Hellgate: London
Final Thoughts

By Shamus
on Jun 13, 2008
Filed under:
Game Reviews

At the outset of this series I wanted to know why Diablo II was digital crack, and HGL – a product of the same group of people – was a chore.

An addictive game is usually a collection of smaller activities, goals, or meta-games for the player to pursue. In an RPG we might have things like:

  1. Exploration: Reach a new area, see new scenery.
  2. Leveling: Grow in power, acquire new abilities, earn new skill points, build your character.
  3. Looting: Find some better stuff. Find some treasure. Find a rare item.
  4. Story: Find out what happens next. Meet some new characters.
  5. Crafting: Gather raw materials and try to build something cool.
  6. Combat: Enjoy the visceral thrill of stabbing / shooting / setting on fire waves of enemies.

If you satisfy one of the goals, there are still several others driving you forward. Tired of combat? I’ll keep going ’till I ding level 12. Just leveled up? I’m nearly to the next area. I’ll push forward and see what that looks like. Had your fill of new scenery? I’m almost done with this quest. I want to see what the Duke says. I love that guy. Done with your latest plot hook? I’m full up. I’d better go back to town and see what this stuff is worth. All done buying & selling? Look at these raw materials I found! Let me see if I have enough stuff to build that uberstab sword I’ve been wanting to make. Done crafting? You know what? I could go for a little combat right now.

And so it goes. You keep playing because there’s never a good time to quit. There’s always another reward just around the corner. You always have a half dozen goals going at once, and even if you aren’t thinking about them they’re still there, pulling you forward. They keep you saying, “just ten more minutes, ten more minutes”, for endless hours and days. The more goals and activities the user enjoys, the more compelling the game will be.

And so at the end this is the the difference between Diablo II and HGL. In Diablo, the goals were compelling and polished. In HGL, every single activity is marred by some flaw, bug, or poor design choice.

  1. Exploration: The level you’re going to looks like the level you were on five minutes ago. There’s no exploration because it never feels like you go anywhere. Same monsters. Same scenery.
  2. Leveling: Spending skill points isn’t very rewarding because there aren’t all that many interesting choices. You’ll be putting everything into a small handful of abilities and ignoring the rest.
  3. Looting: Finding rare stuff isn’t all that compelling, because it’s hard to judge if something is really all that good. The game might give a very high rating to a weapon that has very few useful properties and many irrelevant ones. If you want to really compare two items to know which is better, you have to understand all sorts of esoteric aspects of the combat mechanics. You can’t even know how much damage a weapon will do unless you work it out on a piece of scratch paper.
  4. Story: It’s a joke. The story is so tedious and childish it acts as a sort of punishment for progressing.
  5. Crafting: Suffers from all the same problems as looting. It’s impossible to control what magical properties are added to an item, which makes it yet another crapshoot. A crapshoot where you can’t even be sure if you won or lost without consulting some obscure damage table in the forums.
  6. Combat: The lack of blood / debris makes it feel like a nerf battle. The lack of good hit mechanics, cover, and damage feedback makes it feel sort of bland. It’s not terrible, and killing zombies has a certain charm, but the combat can’t carry the game itself.

    Combat is also hindered by the awful slowdowns. (I confirmed this is not an issue with alpha-blending or fill rate. As a marksman, I can drop that “air strike” ability – whatever it’s called – onto an area and my computer slows to a crawl, even if I’m facing away from the flames. This suggests that they most likely have hundreds of particles that are being very wasteful with CPU cycles. A little fine-tuning would probably clear that problem right up if they can get someone on it.)

The tragedy of Hellgate is that most players can see the potential. They can look at the game they have and perceive the game the designers had hoped to make. I share their vision, and I want to play their game as much as they wanted to make it.

How much of this can be fixed? The leveling should be fixed in the upcoming patch. The mini-game would be trivial to “fix”, since all it needs are a couple of tooltips. (I understand the designers wanted a “mystery”, but this game needs functional activities way more than mysteries right now.) The combat could be helped by fixing the slowdown issues.

That would give the game three functional activities, which is more than it has now. But the rest of the game is tougher to fix. I’ve never heard of any game re-writing the plot or dialog in a patch. Fixing the looting means fixing the crafting, and you can’t fix that without a massive overhaul of the damage mechanics, item creation, and upgrade system. Even obvious improvements to those things are going to be controversial. I suppose a band-aid fix would be to change the interface so it’s more obvious how many points of actual damage a weapon can deliver. The whole “damage” vs. “damage strength” thing is baffling and I’m not about to wade through the forums so someone can explain it to me.

What Worked

The game is not a complete waste. I certainly had fun at times. Dropping that air strike ability on tightly massed foes was a thrill so pure it almost qualified as a game in itself. Some of the weapons were fun. I only played a Blademaster for about half an hour, but I thought the melee combat felt pretty good. The mini-game was a nice way of alleviating and masking the unmistakable sensation of grinding.

I love the setting, or at least the idea of the setting. Zombies and firearms go together like peanut butter and jelly, and it’s nice when a developer shows some creativity and gives us something besides another medieval high fantasy mix tape.

The randomized environments are admirable. I’ve been waiting for a real procedurally generated FPS for years. (Although this one was amusing.) This was a huge gamble for them. This requirement prevented them from licensing a standard third-party FPS engine. By insisting on worlds that were both randomized and 3D, they were committing themselves to building new technology in addition to making a quasi-MMO game.

Building a 3d engine based on existing ideas is time consuming enough, and doing so while inventing new tech and while funding their own development was a gutsy move. Okay, it didn’t quite pay off, and it’s obvious this game would have been better if they had a smaller vision with better execution, but as someone who has noodled around with procedural 3d spaces I have an idea of what they were up against. I can’t say that I’m glad they did it, but I am glad I got to see it. If that makes any sense.

I know I complained about the writing in this game, but I really liked the shopkeepers. They got me to laugh more than once.

The various settings looked compelling. The most common one – the steam tunnels – was overused and bland, but the rest were interesting and fun to explore.

Final Thoughts

Hellgate is not an awful game. It’s a bland game that could have been fantastic. Those flashes of brilliance shine through once in a while, reminding you of the game you could be playing.

I certainly got my $20 of fun out of it.

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20222 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

From the Archives:

  1. Warstrike says:

    I don’t know how you manage to balance a career, fathering, gaming, and THIS, but I bow to your time management skills. Keep it up, reading your stuff is one of the best parts of my day (although I suppose I should be finishing my work so I can have more play time…In the words of Oxy “I can quit any time I want to…”)

    Thank you.

  2. folo4 says:

    *next on Shamus Young’s analysis: Guild Wars!

    anyways, nice review; it just made my decision not to buy the game even more plausible.

    about the minigame: care to make a comic out of it? Speaking of which, I’ve never seen any comic pertaining to the game! Is it really that gritty of a game?

    *prediction based on only one blog post. Do Not Believe.

  3. Mark says:

    Your analysis of the components of an addictive game is spot on.

    After a week of hearing about all the problems with this game, a single section of a single post that outlines “what worked” doesn’t seem adequate. I just can’t reconcile everything else you’ve written so far with your last sentence: “I certainly got my $20 of fun out of it.” Having not played the game myself but seriously considering purchasing it, I was really looking forward to hearing more positive things about HGL.

  4. WoodenTable says:

    Pretty much spot-on about everything. I played Hellgate all the way through as a Marksman, but can’t really see myself going back through it. Maybe someday.

    I do disagree with a few of your points, though. Saying that you only need a “handful of abilities”, in particular, seems kind of odd. I rarely used more than 4-5 abilities at a time in Diablo 2, and in Hellgate, while I haven’t played anything but the Marksman for more than 15 minutes, he has lots of breadth. Using all his grenades makes pumping out treasure with the minigame so easy, I’m practically swimming in items half the time. Sniper and tactical stance are useful constantly, and his passive abilities rock with more than 1 skillpoint in them. It’s not many abilities, but they all are useful, and damage scales with the character level. D2 fireball? Bash attack? Yeah, not so useful after level 6-ish.

    I agree shooting can be quite boring though, especially with standard guns. Get a Zeus Rifle asap if you’re a gun class. It’s a riot to use. It shoots a stream of lighting that arcs to other enemies. :) 100% accuracy, but the damage goes down the longer you fire it. I just wish they showed up more… they go obsolete so fast, even with upgrades.

  5. Jeff says:

    The whole “damage” vs. “damage strength” thing is baffling and I’m not about to wade through the forums so someone can explain it to me.
    There’s no “damage strength”.
    There there is are “damage” and “effect strength”.
    Spectral Damage. Phase Strength.
    Fire Damage. Ignite Strength.
    See, they even use different words. ;)
    Damage is damage. Effect strength is chance to proc the effect.
    The only connection between effects and damage types is that you need at least one point of the relevant damage type in order for an effect to proc. (Ie. 9 billion Phase Strength won’t do you any good if your weapon shoots Fire, and 9 billion Ignite Strength won’t set anything on fire if your weapon shoots Electricity.)

  6. DGM says:

    I never really understood the addictive appeal of D2, as I didn’t find it addictive. It held my interest enough to finish it once (pre-LoD, so no act 5). But I soon got bored and quit when restarting on the next difficulty level, and in my handful of attempts to replay the game over the years it’s never held my interest long enough to finish again.

    Still, this was insightful and useful. Thanks, Shamus.

  7. Danel says:

    Hmm, I’ve definitely enjoyed reading this series, and your comment about appreciating a different setting to the classic ‘medieval fantasy’ made me think of my MMO of choice, City of Heroes. Does everything in the list reasonably well except for looting, and also has a truly fantastic character designer for costumes – sometimes I’ll just make a character, not even to play, but just giving ’em a nice costume and stuff. Fun fun.

  8. Nick Pitino says:

    Thinking about the idea of Game-Play-Crack (or GPC as I now deem it) and there always being something around the corner to keep you going, I realize now I’m having the same problem with Wikipeida right now. I look at one page, open several links on it before I’m done, and the pit only keeps getting deeper. I tell myself that every link I click will be the last one and that I’ll just finish off the ones I have open.

    Right now I have 109 tabs open and no end in sight.

    For the record though, I am learning about all sorts of cool stuff like prefabricated metal Lustron houses, truss railroad bridges, Chinchillas, and economic facts about Dubai… o_O

    Anyway, while I may or may not end up regretting it I’m considering picking up this game just to see the spectacle first hand. If it’s really not doing as well as they say I should be able to pick it up out of the bargain-bin soon enough.

  9. Poet says:

    Well, since I haven’t pressed you on comics, I feel I should press on something else within my range of interest. And I shall press like a teenager going after a pimple on prom night.
    Do you have 4E yet, and how do you like it?

  10. AstroBoy says:

    You know what I would like? A review by you of Castle of the Winds. Some of you may have heard of it but It’s on old rogue like that I really enjoy that runs on windows 3.1 (or better)

    If anyone wants to check it out go here (author has made the second part freeware into which you can take your old character)

    http://www.exmsft.com/~ricks/

  11. gabs says:

    Just a quick sidenote, you can in fact find out quite easily how much damage your gun/sword/whatever exactly does.

    Pop up the weapon tooltip and almost at the top it’ll say (for example) 11-55 Fire Damage or something like that.

  12. Ian says:

    Astroboy: Holy cow, I used to play that game all the time. :o

    Thanks for the link, haha. I’ll have to give it another go. It’s been a while.

  13. Crystalgate says:

    I never found Diablo II addicting. The main problem for me was the repetitiveness of the combat. Most strong builds relied on one single or two strategies that were used for more than 99% of the battles. It was Whirlwind for the barbarian, Blessed Hammer + Smite for the paladin, Frozen orb or Firewall for the sorceress etc. The expansion made an attempt at fixing this problem by introducing immunities, but it rarely worked better than making some builds that previously relied on one strategy now rely on two instead.

    The big patch may have fixed that problem, but I doubt it.

    I suspect that those who got addicted by Diablo II has a higher “do the same stuff over and over” tolerance than I do.

    The ability to choose what I want to put my status points and skill points into was a great idea on paper, but in reality I found that I could either choose one of the common builds or gimp my character. This does to some extent hold true for all games that let you choose how to level up, but I have seen better attempts than Diablo II. Heck, even in the first Diablo I found that there were more consideration to where I should put my status points. All classes could make use of all stats.

    Still, looking at Shamus list (BTW, isn’t crafting a very minimal element in Diablo II?) I can see how others could have found it more addicting. I can also see how a failure in this point is damning for Hellgate London. A game which isn’t addicting has to be fun to play through at least once, but Hellgate London seemed to have failed here as well. Also, only an addicting game will get many to pay a monthly fee, if the game is simple fun the first time or the first few times the player will cancel the subscription once she/he is done with it. Left of Hellgate London is a near empty shell of what it could have been.

  14. Nathanael says:

    Nick Pitino: I am always playing this game too. For some real fun, try tvtropes.org :P

  15. guy says:

    shamus: this is all well and good, but i’d like a GalCiv major update, twilight of the arnor post. they do seriously werid stuff with buildings and tech trees, which i kinda like, but it involves nerfing the drengin hard. i like that less.

  16. […] needs. I’ve been following Shamus‘ episodic dissection of Flagship’s Hellgate: London, and for some reason I was reminded of my intentions to purchase Titan Quest once the price dropped […]

  17. houser2112 says:

    @Crystalgate: “Heck, even in the first Diablo I found that there were more consideration to where I should put my status points. All classes could make use of all stats.”

    Not really comparable.

    In Diablo I, each class had caps on certain ability scores. You could use levelup points or elixirs to increase your score up to the cap for your class, and only items could boost them beyond this.

    The Diablo I analog to Diablo II’s skills were the spells that each class had access to. All you needed to boost a spell was the magic stat requirement, and a book of that spell (either purchased or found).

    So, after a certain level, the only real difference between characters is gear selection because increasing spell strength didn’t require expending finite resources (skill points).

  18. Alexis says:

    I have to echo DGM that I didn’t find Diablo 2 as cracktastic as many seem to have. I played it through, with most classes, but I only hit hell with 1-2.

    The small number of abilities had a lot to do with that, none of the classes seemed quite complete in themselves. The assassin was the best, imho, a tricky mechanic to master with some self-healing.

    The tacstance is a great move. I don’t know if it’s original, but it’s certainly a very clever addition. I really liked the spectral spray ability of the evoker too, it’s extremely powerful if you choose your range right.

    I recommend Resistance: Fall of Man for some fun guns. The bullseye is straight out of Fifth Element, the sapper/biorifle from UT, but there’s a lot of originality there as well. Unfortunately PS3 exclusive.

  19. Nick Pitino says:

    Nathanael:

    Gah, there have been times in the past I’ve lost the entire DAY to that website. Of course, now that you’ve mentioned it I’m itching to go take a look.

    No! Resist!

  20. I’m hoping that they paid attention to what you had to say.

    At present, an Hellsgate II looks likely. They’ve fixed a lot of the problems with the level design in their subscription model (I just don’t feel like paying any more for the game), showing some hope.

    A real problem is that it seems they tried to do too much in too many areas at the same time and didn’t finalize the plot part until too late, with results that were crippling for English language players, not so bad in translation.

    One of the few times translation helped a game.

  21. Miral says:

    It’s funny you mention addictive gameplay. On Friday night I installed Dwarf Fortress (and a graphics tileset), just to give it a quick go and see what people have been talking about.

    Then suddenly it was Sunday evening and I’m wondering what happened to the weekend.

  22. lethal_guitar says:

    Fun fact: Hellgate London is mentioned in the book Real-Time Rendering for it’s sophisticated shadow rendering system[*]. So apparently it’s just the same problem you already mentioned several times on your blog: They spent too much time on graphics and not enough on gameplay. :)

    * Boring technical details, for those interested: There are three shadow maps. The first one adjusts to the current view and covers only animated objects. A second one covers a larger section, which is determined by dividing the current level into a grid, but contains only static objects. The third one contains every static object from the whole level. By combining these 3 shadow maps, nearby objects can have high resolution shadows without too much overall time/memory consumption. The grid section map is regenerated only when the player enters a new cell, so just the moving object’s shadow map has to be recreated each frame.

One Trackback

  1. By Narcissism Incorporated » Titan Quest on Sat Jun 14, 2008 at 9:48 am

    […] needs. I’ve been following Shamus‘ episodic dissection of Flagship’s Hellgate: London, and for some reason I was reminded of my intentions to purchase Titan Quest once the price dropped […]

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