Not Forgotten – Hellgate: London | The First Looter Shooter By Ex-Diablo Devs

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If I talked up a first person RPG set in a
futuristic wasteland, that had tons of randomly generated weaponry, armor and equipment, unique
character classes, and lots of replayable content, you’d swear the “looter shooter”
I was referring to was Borderlands, or maybe Destiny. Well then, what if I told you that the game
I’m talking about had all those features, more unique classes, plus the addition of
randomly generated dungeons, multiplayer hubs, and a competitive PvP arena and came out two
full years before Borderlands, and was headed by the creators of the Diablo series? Crazy, right? As some may already be familiar, the story
of Hellgate: London is a curious one, namely the story of its development, it’s vast potential,
demise, and multiple rebirths. With a fascinating setting of magic, high-tech
guns, laser swords and demons, how could such a promising game with this level of talent
behind it fail and descend into obscurity, only for the same concepts to be used in future
games and praised as such, just months later? I’m now going to do my best at dissecting
what Hellgate did right and arguably better than it’s contemporaries, while I also do
a bit of sleuthing to see why it failed to grasp the attention, reception and audience
it deserved. The setting of Hellgate is roughly what you’d
get if you plucked a Diablo-like conflict of humans fighting against demons invading
a fantasy world, and placed it in a real-world Terminator-like future setting. Using to the fullest your arsenal of machine
guns, laser swords, magic spells and summoning against zombies, demons and Lovecraftian nether-beings
that inspire horror and hatred. The Blizzard-quality intro cinematic is both
exciting and a great way to slam you right into the setting of the game. The interesting mix of ancient evil, universe
origins and a hellish apocalypse through the ruins of London is an inspired one and teases
the depth and potential of the setting which even licensed multiple novels and comics set
in the Hellgate universe. The rich lore and potential of the series
was perpetuated through the six unique character classes from three factions: The Templars are holy warriors adorned in
high-tech knight-like armor and offer two subclasses: The Guardian — focusing on defensive
abilities and wielding a great shield, and the Blademaster — a dual-wielding attack-focused
warrior who can utilize ranged weaponry as well. The Hunters are the title given to a rag-tag
non-faction of survivors, scientists and mercenaries. The Marksman being a subclass dedicated to
evasion, guns, and accuracy, whereas the Engineer is less focused on ranged attacks but can
create debuff drones and attack robots. The Cabal offer up the Evoker subclass which
can utilize focus items to weaponize magic in brute force attacks, as well as the Summoner,
who conjures elementals and monsters to fight alongside them. In these classes you will notice definite
shades of Diablo II’s Paladin, Necromancer and other classes — which is a warm welcome
to those who miss the distinct flavors of character that game delivered — and are disappointed
in the recent lack of summoner classes in Action RPGs. You probably wouldn’t know this unless you
read the lore from the expanded material, but the game’s fiction and setting is compelling. Throughout history, there has been a war with
the demons, and so the Freemasons along with the Templars built a labyrinth of underground
tunnels under London as early as the 17th century, and imbued them with special power
to ward off the hellish legion. Centuries later, this became the London Underground,
and so in the game’s setting of 2038, subway stations are the only sanctuaries from the
demons. The game has a great soundtrack which is fairly
subtle a lot of the time, and ranges from gothic orchestral cues to guitar riffs, then
breaking down to techno tracks during combat. When maxing the game out in its then-groundbreaking
DirectX 10 mode, the game at times looks breathtaking — and that’s saying a lot considering the
innovation, hardware power and new technology introduced over the past decade. From unsettling quadrupedal vermin to ominous
dimensional portals, from towering demons to the downright eldritch beings silently
but threateningly floating above you in outdoor areas. There is a bleak and sinister atmosphere to
it all, and despite having lackluster face models and inventory item graphics, holds
up surprisingly well today. Hellgate plays like a different game depending
on your character class. Should you play a melee-focused character,
the game handles more like Gothic, The Witcher or the later Dragon Age games. You don’t get a ton of abilities to start
with, but as you develop and expand your equipment, you will master builds such as a sword and
grapple gun combo — where you can pull enemies toward you and pummel them, dual wielding,
or the classic sword and shield for added defense. This leads to one of the game’s most ambitious
features as well as one of its biggest hurdles for new players. When you boot up the game, you are either
presented a behind-the-camera perspective for melee, or you get a 1st- or 3rd-person
shooter control scheme and feel. And you will likely hate gun combat, and think
melee combat is dull and repetitive. At first. You see, Hellgate is, at its core, a Diablo-like
hack ‘n’ slasher presented and controlled like a first person shooter. The later, more successful takes on the genre
were developed as a first person shooters with RPG elements, not the other way around. This makes an even stronger case when you
look at who developed these games. Borderlands was made by long-time shooter
vets Gearbox. Destiny was Bungie’s stab at the genre, oddly
enough both devs worked on iterations of Halo games. Shadow Warrior 2 took a lot of cues from these
games, and that developer has made nothing but shooters. The developer of Hellgate was formed from
the creators of Diablo and Diablo II out of the ashes of Blizzard North, so it is no surprise
then that it was designed as a hack and slasher first, shooter second. Shooting in Hellgate felt like lighting fireworks
at times, rather than landing impactful hits. Most guns don’t even recoil, but simply expand
your reticule a bit. The few guns that DO have recoil do it in
the worst way ever, with sort of a low-fps shaky cam effect. It simply doesn’t feel as kinetic as the over-the-top
chaos of Borderlands, or the zipping and slicing of Shadow Warrior. Say what you want about Destiny’s lack of
content or campaign variety, the actual shooting mechanics are top-notch. Guns have a kick, headshots give a satisfying
“pop”, and all indicators and UI are fine-tuned to meet your expectations. Many years of technology and experience helped
expand that gap as well. Put simply: Hellgate was a bad Shooter. But if you look at as an Action RPG in “shooter
clothing”, it’s one of the better examples of the genre. Once you really sink your fangs into Hellgate,
you realize just how much the game IS Diablo. And I’m not talking about the cute references
to Wort, Charged Bolt and other series tropes, but almost every mechanical aspect of the
game. Town portals, identify scrolls, health and
mana potions, status ailment cures, socketables and random magic item properties. Skill trees with branching paths and multiple
viable builds, this time with Skill Synergies — which make each point you put into abilities
affect all other abilities of that type, which makes progression less wasteful and more meaningful. Hellgate brings the customizable action bar
into full force with 14 mappable functions for health, mana and buff consumables, and
active abilities, rather than the later looter shooters’ simplification into just one or
two active abilities. You’ll notice that attributes have a Dark
Souls-like weight system, in which each piece of equipment has attribute requirements which
stack with each other. So for example, you wouldn’t be able to use
both the strength-heavy weapon AND armor, so you may have to use one or the other until
levelling up — and the character screen tracks this and shows you which attributes are near
full capacity. One huge feature that this game offers over
just about any other game in the genre is its procedurally generated maps. In replaying the beginning of the game several
times for this video, I noticed big differences in each playthrough of the same dungeon, the
way it was laid out and the monster types and quantities inside. There would also be rare creatures and even
mini-bosses which appear throughout hostile areas, keeping you on your guard. It’s all there. All of it. Hellgate is sort of the Diablo that never
was once you pull the curtain back. And when you do, it’s great. What ultimately killed the game after release
is difficult to pin down exactly. It’s launch was riddled with high system requirements,
technical issues and a very bad start on the multiplayer front, but probably the most egregious
decision was the late-development switch to an MMO-subscription style business model. This all but crippled the online community
for what was really a single-player-focused game, without the vast scale, community, moderation
or social features one would expect in an actual MMO. Allegedly, the complicated co-publishing agreement
between EA and Namco Bandai led to poor planning and it was claimed that a huge amount of cancelled
pre-orders were the result of the MMO-like fee announcement. Hellgate also came out at a time of fast-growing
popularity of the 7th generation of consoles. In the late 2000’s the unfortunate reality
was that for a game to do really well financially, you’re generally going on the Xbox 360, or
you’re World of Warcraft. One big turnoff for some players could be
the initial presentation of the game. After a great intro cinematic, you’re dropped
into an unresponsive on-screen tutorial with no voice acting, compelling story cues or
initial purpose. Classes that start with slow-firing and weak
guns have unfulfilling early-game combat, and NPCs are fairly dull, as are many of the
methods of storytelling used in the game. This issue has been a bugbear for me since
the advent of MMO-style design and is not unique to Hellgate, but “rigor mortis NPCs”
that just stand there with punctuation marks above their heads get really stale. But combined with long streams of mostly unengaging
written dialogue with only an unrelated voice quip here or there makes conversations fall
flat. This may have been a side effect of the MMO-like
design, which de-emphasizes NPCs but instead focus on larger areas with the intent of players
filling the silence, walking around, interacting and adding life to the environment. Without those other players though, it all
seems so stagnant. Sterile, even. The procedural generation was also a point
of contention too, as not quite enough building tiles and texture sets were used, leading
many areas to feel very samey after a while, with little to interact with or fill them. The absence of Diablo’s shrines, book rooms
and other random props is noticed, and you will start recognizing room sets after a while
— which is disappointing as this was intended to make maps unpredictable. Another missed opportunity was to add more
barriers, verticality, stairs and open ceilings to the corridor-based maps, which makes some
combat arenas completely flat — almost questioning why this game wasn’t a top-down Action RPG
at all if they weren’t going to take advantage of what a 3rd dimension can bring to the table. Despite the rough launch and fiscal demise
of the developer, there is an unusually dedicated fanbase, and clearly a lot of people really
“got” and truly enjoyed the game. This is proven by Hanbitsoft’s authorized
redevelopment and re-release of the game for South Korean audiences in 2009 (dubbed Hellgate
London: Resurrection). It was met with community praise but North
America only got to play it through their beta phase. 2011 saw the game enter a free-to-play business
model. In 2014, the game was revived again, this
time with a rebranding of the game as Hellgate: Global, and there were big plans announced
along with it, including a Tokyo expansion and a new difficulty mode. Sadly, early 2016 was witness to what seemed
like the franchise’s final death in the form of Hellgate: Global’s servers shutting down,
and the game never making it to the Steam storefront, despite getting greenlit with
a lot of player interest (which, had it been released, would have resulted in a much-needed
boon to its player base). In summary, Hellgate was the victim of a rushed
production schedule, complications from co-publishers meddling with the product, and a parasitic
subscription fee. I truly believe that had the company had a
few more months of spit, polish and QA, omitted the shoehorned online fees, and instead grew
a nuanced, organic multiplayer community, we may have been playing Hellgate 2 or even
3 by now. Who knows? There is a lot to love in this game if you
dig under the unintuitive and initially buggy release that it was. And it’s sad that we won’t get to venture
into the damned hellscape of London to go demon-bashing again…at least not officially. Yup, after the repeated death throes and resuscitations
of the game have long passed, members of the same team who made an unofficial “Revival”
update years ago are back at it again to make London 2038 – a full resurrection of the game
with content like the Abyss and Stonehenge expansions, previously available only to paying
subscribers. This fan reassembly of the game will put Hellgate
— in its finest form yet — back online through the power of fan’s love and dedication to
the game. It’s in development and alpha testing at the
time of this video’s release, so go check it out! So even when all hope is lost, there still
might be a chance to play the game in a new form, online with other players, in as close
to a form as was originally intended. For fans of the original game or newcomers
who didn’t have a chance to play it but wanted to, this is your latest and possibly final
chance to step into the apocalyptic ruins of future London and hunt demons once more. So that was my take on Hellgate: London, what
it innovated, and why it ultimately failed. But more importantly, why it should be remembered,
not forgotten. I hope you enjoyed my video, and I would love
to hear what you think. Were you an old-school Hellgate: London player,
or like me did you jump into the game too late to play it online? Or maybe you’re only now finding out about
this flawed gem? Let me know in the comments. I want to thank my Patreon supporters for
helping make this possible. If you would like to become a Patron and help
me make more videos like this one, click the Patreon icon at the end of the video. Please consider subscribing if you’d like
to get my latest content as soon as it’s posted. And thank you for watching.

11 comments

  1. London 2038 (fan multiplayer reboot) is now available (retail copy of Hellgate required): https://london2038.com/
    A single-player version of Hellgate: Global was also re-released on Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/939520/

  2. I WAS one of the admirers of this game, especially since j had been desperately waiting for diablo 3 back in the day.

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