Hellgate:London
Autopsy Part 2

 By Shamus Jun 10, 2008 41 comments

In my initial post I praised Flagship for the fantastic intro movie. I was disappointed when I found out later that the movie was outsourced. It’s the most polished and well-executed part of the game, and Flagship Studios didn’t have anything to do with it.

Still, the movie is a good introduction to what seems like an interesting world, and by the time the movie ended I was eager to create a new character and dive into the world of Hellgate.

Story and Plot

Third-person looter games are not known for their stories. Most players experienced the plot of Diablo II once, and on their numerous subsequent playthroughs they just clicked past the dialogs and hurried on to the looting and leveling. The same probably goes for games like World of Warcraft. But the story is as much a part of the world as the scenery and music. You couldn’t just cull the entire Diablo plot and backstory without damaging the game. Even when players are hanging around town, swapping items and griping about lag, that story layer is still there underneath everything, lending a certain credibility and purpose to the gameworld. Players want to inhabit an interesting story, even when they aren’t immersed or in character.

But the world of Hellgate is a joke. Literally. The missions you perform and the characters you meet and the dialog you read are all played for laughs. The game is constantly mocking itself, refusing to let the player take it seriously for a minute. It (mostly) doesn’t work as comedy because we don’t know the gameworld yet. It’s like watching Spaceballs before Star Wars, or reading DM of the Rings without knowing anything about Lord of the Rings.

What we have is a game with a dark and thrilling intro movie, which leads the player to where they must face waves of screaming demons and zombies in a ruined world. But every NPC you meet treats the whole thing with contempt, shrugging off the potential for edgy drama in favor of making lame jokes and inappropriate pop-culture references.

Here is a video they’ve put out in preparation for the release of the next patch.

This is mildly humorous, but they’re trying to subvert something they’ve already made into a joke, which is like trying to knock down a pile of rubble. I wouldn’t have minded some occasional levity. The various shopkeepers were a good source of harmless absurdity, and if this brand of odd humor was limited to supporting characters it would have been fine. But the game never stops mugging and joking, so we don’t care about the fate of the central characters any more than we care what happens to the hapless Bob in the video above.

If the creators don’t care about the gameworld, how can the players? And if players don’t care about the gameworld, then why in the hell would they care to inhabit it?

Suggestion: That intro movie was a solid hook. All the game had to do was maintain the same grim, desperate tone. Fallout managed this with about the same ratio of voice acting to silent dialog text, and it worked. You don’t need anything fancy for a game like this, just something that doesn’t sabotage immersion at every turn.

Characters & Dialog

The dialog is poorly delivered.

This is because every sentence is delivered alone.

Instead of giving the player a paragraph to read, it is broken up.

The player must click many, many times.

Each click advances the NPC dialog a little bit.

This spoon-feeds the text to the player.

This would be understandable if we were playing on a handheld or a television.

But here the dialog is in a nice big window with a scrollbar.

There’s plenty of room for all the text.

But it’s broken up anyway.

Which is annoying to read.

It’s like reading a children’s book.

Or a series of fortune cookies written by an idiot.

Sometimes the dialog is tolerable, and sometimes it’s agonizingly bad. At one point the player meets some sort of higher being with the unfortunate name of The Truth. This name isn’t very original, but it’s all the worse for the fact that the same name was given to a paranoid hippie drug addict in one of the Grand Theft Auto games. When the player is talking to a celestial power at one of the first plot points in the game, the last thing you want them thinking about is a crazy stoner voiced by Peter Fonda.

But it’s her dialog that ruins the moment. She’s lamenting the millions of worlds already devoured by the menace facing the Earth, and she does so by going on at length about tears and sorrow and more tears and loss and also sadness. It’s agonizing adolescent emo poetry. Perhaps it was bad on purpose, as part of another unfortunate joke at the expense of the plot, or maybe the writer was engaged in an pathetic attempt to be artful and poetic. (I really hope it’s the former.) In either case, it wasn’t fun to read and wasn’t worth the dozen or so mouse clicks it took to step through it.

The characters rarely have any personality, and those that do are simply cheap props for additional japery at the expense of the setting. There’s Tiberius, the Shatner-talking quest dispenser. There is Lucious Alden, who was purportedly driven “mad” by his torment at the hands of the demons, but the writers seemed to have confused “crazy” with “madcap and zany”. (He sends you on a quest to the City of the Damned, and he remarks that he wanted to name the place, “¡Taco Fort!”) There is Tech 314, who acts as the straight man to Alden’s antics.

Do not mistake the above for character summaries. What I’ve written is everything the game has to tell us about these people. And these are the “interesting” ones.

Suggestion: Despite the reported failings of western education, I don’t think we’ve run out of people who will read a paragraph of text without flinching. Stop screwing around trying to MST3K your own creation and write a little dialog that people will want to read. Dialog, like other game content, is a reward the player will work for if you give them what they want. Work in some details about how the world of Hellgate works, how the people feel, what they want, and what they do besides standing around subway stations waiting for player characters to come along and click on them.


20201Feeling chatty? There are 41 comments.


  1. Cincinnatus says:

    So, after yesterday I thought, “Gee, it really can’t get *that* much worse.” But then came “iTaco Fort,” and my entire world collapsed around me. It was one of those, “Ha ha, Shamus, another great jo-no wait, he’s serious. Dang.” sort of moments. Yeah.

    Again, I bemoan the tortures you must be going through to present this title in all its *snort* glory. Keep it up, my good man.

  2. Cyndane says:

    Gee, you’re just making me ever so sad that I haven’t played this game.

    Now I read pretty quickly thanks to playing too many jrpgs over the years, so I tend to mash buttons through texts in game as it is. Texts like what you mentioned drive me nuts. If the game just displays text slowly, then finding the text speed option and setting it to very fast tends to fix it, but with games like this, they’re just begging me to wear down my enter key or mouse button.

    Or when someone spaces out the text like you did in your post, I end up wearing down my down arrow. :P

  3. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    Man, this game sounds sweeeet I can’t wait to go pick it up.

  4. Patrick says:

    Ouch. I played the demo, and within the first 30 minutes realized there was no reason to buy the game and continue playing.

  5. Reluctant DM says:

    On the flipside, some games provide too much content when a nice summary would be ample. I guess the key is a fine balance!

  6. Factoid says:

    Thanks for rationalizing my non-purchase of this game. I was interested in it during the build-up to launch, but then I noticed that it wasn’t really getting a lot of attention in the game media. That’s usually a bad sign when a big budget AAA title launches and nobody is talking about it. It’s more telling than reviews actually.

    Same thing happened with Quake Wars. I thought that game was a slam dunk based on the premise and gameplay concepts I’d read about. Strogg vs Humans…Battlefield style gameplay…asymmetrical classes…but it was a complete dud, and even though it got mediocre reviews, it had almost no buzz, despite a long semi-open beta.

    It looked and played like a battlefield mod. It didn’t feel like “quake” much the same way it seems Hellgate doesn’t feel like Diablo.

  7. Mari says:

    Wow. I’m actually tempted to buy this game now. Sometimes I need a reason to get all indignant and worked up and this sounds like a great reason.

    Seriously, I can’t figure out if you’re a dedicated blogger or a masochist continuing to play this and then replay it mentally as you review. I’m kind of wondering at this point how you can have a final post, which you claimed would be what they did RIGHT. I think you’ve pretty much covered everything but the leveling system already in the “wrong” category.

  8. CoarseSand says:

    Haven’t played Hellgate, but it sounds like the developers confused themselves with Dungeon Runners when they went to write the setting.

  9. thepanzer says:

    Excellent points. I can forgive most of HGLs many flaws since it does provide a unique experience as far as Diablo style gameplay but with a vastly different settup and play style. What absolutely kills it for me is the dialogue and lack of plot. As you said EVERY character in the game is either a moron or insane. There’s something wrong when every time I go to town to sell I want to blow the vendors guts all over the wall behind him. They annoy me that much, I’d just as soon kill all the quest givers and vendors as the actual mobs in the game. Also as you said the intro video might as well be for a different game since it doesn’t seem to factor into the actual game plot. So many missed opportunities.

    I’ve described HGL to friends as a great game saddled with a lousy development company. So often when you play it you see glimpes for how ground breaking it could have been and almost is. Instead FSS seems more intent on playing CYA than actually addressing the core issues that STILL exist to this day.

    On a side note anyone know of any diablo-esque type games on the market? Nothings hitting the spot for me. Bored of titan quest, bored of Diablo II, playing HGL occasionally since there’s nothing else I’m aware of… I could use some suggestions if any exist.

  10. Derek K says:

    @thepanzer: I’m enjoying Shadowgrounds a lot right now. It’s not so much a third-person looter, as there are a set number of guns, and they only have upgrades, but it’s very much the click and kill style….

    And I hate to sound like a HG:L fanboy, but really, it’s not a bad game. It’s far from a great game, it’s far from what it should be. But people are treating it like it’s Daikatana’s ugly stepsister. I know Shamus is putting the good at the end, but I hate to see people dismissing HG:L completely as trash…. I played for several months, and enjoyed it, despite having a computer that couldn’t really handle it….

  11. Did you mean to write “the millions for worlds” or “the millions of worlds”?

  12. Rick C says:

    well, you could try Fate…

  13. Solka says:

    but… but… but I’ve watched Spaceballs before Star Wars..

  14. thepanzer says:

    Thanks for the tips I’ll have to give shadowgrounds a look and Fable’s been one I’ve considered before but always got busy with something else so maybe I’ll finally grab it at the bargain bin.

    For Derek, I alternate between HGL as far as thinking it isn’t as bad as I think it is and then running into things in the game that turn me into a flagshipped.com ranter. What’s wierd is I think it’s how obvious the game has so much potential that gets to me. If it was less fun I think I’d just uninstall it and forget it. Wierdly it’s just fun enough to want to play it but with enough annoyances to bug the hell out of me the whole time. I keep hoping they’ll patch away the annoying portions and keep the fun portions. 8 months or so after launch and with new content and repeated patches all the same issues from release day are still there annoying the hell out of me just as much as on day 1.

    I think re-doing the quest dialogue to match the initial CGI sequence style and flair, the inclusion of re-speccing ability for a price, and adding some more varied tile-sets would go a long way towards making the game more polished. That’s based on me playing mostly single-player as opposed to multi as I don’t feel there’s enough content I enjoy to make it worth 10 bucks a month with an AOC and WOW subscription at the same time.

    So I’m watching Mythos closely now. It seems like it could be a lot of fun but based on HGL and FSS so far I don’t want to get my hopes up.

  15. Gahaz says:

    If you want to see some depressing stuff straight from the core team, check out this blog post from a programmer.

    http://hellgate.incgamers.com/n/6097/fss-programmer-speaks-out

  16. Cybron says:

    I dunno, the whole humorous approach doesn’t sound so bad to me. It seems to me that the game just wasn’t what you were expecting – a post-apocalyptic drama. Your problem is that you went in expecting Star Wars and got Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

  17. Gahaz says:

    Cybron,

    The humor is terrible. Comparing it to D.A.’s masterpiece is insulting to all humanity.

  18. Deoxy says:

    Solka,

    He means watching Spaceballs before EVER seeing Star Wars. As a particularly good example of how lame that would be, Dark Helmet’s little line near the end, “I am your father’s cousin’s best friend’s brother’s former room mate” just isn’t funny if you don’t know about, “No, I am your father.”

  19. JKjoker says:

    i didnt like the story in diablo2 it forced you to do certain quests to advance, diablo1′s story stayed out of your way, if i could have diablo1 with d2′s characters, the item-highlight and running features i would never play d2 again.

  20. Gary says:

    From your comments so far this game sounds misnamed.

    They should have called it “Zombie Zombie Rampage” and then put little targets on the zombies’ heads….

  21. Solka says:

    @Deoxy

    Exactly what I meant..

    and to tell the truth, I didn’t understood half the references either. But I found it a funny movie..

    I sure didn’T understood why the guy was hiding his neck before Dark Helmet squized his crouch.

  22. ngthagg says:

    I have to admit, I didn’t notice the emo dialogue from the Truth. I was instead focussed on figuring out if the truth was supposed to be invisible or if the model didn’t load properly. (Unfortunately, it was the latter.)

  23. Chuk says:

    DM of the Rings without knowing anything about Lord of the Rings.

    I didn’t know DM of the Rings was based on a real movie. Is it any good?

  24. Deoxy says:

    Solka,

    Wow – and you still found it funny? Of course, if you had seen Star Trek, Snow White, Alien, or many other movies, there was still plenty to be found that was funny.

    In fact, one of the main recurring points of funniness was meta-humor (“Merchandising!” “Nice dissolve.” “You idiots – you’ve captured their stunt doubles!”)

    But yeah, I bet you missed a LOT of references. Have you gone back and watched it after seeing Star Wars? If so, was it even funnier?

    @Chuk – ROFLMAO. Actually, it was funnier than that… I snickered out loud at work. That’s some serious funny.

  25. Lanthanide says:

    I actually visited Flagship Studios in September of 2006, right prior to the announcement of the Hunter class. We got to play the build that they’d made for some gaming show, CES I think. There’s photos and stuff from the trip on IncGamers, but I’m at work and they block IncGamers so I can’t get a link right now.

    I complained about the line-by-line quest-giving at the time. The rationale they gave is that that is what JRPG games are like and they were deliberately trying to target the Korean market, so they included things like that in the design in order to appeal to that market.

    Also the bad dialogue can be summed up pretty easily by saying they didn’t actually have a proper writer for the game and the storyline was more of an afterthought that was developed in the last year or two of development, rather than having any clear storyline from the beginning. The person they got to design all the dialogue and quests etc was Ivan Sulic, who was originally hired as a community manager for FSS. He never did a very good job as CM and had a very *odd* (that is to say, lame) sense of humour and eventually he moved over to work on the dialogue and collectors edition stuff full time, and they hired someone else to do the community work. Then they hired another person to replace them, and finally hired yet another person (Scapes) to replace them too.

    JKjoker: Play Hellfire. Or better yet, any good D1 mods that you can find (V&K Middle Earth mod is extremely excellent) on the net. Hellfire introduces double-speed movement in town (‘running’), a spell called Search that highlights items on the ground as well as a new character class the Monk, as well as the Bard and Barbarian that can be activated via a configuration file edit. Hellfire is a little bit of a different style to D1 and doesn’t fit in perfectly, but it is worth playing if you prefer D1 to D2, as I do.

  26. Nathan says:

    @Gahaz

    Man that is some sad stuff. That would also explain why the single player game has not been patched like the on-line game. I did the Beta of HGL and I was disappointed for a lot of reasons given so far. Then to top it off they want you to pay a fee so you can use better gear. Doesn’t sound so bad except for all the bugs that made me put the game down. I really wanted to like it. My biggest problem was the character powers didn’t feel like they did any thing.

  27. There are a lot of complaints about how they ought to go back and fix the voice acting, but that trailer makes it appear that the discordant crap was intentional and the result of a lack of respect for the game rather than the result of a terribly short budget.

    Hmm, that would explain a lot about the hit or miss implementations of many things.

    “The Koreans really love the game” … the fact that the game probably doesn’t suffer from the dialog issues in translation anywhere near as bad may have a lot to do with that.

    http://adiss.the-cabal.org/blog/

    Interesting stuff.

  28. Jeff says:

    Tiberius.
    James Tiberius Kirk, you dig?

    That video is mainly about the ability to /emote now, btw.
    Followed by the premium merchant and the new sniper interface…

    314 is hilarious though. You just have to think of HGL as an MMO, not a Single Player game. In fact, the initial advertising and promotion (in fact, 90% of it) had Hellgate as an MMO. Heck, I didn’t even know it had single player until I bought it.

    Again, HGL is not a standalone game. It’s a sci-fi multiplayer dungeon crawl. Viewed in that light, it’s a good game. It just got marketed poorly, which attracted droves of the wrong people. The Koreans like it fine. :P

  29. Doyle says:

    I think my biggest problem with the game was the way in which the survivor culture is presented. Despite the world actually going to hell, the humans in the game seem to suffer no real hardships. They live in perfectly safe, perfectly clean underground fortresses where they have the very height of advanced technology and magic at their disposal. All weapons and equipment look clean and manufactured, all residents look well tended to and well fed. Where pray-tell does their gear come from? Or their water? Or food? Or power? How do they have the time to do nothing but grind out consistently newer and better technology when they are supposedly the last hounded remnants of a destroyed society?

    Who actually felt that this game world was well developed? Shamus has already commented on the constant joking so I won’t go into that any further, but even when you put that aside there’s nothing here to make you feel as though anything in the world has impact or meaning. Any and all actions you may take in the game world are truly pointless because everyone you meet seems to have earned, through the apocalypse, a higher standard of living than they would have otherwise had.

    Also, why on earth would they revert back to using swords and shields against these creatures when they have a constant stream of much more effective fire-arms at their disposal? Who honestly wants to rush towards the screaming hordes of the damned holding a pointy piece of metal when you have a perfectly good rocket launcher strapped to your back? (This question is asked from both a logical perspective, and from the perspective of an ex-player who’s swordsman died countless times while his gunman never died once.)

  30. Lanthanide says:

    @Jeff:
    Actually Bill Roper (and others) for years were stressing that this was a full game just like Diablo 2, except better. Not only did you get a full single player game that would last at least 40 hours, but complete free online play like Diablo 2 had as well as an online paid-for component that would offer even more stuff.

    They perpetually compared this to Diablo 2 and used the comparison to stress that with HGL you were getting more, and not less, than what you got in D2 – single player, free MP and paid-for MP (obviously D2 only had the former).

    So perhaps the final marketting blitz stressed the MP action more than the SP, but for a long time the developers were stressing both.

    This reflects especially badly on Roper in a recent interview when asked about upcoming single player patches. Roper effectively said “well those people should stop complaining and just play the free online multiplayer – that is always up to date”. I needn’t tell you what is wrong with that kind of attitude (from someone who took every opportunity to stress single player), I’m sure.

  31. Solka says:

    Deoxy,

    Well, there was some silly things in the movie that I found really funny. I mean, I was 5 at the time, I don’t think I was very elaborate in what I found funny. I had slightly watched Star Trek: TNG because of my parents (god did the beast that killed Tasha Yar scared me.. so did the “parasites”)

    Anyway, when I watched Star Wars for the first time, I told myself: Hey! They are reaping off Spaceballs! XD

  32. MechaCrash says:

    Not that it changes your point about The Truth, but the stoned paranoid hippy was actually right about a lot of things.

    As for the humor…yeah, it was awful. I could accept it if it were just a few people cracking jokes here and there with an air of “I have to laugh because if I don’t I’ll scream,” but what we got was all the advertising and the background information and even so far as the introductory cinematic painting this dark pit of unleashed nightmares where the few humans left alive are barely surviving, and then you log in and get the zombie apocalypse equivalent of fart jokes. Ugh.

    As for “why use swords when you can use guns,” the game actually covers that: conventional guns don’t actually work on these things, which is how the world got plowed under in the first place. You need magical anti-demon weapons, and building a sword out of Palladium is going to get you farther than a gun. Or something like that.

  33. Scourge says:

    Doyle: “Or their water? Or food? Or power?”

    In D2, and even D1, were there at least some explanations, and there were also poor people and such.. but it’s true, in HGL is everything shiny, proper, good. No problems at all, and they even send kids out who then get robbed by a demon.. Hello?

    Over all was the story line good, but the NPC’S and such didn’t helped me a bit to get immersed into it. Not to forget that I imagined the levels to be bigger and not so linear.

  34. Bob says:

    Looks like its getting worse for this game:

  35. Derek K says:

    “You need magical anti-demon weapons, and building a sword out of Palladium is going to get you farther than a gun. Or something like that.”

    The problem is that’s again a good background piece that isn’t supported by the gameplay.

    I mean, every good zombie survivalist knows that guns are just for emergencies – you use an axe for day to day stuff, because the axe doesn’t run out of bullets.

    But HG:L doesn’t have ammo at all, so the “scarity” theme, which could have been huge, falls short.

    Once again, potential. I have to agree that I would really like to see HG:L 2. If it could fix all the issues, it would be spiffy.

  36. PeterK says:

    @Doyle

    The novels based on the game actually explain the background story and how the Hellgate world works much better than the game does. You get a clear picture of how the Templers have been preparing for this fight since the time of the Crusades and how guns were useless against demons untill recently when they were enhanced through magic.

    It’s quite a pity that the game does not actually tell you all of this since it does make the game world much more believable.

  37. Personally, I think the biggest problem with the plot/dialog is that the different stations were OBVIOUSLY written entirely independently. Later in the game a lot of the “just for grins” stuff diminishes and the serious tone comes back. My favorite missions occur at Temple Station/Templar Base where you actually get a coherent series of missions from two templars who are feuding with each other, one wanting just to charge the Hellgate and the other wanting to prevent this incredible pointless loss of life.

    You wind up delivering the orders to the doomed templars and watching as they march towards death: it’s a powerful moment. And then Arphaun sends you on a mission to rescue them by reopening and fixing a subway train. At the very end of the mission you’re told that you “saved your friends” (the two named Templars who gave you quests and you thought were going to die) . . . but you basically never get to talk to them again. That, right there, killed the game for me. It was the one point in the story where I was actually interested in what was going on, and it led to . . . nothing.

  38. KingMob says:

    @Snow:

    I absolutely agree that was shaping up to be a powerful moment – but I had a lot of problems with it.
    For one thing, I was given the quest to deliver the orders – and they were right next to the quest-giver.
    For another I knew I could go back to the hub a different way and see them again in the same spot as usual.

    So many things like this happened, and broke immersion for me, I couldn’t take any plot points seriously.

    Other issues:
    Quests early on were given out in a normal progression. Around the middle of the game they started to be given out haphazardly. I really like to know what things I should do in order, and I don’t like having to go back to the same area three times because of followup quests from other areas.

    Some quests were actually harder to do because of environmental aspects. For example, I had a quest to kill twenty rats (not rats, but you know what I mean) but every time I zoned in the area, the templars that were supposed to be helping me would kill the rats first and I didn’t get credit for it. So I had to zone in over and over again, rush around, and try to kill-steal.
    Why didn’t anyone test this?

    I really enjoyed my pet class (Engineer) but they never really seemed to get around to fix the way our main tanking pet worked. Why couldn’t I send my drone out to attack things? Why would it follow me when I backed out of combat?
    I was having a lot of fun with this at lower levels, but at higher levels, in more difficult fights (especially in constricted corridors) the problems with my class were more noticeable.

  39. thepanzer says:

    On the dialogue and quest issue they should engage the player community in a competition to re-build the quest dialogue around the original plot premise and trailer. I’m sure the community has some good writers within it and could come up with much much much 1,000 times better written quest dialogue that makes you actually want to give a damn. They could even offer those figurines/collectibles plastered in the HGL website as prizes (since they obviously aren’t selling out anyway) for the best quest dialogue for immersiveness and that sort of thing. They’d still have the lousy audio dialogue but I’ll take what I can get at this point. Of course that’s assuming they didn’t outsource the questing portions of the game and have no idea how to change the quest text, etc.

    But that gets back to my description of HGL as a good game saddled with a lousy company as they’d rather have an adversarial relationship with their customers instead of harnessing their own player community to help them out. It’s just EPIC MEGA FAIL, I have no idea what these guys are thinking… It seems like they didn’t realize that if they aren’t going to bother taking their own game seriously then why would gamers?

  40. Cybron says:

    Gahaz: I have no idea how good the humor in this game is. I’m just making a general point about the structure. Replace H2G with Men in Black if it makes you feel better.

  41. [...] to require too much cerebral activity for my current needs. I’ve been following Shamus‘ episodic dissection of Flagship’s Hellgate: London, and for some reason I was reminded of my [...]

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  1. By Narcissism Incorporated » Titan Quest on June 28, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    [...] to require too much cerebral activity for my current needs. I’ve been following Shamus‘ episodic dissection of Flagship’s Hellgate: London, and for some reason I was reminded of my [...]

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