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:
- Exploration: Reach a new area, see new scenery.
- Leveling: Grow in power, acquire new abilities, earn new skill points, build your character.
- Looting: Find some better stuff. Find some treasure. Find a rare item.
- Story: Find out what happens next. Meet some new characters.
- Crafting: Gather raw materials and try to build something cool.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Story: It’s a joke. The story is so tedious and childish it acts as a sort of punishment for progressing.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
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