September 24, 2021

Revisiting… Hellgate: London.


Ten years ago, Hellgate: London collapsed under the weight and hubris of Flagship Studios.

For what it’s worth, there was a solid Diablo-style game there. It was well constructed, nicely designed, chunky and weighty. There was plenty of destructible stuff around, plenty of monster types, a convincing and interesting story… everything was there for something rather special. And then it fell apart, mostly because it was an MMO that… kinda wasn’t an MMO. Flagship Studios, like so many over the years, thought they had the recipe to take down World of Warcraft; a tall order, even for former Diablo staff. And they blew it, of course they did. The monetisation was poor, there was no incentive to really have a subscription aside co-op and the seasonal events just weren’t quite up to snuff.

It was sad when it closed down for good. The single player became unplayable because it needed to ping servers – of course it did, it was meant to be an MMO after all – and Hellgate: London, for all its faults and foibles, sank without trace.

… or perhaps not, because it’s back on Steam. Under the ownership of its new parent, HanbitSoft, it was briefly turned into a Korean MMO for a while. You could download it, and play that, but much was redesigned for the Korean audience; the experience was slowed down, the enemies became a little more grind-heavy, the models were all changed (which is stupid as Mac Kenzie, the crazy old guy, was now a young man… weird choice…)… but that’s what happens when you take a game and relaunch it into another territory. But even that didn’t work, as its free-to-play model sank a year or so after that relaunch.

So what we have on Steam is the bare-bones Single Player option with the expansion content rolled into it.

Let’s make no bones about this – it’s an UGLY game now. Time has not been kind to Hellgate: London’s visual aesthetic, and the low-resolution textures and simplistic new models are remarkably dated on my super-pricey curved monitor. That’s not to say there’s no charm to the graphics; it’s a healthy reminder that we’ve come a long way in the last decade, no doubt about that, and the world design, the weapons and armour, are all still solid and well put together. But Hellgate: London really, desperately, unequivocally needs a high-res texture pack. That’s not even a minor request at this point, it’s an absolute necessity.

Hellgate London (Screen 1, small)
Don’t let the image compression fool you. It’s bad.


Yes, there are still some graphical flaws – catch a camera behind certain walls and all you see is black, as the camera snaps outside the boundaries. And the Character Select still has purple dots on things, almost like the skeletal animation frame is poking through (it doesn’t do that in-game, just on the screen). And there’s no DX10 option here it would seem – which is bizarre when you consider this was arguably one of the first major releases to take advantage of DX10. Flagship Studios wasn’t some dime-a-dozen company, after all. It had pedigree with its staff, most coming from Blizzard stables. So not having one of its most defining features seems just a little strange.

And despite the increased experience gain, Hellgate: London in 2018 could use some (not a lot but still…) additional rebalancing. It can still get a bit too rough on normal when you start pushing past level 12, and even with the increased experience gain – you’re given weapons and armour well above your current situation, meaning most of it goes to waste as you find and use more what enemies are dropping for you, as that is more tailored to your current level.

It’s not a complicated game; it’s a Diablo-alike, but in a big sweeping third/first person perspective. The landscaping is huge, the detailing was always second to none on where things were and how they were placed, and the randomised level design always made exploration both interesting and rewarding. Hidden passageways, secret rooms crammed with money, boxes and crates littered about. There are crafting blueprints and even, if you’re ambitious, a few alternate paths – some including light platforming. The basics are simple; pick a class, beat up enemies, do quests, kill bosses and so forth. But there’s so much to do outside of that basic pattern, you can still get lost in the world built for you to play in here.

Some of the Korean additions are also much appreciated, like the Hellspawn. Each area has a charging bar, the more you kill the higher it gets until, once maxed, it spawns a particularly nasty Boss-Type Mob. These give you plenty of loot to use or disassemble, and require a little more caution. It’s a nice touch, because if you’re brave enough to go around slaughtering demons you’ll be handsomely rewarded… but if you’re struggling, dropping one of these bad-boys in your lap is going to mess your day up a little. It’s a risk/reward system that makes sense, and keeps you on your toes a little. Forget that bar is increasing and you could be in for a world of hurt in the middle of a rough encounter…

The skill system remains rather basic, particularly for the Marksman class. It’s not nearly as complex as it wants to believe and it could use a little extra help. Personally, if this is to remain Single Player, I’d be game for proper Mod Support on Steam Workshop. Keep it cheap and just let its fans rebuild it for the modern age.

Is it for everyone? Eh… probably not. At least not yet.

There’s still a solid game in here. But it’s buried under a decades worth of dust, poor plastering and bad wallpapering, and the plumbing and electrics clearly need a seeing to as well. It’s a doer-upper, it’s the sort of thing that as I said, could use Mod Support on Steam Workshop. It’s great that, after a decade away, the single-player campaign is back and we can finally enjoy it again (though I’ve argued before this should never have been a thing). But in an era where we’re used to even half-baked Remasters and Remakes, where games from the past at least have some eye to modernisation, this is oddly stuck in the past – chintzy eyesore wallpaper and all.

You can argue that much of this should have been done before it’s re-re-re-release on Steam. And you won’t see me arguing there. I agree, things like textures and DX support should have been the bare minimum requirements. This really is an eleven year old game, with some minor tweaks from another failed re-launch six years ago or so. HanbitSoft really has no sensible defence of this and if it honestly has no intention of doing any additional work – then it needs to release tools so the community can do something here. Because there’s so much that can be done here. And hell, if Dark Souls PC (old version) can have a solid modding community then so can Hellgate: London.

Hellgate: London (Screenshot 2, small)
Hell, Dark Souls didn’t even have official modding tools…

The big question is though – was it a mistake for me to go back?

I found myself asking that question at four in the morning, and actually… I think the fires of passion I had for this game just got stoked up again. I really was expecting to walk into this after so long away, with so much wistful nostalgia and find out that all those good times and nice things I said were just fragments of a past that were lost to time. Okay, it hasn’t gotten me to go all poetic again – like I did when I reviewed this game when it first game out – but I have sat here, quietly for an hour or so and… yeah, I think this still does hold up. I still feel some warmth coming from it. I feel flowery words flowing into my mind to describe how this makes me feel. It’s oddly heart-warming, when the alternative could have been me with my head in my hands going, “Oh god why did I go back? I should have stuck with the memories…”

I am not going to pretend, however, that this game is a necessity. At least not in its current state.

… think of it more, as it stands here at the end of 2018, as a curiosity. Remember that this is a game that’s been in and out of the market with reckless abandon for eleven years, one which has changed hands several times and has had more than its fair share of publishers supporting it. Also remember it survived a stint under EA’s gaze. It’s been relatively untouched over the years, aside a few Korean tweaks which haven’t all been for the worse. It’s still shambling along, long after it was declared legally dead. It’s a resilient zombie, it’s still trucking along and give it half a chance and it may very well sink its teeth into you. If you’re into that sort of thing. But you can obviously outrun it if this sort of oddity isn’t your cup of proverbial tea.

It’s proving, even today, really hard to kill this game. And that’s because there’s still some life there; there’s something tangible here, some spark of magic that just refuses to go out. I have never seen a game like this. Games die all the time. We mourn. We get over it. So few keep coming back to haunt us like this. It’s utterly bizarre, a little terrifying but… somehow wonderful, if that makes sense. As if it’s proving that some games are hard to keep buried.

If HanbitSoft can either fix up some updates – or even drop a suite of modding tools – then this zombie might actually turn out to be the hero it was always meant to be all along. The ball is absolutely in their court on this front. We could end up with a game that, after a decade of limbo and undeath, rises from the grave to stake a claim as a genuine, honest-to-goodness challenger and heir to the Diablo crown. Especially in the wake of that Diablo: Immortal nonsense.

Or it can remain a testament to how sometimes, an industry really can let down good ideas.

HanbitSoft… next move is yours.


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