E3 2006: The RPGs

24 Aug 2006

Hellgate: London

In the summer of 2003, just as Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne was headed to retail, Blizzard Entertainment watched as many of the talented developers at Blizzard North left to pursue employment elsewhere. Included in the exodus were four key members: Erich Schaefer, Max Schaefer, David Brevik, and Bill Roper. Erich, Max, and David were the original founders of Blizzard North (or Condor, Inc., before Blizzard acquired them), and all four developers had a major role in the success of Diablo, Diablo II, and their expansions. Rather than just parting ways, the small team founded Flagship Studios and began work on a new action RPG called Hellgate: London. Since that time, the team has grown exponentially and now lists a total of sixteen original Diablo II developers. To put it into a better perspective, Flagship Studios more or less is Blizzard North, creators of the Diablo franchise.

This year’s E3 marked the very first time I was able to see Hellgate: London firsthand. The latest build of the game was up and running on the show floor at both Namco and NVIDIA’s booths, but it was next to impossible to sneak onto one of the computers given the amount of people waiting in line to give the game a try. Luckily, I had an appointment to see the game, so it wasn’t long before I was staring at a huge widescreen monitor with Erich and Max Schaefer ready to start the demonstration.

The demo started off in a small “town”, or hub, located below the city of London. With the city crawling with every type of demon imaginable, humans have been forced to find solace in whatever underground areas they can find. Max explains that the towns you’ll visit in Hellgate: London are persistent, meaning that they’re very similar to those you might see in a standard MMORPG. Players can meet up in a town to chat, assemble groups, trade items, and participate in a variety of other social activities. Once a player leaves the town, though, the server creates an instance and you and your group on your own. The team has yet to determine the optimum number of players per instance, which will largely depend on how the game’s multiplayer performance holds up during testing.

The game’s levels are randomly generated as players visit them, though the team has placed London’s major landmarks in somewhat static locations. The streets leading up to Big Ben, for example, will be randomly generated, but the clock tower itself will always stand in the relatively same location. Each of the game’s major regions contains a number of random “events” that may or may not be available to players each time they visit. These events can include anything from a side quest to a major battle, or both. The example I was shown featured a group of casters that needed the player’s help in finding a scroll so that they could complete a ritual of summoning. After finding the scroll, the group summons in a demon, and the player ends up having to do battle with it. These events are in addition to the game’s main objectives, though neither Erich or Max were willing to give too much away about the game’s primary storyline. What I did see in this instance, however, was a large hellrift that the player was tasked to destroy. I didn’t actually get to see what was beyond the hellrift, but Max explained that there was a “boss” monster inside that the player would have to destroy, after which a device would need to be planted that would ultimately close the rift.

For those players looking to compete with other nationally or even globally, you’ll be happy to learn that there will be some sort of ladder system introduced for the game. The current build of the game primarily focuses on cooperative multiplayer (and you cannot be hurt by friendly fire), but the team is not ruling out PvP just yet. A more important decision for them right now is to decide on how much of a death penalty to incorporate into the game. One option they’ve been tossing around is afflicting the character with some sort of resurrection sickness that would reduce the experience they gained for a period of time in half. For players who think such a penalty is too easy, though, the game will also feature a “Hardcore” difficulty setting. If a character dies while playing at this difficulty setting, they are gone for good. Adios. Sayonara.

If you’ve been following Hellgate: London for awhile, then you’re probably already familiar with the two classes that Flagship has announced so far – the Templar and the Cabalist. The Templar is a holy warrior of sorts that excels in the use of various ranged and melee weapons. The Cabalist, on the other hand, wields black magic and arcane weaponry when battling the demons. I didn’t actually get to see the Templar firsthand, unfortunately, as the E3 build was focusing on the recently unveiled Cabalist. All of the skills are still being hammered down, but from what I saw, the Cabalist seems to have an assortment of supernatural abilities and spells at their disposal. Using what appears to be some kind of focus orb, the Cabalist can launch bolts of energy that lock on to an opponent (or a group of opponent) and deliver some serious damage. They also have the ability to summon a small army of demons to their cause, though how many they’ll be able to control at once is still up in the air. As for announcing the game’s third class, Max tells me that “we need something to talk about next year.” After a little more questioning, though, he does confirm that the game will feature a handful of unique core classes (3-5) as opposed to a large selection (6-8) that tend to overlap one another.

Moving further into the demo, our character receives a video transmission on their PDA-like device that another soldier is holed up nearby and needs help. It’s here that Erich and Max point out that the most important words in any dialogue will always be displayed in bold so that the player can understand what they need to do for the next task simply by skimming through the bolded text. Additionally, I’m told that any event like this will always show up on the automap so that you can easily navigate to the next destination, though that feature hasn’t been implemented into the game yet. Erich leads the character through a nearly pitch black level, fighting hordes of demons the whole way. It’s at this point that I realize how well the game seems to work in both first-person and third-person view. In a game like Oblivion, I’ve always felt more comfortable playing from a first-person viewpoint, but I’m not so sure that will be the case in Hellgate: London. With the ability to zoom out a considerable distance and lock on to monsters simply by firing in their general direction, the game’s third-person view actually looks a little easier to handle and will most likely be the camera view of choice for veteran action RPG players. As we approach the area where the soldier is holed up, Erich decides to switch to a HARP Pistol capable of freezing enemies while the weapon in his offhand lays waste to them. He tells me that there are at least 100 base weapon types, with a large number of legendary, unique, mutant, and broken versions of each. To make a weapon more powerful, you can also add different modifications to them, including relics, rockets, fuel mods, and tech mods. These mods are interchangeable at any time, so you won’t lose a valuable mod if you decide to change weapons.

When the demo finished, the two brothers were willing to answer a few more of my questions. As I mentioned above, the team is planning to release news about the game into 2007, so it’s unlikely that we’ll be playing it anytime this year. The infrastructure they’ll be using for the game’s multiplayer is still being worked on, but I’m told that it will have 24-hour live customer support. There will also be more than one online hub for players to congregate in, and the team is planning to implement some sort of auction system within the game so that item trading doesn’t need to happen elsewhere. Finally, for those of you who like collecting items, I’m also told that each character will have a “stash” where equipment can be stored, much like we saw in Diablo II.

I was a little worried that Hellgate: London was focusing too much on action and not enough on RPG, but my time with the game at E3 eased my fears. Between the large number character customization options, detailed skill trees, story-driven quest system, and an arsenal of modifiable high-tech and arcane weaponry at your disposal, Flagship looks to be implementing more role-playing elements in Hellgate: London than we saw in the Diablo franchise. If the team is able to implement all of the features they have planned and give the whole thing a nice coat of polish when they’re finished, we just might forget all about a Diablo III. But then I suppose it would eventually turn into an insatiable need for a Hellgate: New York, wouldn’t it?