Hellgate: London – The Tragic Tale of the First Looter-Shooter

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For better or worse, Hellgate: London was ahead of its time.

As the old Beatles song almost goes: When I was younger, so much younger than today – I remember hearing about Hellgate: London and being quite excited for its release in every way.

Some people think that Borderlands was the first looter-shooter, but they’re wrong – Hellgate: London precedes it by two years.

If you weren’t around at the time, you can’t appreciate what Hellgate: London did for gaming industry. Well, I should say you also can’t appreciate what it did to the gaming industry. This is juuuust before gaming went mainstream, and it paved the way for many of the design choices that now plague modern gaming.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – join me as we go back to the late 2000s and examine the origins of the game.

The hype for Hellgate: London was off the charts

According to Wikipedia, Hellgate: London ‘…was developed by a team led by former Blizzard Entertainment employees, some of whom had overseen the creation of the Diablo series.’

Even today that sounds amazing.

But just to set the scene: Blizzard were about the closest thing to triple-A game developers us gamers had at the time.

Of course, this is long before Blizzard would show themselves to be tone-deaf spanklords who can’t even remake their own games properly without lying about it.

Back then though, they were considered the golden children of PC gaming. Sure – they’d done some console stuff, but consoles were only just becoming mainstream themselves, so that barely registered a blip on most gamers radars.

So to hear that ex-Blizzard staff (who went by the now-ironic name Flagship Studios) were making Diablo, but in first-and-third person (depending on your equipped weapons) and set in a sci-fi universe with guns? Well, let’s just say that the anticipation was palpable. It would be like hearing today that Valve and CD Projekt Red are teaming up to make a Half-life/Witcher crossover – that’s the level of hype I’m talking about.

‘You must be wrong, because history would have remembered that.’ I hear you say while I’m playing Gwent with Alyx.

See, it wasn’t the game itself that pushed Hellgate: London out of our collective minds – it was everything else about it. But the fact remains: No game could possibly have lived up to the hype.

Was Hellgate: London innovative?

It wasn’t just the first looter-shooter, it was also the first looter-shooter MMO. In other words: It was Destiny, but 7 years earlier.

At this point, anyone who hasn’t heard of Hellgate: London will be wondering what it did so wrong, why people have chosen to forget it.

And I must admit feeling the same way, but for completely different reasons.

I think the games install process is the perfect example of this.

Back in 2007, it was still quite common for people to use dial-up. If you’re young, dial-up was a way to connect to the internet using your landline. Wait, dammit, that won’t help you understand – a landline was a type of phone that was physically connected to your house.

Okay, obviously that last paragraph was mostly all a joke but it underlines the point that it was a very different time for most gamers.

But do you think that Flagship Studios cared about that? Nope.

Even though you could play the game online if you wanted to, you didn’t have to.

SO WHY IN THE NAME OF HADES DID THE LAUNCHER REQUIRE AN INTERNET CONNECTION? For literally the first time in my entire life, my ability to play a game I’d paid money for was tied into internet connectivity.

So it was very lucky that Australia is so well-known for having such an excellent world-class internet infrastructure, isn’t it? OH WAIT.

If you’ve grown up with modern gaming then that whole ‘must be online’ thing probably isn’t a big deal to you. But I didn’t grow up with that, so having to be online for a game that I wanted to play single-player was an affront to me – and it still is.

Sure, it’s just been normalised since then, but it’s still just as arrogant and annoying as it was back in 2007.

Hellgate: London was innovative in all the wrong ways

One of the main disasters with Hellgate London revolved around monetisation. Originally, it was going to be free-to-play.

Excuse me a moment, I just need to mentally recover from the fact that we still need the phrase ‘free-to-play’ for games that cost money. Again, it might be normalised but that doesn’t make it ethical.

When Flagship Studios said they were going to make the game subscription-based, the community went wild – and not in the Spring-Break-kind-of-way. Flagship responded by saying that they’d have two tiers of players: Free, and Elite (i.e. subscribed). The Elite players would be the only ones with access to more than 3 character slots, permadeath mode, and any new content.

But fear not – for a mere $150 USD a player could have a lifetime subscription!

Further, the level cap of 50 was going to be very hard to achieve for free players – their ability to earn experience would be severely crippled at level 35.

Most of this stuff sounds like business as usual nowadays. One more time, and I swear I won’t say this again, but: Just because something is normalised doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

Like how Hellgate: London cost $30 USD at launch because that’s what games cost back then. Now they cost $60 USD and the gaming industry is even talking about making $70 USD the standard price for new games.

Hellgate: London is dead – long live Hellgate: London!

That’s what tears me up about Hellgate: London the most – things that gave the game a bad name are now widely accepted. If only people had been complacent about the greed of the gaming industry much sooner!

Maybe then I could have played Hellgate: Melbourne because the game would have become a franchise. Although, the distinct lack of a game called Fallout: Sydney has me thinking ‘maybe not’. Perhaps it’s because all our Aussie wildlife is already so terrifying that Bethesda can’t come up with anything scarier?

I mention all of that because Hellgate: London had an expansion called Hellgate: Tokyo, which was released during the time when the game wasn’t available here in the west.

The game didn’t die as much as it was put on life support.

That’s a whole other thing but the short version is: The game can now be found on Steam for PC, and it includes Hellgate: Tokyo as well.

But don’t expect to team up with others – it’s single-player only. Which means that you can play it offline. Thanks, ‘gaming industry’ it only took you like 15 years to let me do that, top marks.

But hey – at least the game never had lockboxes, so it’s got that going for it. Jeez, I should probably shut up before I give them any ideas.

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