When Bill Roper, one of the brains behind the famed Diablo series, left Blizzard to setup on his own the gaming world sat on its haunches and begged for details like a small excited puppy. Naturally, when said project was announced sounding spookily like a fully 3D version of Diablo the feverish excitement levels doubled and they've been steadily growing ever since, spurred on by a deluge of pre-release media and enticing sounding previews.
However, now that Hellgate: London (for that be its name) has been pushed, squinting, into the daylight ready for inspection, it's a little jarring to realise the first impression you're left with after playing it for any length of time is a certain sense of 'is this it?' You see, it's quite possible that gaming history will view Hellgate: London as a something of a victim of its own hype. The lazy yet fairly accurate 'Diablo in 3D' label proving to be both its biggest achievement and its biggest curse.
While the game's setting, a ruined and demon-ridden version of London in 2038, is as far from the fantasy world of Diablo as you can get, the basic underlying game remains essentially the same. Explore randomly generated environments performing quests given to you by NPC's you meet, and generally killing anything you come across while picking up as much loot as you can. The major twist to that tried, tested and much loved mechanic is the shift from a top down view into full on 3D. In fact, since the game is played either from a first or third person view, to an unknowing eye the action could easily resemble any one of the more traditional shooters filling the shelves at the moment. However, much like Diablo, there's a whole belly-full of RPG features hiding under the bonnet to beef up the experience.
Starting off with character design and you're given a choice of three factions to pick from, each with their own two classes. First up is The Templar, an order of divine warriors, who come in two melee classes, Guardian and Blademaster. These two are both played from a third person view allowing you to see the hacking and slashing far more clearly than a first person view would allow. Next up we have The Cabalists who use the dark power of the Hellgate to fuel the spell casting of their two classes, the Summoner and the Evoker. Lastly we have the ex-military brute force of The Hunters. The Marksman class being your more traditional FPS style gun wielding marine, while the Engineer adds a nice line in robot control to his arsenal. These classes all provide a surprisingly different game experience with the difference in both viewpoint and tactics between classes proficient in ranged combat and those more suited to melee combat making it almost feel like a different game.
The one thing you could always trust a game with such strong links to Diablo to get right is treasure. Thankfully enemies drop it by the bucket load and it's not unusual to find some really funky bits of kit laying around after a shootout. It's this sense of imminent discovery that gives the game its addictive edge, the prospect of potentially finding something cool just round the next corner proving to be a real draw. Another layer of fun is to be found when you realise that these bits of kit can often be augmented by extra bits and bobs you find to create rather cool bespoke weapons designed to suit your own needs. In a nice touch these extras can be removed and re-applied to new, more powerful weapons as you pick them up so you're never left feeling that you've wasted anything. The one downside with all this loot is your limited inventory size; it soon starts to feel tiny compared to the amount of stuff there is to be picked up.
Despite looking at times like an FPS, the twitch reactions you've honed over the years play less of a part than you may expect. Instead the action is far more akin to a traditional action RPG with the 2D pointing and clicking replaced by 3D aiming and clicking while the hit/miss number crunching goes on in the background. The switch to 3D does bring a whole new feel to the game though, the level of immersion instantly heightened by the extra dimension.
Lavish cut scenes drive the central story in between each of the game's acts however the rest of the plot is less well presented. The remaining information quest givers and NPC's tends to be in the form of text with only the odd few spoken phrases and the writing quality ranges from adequate to horrible with little or no care taken to infuse characters with anything less than a broad stereotype. Thankfully you can often ignore the nuts and bolts of what they say and just focus on the details of the quest itself. These all too often fall into the standard kill/collect x of x, but the continual prospect of finding your next bit of juicy loot around the next corner goes some way to ensuring you're never bored.
The success of the randomly generated environments these quests take place in depends on your demands for replayability. It's technologically impressive that no two people will play the same game and starting over will always provide a new experience but I have to admit those plusses don't mean jack if what you're playing through isn't that exciting in the first place. The continual re-use of the same set of building blocks for each level does take a few hours to become apparent, but once it does it's not something you're able to forget and no algorithm however advanced can offer the kind of flair a decent level designer can bring to the experience. It also seem to be missing the point a little to set the game in London then make the environments random thereby automatically ensuring they're unlike the real world locations they claim to be set in. Thankfully some of London's more iconic environments are set in stone and naturally these provide some of the game's highlights, perhaps there's a lesson to be learned for next time there.
The game has two main play modes, online and offline, with online playing out as something of an MMO where the tube station hubs act as lobbies from which players can team up to tackle any of the instanced quests. It's important to make a decision as to how you're going to play when you first install the game since characters created and lovingly upgraded in the offline mode cannot be used online and vice versa. Yes, I know, it seemed a bizarre restriction to me too.
If you choose to play online it's still possible to play on your own as each quest takes place in a uniquely instanced 'dungeon' meaning you'll only encounter other players when you're in one of the tube stations. The limited size of these tube stations and the not exactly user friendly chat interface means finding someone to adventure with can be more trial than error at this point although once on a quest the multiplayer side of things works well.
While the basic online mode is provided free (something not to be sniffed at when you start to treat it like the 'MMO lite' it wants to be) there's also the option to pay a subscription fee which will give you access to more regular content updates, extra character slots and more items. How much value for money this option will provide is open for debate, certainly there doesn't seem to be enough available currently to warrant the expense but who's to say what will become available in the future.
If you've got the machine to power it Hellgate: London can look lovely at times but the engine can't hold a candle to the current crop of FPS games appearing on shelves (I'm looking at you Crysis), something of a shame as the game's traditional shooter viewpoint opens it up to such casual comparisons. Creature design is nice enough but never offers much in the way of surprises and there are only so many times you can see the same hell spawn before even the impressive ones start to lose their wow factor.
It'd be remiss of me to go the whole review without mentioning the stability of the released game. While we've become almost used to having to patch a game the moment we install it, Hellgate: London still manages to raise an eyebrow for the amount of problems still present in the code, even after ensuring it's up to date. The most show stopping one I still come across being an apparent memory leak that gradually slows the game down over time, requiring a full system reboot to cure.
If Hellgate: London had appeared on shelves with no hype and no known links to past gaming glories then we'd probably be sat here at the end of the review chatting about how it was a bit of an undiscovered gem that fused FPS sensibilities with Diablo-esque loot collection and character customisation to provide a thoroughly enjoyable, if slightly unpolished, experience. Unfortunately we don't have that luxury and the game's high profile throws niggles like the repetitive level design, the often dull quests and the stability issues into harsh relief. If all you want is a Diablo clone wrapped up in FPS clothes with some MMO features then you'll undoubtedly be satisfied. However, those looking for, or expecting, some kind of new dawn for the action RPG genre will be left wondering what all the fuss was about.