The first thing I tell anyone when they ask about the weird mix of genres that is Hellgate: London, is to not expect a life-changing experience. I feel many people who are disheartened by the game when they try it were expecting something radically different from anything on the market... when in fact it is more of a mix of current successful action games, taking mechanics from both the FPS and the Action-RPG and blending them in a way that screams "I WANT TO SUCK HOURS AWAY FROM YOUR LIFE!"
It will not be for everyone. Many will hate the FPS-style controls placed into a Diablo-esque game. Some might be put off by the fact that the FPS controls offer respite for the less-skilled shooter, making things easier on them than they would be in say, Half-Life 2. But what I think is most striking about Hellgate: London is that it's this new amalgamation of genres... it creates a new one all by itself. HG:L is the world's first (at least to my knowledge) MMOFPSARPG. Say that 3 times fast.
Let me preface the rest of this review, as it will come off glowing, with some things that do honestly bug me about Hellgate: London.
1.) Coming from the main man behind Diablo 1 and 2, I have been expecting a very cinematic experience, with cutscenes, FMV, etc. But that's not there. The story is told in game, by text on NPCs. Whether this changes and we have some movies in the final cut is unknown (but guessing not), and I feel the game's potential is hurt by this. Being a fully-offline game as well as an MMO, the cinematical flare would go a long way towards making the offline game as fun as its forefathers in Diablo 1 and 2. As it is, the story's apparent, but it doesn't shine like it should. Or as I'd hoped.
2.) The tilesets used for levels are repetitive. This is a side-effect of being set in a post-apocalyptic London, combined with random-generation of levels... but it's not excuse. I'm sure there's plenty of things that can make the world we fight in interesting. It's been overrun by hell, for Jeebus' sake. Yet, it feels more like Detroit on any given day (I kid, I kid).
3.) The game's free for all to play onling with a completely option paid portion. Paying nets you lots more character slots, more storage, ongoing content additions, difficulty modes, etc. But I think they skimped a little on the non-subscribers. It bugs the heck out of me that free players only get 3 character slots. Even in Diablo 2 we got 6 slot (if I'm not mistaken).
So there's that, now let me clamor about the rest. We'll split it up 3 into general categories, I'll spew my thoughts on them, and if there are any questions I can answer them in the comments.
There's nothing about HG:L that's going to make your jaw drop the way Crysis or Assassin's Creed will, but it's certainly no slouch either. The character models are well done, the weapons and armor interestingly designed (swords of the mid-21st century are a lot cooler than your average cleaver), and the enemies are at once both alien and demonic. A few times during my first session I was caught off guard by a ground-spawning mob called a Felboar (not like WoW's Fel Boar), so much so that I actually jumped in my seat.
Indeed the only thing that really disappoints me about the game's visuals are the repititve level designs. They look good, and appropriately war-torn... but they can get old, fast. Luckily, Flagship says they're in the process of heavily redesigning the Acts of the game so that each chapter has a distinct visual feel, and that this patch will be ready shortly before launch for us to test and will be patched into the retail version on Day 1.
Lastly, I can see the graphics looking horrid on anything less than my ATI Radeon x1650. I wonder how they would look on my old Radeon 9800? I worry that Flagship should have gone the Blizzard way and toned down the visuals to still look good on modest systems. But whatever, at least it looks great on mine.
This is one of those areas that an FPS needs to get right, just like the action. It needs to be loud, brash, and tangible. I need to feel my gun shoot, my sword swing, the zombie die, and the demon howl. Luckily, Flagship hasn't failed here. Like it's smaller cousin Mythos, HG:L has some very nifty sound effects. Explosions sound great, guns don't just go "Pew Pew", and monsters make a satisfying "splorch" when you whack or rivet them. The music, while not necessarily the kind that sticks with you like the Mario or Zelda themes, does get the blood pumping. Especially when it kicks into high gear on a boss. Good stuff.
THE ALL-IMPORTANT GAMEPLAY
The visuals, the sound, the story... all of it amounts to nothing if the game's not fun. And for what faults I can find in Hellgate... I can't escape the simple truth that this is a fun game.
The controls are right out of a first-person shooter, but it can be played in 3rd-person if you'd prefer to gawk at your hero as you murder demons. WASD control the movement, the numerical hotkeys can contain your skills or potions/power-ups, and the left and right mouse buttons can handle either your left and right handed weapons or you can assign a skill to them if it floats your boat. Some are miffed that movement can't be reassigned to something else, and while I admit that seems lame, WASD movement is so broadly accepted I don't think it's too big of a deal. What I worry more about is the motion-sickness some folks get from FPS controlled games.
As you rove about London, helping the resistance (you're one of the Knights Templar it would seem) you collect loot, experience, and run frequent errands involving the random numerical slaying of zombies, the collection of certain items, or the destruction of bothersome boss-monsters. It's the tried and true Action-RPG game mechanic. You kill things, things drop shinies, you collect shinies, and get bigger and more powerful. It's kept millions enthralled with Diablo 2 for years now, and I don't see it changing here.
If that's not your type of game-experience, I don't think you'll like HG:L. The bulk of the fun relies on the action, mixed with a healthy dose of loot and and leveling. It will not take you 300 hours to hit max level, you won't spend ages exploring the world. It's an action-RPG, first and foremost. Some seem to mistake the fact that it's online and has an optional fee to mean it's a traditional DIKU-MMORPG. It's not. The OPTIONAL fee nets you more slots, more gameplay difficulties, and any new content the team patches in down the road.
Right off the bat on Day 1, subscribers will be privy to special Halloween content, including themed quests, one of which leads to an in-game pet called a ZomBot. It's nothing revolutionary, but it's good to see that on day 1 wishful subscribers will have something that their additional 10 bucks buy them. The real test will be to see how long it takes the folks at Flagship to keep a steady stream of content rolling. That is what I'd pay 10 dollars a month for. New quests, new dungeons, new classes. The themed events are nice, but I'd rather see something more substantial.
Lastly, let's talk about the classes. There are 3 "Factions", consisting of 2 classes each. The Hunter Faction is home to the Marksman and the Engineer. The Cabalist Faction has both the Evoker and the Summoner. And the Templar Faction involves the Guardian and the Blademaster. Here's the breakdown...
Marksman - Standard ranged class, with lots and lots of firepower and some handy skills involving grenades and whatnot.
Engineer - Also a ranged class, this guy relies more on his summoned robots to give him the upper hand.
Evoker - Your "mage" of Hellgate, the Evoker dabbles in the dark arts to use fire and other black magic against the minions of hell. He's a glass-cannon. But things end up dead before they reach him, so his defense are usually not a worry unless you get taken by surprise.
Summoner - Another type of caster, like the Engineer, the Summoner relies on his summoned minions along with spells of the dark arts to keep himself alive. Demons are his pets, and they certainly do the trick.
Guardian - This is the guy who runs into a pack of demons and swings his sword until they're dead, meanwhile bracing against their attacks with his shield. They can take a pounding, and still dish out a crap-ton of damage.
Blademaster - More finesse than might, the Blademaster uses several different attacks to kill his enemies before they can lay hands on him. This guy dual-wields two melee weapons at once and to great effect.
I've played each class during my time in beta, and while each Faction plays similarly, the classes are unique enough to stand on their own two feet. I specifically have a soft spot for the Blademaster and the Engineer. The only bad thing I have to complain about with the classes is that the skill-trees in comparison to Mythos' are a bit bland. There are a lot of things to put your 1 point per level in... but some of them just don't feel very "heroic". Maybe it's that they don't look cool? I don't know. But I just don't get the same sense of "Schweeeet..." when I get a new skill in Hellgate.
Luckily the bevy of weapons and modifications (like Gems from Diablo 2) make up for that. I could spend all day playing with the Modification tools you find in quest hubs. They let you swap in and out mods on your wepaons until you can get the perfect combination of additional damage, shield piercing, or whatever. You can even go to a station and pay money to add special ehancements to a non-enhanced weapon you think looks too cool to just sell off.
And really, without the fabulous loot system, without the randomized dungeons and boss-encounters... Hellgate wouldn't be as fun as it is. It's the treasure-hunting and the mob-squishing that make it a blast. And luckily, that's what it focuses on. I do hope skill-trees see more refinement. I hope the level-redesigns that are coming soon are as good as they sound. But even if they're not, I can see myself playing Hellgate: London for quite some time, checking in and shelling out 10 bucks whenever some big content update hits. It's the perfect companion game to a more traditional MMORPG. I often don't want the hassle of long travel times, and lots of run around. Sometimes, I just want to be able to boot a game up, whack some foozles and collect big shiny rewards. That my friends, is what Hellgate: London is all about.
It's not for everyone, but it's certainly for me.