Hellgate London sucks

There was a time in the last six months when my wife and I need­ed a break from the World of War­craft. I keep up on the gam­ing inter­nets and came across news that a for­mer project leader (Bill Rop­er) had left Bliz­zard and went to found his own com­pa­ny (Flag­ship Stu­dios). This com­pa­ny’s first game is Hell­gate Lon­don (HGL), a top-tier online mul­ti­play­er game in the spir­it of Dia­blo, by the pro­duc­er of Dia­blo. It’s post-apoc­a­lyp­tic, mag­ic-using, gun-shoot­ing, demon-fight­ing. It’s lev­el­ing up and get­ting bet­ter gear. When I list it here, it STILL sounds like a no-lose prospect.

After try­ing the beta, we were skep­ti­cal due to the amount of bugs. We did­n’t have a lot of expe­ri­ence with beta ver­sions, so we believed the com­pa­ny’s con­stant reas­sur­ances that they were iron­ing those bugs out. We fig­ured this must be how it’s done. So my wife and I each got the Col­lec­tor’s Edi­tion of HGL, because the CE came with a minipet and we’re suck­ers for minipets. My best friend did, too. We’re all gamers, we were look­ing for­ward to dive into a new game that we could all play togeth­er.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, HGL sucked.

I could go into great detail explain­ing why it sucks, but to choose one icon­ic exam­ple, any­time you have around a 50% chance to lock up your machine (not your game, your machine) from ascend­ing an esca­la­tor in the main city that you are fre­quent­ly required to pass through… you should look into delay­ing the release of the game. This is just one prob­lem of maybe 100 that were painful­ly obvi­ous and stu­pid, and direct­ly impact­ed game­play. I start­ed to keep a list, but gave up.

I’m sure there are many rea­sons that the game was released long before it was ready… no offi­cial word from the com­pa­ny, of course. From them, we got impas­sioned let­ters (now offline) to the com­mu­ni­ty along the lines of “Seri­ous­ly, we’re work­ing as hard as we can to fix this!” How­ev­er, their best inten­tions don’t mean that this pile of incom­plete game frag­ments was wor­thy of trad­ing for my per­fect­ly func­tion­al pile of cash.

The game had fre­quent crash­ing, bugs of all kinds (game­play, net­work, ui, game bal­ance, con­trols, video, audio, you name it) that make it unplayable. An exam­ple: there’s a char­ac­ter class called Engi­neer which is the design cousin of a Marks­man. A Marks­man is your gener­ic first-per­son shoot­er. The Engi­neer is just like the Marks­man, except less effec­tive but to com­pen­sate they get a robot pet whose equipment/upgrades van­ish every time you log out… and a base­line pet has mar­gin­al util­i­ty. Whoops! Ha ha. They had­n’t got to fix­ing that by the time I left, which tells you some­thing of the sever­i­ty of oth­er prob­lems they had going on.

Mean­while, the com­pa­ny con­tin­ued to say tan­ta­liz­ing things about upcom­ing fix­es (yay!) while try­ing to suck­er peo­ple into their sub­scrip­tion scheme (what?!). Rule of thumb: don’t ask for more mon­ey until you’ve deliv­ered on what you orig­i­nal­ly sold.

And speak­ing of the sub­scrip­tion: halfway through a hor­ri­ble launch of an obvi­ous­ly unfin­ished game, with huge, obvi­ous bugs that pre­vent the basic play­ing of the game, HGL com­i­cal­ly bar­reled ahead with their first sub­scrip­tion event! This of course meant shut­ting off the world servers for a sur­pris­ing­ly long time because… some­thing went wrong in switch­ing on the event! On the bright side, due to lack of sub­scrip­tions (you don’t say!) they decid­ed to make the first event free for every­one, not just sub­scribers. The event had some­thing to do with Hal­loween, but one of the key parts was that you had to col­lect ran­dom pieces of crap to assem­ble into a new voodoo-doll minipet. Sweet! Let me give that a shot. Okay, I need 6, 3, and 1 pieces of dif­fer­ent kinds of doo­dads. Hey, I’ve got my 6! Time pass­es. Hey, I’ve got my 3! End of game. Hey I’ve got 50 of what I need 6 of! These things stack in twos? What a pain in the ass. Time pass­es. Ok, I’ve owned a cou­ple hun­dred of these things, and my inven­to­ry has to be cleared out all the damn time. Ok, I’m all set with this event, let me get back to the sto­ry… oh wait, I can’t avoid them? They’re every­where! My inven­to­ry is at the mer­cy of voodoo doll doo­dads!

So there was hard­ly a part of the game that worked cor­rect­ly and steadi­ly. But wait, there’s more!

Nev­er mind the bro­ken game imple­men­ta­tion, the com­pa­ny com­pound­ed this with bro­ken game design. An exam­ple! As your char­ac­ter pro­gress­es, you can gain spe­cial abil­i­ties equiv­a­lent to tal­ents in world of war­craft, and when you select cer­tain abil­i­ties you unlock the abil­i­ty to pur­chase even bet­ter spe­cial abil­i­ties. Pret­ty stan­dard stuff. Unlike world of war­craft, how­ev­er, these selec­tions could nev­er, ever be reas­signed. Your char­ac­ter was locked into these choic­es for all time. Now, remem­ber that the game was incred­i­bly unbal­anced in month one. Once they got over things like, you know, not crash­ing all the time and oth­er core things, they were going to reex­am­ine the game­play and rebal­ance it. Part of this rebal­ance was an obvi­ous reconfiguring/shuffling/overhauling the abil­i­ties… wow, so not only is it bro­ken, but you’re telling me that I’m stuck with these beta ver­sions? Gosh, I hope you give me a good char­ac­ter when you redesign me! The implic­it answer is “This game is hard­core, just start over with a new char­ac­ter and then choose very care­ful­ly.”

Well, no. (By the way, are you crazy? I gave you mon­ey.)

And so, hav­ing seen the com­pe­ti­tion, my wife and I returned to the lov­ing embrace of World of War­craft, which is still fan­tas­tic and get­ting con­sis­tent­ly bet­ter in vir­tu­al­ly every way as it goes along. When I rebuilt/upgraded her com­put­er and then mine, HGL did­n’t get the rein­stall. I’ve writ­ten off Bill Rop­er, Flag­ship Stu­dios, Ping0, and of course every­thing to do with HGL. An amaz­ing waste of mon­ey. In fact, this expe­ri­ence has become the hype cure-all:

“Wow, I’m real­ly look­ing for­ward to D&D 4e,” I say. “Maybe I should pre­order it.”

“You think it’ll be as good as HGL?” my friend says.

And I grum­ble while he laughs, and he’s right.

(Although I did pre­order D&D 4e. Mearls for Over­lord.)

More Words!

2 thoughts on “Hellgate London sucks”

  1. Part of what I dis­liked with HGL was that the game felt like a game engine, not a game (and, well, a bug­gy engine at that). I real­ly was­n’t that upset about the no-respec rule (no respecs in D2 either, but since equip­ment isn’t “soul­bound” the pain is dras­ti­cal­ly less­ened). But there were plen­ty of oth­er things that bugged me.

    Since it’s sup­posed to be a spir­i­tu­al suc­ces­sor to D2, I feel no guilt in com­par­ing it that way.

    D2 slow­ly intro­duced you to new envi­ron­ments and mon­sters. When you left one area for anoth­er it felt epic and amaz­ing. Every­thing changed. You grew to love what­ev­er Act you were in, and when you left it, you felt both a sense of regret and won­der as you start­ed the new Act. In HGL, every “base” felt the same, even if the sto­ry was sup­pos­ed­ly advanc­ing.

    And let’s not for­get the sto­ry. Sto­ry does­n’t keep you play­ing D2 for years after it comes out, but it gets you through the first moth, does­n’t it? D2 took itself just seri­ous­ly enough to get you hooked (until the true addic­tive nature of play­ing the num­bers took hold). HGL made no illu­sions about the sto­ry being a thin veneer atop the mechan­ics. Every sin­gle NPC was full of in-jokes and self-ref­er­en­tial humor. You were con­stant­ly torn out of your immer­sion and remind­ed that you were play­ing a game writ­ten by the folks who made Dia­blo.

    We get it.

    Now make a new game.

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