I linked to the Shacknews piece is that it stresses such stuff.

    KG

  11. Toady says:

    So sad imo! ._.

    Had to cancel the pre-order. With all that stuff going around, i think FSS will shoot their own kneecaps out. SAD !

  12. tombombadill says:

    i hardly doubt this preveiw is annything to cancel ur pre-order over. i hear rumors that fss have a internal version that adresses most of the bugs, but that is just a rumor i hear from trolling forums, altho i was sad to read ur preveiw it was as i feared, but i will still be giveing this game a go upon release and i will just have my fingers crossed till then :P

  13. Frankimus says:

    The game is average but I’m friggin addicted to loot, I mean… didn’t we all play D2 and just do baal/meph/pindle runs for loot, then duel all day? or was that just me?

    I see the same thing happening here. I dont think any of us played diablo 2 for the story, it was pretty much to watch a rad cutscene the first time around then give me fat gear for my mules. I’m addicted to modding and crafting weapons in this game, sure beats those damned runewords.

  14. Simon Westlake says:

    Tombombadil: I don’t know how anyone can say ‘it’s not something to cancel your preorder over.’

    If you preordered it, you should be in the beta already and playing it, and know that the game is average at best. I haven’t played with _anyone_ (and the entire gaming community I’m a part of preordered it) that hasn’t cancelled their preorder.

    It’s not a horrible game, but it’s 6/10 on a good day and it’s definitely not something I can see getting even $50 of enjoyment out of.

  15. Blueman says:

    you complain that the abttling is very easy, and that you only played till lvl 7, but you think back to d2, think about how easy it was to kill a fallen adn all those monsters, grab w/e crap teh store had and one hit almost anything all the way till andy. i do have my finger crossed that the monsters get stronger. also they are making an elite mode that is a way harder difficulty to make it not so easy

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