I’m going to do the inverse of my normal review process: I’m going to talk at [excruciating] length about the problems and failures within the game, but I’ll have one post at the end where I talk about what works. This is not because the game is horrible. It’s not, really. I’ve certainly paid more for worse. I’m just focusing on this game because of the contrast between what this team has accomplished in the past and what they achieved this time around.
As much as I despise the lumbering engine of idiocy that is EA, I don’t think it’s fair to lay blame for this mess at their feet and walk away. I’d love for another chance to excoriate my favorite villains, but this game was in the oven for five years. EA came in and dumped a bunch of money into the thing, without which it never would have seen the light of day. Certainly pushing a game out before it’s ready is a crime EA has perpetrated without shame in the past, but I don’t think we can charge them with impatience this time around. Particularly since, eight months after release, the thing is still far short of “baked to perfection”.
But even if we want to charge EA with the crime of short-sighted premature launching, that doesn’t excuse most of the problems I see with the game. There are fundamental mistakes in the design of this thing that go beyond a simple lack of testing and debugging. I still think the folks at Flagship Studios are a talented bunch, but they made some mistakes here that teach us a bit about what things must be like inside the gruesome sausage factory we call the videogame industry.
What we have is a group of people with proven talent and an obvious love for the games they make who nevertheless fell far short of their potential. I’m going to have a longer-than-usual series of longer-than-usual posts where I try and sort this out. People say they like my in-depth analysis? We’ll just see about that. My blatherings on this game are likely to wear out the pixels on your monitor.
Of course bugs are a joy-killer, and Hellgate has more than its share. Even eight months after release the thing has visual glitches, crashes, stuttering slowdowns, clipping problems, dropped sound effects, missing visual effects, broken quests, hit detection issues, etc. Contrast this with Diablo II, where I don’t remember having a single bug, ever. I think in all my years spent playing it the thing might have crashed on me twice.
The worst bug is the simply unacceptable performance I’m getting out of the game. I’m well within the system requirements, I’ve got all the visual settings set to minimum, and I still get times when the game drops to a single frame a second. The way I have the visuals set, the game looks like something from 2002 or so. Now, I have no problem whatsoever with “dated” visuals – the game looks good to me even at these low settings, but I should not be having slowdown issues when it looks like this. (The particle engine is a very obvious culprit. Things slow down whenever there is a moderate amount of stuff flying around. Come to think of it, this could also be the fault of the physics engine. Either way, it sucks.)
An obvious area of annoying slowdown is with the tooltips that pop up for various items. There is a half-second pause before the tooltip appears. If you’re waving your mouse over your inventory comparing items this can be very bad. There is no reason for a hitch to be happening here. What on earth is it doing? In a game that focuses on collecting, buying, selling, trading, upgrading, modifying, and identifying new items, the part of the game where you look at items needs to work smoothly.
Reducing the resolution doesn’t mitigate these problems, which makes me suspect this has nothing to do with graphics hardware at all. It’s just not spending CPU cycles wisely.
Suggestion: Stop adding new stuff and fix these bugs.
I love the idea of a first-person shooter where you can level up, but the FPS aspect of Hellgate doesn’t really behave like a modern FPS. There’s no weapon reloading, no ammo management, and there isn’t a lot of incentive to maintain lots of different weapons. Just grab the gun with the highest damage output and hold down the fire button until everyone stops moving. This “Serious Sam” approach to combat would be acceptable if the combat itself was interesting and the weapons were fun to use.
Enemy projectiles pass through foes and some scenery, so you can’t use cover or maneuver around enemies to your advantage. You’re never sure how your projectiles will behave when they strike something. Shoot at a table and it treats the table like a solid cube that blocks projectiles. Shoot the chair and it blows up. Shoot a different bit of furniture and your bullets go right through it.
Even when scenery does stop projectiles, it doesn’t break enemy line-of-sight, which means foes will sit on the other side of a wall, endlessly blasting away at the wall trying to hit you.
The controls are poorly implemented. If you use the numpad like I do, be warned that the game will not let you re-map the numpad enter key. If you accidentally press it, it brings up the chat line, which is a very dangerous thing to have happen in combat. (You stop moving and all your keypresses go into chat.) If you were online this weekend, you may have seen me. I was the guy typing “32846*/-+.0444” into chat whenever he got into a fight with a boss.
It will let you re-map the numpad slash, but it won’t actually let you use it, since that also brings up the chatline. It also doesn’t differentiate between the home / delete / pgup / pgdn keys on the keypad and those on the main keyboard, which means you can’t assign different functions to those different keys.
When using guns, there are no “splatters”, no scorch marks, no bullet holes or damage decals. The weapon sounds lack punch. These guns just aren’t very fun to shoot, and it doesn’t really feel like you’re hitting the enemy with something. Firing a gun doesn’t feel very different from just clicking on a monster in Diablo II.
And finally, the FPS system lacks proper damage feedback. If an off-screen enemy strikes you from behind in a modern FPS, there are a bunch of audio and visual clues to let you know you were hit, and where:
- The view will “kick”. (It will act like someone struck the camera, shaking it just a bit.)
- There will be a red flash on the edges of the screen to indicate you’re taking damage.
- There will be some sort of direction indicator to tell you which way you need to turn to face the enemy.
- The impact will make a sound.
- Often the shield or health bar will flash for a second or so after being hurt.
Hellgate doesn’t have any of these cues. Many times I noticed my health was mysteriously dropping. I’d turn around to see a zombie standing there, snarling and waving his arms. (Attacking me.) Their “attack” sound is the only cue you get, and it’s easily lost in the din. It’s also pretty much the same as their “dying” sound, and their “I see you” sound.
Suggestion: “First person” means a lot more than just placing a camera in the character’s head. FPS gameplay has evolved many conventions over the years, and designers ignore these conventions at their peril. Play some doom, fight a few zombies, and take note of all the numerous cues and tricks the game will use to sell the fiction that you’re really walking, running, jumping, and shooting.
One of the major complaints with the game is that “it all looks the same”. I think the major mistake they made was making the levels too random. I had the same problem with Fate.
In Diablo, you’d have several areas in a row that all shared the same basic scenery components. You’d have several levels of “plains”, then a couple hours of “monastery”, then a few of “desert”, and so on. About the time you got truly sick of one, you broke through into the next. This created a sense of accomplishment and travel.
But in Hellgate you see nearly all of the different areas within the first hour of play. The game is out of visual rewards at that point. You never feel like you’re going anywhere because the stuff you see at twenty hours into the game looks exactly like the stuff you saw in the first hour of the game. It’s the same few dungeon motifs, populated by increasingly higher-level versions of the same monsters you’ve been fighting.
Suggestion: It would have been better to have the areas around each station follow a particular theme. One would have the sewer levels, another would lead to the city streets, another the boiler room / basement stuff. This would drive players forward, because they’d be eager to see what the next area is.
Here is a 13 part series where I talk about programming games, programming languages, and programming problems.
Juvenile and Proud
Yes, this game is loud, crude, childish, and stupid. But it it knows what it wants to be and nails it. And that's admirable.
A look at the main Borderlands games. What works, what doesn't, and where the series can go from here.
Fixing Match 3
For one of the most popular casual games in existence, Match 3 is actually really broken. Until one developer fixed it.
The Game That Ruined Me
Be careful what you learn with your muscle-memory, because it will be very hard to un-learn it.