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Review: Hellgate: London

Adam LaMosca | 13 Nov 2007 21:00
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Though Hellgate looks very good at full detail settings, it's no graphical powerhouse. What it does do exceptionally well is render an incredible array of colorful onscreen combat effects. There's a huge visual payoff to upgrading your character, as new abilities and attacks are typically accompanied by gratifying visual results. It's remarkably rewarding to wade into combat with weaponry that creates seas of fire, pummels enemies with sparkles of electricity, and fills the air with clouds of poison. Hellgate also features some inventive and impressive enemies. Foes almost always attack on sight, but they often do so with style, swooping in from above or leaping forward in droves.

Hellgate's multiplayer component populates stations with other players, so hub areas feel lively and there are always others to interact, trade, or party up with. Once you leave the hub, it's just you and your party members in an instanced environment. Partying up is a relatively simple process that can accommodate up to five players. You can play the entire game online without ever interacting with another player, however. You can also play the game offline, as an essentially identical singleplayer experience. In order to curtail potential cheaters, Flagship won't let players move your singleplayer characters online, or vice-versa.

A number of common MMORPG headaches are mercifully absent from Hellgate. Its instanced structure ensures that you'll never have to wait in line for a boss or item to respawn. Monsters who drop key quest items apparently have 100 percent spawn and drop rates, so there's no tedious wandering and farming to complete quests. Though not all item drops are worth equipping, every single armor, mod, and weapon can be broken down into component parts and traded for high-level crafted goods in stations. And multiplayer loot distribution is handled by the game, so there's no quibbling over important drops.

There's plenty to love about Hellgate. Unfortunately, it has its share of inexplicably bad design choices, mostly related to the interface. Other players can only be added to your friend list if their character is logged in at that moment, for example. There's an aggravating lack of inventory space, necessitating constant reshuffling of items. In addition, the immovable, ugly chat panel covers up a key portion of quest windows when open.

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And then there are the bugs. Hellgate is already a significantly better game than it was two weeks ago, when the lion's share of reviewers and players justifiably bemoaned its numerous technical flaws. With a series of patches and some new video drivers, my own Hellgate experience has gone from borderline broken to just moderately frustrating since release. I still encounter occasional game-crashing memory leaks, infrequent screen lockups triggered by inventory actions, and odd bugs like one that renders fellow party members invisible. But it's getting better, and Flagship has openly acknowledged and expressed a commitment to fix the known problems. Time will tell, but if the past two weeks are any indication, existing problems may be resolved sooner rather than later.

I'm most skeptical about Hellgate's subscription service. While the retail game is playable online for free, it limits players to only three online characters. A $9.99 monthly subscription provides perks like more characters slots and increased in-game item storage. Subscribers are also promised exclusive content, including event-themed items, pets, and quests, and later on, access to new character classes, areas, raid instances, and more. Ongoing reports of subscription headaches (including billing errors and an inability to access exclusive content) are still cause for concern, however, and whether Flagship will deliver worthwhile subscriber content remains to be seen.

Hellgate's obviously premature release earned a lukewarm critical reception that, given numerous recent bug fixes, may already be undeserved. Even in its current state, it's an appealing, rewarding, and addictive game. With a bit more fine-tuning its out-of-the box online component would be well worth the retail price. Were Flagship to completely iron out the wrinkles and start delivering some genuinely interesting exclusive content, Hellgate's subscription service could eventually become a no-brainer.

Adam LaMosca lives in Portland, Oregon. When he's not stringing words together for The Escapist, he's shuffling paperwork over at Gamers With Jobs. His personal website is lowspec.com.

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