Hellgate: London Preview #2
It's been a rocky week for those in the Hellgate: London beta, but I'm starting to think we'll pull through. This action-RPG title from Flagship Studios channels all those addictive qualities that made Diablo 2 so infectious but takes everything in a new direction with a first/third-person shooter style of gameplay. Since my preview of the game last week where I looked at a couple of the classes, the general feel of the game, and the action, two new patches have gone through. The first one came with an unfortunate side effect of causing the game's stations (Hellgate's versions of towns where you return to after your forays into the infested streets and tunnels of this post-apocalyptic urban sprawl) to completely shut down, causing characters to become inaccessible.
This led many players and even a few editors, some of which got their first taste of the game completely spoiled by staring at a "Loading" screen that wouldn't go away until the three finger salute and subsequent closure in Task Manager, to doubt whether Hellgate: London would be even remotely playable on its Halloween release date. Many online games in this state don't launch well, and even now that another patch has gone through to fix these issues and the servers are in better shape, doubt remains in everyone's minds if this game will not simply self-destruct when hundreds of thousands of people start to play.
And I think part of the problem is that maybe even Flagship don't quite understand what made Diablo 2 so addictive, and may not even know what it is about Hellgate itself that keeps people coming back, and it's starting to seem like even the game's developers weren't sure of what a runaway success this game may be. Hype is getting to its highest levels for this game as card-carrying D2 fanatics are coming back more impressed than they have with any game in years, and tons of people are pre-ordering the game in order to jump into the current beta test. I'm going to try and move around the connection and server issues for the remainder of this preview and talk about the game as it is when everything's working right; by no means am I going to promise or even presume that serious connection issues won't happen once Hellgate is in stores, but hey, issues like this happened in Blizzard's own games - most notably, the original Diablo II and World of Warcraft releases - and they were mostly related to runaway success and eventually got fixed, if maybe a little later than most players would've liked. Let's hope that Flagship can pick up the pace and really bust their butts to get this game running smoothly from here on out.
So moving on the game, last week I promised to give you a glimpse into two more character classes. The first that I want to talk about is the Evoker, the closest thing you'll get to a spell-slinging Wizard as you'll get in a post-apocalyptic science fiction game. The Evoker can command the elements to directly damage opponents, but first there must be gear. You see, Evokers use a special class of weapons that can "Focus" their power, and they will actually modify and improve your spellcasting abilities. Swapping out different weapons can change how your elemental attacks fire, which really can help in a lot of situations when you're fighting a tough boss with certain unique abilities. Of course, these guns are still guns, and while the projectile they fire out often feels like little more than a pop gun pellet with a bit of purple colored lighting, they can help you punch through enemy defenses and are always at your disposal - even when you run out of Power (Hellgate's version of mana).
Unfortunately, due to server issues for most of the week so far, I've not gotten to play another class to any appreciable level, so we'll have to stick with that while I get to go on to other topics like the party, friend, and chat systems. The first thing I want to mention is that many of the basic mechanics of the Diablo games - Town Portals ("Personal Relocation Devices" here), randomized hallway creation for a different layout every time you pass through an area, somewhat random boss placement, the need to identify ("Analyze") magical items, the random properties that come up through suffixes, prefixes, and Rare ("Legendary") items, all of that is here. So is the way you fight together in a party, but while Diablo II had people jumping into each other's instanced versions of games, sometimes with passwords and sometimes not, here instead you party up in the Stations and then venture into an area together. Sure, there is an Autoparty system that lets random people get into areas with you, but so far the system doesn't seem to be doing much beyond the very occasional pairing up of two people.
Of course, it's also easier to get into a game with someone together, because there is a global chat system - much like what is in World of Warcraft - going on at all times. Plus there's the usual MMO chat systems like Party chat, private tells, and the like, and it works together to make sure that you and your buddies, or even complete strangers, can group up to do the same stuff together. The way this system is set up it's a little more like, say, Guild Wars where you're instancing that one area rather than the whole game's content, so there won't be six guys in your game blasting through Hell Act IV while you're stuck on Act I without anyone in the game - that you created - helping you.
There's a friends list that so far seems to work, but it's pretty rudimentary. The same goes for the trade system, where all you get is pretty much a trade window you can pop up with someone in the same Station as you. For now, you can't trade anywhere but in Stations, and you'll have to use general chat to type out your item description as there is no trade channel and no item linking or auction houses. Maybe eventually we'll see this stuff, but for now the developers seem to intend for players to use the official forums as the place to post items. I really expect more from trading in a modern online game and I'm hoping this is on their list for beefing up - although I'm sure it won't be at least until after the release.
Fighting together really makes a difference in Hellgate, especially for the four classes who don't have any primary minions they can control. The Marksman certainly can survive it alone on the game's first difficulty, but it seems like the intent is to make this class become more dependent on having someone up front taking any real damage while the Marksman snipes away at the otherwise preoccupied enemies. Likewise, the Guardian and Blademaster - and to some extent the Summoner and Engineer's tanking minions - can certainly take the damage well enough, but they can't dish it out fast enough to be really considered efficient. I'm sure that as people level up beyond the beta's current level cap of 22 and fill out the skill tree, this will change, but for now it seems like partying is going to be a positive thing. The classes can still go it alone, but will find real tactical advantages when they start to complement each other.
Next week I'm going to go on with further impressions of the overall state of the Hellgate beta, talk more on the classes, and also start going over the story and quest system that's built into the game. I might even go off my rocker and talk about the atmosphere, music, and what Hellgate does right and wrong with its overall style. Until then, check out the newAtomicGamer -exclusive video and new screenshots for this week, and if you want to get in on the beta yourself, you can preorder the game, but expect a bit of backup since a ton of people are now trying to get into the beta and the developers are trying to stem the zerg rush that's coming in. Catch you next week!