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Written by  :  BurningStickMan (18029)
Written on  :  Sep 27, 2011
Rating  :  3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars

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The servers are dead, but the single-player lives on

The Good

If you've heard anything about Hellgate: London, it’s likely been negative. Regarded as one of the biggest flops of 2007, the high-profile involvement of several Diablo II alums only resulted in high-profile fallout when the studio collapsed shortly after Hellgate‘s release.The demise of Flagship Studios ended up overshadowing the actual gameplay of Hellgate, and while you can no longer play this online, the single-player game is still quite available. This single-player aspect is what we’ll be taking a look at today.

Hellgate takes place in a near-future London, during a dismal time after humanity’s card has been well and truly pulled. “Hellgates” have opened around the world, issuing forth swarms of demons out to purge humanity in a process called The Burn. Those humans who survived the initial onslaught retreated underground, living in and traveling through the remains of city subways. You play as a new soldier in the ranks of London’s militant survivors staging a guerrilla war against the occupying demons. A revitalized Templar order offers fractured oversight to the resistance, and as you play through the game’s 30-ish hour campaign, you’ll meet its leaders and play a key role in humanity’s dim future.

Hellgate is very much a modern Diablo. You head out into randomized dungeons, hack and slash (or shoot) until your pack fills with randomized loot, then use a “town portal” style device to zap back to your last station and sell your collected wares. Repeat and repeat, with questgivers directing your hacking and slashing toward particular numbers or types of demons. It worked well in Diablo, and it works well here – with the thrill of “just one more” masking most issues of repetition or simplistic gameplay, at least for a while.

You choose from a fixed set of character classes that cover the expected bases – ranged specialists, melee specialists, magicians, engineers, minion controllers – and specialize by dumping experience points into a skill tree. Each node on the tree can also be specialized in more than once, increasing the power of that ability. Abilities run on a toolbar along the bottom of the screen and are deployed with the number keys.

I played as a standard soldier, and ended up with various grenades types with different debuffs, a marking ability to increase damage to a selected foe, a root ability that fixed you in place but raised your accuracy and damage, etc. You can certainly see how the various classes could support each other in a group, and overall, they feel balanced and enjoyable (in single player, at least). About the only annoyance is that the game was clearly designed to stick around, so you won’t get too far along that skill tree on only one playthrough.

Another nice feature is that ranged and melee combat both seem equally competent. Ranged defaults to a first-person view, and works like a typical FPS. All guns have infinite ammo here, but fire at different speeds and lose varying amounts of accuracy (shown with expanding crosshairs) with sustained fire. Melee restricts you to a third-person view, and you hack-and-slash much like in Jedi Knight. I didn’t get far enough on a melee character to discover any significant strategy or stances – instead, they seemed intended to spec out in a Tank role. Many of a sword-and-shield Templar’s skills are based around drawing aggro and soaking up damage, which essentially sidestep the whole issue of needing a fluid melee system.

Skills are, of course, supplemented with loot. Again, nothing surprising or broken here. Equipment is color coded based on rarity, and can be bought and sold in shops at the stations. Almost every piece of equipment has slots to accept drop-in modifications (also looted and color coded). These bestow skills boosts, rare powers (like a lightning blast when you’re hit), and damage upgrades. Both gear and mods can also be broken down into constituent parts, which can be reforged by crafting NPCs offering randomized recipes. You can also pay in-game money to enhance any particular piece of gear you may be fond of, granting it additional stats or extra mod slots. Of course, any unused gear, boots, or crafting bits can be stored in lockers in every station, and of course, paying subscribers got extra storage.

The setting is really the main draw of Hellgate, and it’s a welcome departure from the typical high-fantasy tropes that dominate the genre. London’s shattered streets are besieged by rain, ash, and snow, and an ever-present haze suggests hellfires burning in all directions. Underground tunnels are similarly dingy and atmospheric; lit with trash bin fires and strewn with rubble and disused subway cars. Many of these areas actually look quite lovely. The game was also an early adopter of DirectX 10 technology, so players with the cards can appreciate enhanced steam and smoke effects, moonlit reflections, physics-controlled gibs and explosions, to name a few.

Monsters look suitably demonic, and actually break out into a caste that roughly defines their abilities and weakness. Most are a little too shiny and plastic (typical for the time), but there are certainly no questions when a horde of zombies shamble toward you, or spectral creatures phase in to attack. There’s also a randomized “legendary monster” system that sometimes spawns in tougher, mini-boss level enemies into the world. These are usually just gold-named versions of existing creatures, but sometimes you’ll get something you haven’t seen before, or one of the game’s surprisingly large monster models. Kill them, and you’ll get a large loot drop.

The campaign’s story isn’t that bad, and frequently based around humor. A running gag involving a self-proclaimed demon researcher and an unwitting techsmith provides the most laughs, and there’s a few legitimately good lines and odd situations. However, when it’s time for the plot to get serious, it gets pretty generic (“We’ve lost contact with such and such station – hurry and check it out!”). The overall plot, based around a prophecy that might close the Hellgates, is also little more than an excuse to travel around London and solve some puzzles toward the end. Side missions similarly stick with the old formula of “Find this named boss and kill him” or “Bring me back 10 demon toenails for my research.”

The Bad

These quests are also where the gameplay side of Hellgate starts to falter. Like the original Diablo, the game is entirely based around extremely repetitive combat. As a ranged character, you simply move up to the next group of monsters, stop, and hold the fire key until they’re all dead. Same for melee, except that you stop a little closer to them. A recharging shield for all players, and frequent health powerups (or passive regeneration skills) also mean most players won’t see much of a challenge. The gameplay’s not necessarily bad, just frequently boring and simplistic, and you can certainly see the necessity of friends or a group to offer some kind of distraction. The usual draw of getting new loot also doesn’t entirely work, as scaling enemies mean you always end up taking the same amount of time to kill something.

It's also where I should note that the single-player campaign is the game. Talk of Hellgate being an MMO stirs up confusion that heavily contributed to its demise in the first place. You create a character and take that character through a linear series of story-based missions, with fixed, optional side-quests able to be grabbed in every station. There are no random missions. When you finish your personal campaign, you can only opt to restart it in a “New Game Plus” situation, and work to fill yet more of your skill tree. The difference is that there are other online players going through their campaigns too, and you can cross paths and optionally team up at the various station hubs. That’s the multiplayer component – more of a Demon’s Souls than a WoW, that you were still expected to pay a monthly fee for.

The game also works on the old system of inventory slots, with each item taking up a set number (and shape) of slots in your pack. I think I spent more time playing Inventory Tetris than slaying beasts. The pack fills up quickly too, so there’s a constant need to portal back and sell your wares, or dump off your crafting bits if you go the disassembly route. Some people may enjoy this, but I was just getting frustrated with finding my inventory full yet again in the middle of a mission. Then again, maybe I was just being greedy.

The Bottom Line

If you were to pick up a boxed copy of the original Hellgate today, this is what you’d be in for. It’s a very Diablo experience, with all the good and repetitive that brings. You also don’t even have to play the multiplayer to see where other players fit in, and where the daft concept of charging a monthy fee for the privilege doesn’t. It will be interesting to see how the free-to-play model works here, and with an additional story and maybe some enhanced difficulty (a hardcore or permadeath mode might offer enough tension to keep interested) might make the reborn F2P Hellgate something worth checking out.