Judging by comments I've seen on some forums, it seems like many enthusiasts may skip by Hellgate: London, as the demo failed to impress. Not only did I buy it… I finished the single-player game. While that might put me in a good position to review the game, I've only played as one character class (and I tried out a couple other classes but only in limited fashion at present) so I can't really say I've had the full experience. The problem is, I really can't bring myself to start over and try out the other options. I'm not much into multiplayer games these days either, so I'm pretty much done with the game unless we start trying to benchmark it. After playing it on and off for the past month, though, I'm not sure it's worth the trouble. Sure, it stresses a system, but that alone doesn't make for a great benchmark. It's sort of like benchmarking with 3DMark: all the benchmarks really tell you is how well a system runs 3DMark; the results may or may not correlate at all with many other titles. But I digress; the point of this blog post is that I thought I'd give my thoughts on the game.
Hellgate: London is a lot like Diablo/Diablo 2, and yet it's also very different. The first-person perspective (I played a marksman) is actually somewhat cool for an action-RPG, but it makes the game feel more like an FPS instead of an RPG. Suffice it to say, as an FPS this game falls way short of titles like Crysis, Call of Duty 4, Gears of War, etc. I have to admit that while I played Diablo and Diablo 2 a whole lot, the more I played the less I liked either game. The whole running around clicking on stuff to kill it just got old, but you still wanted to see the end game at least once, and then you wanted to try to build up some of the equipment sets to turn your character into a righteous, demon-slaying superhero. Hellgate: London tries for that same feel, but ultimately falls short - or maybe I've just outgrown the genre. Diablo 2 ate over 200 hours of my life over time, but after less than 40 hours exploring Hell-ravaged London I think I'm done.
The Quest for Equipment
Probably the biggest draws for Hellgate (and similar games) are acquiring "phat loot" and seeing the next cool area. I'll deal with areas later, but let's start with equipment. You run around killing creatures in the hope of getting the Next Big Upgrade, just as you do in various MMOs and other action-RPGs. Hellgate has a ton of items you can find throughout the game, but after a while it all blurs together. One of the big problems is that there are no equipment sets - you have standard equipment, enhanced equipment, rare equipment, legendary equipment, and at the top you have unique equipment. (As was the case in Diablo, unique equipment isn't actually unique - I saw one particular item on three separate occasions; I even had the item sitting in my storage chest when I found another.) Sets appear to be part of the subscription online service but not the single-player game, which is a mistake as the lure of trying to complete sets is what kept many people (or at least me) playing Diablo/2 long past the point where I otherwise would have quit.
You can enhance equipment with various upgrades, which come in two forms: artifacts and attributes. Weapons have a seemingly random amount of space for artifact upgrades, each of which can improve damage and other aspects by 5%~20%. The result is that a lower quality base (non-magic) item with a lot of upgrade slots can actually end up being far more powerful than a legendary item if the legendary only allows four upgrades and the base item allows seven. The type of artifact upgrades also varies - there are five different classes of artifact - but other than minor differences in name and appearance, the five artifact classes don't seem to really matter.
Base equipment with many artifact slots has another advantage, in that you can add more attributes at Augmentrex 3000 stations. You can purchase single enhanced/rare/legendary stats to equipment for a fee, up to (I think) five attributes. However, these are random attributes and the cost is so extreme that this is something you will probably use on rare occasions if at all. Often you will find a legendary/unique item drop that has most of what you need without spending tons of time and money - well, time yes, but less time in the long run than if you were to sell everything you find in order to save up money to purchase upgrades.
Buying items from vendors is something else I didn't do much after the first 30 minutes, as the vendors never seemed to have anything worth purchasing. The exchange rate for high-end equipment is also terrible, as usual, so after selling a truckload of legendary items you would only be able to afford purchasing a single legendary item back… but the vendors never carried any legendary items in my playing so this is a moot concern. Anyway, money wasn't a major problem for me, and instead of focusing on getting cash I spent most of my time dismantling items in order to upgrade other equipment at the Nanoforges. So let's talk about that.
Everyone remembers that awesome item that you found early in a game of Diablo that you eventually had to get rid of because it was simply no longer as powerful as when you first picked it up - eventually even basic magical equipment in the later stages of the game would surpass the damage inflicted by early unique items. Hellgate gets around that somewhat by allowing you to upgrade items. There are four different base materials, each of which comes in a standard and a "rare" form, for a total of eight different materials that can be required to upgrade or forge any equipment - more on forging in a moment. (No upgrades/forging will actually require more than five of the eight materials, though - at least not that I encountered.) Any equipment you find throughout the game can be dismantled into its base materials, and when you have enough of these materials you can then take one of your items to a Nanoforge and upgrade it. You can only upgrade items to match your character level (you'll get a "you need more experience" message otherwise), and while the upgrading won't change any of the other aspects of an item, it does keep your equipment more or less "current" with your character level. There's a maximum amount you can upgrade any particular item - 10 times? - but it takes a while to reach that point.
Tinkers are another use for material components. They're like vendors, but instead of selling items for money, they have a randomly selected type of item that they can forge from raw materials. They have rare, legendary, and even unique items on a regular basis, something that the regular merchants lack. However, they only deal with certain equipment types at a time, so often they aren't offering something you can even use let alone want. If you specifically want a new helmet, you might have to visit dozens of times before a tinker is offering to forge helmets, and even then they might not offer anything in your "size". Tinkers seem most useful for getting high-end artifacts to upgrade your weapons, since artifacts are class agnostic - if your weapon takes a battery upgrade, you can use any battery of the appropriate level.
All the equipment options all sound good, but in practice it almost seems too much. Artifacts, forges, and upgrades… oh my! At least in my first run through the game in single-player mode, once I found a good weapon (or other equipment), I often ended up using the same thing for a long time. Throughout the game I probably used six weapons for most of my fighting - one machine gun at the start, a grenade launcher, a rocket launcher, two sniper rifles, and one heavy rifle. Of those, the heavy rifle and sniper rifle saw the most action - the heavy for groups of creatures and for blowing up crates and barrels (it was really like a rocket launcher that only fired one exploding projectile), and the sniper for picking off creatures from a distance. A large portion of my time was spent grabbing dropped items from creatures and then quickly scrapping all of them when my inventory was full.
The other concern is that there are three different equipment classes, each of which serves two of the six character classes. Some of the enhancements won't even apply to your character since they are for the other class, so for example as a marksman none of the minion enhancements did nothing for me - I never had a single minion throughout the game. The engineer skills on some equipment I could wear also served no purpose. The result is that roughly two thirds of the items you find are completely unusable. This sort of happened with Diablo as well, but Diablo focused on stat requirements - any character could use any item, provided they had the required stats. You might not be able to use a bow with a warrior character as effectively as an archer can use a bow, but it was at least an option. In single-player Hellgate: London, there is absolutely nothing for you to do other than dismantle or sell equipment that your character can't use. In multi-player, you can try to sell/trade it, but my experience with the online game is that most people didn't pay much attention to messages.
As a final comment on equipment, I suppose some people will like the process of trying to balance equipment requirements with your stats, but as the game progresses this becomes increasingly difficult. The basic equipment requirements are reasonable, but all of the artifact enhancements that you can apply can begin to push stat requirements to the point where you are not able to use an item. You can pay to remove all of the artifacts from an item and start over, which you will almost certainly have to do a couple times for each weapon. The problem here is that artifacts have a set level, so as you upgrade your equipment at the Nanoforge you eventually reach the point where some of the artifacts are too low-level for use. They stay in effect as long as you don't remove the artifacts, but once you do you will need to have new artifacts ready.
The stat requirements matter, because later in the game the monsters seemed to be scaling in difficulty faster than my weapons and equipment, in part because my stats weren't high enough to use all of the best artifact and other items I acquired. Obviously, it wasn't impossible, but some of the battles took quite a bit of time, and things became decidedly less "fun". I felt like I was trying to figure out how to manipulate the system in order to win fights rather than playing a game. In the final level, I was lucky enough to have three of the boss creatures not come hunt me down when I attacked from range with a sniper rifle; they still required about 50 shots, but at least I didn't keep dying…. I guess things might be different for other character classes, but at least these are my experiences with the marksman class.
That's a lot of talk about equipment, but from my perspective the item hunting was a huge part of Hellgate. Without the items, I don't think I could have even finished the game. It got old, it got repetitious, and yet I still played on thinking maybe the next boss character would give me a cool upgrade. Once every several hours I was proved right. Even as negative as I sound right now, I still started the game as a different class recently to see how things changed - and they did change quite a bit in terms of combat. I have sort of this love/hate relationship with Hellgate now. It's not great, but there hasn't been a good action-RPG in a while (since Titan's Quest and its expansion) and it's still sort of fun. The six character classes do play different enough in my limited experience that many people might spend an extra 12 hours with the game just trying them all out. What Hellgate has then is quantity - equipment, levels, items, classes, etc. The question is whether or not it has enough quality.
One of the interesting things about Hellgate - at least from a hardware enthusiast perspective - is how much it stresses the hardware in your system. I didn't try to benchmark the game on a bunch of different computers at different settings - Anand and Derek have more GPUs and CPUs on hand, so I really couldn't do justice to this area anyway. I simply grabbed my fastest system (Core 2 Duo E6400 overclocked to 3.0GHz with 2GB RAM and an 8800 GTX), found some playable detail settings, and set about playing. This is, needless to say, a system with plenty of oomph… and yet it struggled with Hellgate at maximum detail settings.
The reason for the sluggish performance despite graphics that definitely aren't at the level of, say, Crysis (or Bioshock or several other titles) seems to be the design approach. Many of the levels/areas are randomly generated, which means that the rendering engine has to deal with a different type of content. Rendering a game world in 3D in real-time is one thing, especially when you perform a bunch of optimizations in advance so that the system knows it doesn't have to calculate certain things from some areas. Doing all of that with more or less randomly generated content is a lot more complex. It seems likely that Flagship was forced to reduce overall graphics complexity to keep performance manageable.
On my test (re: "play") system, the game defaulted to maximum ("Very High") detail settings on all areas, but that was with a 1024x768 resolution. It was playable that way, but I wanted the native 1920x1200 of my LCD, so I ended up turning down some detail settings from Very High to High. You can see above where I ended up settling. There were occasional stutters, but overall the experience was fine. I would suspect that performance on GeForce 8800 GT hardware is close enough to the 8800 GTX that 1920x1200 is not a problem with a few tweaks. I initially disabled DX10 graphics, as performance was pretty rough, but you can turn on DX10 mode provided you're willing to turn down other settings.
In terms of DX9 vs. DX10, the differences aren't very noticeable. It seemed at times that the DX10 version stuttered more, but in later testing this wasn't as apparent. A patch may have addressed it - we'll have to look into it more. Here's a quick screenshot comparison showing the DX9 and DX10 versions of the game.
DX10 gives a slightly tweaked look to portals, though why this isn't possible in DX9 is beyond me, as it doesn't seem all that complex. The only other major difference is that soft shadows are used in DX10 mode. Particle effects might also be better, but if so I didn't immediately notice. I encountered periodic slowdowns with large explosions, particularly in rooms with metal grating on walkways, but this didn't consistently happen. It may simply be a bug that needs fixing, and it occurred to varying degrees in both DX9 and DX10 mode. Anyway, while the DX10 graphics are somewhat better it isn't such a striking difference that you need to worry about not being able to run the DX10 mode. Windows XP users can happily avoid Vista for a while longer.
As a final note, I did see that Hellgate appears to use a significant amount of CPU power, including making use of multiple cores. I haven't had a chance to test with quad-core, but on my dual-core setup it used 100% of core one and around 30-60% of core two. As a hardware geek, I'd really like to know more about how they're using the second core and what impact it has on the game. It may be providing extra physics effects, improved graphics, or something else. Either way, it's nice to see that their multi-core support isn't totally bottlenecked by the GPU.
The Rest of the Story
To wrap up, let me talk a bit about the storyline. The story in Diablo is that hell and heaven are fighting over Earth - or at least Tristam. Where the Tristam setting is in the medieval era, Hellgate: London takes place in future-London. The actual dialog and quests are different, but otherwise you're looking at the same basic premise: all hell is breaking loose on Earth and it's up to you to stop it. There's no soul shard, but instead of angles and devils we have Truth (yes - capitalized!) and demons. There may be more to the back-story if you choose to search out such information, but purely by playing the game you end up with this impression that there's a lot more to the story and you're only getting a Cliff-notes version of what's happening.
Most of the quests have you running off and killing a single monster or a group of monsters, collecting an item(s) from creatures you kill, or sometimes activating certain items within a level. It gets repetitive, and the dialog boxes that show up with these quests add nothing to the big picture. Various Templar in the game react to some of the events as though they're obviously important, but if you were to go by the short text clips and cut scenes, you'd likely be scratching your head - I know I was. The ending sequence also leaves things wide open for a sequel - perhaps not Hellgate: Seattle, but the story definitely isn't over. The sum of the parts isn't necessarily bad, but the story definitely isn't at the level of games like Bioshock, and I would say it's less satisfying than Diablo 2.
The number of different level tile sets is also quite limited. Offhand I can think of: outdoor cityscape, indoor subways, indoor hallways, indoor cathedrals, indoor crypt/dungeon... there might be one or two other areas I'm missing, but most of these areas end up looking very similar. While the levels and artwork may feel consistent, it ends up being... consistently dull. There are certain levels that are static, but even these often feel the same as other area - only with layouts that maybe lend themselves to a specific battle.
I've read a few reviews, I bought the game, I played it, I even beat it. I haven't tried the multiplayer component because that really isn't a major concern to me. The bottom line is that if you enjoyed Diablo, there's probably a lot here that you will like. It will eat about as much CPU/GPU as you can throw at it, and while the graphics are nowhere near Crysis in quality, they're still good and at times great. I still left with the sense that things could have been better, particularly in the area of the story. You can play the game as long as you like, really, constantly looking for bigger and better items. It you pay for a monthly subscription - ugh… don't even get me started! In-game advertisements and they still want us to fork over $10 per month? - you get additional items and content as far as I can discern, but truth be told by the time I played through the game once (around 30 hours) I don't have much desire to return to London. But let's talk about the multiplayer aspect quickly.
Frankly, I'm not really qualified to evaluate the multiplayer experience - it's not my general interest. One thing I can't fathom, however, is people spending $10 per month to continue playing a game for which they already paid $50, all for a few minor updates that should have been included as part of the game already. That was one thing Blizzard got right with Battle.net, and for Flagship Studios to make a second tier pay-for-play environment is a huge mistake. There may be some financial execs with dollar signs in their eyes imagining all the people paying extra to get ahead in Hellgate, but I think the reaction will be the exact opposite. After the in-game ads (which I really didn't find distracting), that they're trying to milk even more money out of the online community is unacceptable to me. Here's what you get for $10 per month:
- Hardcore Mode
- Guild Creation and Management
- Larger Stash
- Themed Events and Quests
- Unique Event Items
- Special Event Pets
- New Levels to Explore
- New Monsters
You also get:
- New Weapons
- New Skills and Spells
- New Character Classes
- Raid-Level Areas
- Seasonal / Themed Events and Items
- Additional Difficulty and Game Play Modes
- Additional PvP Modes and Rewards
- Achievement Rewards
- Advanced Guild Management Tools
- Web-based Rankings and Character Viewing
- Achievement Rewards
- Advanced Guild Management Tools
- Web-based Rankings and Character Viewing
You can chalk me up as being decidedly underwhelmed, but then I have never subscribed to an MMO. Many of the items in that list are things that just shouldn't be subscriber content, and how important the others are will depend on how frequently they come into play. New weapons, skills, classes, levels, game modes, etc. all sound somewhat interesting, but it they only appear infrequently it won't mean much. Two months is $20, and that's enough to buy most expansion packs. If fundamental aspects of the game play don't change, however, it's difficult to imagine most of the above items mattering in the long run. Then again, I never have understood the people that play Everquest, World of Warcraft, etc. for months on end, so it could be those gamers will love what Flagship offers. Time will tell….
Hellgate represents what many fear in the gaming world: it took a long time to develop, it involves many people (judging by the end credits, it's probably as big as many blockbuster movies), the graphics boast many of the latest buzzwords… and yet for all the technological advances it's a step back in other areas. That so much time and energy from talented people could go into the game and yet still fail to impress is scary. Wrapping this up, as this is already waaaay too long, you're probably thinking I hate Hellgate: London. That's not actually true. I really enjoyed it at first, but the more I played the less satisfied I became. I had similar feelings with Diablo/2, but I didn't reach saturation level so quickly. I may simply be an older curmudgeon, so those of you who didn't walk to school uphill in the snow can probably disregard much of my complaining. If you want a score, I'm going to stick with the standard school grading scale. This is a B overall, bordering on a B-. It gets many things right, but something got lost in the big picture. Patches and other minor changes can address some of the issues, but you might need to subscribe to get the improved experience. If the subscription service didn't exist, I'd be more forgiving and the game might rate closer to a B+ instead.
The bottom line is that Hellgate: London will almost certainly appeal to fans of the genre, particularly those who liked Diablo and to a lesser extent Titan's Quest. Those are both spiritual sequels to the Diablo throne, and they diverge from their predecessor in different ways. The near-future setting in Hellgate is a nice change from the standard fantasy fare, even if it ends up not making a huge difference in terms of actual game play. At the end of the day, whether you kill demons or devils with bows, guns, or something else... well, there's only so many times you can do that before it wears thin.