Hellgate: London Preview
It's been a long time coming. Diablo II is still being played worldwide because it's an addictive time-waster with a surprisingly large amount of depth buried under all the seemingly mindless clicking. And fans who have been playing ever since the release so many years ago have probably tried a number of "Diablo killers" over the years, from FATE to Titan Quest to the recent Loki. None have stood up to the Blizzard juggernaut because they all lack a certain hard-to-pin-down quality that just doesn't addict you like the Diablo games did. But who else could reproduce that than the top talent that actually made the Diablo games? It was quite a while back that 17 key Blizzard developers left the company to become Flagship Studios. Now they are their own bosses and they are making their own game, Hellgate: London, which is set for a release this coming Halloween.
I got the chance to play around in the beta for Hellgate and I'll say right now that while this game starts out feeling a bit too much like a shallow first- or third-person shooter, that ends pretty quickly and it's not long before those addictive qualities that made Diablo consume players start becoming apparent here. The setting for Hellgate is a post-apocalyptic version of the streets and tunnels of London where you fight the forces of Hell that have already conquered the world. Life has changed a lot for the few mortals left, and the same demonic power that conquered Earth has come into the hands of humans. Others fight with technology, others with sheer will power and spirit. You'll choose one of three factions, each of which includes two classes, and blast, swing, and cast your way through the demonic hordes to try and put the world right again.
Most of my time spent in the beta so far has been with the Marksman, part of the Hunter faction, and the Summoner, part of the Cabalist faction. While I spent a lot of time firing guns on both characters, that's pretty much where the similarities end. The Marksman relies on using stances to boost gun damage to ridiculous levels and tossing out special attacks and grenades for extra damage. While there are plenty of weapons in this game that can do burst damage, area effect fire, toxic splash, you name it, some of the Marksman's most powerful abilities are best used when you've got something a little closer to a sniper rifle. The Summoner's weaponry plays more of a finish-the-monsters-off support role, as you get to bring up quite a few pets to roll with you and take on the hordes. Most of these pets are of the elemental variety, although a couple of demons are thrown in for good measure. By adding skill points in, you can improve your pets' abilities and add new summons to cover multiple types of damage simultaneously.
There are two melee classes: the Templar Blademaster can wield a pair of swords and works out as a damage-dealing melee class (although some guns are still available), while the Templar Guardian is a defensive melee class with a shield who usually does best when totally surrounded by the enemy. There's also the Hunter Engineer who builds robots and equips them with weapons that have been crafted, bought, or looted from monsters, and finally, the Cabalist Evoker, who is the closest thing to a Mage in this game. If, of course, we're talking about Mages with guns.
Yes, guns. Every player in Hellgate gets access to guns, although some will depend on them more than others. You'll need to hone your action game skills here, as you'll need to aim pretty much all of your guns - depending on the type of weapon and your Accuracy statistic, the spread of your shots can be pinpoint-precise or totally wild. There are a ton of guns in this game with all kinds of unique and cool attributes, some of which are better for some classes than others. Some are just plain rocket launchers and grenade launchers, but the more interesting stuff comes when you start firing out fields of toxic gas or spill fire onto the floor, hold demons in place for your buddies to kill, pull them toward you if you would like to get up close, or even control the minds of enemies. Even these descriptions barely scratch the surface, though, as Hellgate's sheer variety of weaponry and modification systems really makes for infinite combinations.
If you thought that tossing gems or runes into your weapons in Diablo II to be a lot of fun and got to the point where your fighting strategy revolved around your socket choices, then you're going to love Hellgate. Many weapons come with multiple modification slots - Relic, Battery, Fuel, and Ammo, maybe even multiples - and some weapons have up to seven spots to fill with mods (all of which are actually visible on your weapon when you hold it). As you wade through the demonic forces, you'll find these mods of varying qualities that you can install into your weapons to not only add damage, but also to add unique properties that often can stack up to dish out some real pain.
For example, many monsters and all players in Hellgate have a recharging shield that must be knocked off before any real damage can be done. (For players, the armor you are wearing determines how much shielding you have). This stuff recharges quickly, so it's helpful to have a weapon or ability that can penetrate through shields, directly to the enemy's health. There are quite a few modifications in the game that will do this to varying degrees, while others will just pour on generic damage so that you punch through the old-fashioned way. Some mods cause blasts to occur at the target when a monster dies, or add new damage types to a weapon so that you've got a little diversity in case a monster is immune to some kind of damage.
This all seems pretty complex, but Flagship have done a good job hiding away all these ridiculous levels of strategy until you are ready to find them. For example, there's an NPC at most Stations (the Hellgate equivalent of a town) that can create items out of the bare materials you collect by breaking apart other items. That's right: you're not forced to sell things you don't want, and instead you can break them up and use them to upgrade an item (by upping its item level, giving it a bit more potency) or create new ones entirely. You can even break down and create unique items! But these NPCs aren't really mentioned by the game, and you're not at all required to seek them out. The machines that allow you to add "magical" properties to items can really turn a half-decent weapon into an incredible one for a hefty price, while the De-modificator will allow you to pull your mods out of an item for a relatively nominal fee.
All of these things cater directly to the gamer who plans on playing Hellgate for months rather than days or weeks. Just about every good feature in Diablo 2 is reproduced here, from the three difficulty levels, to hardcore mode, to the stash, and on to things like Shrines and a huge variety of bosses. Well, the shrines are handled very differently here - there's a mini-game going on at all times, where three icons are sitting at the bottom of your screen. Fulfilling whatever needs these mysterious icons represent will have a specific effect, like turning a nearby monster into a boss, along with a bunch of other stuff. Details are still a little scarce on how this works, but suffice it to say that the serious players will be able to manufacture these bonuses at least occasionally. It might mean having to rush forwards to eat a certain kind of damage or swap weapons to dish out another kind, but it should be doable somewhat reliably.
Speaking of weapon swapping, Hellgate currently includes three weapon slots for you to switch to, and if you're dual-wielding, then both guns can be housed in one of these slots (and you can have one one-handed gun working its magic in two different slots with different pairings, if you like). For the melee classes, there are a few small restrictions but you'll also get to wield a gun and a sword simultaneously. For the most part, each of your hands works independently, allowing you to fire at will however you like, although once you're in mid-melee swing you can't fire your gun. Since none of the weapons in this game have any ammo, most guns can be just spammed if you like, but some have a pretty slow timer before you can take another shot and still others can fire continuously but will lose up to half of their effectiveness unless you give them a couple seconds' break. Adding all this up means that no matter what your class, your weapons are a major part of the game.
One of my favorite parts of Hellgate: London is that with a scroll of the mousewheel you can seamlessly transition from a first-person mode to a third-person mode. Yeah, a bunch of games have something like this, but many of them don't handle the switch between the two viewpoints correctly - either the third-person crosshair doesn't work right, or your guns aren't visible in first person mode. If it's not that, there's some strange thing that makes it annoying to a player that's used to either viewpoint. Hellgate works great in both modes, and while I felt like I should have been able to throw out some kind of built-in secondary attack or bash people with the butt of my gun in first-person mode, that's just a holdover from what players usually get in a FPS. The feeling passed quickly.
But we haven't even gotten into partying with other players, the community, or any depth on the other four classes yet. Check back in next week for another preview where we get intimate with two more character classes and talk about the more friend-oriented features of Hellgate: London. Until then, whet your appetite with five brand new screenshots and an exclusive HD-quality video with some gameplay footage from Hellgate And if you don't make it back, do keep in mind that it'll be in stores on Halloween.