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Hellgate

Platform(s): PC
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Namco (EU), Redbana US Corp. (US)
Developer: T3 Entertainment

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PC Review - 'Hellgate: London'

by Keith Durocher on Dec. 9, 2007 @ 7:12 a.m. PST

Hellgate is an action RPG that allows you to play in a first-person or third-person perspective. Set 27 years into the future, an ancient prophecy made centuries ago has come true and the gates of hell have opened. Demons have overrun the world of man and roam our lands, destroying, pillaging and killing humans.

Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Flagship Studios
Release Date: October 31, 2007

According to its web site, Flagship Studios is "the first, last and only voice in the world of action-RPGs." That is an incredibly bold claim to make, even with such a pedigree staff. Admittedly, "helped create Diablo" is a pretty impressive bullet point on a résumé, but it's hardly a ticket to unmitigated hubris. Pride goeth before the fall, as it were. Does Hellgate: London live up to the self-preening of Flagship Studios' PR department tear sheets? The short answer is, "not really," but do read on to see why.

Unless you've been living under a rock or just haven't really gotten into PC gaming until now, you already know the basics of Hellgate: London. On the off chance that your living quarters really do lie under a boulder, I will indulge your curiosity. What we have here is a 3D, third-person perspective action role-playing game set in a dark, post-apocalyptic future. That alone should be enough to pique your interest, but there's more.

The basic premise is that sometime around 2018 (roughly) a massive global invasion envelops the Earth. The aggressors are infernal in nature, and the world falls to its knees under the hell-bound fury of the demonic legions spewing forth with only one goal in mind: the complete and utter annihilation of all life. After roughly 20 years of this unending assault, mankind is reduced to hiding underground and engaging in a guerilla war of attrition that is essentially unwinnable. It is into this desolate future that you're thrust, fighting through the ruins of London, England.

In a nutshell, Hellgate: London can be thought of as "Diablo meets Doom 3 meets City of Heroes meets '28 Days Later'." Quite a barrage of pop-culture comparisons, no? The Diablo connection is self-evident because the gameplay is almost identical: kill monsters, gain experience, level up, gain new skills, collect treasures, tweak your avatar, later, rinse and repeat. The Doom 3 analogies lie in the technologically advanced hordes of hell that you're slaying. The endless urban/suburban/subterranean ruins you're stalking through are quite reminiscent of City of Heroes instances and the abject emptiness of post-invasion London echoes the chilling introduction of "28 Days Later."

As previously stated, the gameplay of Hellgate: London is quite standard for action-RPGs. You select from a list of classes, talk to non-player characters who hand out objectives, explore the game world, collect loot like better equipment and money ("palladium" in the new dead-world economy), build up attributes and skills, etc., and so forth. The classes from which you can choose are: Blademaster (offensive melee, specializing in damage per second), Engineer (similar to the Summoner, except they create and use drones and other assorted technologies), Evoker (an elemental direct-damage caster class), Guardian (defensive melee, with a focus on getting tougher and harder to kill when surrounded by hordes of enemies), Marksman (ranged high DPS) and Summoner (summons and controls infernals, fighting fire with fire, as it were). These classes are diverse enough to please most tastes, but I personally went with a Blademaster and a Marksman while I was working through this review.

There are few play innovations, but the fact that there are any at all is worth talking about, since most "Diablo clone" action-RPGs don't bother breaking the mold at all. To start with, weapons can be upgraded in interesting ways. Sometimes, a given sword or gun will have slots for different types of "mods," which can be purchased, created (more on that shortly) or collected as loot. When you add a mod to a weapon, the stats beef up and the model actually changes — so you can "trick out" your gear. You can remove these mods at any Delux Demodificator terminal, allowing you to upgrade a favored piece of equipment over time.

How, you ask, can you build these mods? Each item you find — be it a weapon, a piece of armor, or even another mod — can be disassembled into core component parts. Collect enough of these, and you can not only make new items as you find the plans for them, but you can also build up your equipment. Unlike the mods, adding bonus stats to your gear using components like this doesn't alter the models, just the stats. Finally, there are Augmentrex 3000 terminals scattered about London that allow you to add Common, Rare, or Legendary properties to your equipment for a fee. As interesting as these features might be, this is about as far as Hellgate: London goes in terms of deviating from the action-RPG formula.

So I've given you a rough idea of how this game plays out, and I'm sure it sounds awesome. Well, that much is true — it is awesome. However, as we shall shortly discover, there are cracks in the polish.

How about the graphics? These days, it's the deal-breaker. To that end, Hellgate: London is simply gorgeous. On every level, Flagship has excelled: The lighting is rich and realistic, the models have high poly counts and are beautifully detailed, the environments are immersive and spectacularly ruined, and the textures are meticulously detailed. Even the artistic direction is sublime; it's dark and futuristic without being overly derivative.

Where does it all fall apart? Well the lack of environment variety is the first nagging drawback. The burnt-out ruins of London can only be interpreted in so many ways, and after about 10 levels of play, one can't help but feel like there's a certain "seen it" treadmill being walked: bombed-out street, rusted and burning subway tunnel, sewer that was once a refuge for survivors, another burned-out street, another tunnel, another tunnel, another sewer, etc. Even when you step into hell through a rift, it's the same area every time. Hellgate: London is a one-trick pony. It's a great trick, but it's still only one.

Then we have the graphical instability. Hellgate: London allows you to choose between DX9 and DX10. The frames per second under DX9 aren't that smooth, but they are generally acceptable for play. Switch to DX10, and the game becomes a choppy slideshow — a stunning slideshow (under DX10, everything looks simply amazing, as it's everything I've just described, only more detailed and warmer), but a slideshow all the same. Regardless of which engine you run, Hellgate: London crashes far more often than is acceptable. I would estimate my "not responding" ratio to be something along the lines of one in five boots into the game.

While we're on the topic, there are the load times. There is loading aplenty. Loading, loading, and loading s'more. Perhaps I'm just pickin' nits here, but when you consider that many of the crashes happen while loading, I think you can see why I might take issue with the frequency.

I have pointed out how much I love the atmosphere and ambience, but underneath it all, there are some nagging doubts. The lack of voice acting does nothing to enhance the immersion, and the fact that the NPCs don't move certainly does nothing to provide a sense of urgency. Everyone is just standing around, waiting for you to do their work for them. This is odd, but it becomes maddening when the work they ask you to do doesn't, well, work — many of the quests are broken. Some can be salvaged by abandoning and re-accepting the quest (intensely frustrating), but several of them can't be fixed at all.

On a totally separate level, I personally can't help but wonder at some of the little details. How, after all this time, is the power grid still functioning? London was supposed to have been laid to waste 20 years ago, and yet some theater marquees still have functioning fluorescent lighting. How have the fires in the subways been burning for all this time? Where is everyone? I realize that mankind is supposed to be on the brink of extinction, but with the exception of the 10 or so people standing around at the refugee stations, London is completely empty. That includes other rebel fighters. You'd think there would be some other Templar warrior stomping around. How is it that, after all these years, the only advertising to be seen is for nVidia and Dark Horse Comics? I'm fairly certain that these companies have fewer ads up in subways now than they do in the post-apocalyptic future. Finally, who's been making all this ultra-high tech equipment? Are there factories and forges that the demons don't know about? None of these things really have that strong of an impact on the game itself, but I couldn't stop thinking about this stuff.

In the long run, Hellgate: London is a decent game. Is it the knocked-out-of-the-park home-run smash hit that one would expect from "the first, last and only voice in the world of action-RPGs?" No. If it had been released six years ago, then maybe the litany of unfinished rough patches could have been overlooked. However, the gaming public has grown nominally more sophisticated over the years (at least in regard to Diablo clones), and as a result, these errors are all the more apparent. If you're a fan of action -RPGs, then by all means add this game to your collection. Just don't expect it to be Diablo 3. That crown still belongs to Titan Quest.

Score: 7.0/10


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