Oct 31, 2007
There’s a grand, almost royal disappointment lurking at the heart of Hellgate. It’s a disappointment wrought from the strange collage of game styles it’s inspired by. It’s both a fast-paced first-person shooter recalling Half-Life and Call of Duty, and a simple action-RPG like Diablo.
On paper this could, and should, be one of the great addictive pleasures of our time - an engrossing treadmill of leveling up and upgrading your weapons, skills and items, mixed with the violence and feedback of the best action games.
Instead, it’s a game in which you point hose-pipe weapons at fat zombies and stunted demons until they explode in a convulsive fountain of gore and inexplicable loot. It’s a game where even the most basic movement feels stilted, the most basic violence unimpressive and the Londoners you meet on the way recall the worst Dick Van Dyke accents.
Hellgate is a strange game for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a weird amalgam of singleplayer and massively multiplayer. You can tackle its main quest alone, or you can band together online.
Secondly, many of its side missions and locations are randomly generated. You might set out for the British Museum to pick up a sacred artifact but discover a portal to another dimension down a drainpipe. Finding these random side-missions is part of Hellgate’s thrill: knowing that in a few seconds, you’ll be showered in special loot.
Hellgate creates a gorgeous first impression. You begin alone and abandoned in a side-street. The city is wrecked: empty shells of buildings and their basements are pockmarked with glowing larval markings. Weird blimp things roam the sky. Ahead, zombies shuffle. And then you move. And Hellgate’s fundamental problem becomes clear.
Of Hellgate’s six classes, two are clearly designed for twitch FPS players: the marksman and engineer. The problem: shooting in Hellgate feels like directing a hosepipe. When you play as these, there’s little sense that you’re shooting a gun. There’s no kinetics, no feedback.
It’s not that Hellgate doesn’t provide thrills. It’s that they’re the thrill of finding a significant upgrade to your current gun. Or a battery or fuel cell that can be slotted in to offer a tiny amount of extra damage. What Hellgate doesn’t provide is a sense of gung-ho adventure, or sadistic bullet-ridden torture. The magic classes, the Evoker and the Summoner (wizards both, the first focusing purely on damage output, the second on controlling demon pets), suffer from the same problem. Their regular attacks come from “focus items” - they’re meant to be crystals to harness inner energy, but they come across as plasma cannons.
It’s much worse when you play the sword-swinging melee classes. The Bladesmith (best for two-handed fast slicing) and the Guardian (takes punishment on his shield) spend most of their time going toe to toe with Hellgate’s legions of bads. The problem: fighting is just a case of holding down the left mouse button and some special abilities (shield bashes, extra-heavy swipes) until stuff falls over. Even then, the baddies don’t even fall over well: stiff, pre-canned animations rather than the glorious mess of ragdoll physics we’re accustomed to.
What utterly ruins the illusion is that even the most terrifying creatures have absolutely no intelligence. A minion’s idea of a good time is to run toward you, sword drawn, until dead. His superior has the same problem. It’s something you can exploit. All that really matters is how much health they have, if they have any special attacks such as mystic fireballs or toxic plumes, and how they play in packs. Some demons cast shields on others. So kill them first. One breed of zombie will spawn infinite waves of his kind. So make him your primary target. Boss fights are a chore: just walk backward, firing, until death. Yours or theirs.
Online shows Hellgate at its best and worse. While having other players with you, the crowds of zombies become giant herds, and the subtle underpinning of the classes becomes clear. As the melee characters dash in, marksmen and casters hold back. Exploring London becomes a shared experience, and better for it. But with few tools to track down online partners, and crowded chat channels, finding groups can be a real pain. There’s no Looking for Group tool - you’ll have to rely on buddy lists or spamming chat channels. It’s a far cry from dedicated MMO games like World of Warcraft.
Loot is Hellgate’s strong point. It’s what turns it from a middling action shooter into an obsession. When absolutely every chestplate, every pair of pants, anything you wear or hold can be customised, when you’re assigning skill points every few minutes, when you’re weighing up point assignments with the requirements of lust-worthy armour, the choices come quick and fast. For every ten minutes of constant shooting, at least a tenth of that is spent on management - deconstructing drops, balancing and rebalancing your inventory.
Oh: and rather than tooling about with the hobo-clown look so common to RPG games, each item you pick up can be chosen to dominate your outfit. Every other part will then match that style. From the first moment, you’re going to look reasonably suave in the face of adversity. Add dyes to pick your colour, and you can look cool and distinctive too.
Hellgate: London hooked us - it elicits an almost Pavlovian response in even the most jaded of RPG wonks. But no matter how much we adore its juicy role-playing sub-systems, we can’t get past its wobbly core game. Maybe it’s a Pavlovan response. Tasty, sugary, but ultimately empty; just full of air.