The gates of hell are open, and you must slog through randomly generated levels packed with the infernal legions of the damned toward a showdown with ultimate evil. Sound familiar?
That Hellgate London borrows heavily from the Diablo model of dispatching nether beings with mystical energies and the healthy smack of enchanted steel is neither surprising nor disappointing. If anything the millions of fans of Blizzard's franchise have been aching for an adequate heir for years, and while games like Sacred and Titan Quest have made journeyman efforts to fill that void, they have always fallen ultimately just a little short. So, when Bill Roper – one of the masterminds behind the demonic franchise – broke away from Blizzard and announced his project, which sounded suspiciously-exactly like Diablo with fancy new 3D visuals, great enthusiasm followed.
Hellgate London is the culmination of that effort and it can perhaps best be described as the promise of an excellent game in a currently flawed state. Offering the basic frenetic gameplay of Diablo 2 in a 3D futuristic environment lends a lot of basic potential to Hellgate London, and the hand of Bill Roper is evident at many if not every turn, but serious bugs, an unwieldy UI, horrendous account (mis)management, repetitious environments and a constantly evident lack of polish leave the game short of its lofty goals at launch.
Hellgate London is something more than an action-RPG and something just short of an MMO, a hybridized blend that can be played entirely offline, though it makes very little sense to do so. I know it's perhaps anathema to inject personal anecdotes into critical analysis, but I've never been much for ceremony, so here goes. When I was a teenager I was a C student on my best days, and every single teacher I disappointed would send home critical evaluations with the words "shows strong potential" highlighted by what I can only describe as frustrated red underlines. Were I sending home a mid-quarter progress report on Hellgate London, that's exactly what I'd write under my otherwise discouraged evaluation, and like my parents and teachers I spend as much time imagining what this game will be once it finally applies itself as slapping my head at the boneheaded blunders it currently makes at every turn.
Even the most discouraging critics of the game generally admit that the game is very likely to be different in six months than it is now, and independent developer Flagship studios may be given some latitude with the understanding that traditionally games of this nature rarely launch in a completely finished state. Were the issues entirely content related, it might be easier to look past some of Hellgate London's less egregious shortcomings, but with regular server downtime, a non-functioning account creation system that has now blossomed into an all out SNAFU, and a variety of crashes to endure, the game clearly would have been very well served with a little more time in development. So far, a patch a day has not been uncommon, and it has become clear that little touches and fixes are slowly bringing the game together.
Perhaps this next statement breaks either some unspoken bond of trust I have contracted with you as a reader, or bursts a little too boldly through the fourth wall, but what are these perspectives for if not to be uncommonly honest with you, so here goes: I find myself wanting to make excuses for Hellgate London. In fact, I dare suggest I'm not the only one, because despite what are mind-numbingly apparent flaws in its current state I want this title to be good. I want to encourage more developers to strike off on their own and try to bring their visions for great games to fruition, and I want to be positive about what should be a fantastic game, but let's be honest. This game is what happens when great designers run at full speed into the brick wall of a financially mandated hard deadline, the inevitable trainwreck of simply running out of time and money. As a gamer it's discouraging as hell because whatever inspires Diablo 2 fanatics to return time and again to the infinite and unyielding obliteration of Mephisto is present here. This perspective ultimately breaks down to a pretty simple question: can you look past occasionally show-stopping bugs and rough edges like you'd find on an industrial sander to the game beneath?
But, when I say bugs, let me be clear. We're talking evil creeping carrion eater kind of bugs that will halt your demon-stomping in its path with a total system freeze. Even with 2 gigs of RAM and a Core 2 Duo processor, I still get what appear to be memory leak crashes to desktop every other time I play. Even the randomly generated maps, which they have presumably been working on for years, occasionally offer no passable path between you and your destination. In multiplayer, I have suddenly had my partner vanish, though he was still clearly in the same gamespace as evidenced by demons falling to invisible blades. There is a cavalcade of little things that will need to be fixed, put in place and polished in the months to come, and this is just a sampling.
Hellgate offers online players two options, a subscription based model or a free model with fewer features, less access to content updates, and fewer character slots and items. Unlike typical MMOs, Hellgate London's price-tag provides a complete experience without ever requiring you to enter a credit card number, and it's hard to criticize giving players a free option regardless of comments made earlier in the development cycle. This is a game where it makes sense to offer a subscription model, and being able to play while you wait for Hellgate London to have the content in place to make a subscription worth your while is actually a fair option.
From a gameplay perspective, Hellgate London stays faithful to a Diablo mindset of fighting waves of monsters. The in-game dialogue moves a perfunctory story along well enough and is occasionally quite funny in a clever and quirky way. While there are a number of moments of unusual and creative quests, particularly along the track of the main storyline, taking advantage of the potential of a fairly flexible 3D engine, too many side quests devolve into hunt and gather tedium. Some will find this mitigated by the real draw of the game, which is endless dungeon crawling and item collection. It's easy enough to imagine an eventual market for highly prized items and sets, a traditional development for games of this type that manage any longevity, but again we approach the idea that the value of Hellgate London is, as yet, untapped. While the story, items and missions are all there, it's easy to imagine the game being significantly better once the user interface is improved and the economy is thriving.
If it feels like I'm entirely on the fence about this game, it's because I am. It's the kind of game I'd rather revisit in six months to see if it eventually matches its potential, because in its release state it is simply incomplete. The fundamentals are there, but the bug fixes, interface improvements and general polish are being patched in day by day. On the upside Hellgate London starts from a reasonably solid foundation and improves each day, but on the downside you might feel like you've just dropped $50 to play what is essentially an advanced beta. How you square on the issue of companies needing to launch so they have the assets to finish their game will be a lot of the deciding factor for anyone interested in the game. Enough friends with whom to play and a healthy patience will make the price of admission easier to swallow, but if you're looking for a polished experience in this kind of gameplay, you might want to break out the old Diablo 2 cd and play that for six months while Hellgate London finishes cooking.