Just for the hell of it…
I reached a mini-milestone this evening: I completed a full clear of the launch content of Hellgate: London with my Evoker, LyraBelacqua. I haven’t been keeping track of how many hours I’ve sunk into it, and the game itself doesn’t make a record of this statistic (something I really appreciated about Tomb Raider: Legend - it may not be all that important, but it’s nice to be able to access the information if you’re curious), but one thing’s for sure: it took me way longer to complete than Diablo II.
Along the way, Lyra picked up an impressive array of weapons and armour, and came out the other end with a character level of 31 and looking decidedly different than when she first started out. I’ll say one thing for the designers: they certainly know how to craft an interesting-looking piece of equipment and make it look desirable. It’s the old “donkey/carrot” routine that made World of Warcraft such a hit (“play just a little longer and you’ll be able to get item x”), but I find it considerably less objectionable here because the actual process of gaining these items is fun, whereas (in my opinion) it wasn’t in WoW. In Hellgate, the combat is pretty damn good (when you don’t end up getting stuck in the scenery, that is), whereas I always found WoW’s system to be incredibly anaemic and counter-productive.
One reason for the amount of time it took to get to the end is that it’s simply a much bigger game than its predecessor. It has the same five-Act structure as Diablo II (well, Diablo II had four Acts until its expansion set, Lord of Destruction), but they are much larger in scope, with far more areas and side quests. In addition, just as the developers promised, the later Acts are considerably larger than the earlier ones, unlike Diablo II, whose final Act was the smallest of the lot. The other reason, unfortunately, is that, in its current state, the game is ridiculously unstable, and if, during a play session, I don’t get dumped back to the desktop with a “memory exhausted” error or suffer a complete system freeze, requiring considerable amounts of time to be spent on retreads, I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate.
That said, despite the shambolic nature of the code in its current state, something about the core gameplay clearly appeals to me because I keep coming back for more, despite having the game crash on me countless times and being forced to redo large portions of the game. Hellgate uses an “instancing” system, so, each time you fire up the game, every level is regenerated and repopulated, with only your stats, items and completed quests being carried over from one session to the next - meaning that, if you’re making your way through a series of levels to reach a destination and the system crashes before you get there, you’ll have to do it all over again next time. The fact that the game was released in this unfinished state truly boggles the mind, and I’m fairly sure that plenty of people with considerably less patience than me will have thrown in the towel by now. Certainly, I know that a lot of people who were considering subscribing are now saying they won’t even consider paying the monthly fee until the state of the game is improved considerably, and as such, people who subscribed to the Founder’s Offer, such as myself, must be a godsend for Flagship. It’s a real shame, because their reputation has definitely taken a massive knock, and the majority of the reviews I’d read so far have been lukewarm at best, most of them citing technical problems and a lack of polish are key reasons for their less than awe-inspiring scores.
Oh, and, having now made my way through the entire game once, I have to join the hordes of players who are lambasting it for its poor story. Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that: the mythology itself is actually pretty good - it’s the integration of it into the game itself that’s poor. Barring some generic greeting sounds when you click on an NPC (non player character), all of the dialogue is text-based rather than spoken, and it’s generally poorly-written, trying too hard to be funny and failing miserably, not to mention incredibly long-winded. After clicking on Random NPC #57 for the umpteenth time and being treated to page after page of meandering nonsense, I simply said “Screw it” and just started skipping over the actual dialogue. (And, before you ask, I don’t have anything against reading extended passages of dialogue in a game. The ludicrously verbose Planescape: Torment is, in my opinion, the greatest computer RPG ever created.) The Quest Log does a pretty decent job of keeping track of what you have to do in order to proceed to the next area, although most of the quests are of the “Kill x number of y demons in area z” variety, while the ones that do have anything to do with the ongoing story are simply too few in number.
Okay, I know what you’re going to say: Diablo and Diablo II weren’t exactly literary masterpieces. That’s true, but what they did do considerably better than Hellgate was to integrate their meagre storylines into the game itself. In both games, all of the dialogue was audible, and all of the NPCs had distinct personalities. Better yet, while there were far fewer quests in both of these games than in Hellgate, they all felt as if they had something palpable to do with the plot and/or your ongoing mission, so, even if many of them were in the “kill boss x” framework, at least you knew why you were doing this and were able to actually care about it. In Hellgate, completing a quest is not about furthering the story - it’s merely about getting a few hundred more experience points or a vaguely interesting-sounding magic item that can be melted down for scrap metal.
Repetition is also a major issue, and, while it’s true that Acts 4 and 5 do help alleviate some of the monotony by throwing a new tileset each into the fray (although Act 5’s Hell maps slow my reasonably beefy system to a crawl), broadly speaking, you’re running through the same old sewers and city streets as you approach the final battle as you were when you were first learning the ropes. There’s not much of a sense of progression, not helped by the strings of levels which simply lead to dead ends and are only useful for mining experience points or completing yet more inane quests. The original Diablo was, I think, the defining example of how to do an action RPG right: there may only have been 16 levels, but each one took you further underground, with the décor changing gradually (ruined cathedral giving way musky catacombs, then subterranean caverns, then finally the depths of Hell itself) and giving you a real sense of working towards a defined goal. Diablo II, likewise, also had a sense of purpose, although it was more of a globe-trotting adventure than its more focused predecessor.
If all of that sounds overwhelmingly negative, I don’t intend it to be. Clearly, to have got this far and still be hungry for more (I’ve just created my second character, a Marksman, and am in the process of going through it all again), the developers must have got more right than they got wrong. Once again, though, I must reiterate that, as good as the game is, it really isn’t fit to have been released in its current state. The plethora of bugs and miscellaneous weird glitches suggest a game in the early testing stages, not at retail level. So many of these bugs were present during the early stages of the alpha and were pointed out to the developers time and time again, but rather than fixing them they seem to have made it a priority to do pointless things like removing risqué dialogue from NPCs and putting together mildly amusing but ultimately pointless Halloween- and Guy Fawkes-themed quests involving picking up apples, baked potatoes and recipes for gunpowder plot (the latter of which, thanks to a bug, can’t be deleted once acquired, so my stash is currently full of the damn things). It’s a good thing I’m (a) patient and (b) a fan of these guys’ earlier games, because, had I been neither, I doubt I would have stuck with it for this long. One day, Hellgate: London will be a great game, I’m sure of it. At the moment, it’s a decent one that feels as if it’s being held together by Scotch Tape and Pritstik.
Oh, and the final boss encounter (above) was surprisingly underwhelming. Given that one of his pre-showdown minions gave me considerable grief and killed me several times before I was able to put it out of action, I was expecting the big cheese himself to pose a considerable challenge. Not so: 10-15 seconds of trigger-mashing put an end to him, and I only had to use a couple of health injectors.