Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Flagship Studios
Release Date: October 31, 2007
As Hellgate: London portrays the future, the capital city of England is a tangled mess of burned-down pubs, abandoned double-decker buses and long-neglected red phone booths. It's as if the entire city is in the midst of an infinite post-apocalyptic hangover and to make matters worse, it's infested with hordes of rabid infernal demons eager to feast on the last surviving remnants of humankind.
This is the dark and unwelcoming setting for Flagship Studios' new online action role-playing game that follows closely in the traditions laid down by the addictive 1996 classic , Diablo.
Your demon-bashing adventure begins by selecting one of six customizable characters. The Blademaster is your classic melee character who you'll want to choose if you want front row seats to the demon carving festivities. Just make sure that you've got a few mice for backup, as you'll be spending large amounts of time pounding the mouse buttons into submission. Evokers are your mage equivalent character, adept at channeling the powers of natural elements into demon-destroying artifacts.
Hellgate: London boasts a fairly unique merging of the first-person shooter and role-playing genres, and this is shown well when playing as the Marksman, whose military training allows him to modify and wield high-precision guns. Despite the ability to fight from a first-person perspective, the damage you inflict and your chance of hitting a ghoul are strictly bound by the statistics governed by the role-playing game engine.
The Engineer is a technically inclined individual skilled at outsourcing his demon-slaying workload to bots and drones manufactured from the debris of a crumbling city. He starts humbly enough, with inhibitor bots that work to slow down advancing enemies, but at higher levels, the Engineer will wield swarms of deadly explosive nanobots that detonate when in range of demonic hell-spawn.
Guardians are like the spiritual cousin of Blademasters and come with a skill set that emphasizes their holy leanings. Rounding off the pack is the Summoner, who has learned to control and call upon demons to do his bidding, whether it's straightforward destruction or helpful distraction.
Each class offers a distinct variety of gameplay styles from frantic melee to more strategic support positions that work well from a distance, or as part of a larger party of adventurers. The entirely different skill trees of each class allow for a great degree of customizability and experimentation between each level-up. Although each class is sufficiently different to guarantee high replayability value, each time you begin anew, you will have to forge through the same linear campaign story line and similar quests to be able to level up.
Gameplay is basically divided between stations and dungeon areas. London's tube stations are the last refuge of mankind and act as hubs where you automatically restore your health, sell off your newly acquired mountains of loot, store gear, get new quests from NPCs, travel instantly between visited stations, modify your weapons and armor and finally form parties with other online players for added slaughter potential. This last activity is as simple as approaching another player character and passing a private message to him or her or using the auto-invite option. Party members will appear alongside you when you enter a dungeon, and loot is dropped individually for each character in the party.
Chatting with NPCs in tube stations will give you many opportunities for side-quests, some of which are comically imaginative, such as rescuing a little boy's prosthetic limb from a massive fleshy demon in return for a wooden peg leg that doubles as a basic melee weapon. Other quests merely require you to travel to a certain area and slay a certain number of a particular monster, and you'll find yourself doing this a lot in order to earn the currency of future London: paladium.
Your two important stats in battle are your health and will, which is a mana equivalent pool of points used for executing special skill-based attacks and enhancements. Much like Diablo, you run around clearing out dungeons systematically through mouse button abuse, and occasionally running into rare, large and formidable foes who will require extra abuse and will drop more loot than your inventory could possibly hold. It's especially fun to inspect the level of detail in game items, from statistics to apt descriptive quotations. Long before it all becomes too overwhelming, a well-designed inventory system helps you organize and keep track of what goes where and how it compares to what you already have.
There is an immense variety of weapons, clothing, armor and modifications to be picked off the dead corpses of ghouls or purchased at tube station vendors. This means that each character has plenty of opportunities to create a uniquely tailored appearance, which you can inspect up close using the vanity-cam feature. Beyond looks, the different weapons and armor affect gameplay in significant ways that fans of role playing games are likely to enjoy. For example, the hand grappler is useful for melee fighters who are vulnerable to long-range attacks. It can be equipped in one hand and is used to pull distant demons closer for killing.
A well-conceived system of randomization means that each time you visit a dungeon area or pass through a corridor on your way to another station, your gameplay experience will be slightly different, including the creatures encountered and the swag they drop. In each dungeon location, there is a diverse and healthy monster menagerie, and each grotesque foe is imaginatively realized in the game, from the smallest beasts to massive towering hulks. They all manage to look remarkably at home whether above ground on the dark, smoldering lava-strewn streets or below in the rotten and fetid sewers of subterranean London.
As someone who spent four years living and working in London, I find myself pretty impressed by the attention to the graphical details that turn the artificial game city into a convincing ruin and site for the struggle of humankind's future. The wrecked right-hand drive police vans, smooth tiled walls of tube stations and gutted hulls of Victorian buildings look oddly familiar, and even though nothing is geographically accurate, London's famous tourist sites like Piccadilly Circus and Whitehall are recreated with unnerving fidelity. Covent Garden, for example, is laid out and looks a lot like the real Covent Garden, but instead of tourists, it's populated with the spawn of the underworld.
In many ways, Hellgate: London is an obvious successor to Diablo, and while some found the older game's formula to be overly repetitive and lacking in the sophistication of other RPGs, there's no denying it was a hugely successful undertaking. Hellgate: London manages to take what made Diablo so simple and addictive and implements those elements within an entirely new and updated setting. The expansive range of monsters, items, weapons, quests and locations makes the Hellgate universe rich and invites you to countless hours of exploration. By the time the fine-tuning and balancing touches have been made to the beta build, it should be a worthy addition to the online role playing genre when it's released in late October.
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