In the wake of Diablo and Diablo II, the point-and-click action role-playing games that let you hack your way through hordes of monsters, there really haven't been many followers. Until now. The year 2005 has already marked the appearance of a few new action RPGs, and there are several more in the works. It's fitting that one of them will be from the original creators of the Diablo series, who have set up a new shop at Flagship Studios. Their game is Hellgate: London, a hack-and-slash game that takes place in a postmodern version of London, England, after a catastrophic demonic invasion, and, unusually enough, plays from a first-person perspective (or a third-person, behind-the-back view). Some time ago, we had a chance to get our hands on the game once more, to take a closer look at it. Here's what we found.
Though the game will offer several different playable character classes, the only character class that has been unveiled at this time is the templar class--sort of a paladin or holy warrior, with ties to the ancient and secret society known as the Knights Templar. The templar class can use the game's many firearms, as well as melee weapons. The profession seems to specialize in two specific areas: "dual-wielding" a weapon in either hand, and conjuring magical auras that can either strengthen the templars and their allies or put their enemies at a disadvantage.
We played through an early version of one of the game's first few levels, which takes place in and around a London subway station that has been converted to a makeshift templar camp. In the game, you'll meet non-player characters (NPCs) who can give you quests to perform, buy and sell items, and even appear as civilians on the battlefield who must be rescued and escorted to safehouses. Interacting with characters is as simple as walking up to them and clicking on them; our first mission was given to us by a Commander Brandon, who ordered us to go topside and destroy a "hellrift," through which demons were still emerging. Like a first-person shooter, the game uses the W, A, S, and D keys to let you move and the mouse to attack and use your special abilities. The game's interface we saw may not be indicative of the final game, but the version we played also offered a row of special abilities at the bottom of your screen that could be activated either by clicking on the individual icons, or by selecting them as the "active" ability to be used with the mouse.
The game's combat and control scheme seem extremely intuitive and very easy to get into. The left mouse button controls your primary attack, while the right mouse button controls your character's off-hand. If you're using a souped-up, two-handed trident launcher particle rifle, you'll simply target your enemies (either by pointing your cursor at them or cycling through them with the tab key) and left-click to fire. However, if you're using melee weapons, you might prefer to play in third-person view (which can be switched to simply by zooming out slightly), them hammer the mouse buttons to attack. Dual-wielding melee weapons seems like a risky prospect out of the gate, but templars are very much frontline fighters who focus on close combat. As we found, they can even viably fight with a gun in one hand and a melee weapon in another; a harpoon weapon can be used to seize and drag faraway enemies up close, after which you can pummel them in melee. Though our starting templar was able to procure only the humblest of weapons, such as small energy-based spike bolter handguns and wooden cricket bats, Hellgate: London will offer a huge armory of randomized weapons that will feature open sockets into which you can add various customizations that you can either purchase or find from defeated monsters.
Hellgate: London's characters will have a full list of attributes like accuracy, stamina, and willpower, as well as resistance to special attacks based on physical, fire, electrical, spectral, and toxic enemies; but its most in-depth feature will probably be its skills. There will be a huge number of skills in the game's open-ended skill trees, which will be different for each class. The templar, for instance, in the version we played, had skill trees in "divinity" (aura powers focused on enhancing a templar's combat ability), "assault" (directly damaging aura powers), and "defense" (which increases a templar's effective armor rating and health regeneration). We managed to gain a few experience levels in our time with the game (the process seemed very fast-paced) and invested a few points in certain skills. But as Flagship's Bill Roper reiterated, unlike in the Diablo games, no skills will be "capped" at a certain level, nor will any skills become obsolete over time; you can continually improve any skill you prefer, to keep it competitive against the increasingly powerful foes you'll face in the game.
Our mission itself went well enough, and was marked by the utter waste of many, many hellish monsters, such as zombie-like flesh eaters and fire-breathing, four-legged stalkers. The game seems extremely fast-paced and, at first, a bit like an arcade-style first-person shooter, because you're dashing about so quickly and blasting away at everything that moves. However, we realized quickly that our manual aim wasn't as important as dodging incoming enemy attacks or managing our character's health and magic power levels, similar to Diablo, and soon, we were laying waste to enemies, picking up their loot, and moving on to the next challenge, like the classic action RPGs of old. And like those games, Hellgate: London will offer plenty of pleasant surprises in terms of randomized content--not only in items, but enemies (that are appropriate in strength to your character's level and to the environment, but may not always be the same every time you visit), and even environmental fixtures, like magical shrines, which offer temporary power bonuses to your character, just like in the Diablo games. We were able to keep track of our position and our active quests using our character's PDA--the game's all-in-one interface that keeps track of all information and also acts as a minimap.
Hellgate: London seems as though it will offer plenty of highly accessible, fast-paced hacking and slashing, plus a lot of addictive, metagame content in the form of customizable weapons and skill development that should keep hardcore players busy discussing strategies, even when they're not playing the game. And they'll be playing the game...when it's done, though Roper has assured us that we won't have to wait longer than it takes for an average high school student to graduate. Stay tuned to GameSpot for further updates on this promising game.