I've spent about thirty hours with Hellgate: London in the two weeks since its release--enough time to conclude that the game's debut should have been an auspicious event for Flagship Studios. Hellgate is, in many respects, wildly entertaining. Had it not been pushed out to store shelves early, it would have been heralded as the next big thing in the action RPG genre. It might be stuck with the lackluster review scores prompted by its problematic retail release, but Hellgate still has the potential to become a worthy successor to Diablo.
The brainchild of former Blizzard North luminaries and key creators of the Diablo titles, Hellgate includes the randomized levels, loot-heavy combat, and robust character development that made Blizzard's hit title so addictive. And with features like a conventional 3D setting and shooter-inspired combat mechanics, Hellgate takes the genre into territory that Diablo clones like Titan Quest avoided.
Hellgate takes place in a near-future London ravaged by an influx of demonic invaders. It'd be a rather uninspired setting were it not for a well-implemented sci-fi angle that lends itself to some intriguing firearm-based combat. In addition to conventional firearms like sniper rifles and grenade launchers, Hellgate includes a host of esoteric guns, like the Harp Pistol, which does no damage but immobilizes enemies with an arc of energy, or the Locust Drive, which dispenses a swarm of angry insects. Conceptualized by Flagship as "spell delivery systems," these and numerous other weapons nicely repackage traditional magic-based attacks.
This isn't to say that Hellgate is a shooter. Two of the game's six character classes are primarily hack-and-slash fighters, and equipping melee weapons automatically pulls back the camera to a third-person perspective. You can play in first-person view with ranged firearms equipped, but don't be fooled by the onscreen targeting reticule. Dice rolls and stats determine damage, and it's critical hits, rather than headshots, that matter. Aiming is usually more about enemy selection than accuracy.
It's surprising how a few new combat options, a fully 3D environment, and an unstuck camera liven up Hellgate's Diablo-inspired formula. Combat is suddenly up close and personal, and the world feels more explorable and real. It's a pity, then, that Hellgate's randomly generated environments lack the artistic flair and variety of hand-built game worlds. Its levels are always unpredictably constructed, but they tend to be visually repetitive. Hellgate doesn't really capitalize on its namesake setting, either. Many of London's famous locations are too bombed-out, burned-over, or randomized to retain their iconic appeal.
Hellgate's story is strictly quest-based, with key NPCs typically dispatching the player from combat-free subway stations to perform tasks in instanced treasure-laden, enemy-packed areas. Unfortunately, for every inventive story-based quest (and some of the key quests are truly clever), there are a half-dozen by-the-numbers RPG tasks that involve simple killing and fetching.
Story and quest structure are ultimately backdrops for Hellgate's main attraction, though: combat-driven, stat-heavy, visually rewarding character development. And this is where the game really shines. Though Hellgate features only six character classes, they're widely divergent in terms of abilities. Summoners, for example wield exotic weaponry and can command packs of minions, while Blademasters mitigate low defenses with heavy melee damage and tactical skills. Marksmen utilize firearms and focus entirely on ranged combat. The character class skill trees aren't especially deep, but there are still plenty of interesting abilities to unlock.
Hellgate rewards players with constant, varied item drops, and combining and rearranging the game's numerous armor, weapon, minion, and character attributes for maximum effectiveness is hugely engrossing. Weapons are typically highly upgradable, and socket-based mod items like scopes, batteries, fuel cells, and magazines are actually displayed on firearms when equipped. In addition, each armor piece has a color scheme that can be transferred to a character's entire outfit, so your gear never appears mismatched. Special dye kits allow even more dramatic effects.