The general premise behind Hellgate: London (HG:L) is that the world has been overrun by a demonic invasion and there’s a group of survivors holed up in London’s various subway stations trying to survive. It’s produced by Flagship Studios, formed from many former Diablo developers, and published by EA
HG:L is very much the spiritual successor to Diablo, and therefore can best be described as “hack and slash”. For much of the early goings, you will be charging through a horde of beasts, demons and zombies merrily shooting, casting or slashing them into tiny bits and collecting all sorts of gear along the way. It does capture a lot of that old spirit “just another level real quick” feeling of Diablo despite the new setting.
The interface is a bit sparse, but functional. Your health and shields are shown on one side, mana…excuse me, POWER on the other with your skill buttons in the middle. A great many conventions of the user experience have been taken from World of Warcraft (which arguably took them from Diablo, of course) so if you have any sort of familiarity with that game you should be able to navigate the interface pretty easily without directions. Exclamation marks denote quest-givers, item quality is denoted by color, and so forth. While not original perhaps, they are a good standard to base around nonetheless.
Gameplay revolves around clearing out various levels, most randomly generated. While generally some variation of ruined cityscape, Flagship has tried to present at least some variety in the levels with pseudo-RTS play or specialty levels where it’s pitch-black save a provided light. Monsters and static objects (which can be smashed) all have a chance to drop items, but unlike many RPGs, there is no pressing need to swap out items all the time. At stations, you can “upgrade” your weapons to improve their stats or add new abilities to them, theoretically allowing you to keep a favored weapon for as long as you want to use it. The upgrades are paid for through both money and materials which you obtain from breaking apart unwanted items.
Graphically the game looks nice, though obviously a better card translates into better graphics. The armor and weapons for the three different factions is very distinct and well-done, and the monsters will give you a feeling that you are indeed fighting something otherworldly. There are also some very nice animation effects, such as a zombie having chunks of blown off by weapons fire until it’s just a pair of legs charging at you. One great graphical feature is that armor can be colored to present a uniform scheme, eliminating the “I lost a fight with a clown tent” appearance common in games such as the aforementioned World of Warcraft. It’s a small detail, but appreciated that in the future they have not lost the ability to use paint.
Another major point on the game is that while it has a Singleplayer version, you’ll almost certainly want to play the multiplayer and tackle the dungeons with your friends. This multiplayer has many interesting ideas in the genre, such as the subscription model. You can play HG:L online, for free, forever. Of course, you won’t gain the benefit of all the new content they put out unless you subscribe, but you’re not obligated to pay unless you feel what they’re giving you warrants it. This is a nice feature, as people can see how the company behaves for as long as they feel they need to before forking over more money. Don’t think it’s worth it to shell out the fees ($9.99 a month as of this writing)? Then don’t until you see something you feel is worth the money. It’s an interesting model, to say the least.
The game also includes Xbox Live-ish “achievements” for various things such as slaying X amount of monsters, accumulating Y amount of money or more esoteric ones such as the Templar-only achievement of killing the end boss with a cricket bat. A nice feature, if mildly pointless, but it does give you smaller sub-goals to focus on while trying to get through the game. It’s also a chance for them to show some humor with their “I really hate boxes” achievement you gain for smashing the little blighters in search of the elusive “phat lewtz.”
Right now the biggest knock against the game is that it’s more than a little repetitive. There’s currently a finite number of tilesets and structures, and the more you play the more you’ll see these repeat themselves. Monsters, too, suffer from this as your enemies tend to simply be re-skinned versions of what you fought previously. There’s some variety in their abilities, but once you get past the first few levels you see fewer and fewer new enemy models popping up. This too is similar to Diablo, but can be a put-off all the same.
Another big problem is the lack of what some would consider “core MMO functionality” in the multiplayer segment. Things like an Auction House or in-game mail system are currently not in the game, and the guild management options are almost totally inadequate. However, Flagship has stated that these things are at the top of their priority list for inclusion into the game. Even so, this can wreck the game for many people, so it’s definitely bad.
Monster AI, at least on the basic level, is also woefully bad. It is entirely possible to wipe out whole swathes of enemies by running backwards and holding down the mouse button (for a ranged class at least). While some enemies have interesting tactics from time to time, for the most part it will simply be a slaughter of epic proportions. It’s good for the ego, perhaps, to be a whirlwind of destruction (which is admittedly the point of hack-n-slash), but every so often it just feels like you’re stomping on kittens. I hear this isn't as hideous on the harder difficulties, but since you can only do one at the start, it is worth mentioning.
The most grievous sin (in this reviewer’s opinion) was the inclusion of the most reviled portion of Diablo: Inventory Tetris. Sure, you have the six squares needed to pick up that legendary rifle, but because they’re not in the correct shape you have to juggle around your inventory until it will fit. While it’s quaint and familiar at first, it rapidly descends into the “tiresome” realm. It’s a minor quibble in the grand scheme, but it’s one that crops up with such regularity that it’s probably the most prominent issue with the game’s design. No word from Flagship on if that will be remedied.
Some of the uglier portions of the game would be the chat interface. While it got great improvements with their most recently released patch, it’s still a very large, clunky…thing. It gets the job done after a fashion, but it’s just very confusing to figure out at a glance. Nothing insurmountable, but annoying.
The level randomness that’s one of HG:L’s nicer features can also come back to bite it as it doesn’t appear that it has any “safeguards” on the random portion. This can lead to the puzzling situation where your quest will involve you going across multiple zones, but the entrance into the level from the station is, quite literally, across the hall from the exit to the next zone. While you’re likely to go around slashing away at the whole level in search of loot and XP, it is quite disconcerting.
Another issue is the temperamental respawn mechanics. When you log in and enter any level, logging out and going back into it will present you with an entirely new level. Fair enough, but the respawns on levels when you have NOT logged out seem murky at best. Sometimes you’ll return through levels you’ve cleared a half hour or more ago to find them wholly deserted still, others you’ll walk back to find them fully re-populated mere minutes later. This is especially fun when you were exploring a hellrift and return to find monsters all over the portal that kill you before the screen has fully rendered them…but I’m not bitter.
Talents…sorry, SKILLS, are another issue. The explanation on skills does not always give a good idea of how useful a given skill will be, or at what level of investment you see returns. For example, Blademasters have a “Charge” ability that is generally regarded as a “one point wonder” meaning it’s good to put one point into it, but further investment is largely a waste even if it goes up to 10 possible points. This, combined with a lack of a respec mechanism, makes the game very unforgiving of not doing research on these skills beforehand as you can pump points (of which you will only have 49 to distribute as you see fit) into something that seems good, but turns out to be useless. Whether respeccing will be included in a future patch is still up for debate.
The Gryph Factor*
HG:L is currently very low on Gryph Factor. There are no API for user addons, and there’s very little information available outside the game currently. Their web assets are very lackluster and there’s a minimum of “geeking out” that can be done over the game in its present state. This would make for one very sad Gryphon.
If you miss the days where you could get a couple buddies and charge into a dungeon without having to worry about “who’s the tank?” or “we need a healer” or “Damnit, the boss didn’t drop my item again” then HG:L will undoubtedly be a breath of fresh air. It’s familiar enough to Diablo/WoW players that the learning curve for them will be almost non-existent, and it captures the spirit of “hit stuff on the head until it doesn’t move anymore and then take their stuff”. It’s not a WoW-killer, or a blockbuster mega-title but between the gameplay and the support that Flagship has shown thus far it’s still a solid buy. The jury is still out on their long-term appeal, as that relies heavily on what their patches hold in store.
I’d give it a good 3.5 stars out of 5, with another half star pending their ability to get out major content patches on a roughly bi-monthly basis.
* - The Gryph Factor is a measure of how much of the game can be interfaced with outside of the game. As an example, World of Warcraft with their Addon API, web-accessible Armory and other “geek” features would rank high on Gryph Factor while a game without any of the above, such as Solitaire or Pinball would rank poorly.