Hellgate: London Review

Article Index

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Electronic Arts
Developer:Flagship Studios
Release Date:2007-10-31
  • Action,Massively Multiplayer,Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • First-Person,Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Hellgate: London is an action role-playing game from Flagship Studios, which, if you believe their press releases, is (the first, last and only voice in the world of action RPGs.) Flagship Studios gets to say things like this because they're made up of a lot of the people who developed Diablo II for Blizzard Entertainment, including Bill Roper, who was the Senior Producer, and David Brevik, who was the Project Lead.

The problem that Flagship faces in claiming to be a creative force is that even when Diablo II came out four years after the original Diablo, there were almost no other competitors, and so everything they did with Diablo II felt new and original. But these days there are action role-playing games all over the place, and it's a much tougher genre in which to stand out. And sadly, Hellgate: London does not stand out. Other than the setting, which I'll admit is kind of fun, it doesn't really do anything that players haven't seen dozens of times before. That doesn't make Hellgate: London a worthless game to play, but it certainly makes it disappointing.

The Campaign

Hellgate: London takes place in a near-future version of the world, where demons have invaded through special hellgates, and where humans have been reduced to hiding out where they can. The demons plan to convert the world into a mirror image of their own -- using a process called (the burn,) which, as the name implies, isn't especially healthy for the planet's original inhabitants -- but the humans haven't been able to make a dent in the demons' ranks because any loss they take is instantly replenished through the hellgates. After years of warfare, things have started to look a little grim for the humans, but that's when you step in to turn the tide.

The campaign that comes with Hellgate: London follows your path from a lowly level 1 character to a demon-killing machine. The campaign starts out with a science fiction approach to defeating the demons, as you endeavor to track down and help a Dr. Fawkes, but then things take a serious turn for the weird, and the campaign heads downhill, fast. I'm not sure if Flagship Studios thought they were making something lighthearted and funny, or if they figured that nobody really cares what the story is in an action role-playing game (and especially one with multiplayer aspirations) and so they didn't try very hard. Whatever their intent, the end result is a complete and utter disaster.

Little did I know when heading into the game that Truth is really a family of five, and that somehow talking to Truth and touching a Sigil five times would help me defeat demons. Honestly, I'd rather collect the Five Keys of Uber-Powerfulness and then use them against the demons. That RPG premise has been used as a story element so often that it almost seems sensible. Hellgate: London's story is just bizarre. It feels like Flagship Studios went to a local college, got the Philosophy Club stinking drunk, and then gave them an hour to come up with a plot outline.

Worse, the writing is atrocious. Everything about the game is taken seriously, with the demons presenting a devastating threat and London looking worn and beat up, but the NPCs act like they're in an Adam Sandler movie, and the juxtaposition is jarring. One human leader talks about how to store mayonnaise, another can't help swearing every other word, and one quest-giver actually gives this line:
(The cauldron is housed within the mysterious realm of Chocolate Park and is guarded by the ever vigilant Wall of Frosting.)
I've played some casual games where a sentence like that would make sense, but I never thought I'd see it in a major role-playing game release. Eventually I started skipping the dialogue as much as possible. All it did was kill the atmosphere.

The campaign, of course, also comes with a series of quests, but they don't really help matters. 90% of the quests involve the most basic of objectives -- (kill 10 zombies,) (find 8 zombie brains,) (kill the zombie boss,) and things like that -- and while the other 10% (generally the quests at the end of the campaign's five acts) are challenging and work pretty well, you have to spend hours slogging through the boring quests to get to them.

Hellgate: London's campaign takes about 60 hours to complete if you go everywhere and work your way through every quest. I'd argue that this is way too long for an action role-playing game where the story can be shortened or lengthened at will. If you have multiple classes and difficulty settings for people to try out, then 30 hours is just fine, because if the game is worth playing then people will put over 100 hours into it regardless. But Hellgate: London's campaign started to wear me down after a while (at around the 40-hour mark when all of the enemies and locations turn into repeats), and I was more than ready for it to be over by the time I got to the end.

One more thing about the campaign, and then I'll move on. I was a little bit disappointed that Flagship Studios didn't take better advantage of the setting. Supposedly some of the locations were modeled after their real-life counterparts, and you get to visit places like Piccadilly Circus and the British Museum, but I couldn't tell the difference. All of the locations looked the same (not to mention grey and bland) to me. I think the campaign would have been more fun if there had been a quest to clear the demons off the Tower Bridge, or to keep a demon from sabotaging Big Ben, or something like that. Other than the names of the locations, the campaign could have taken place in any anonymous city in the world.

Character Development

Once you get past the primarily single player aspects of Hellgate: London, the game starts looking better. Let me start with character development. In Hellgate: London you can select one of six character classes. The Templar include Guardians (sword and shield warriors) and Blademasters (dual-wielding warriors), the Cabalists include Summoners (summoning casters) and Evokers (damaging casters), and the Hunters include Marksmen (gunmen) and Engineers (gunmen with drones).

Each class gets 26-27 skills, which can be bought and upgraded with skill points. Characters get a skill point each time they gain a level, but they only advance their level about 30 times during the course of the campaign (and the level cap is only 50), but the skills can hold about 250 points in total, and so you can't sample and learn everything with one character, or even come close. That means you have to map out where you want to go early in the game, which isn't easy because the skills are somewhat complicated. There aren't many friendly passive skills, and sometimes the active skills conflict with each other.

As an example, Marksmen can learn the Sniper skill or the Tactical Stance skill. Both skills are active skills that give Marksmen a bonus when they fight without moving, but you can't use both at the same time, and so you have to choose one or the other. They can also choose between skills like Escape (which briefly turns them invisible), Explosive Grenade (which allows them to produce and throw fire grenades), Dead Eye (which increases their critical chance), and Rapid Fire (which improves their firing rate, but which can't be used with the Tactical Stance).

The first point in a skill usually gives the most benefit, encouraging players to spread out their points, but since skills are mostly active, you probably don't want to try and juggle a dozen of them, and so you also need to specialize a little. Conflicting motivations like that, plus skills that do similar things (for example, Marksmen get four grenade skills), mean that the classes aren't cookie cutters. Two characters of the same class aren't necessarily going to be anything alike, which is a good thing -- and which is also something that helps with replayability. Even if you only like one of the six classes, you might find a few different ways to build it up, and you might want to try them all out in the campaign.

Characters also get four attributes -- strength, accuracy, stamina and willpower -- that do about what you'd expect, but just to a lesser extent. For example, each point in strength only adds 1% to a character's melee damage, and each point in willpower only adds two to a character's power points (which are used for spells and skills). Characters get five attribute points per level plus a bunch of attribute points for completing quests, but you have to spread these points around pretty evenly because mostly what the attributes do is control what equipment you can wear, and these items tend to require all four attributes. For example, you can attach (mods) to weapons to improve their performance, but mods require willpower, and so everybody needs willpower.


The equipment in Hellgate: London is fairly standard. Characters get ten equipment slots (including a (dye kit) slot that changes your equipment color). An item can be rated as (enhanced,) (rare,) or (legendary) depending on how powerful it is. Items can have up to five bonuses, and weapons can also have up to seven mods attached. There are unique items, but there aren't any set items (or at least I didn't see any).

In fact, I only noticed two things of interest in the Hellgate: London equipment, one of which I liked and one of which I didn't. Let me start with the thing I didn't like: item levels. Each item has a level associated with it, and the level controls whether you can use it or not. That much is fine, but weapon mods also have levels, and while you can upgrade your weapons in the game (which increases their level), you can't upgrade mods, and if the level of the mod falls too much below the level of the weapon, then it stops functioning.

Mods don't really change during the course of the campaign. It's not like you find mods with small bonuses when you start out and mods with big bonuses at the end. The bonuses stay about the same (with randomness thrown in), and all that changes is their level, with the levels getting higher the farther you progress. That means when you're forced to replace mods, you're not really making your weapon any more or less powerful; you're just spending a lot of time and energy to maintain the status quo, and eventually I found this to be a little bit tedious. Why create a headache for players when it doesn't really change anything?

On the brighter side, I liked Hellgate: London's system for upgrading and breaking down equipment. It used to be that the only way to improve your gear in an action role-playing game was to continuously hunt down new equipment to replace your old equipment, but now there's starting to be a trend where games allow you to upgrade your equipment so that it doesn't need to be replaced. Hellgate: London gives you a few options in this regard.

For starters, equipment can be broken down into eight different components. Components can then be used with blueprints or special craftsmen merchants to create new items (this is the best way to acquire new mods), and they can also be used to increase the level of your equipment (which in turn increases the damage of weapons and the armor and shield ratings of worn items). But you can't just break everything down because you also need money. Money allows you to buy things, of course, which is always good when you need a few more health injectors or a personal relocation device, but it also allows you to add random bonuses to items, with the more money you spend resulting in better bonuses.

That means you need a lot of money and a lot of components, and so you always have to make a decision when you pick up some excess equipment (which is all the time). Do you sell it for money or do you beak it down for components? I took the lazy approach to this question and only broke down equipment when my inventory was full and I didn't want to return to a base yet. This kept me in the field longer, but it ended up giving me way more components than I could use, and so there are probably better answers out there. But regardless, the system gives you options, forces you to make decisions, and creates a working economy, which by my book is a pretty good trifecta.

The Interface

Hellgate: London can be played with an over-the-shoulder view or a first-person perspective. Melee characters have to use the over-the-shoulder view, and I know of at least one skill (Sniper) that requires a first-person perspective, but otherwise the choice is up to you, and the game seems to work pretty well either way. I used the over-the-shoulder view because I always like to see what my character is doing.

Given the available perspectives, the controls are about what you would expect. The WASD keys move your character and the mouse pointer steers and aims. Skills, spells, and weapons can be mapped to hot keys (including the Q and E keys) and the mouse buttons, in any way you want. There are also (battle sets) mapped to the F1-F3 keys, which allow you to quickly switch your weapons and the settings of the mouse buttons. For example, if you're playing a Guardian, then you might use one battle set for your sword and shield, and use another battle set for a ranged weapon. Meanwhile, if you're playing an Evoker, then you might change battle sets to switch which spells you have mapped to the mouse buttons.

There are also some context sensitive aspects to the interface using the shift and control keys. The shift key triggers a skill depending on the situation. If you're running, then it triggers the dash skill (which makes you run faster). If you're standing still then it might trigger your main battle stance, and if you're fighting then it might trigger a special attack. The details depend on the class you're playing, and you can also control which skills can be triggered. Similarly, the control key causes you to use a health injector if you're wounded, or a power injector if you're low on power. You don't have to use the context-sensitive keys if you don't want to (I mostly ignored them, except for dashing), but between them and the hot keys, you're given lots of ways to call up your skills and control your character.

The Engine

The engine for Hellgate: London is pretty slick, and it helps to make up for the unfortunate campaign. For starters, everything looks really good, from the huge variety of monsters to the various weapon effects (including a fairly cool representation of the shield surrounding your character) to the war-torn London locales. There are even some nice touches, like when you blow an arm or the head off a zombie, and it still shambles towards you, or when you encounter these strange floating creatures, and they damage you by teleporting through you.

The balance is also pretty good. There are lots of different monsters with lots of different attacks, and the maps and their contents are random, which means that some parts of the game are going to be easier or more difficult than others depending on the character that you're playing or the gear that you're wearing, but I never found the combat as a whole to be too easy or too difficult. It managed to maintain a happy medium, and I was able to get lost in the game from time to time, running around with my Marksman machine gunning everything in sight.

That being said, since the campaign is such a dog, I suspect that Hellgate: London works better as a multiplayer game, where you're just looking for some monsters to kill with your friends rather than a story to experience with them. The game also has some slowdown problems if you enter a room where too many enemies are trying to do too many things (one underground room in particular caused me all sorts of problems, and summoning creatures summon their minions so quickly that they can cause problems, too). No amount of fiddling with the graphics options did anything to fix this issue for me, and I have a decent enough rig. If you have an aging computer, then these sections of the game might be all but unplayable for you.


If a bunch of Blizzard employees move away from Blizzard and create their own developing house, do you still end up with a Blizzard game? Sadly, the answer is no. Hellgate: London is a nice game, but it's far from a great game, and it's easy to spot places where Blizzard would have done things better (even if you're not a fan of Blizzard's games, you have to recognize that they always create a friendly interface and take care of the bells and whistles).

As an example, almost none of the dialogue in the game is voice acted. Blizzard would have hired voice actors -- almost any developer releasing a $50 game would have hired voice actors. That Flagship Studios (or Electronic Arts) decided to pass on this has to be at least a little bit embarrassing for them. You can also look at something like weapon damage, which the game goes out of its way to hide from you. When was the last time you played an action role-playing game and you had no idea how much damage your weapon was doing? Never?

But Hellgate: London is playable and it's immersing, and I had a reasonable amount of fun during my time with it. It also has great graphics, a fun setting, and perhaps the best variety of enemies that I've ever seen in a game, but even so it didn't have enough content to support a 60-hour campaign (I doubt any action role-playing game ever will). My enthusiasm was dragging by the end, and I'm guessing that only those with a high threshold for grinding will really enjoy it. For others, you're probably best off sticking with BioShock or Titan Quest.