Hellgate: London's been a long time in development, but it's finally gone into a closed pre-release testing stage that appears to be hovering somewhere between alpha and beta. Having secured a place on the trial, we cheerfully clicked all the boxes and playfully set up our accounts, before jumping into the action and splashing around like idiots.
What this whole pre-release thing means is that the servers are up and down like a bride's yo-yo, and any talk of glitches is best left for the review. Which, for the developers, must feel alarmingly close. Rather than let this hamstring this whole piece into a sodden mess of apology and conjecture, I'll just describe what happened in my first few hours in the game.
What I'm interested in is this: does Hellgate feel, in my bones, like the reinvention of the 2D dungeon trawl that I've hoped it would be? Is this, in other words, the 3D Diablo we've all been waiting for?
A quick recap, so everyone's up to speed. Hellgate: London is set in 2038, in a world under assault by the demons of hell. To fight them you have six classes to choose from, split across three factions.
The paladin-esque faction of the Templars contains the attack-happy Blademaster and the defensive Guardian. The hand-wringing witches are represented by the Cabalist faction. Here you'll find the Evoker - the template weedy dude with big spells - and the Summoner, who'd be wise to stand back and let his uncanny menagerie do the work.
Finally, there's the Hunters faction. The Marksman plays the game most like an FPS, while the Engineer is essentially a Summoner who deals with robots instead of infernal imps.
All factions are on the same side - it's no Alliance vs Horde scenario. At this stage, Hellgate definitely isn't geared towards PVP play, apart from the odd duel.
I chose the Summoner. I like pets, and I like my pets to be on fire. The tutorial zone whisked me through a steampunk Russell Square, more Victoriana than Futurama, that serves as your basic WASD tutorial.
Populated with a dozen fodder zombies to get you used to your weapon, and a guy called Murmur who guides you to
your first Tube station. Sealed by the Freemasons, these under-ground sanctuaries act as hubs for progressively more difficult batches of (sometimes) randomly-generated mission areas.
First impressions were that it instantly felt smooth, and right - the content of Diablo with the presentation of WOW. The graphics, in particular, have come a long way, and it's far more satisfying to see loot burst from a dead body than it is to ransack the poor sods. The first-person perspective is a token option - you'll end up settling on the third-person zoom level that gives you most view of the playing field.
The Summoner starts with a shin-high flaming imp. He died more than I like my pets to die, so I spent my first skill point on a new pet. With my new rune-infested, erm... zergling, I realised I was invincible until about level 4-5, an hour later. This isn't
a problematic balance issue at such an early stage, but I suddenly felt a little redundant.
What was far more frustrating was the lack of control over my pets. It was like walking a particularly randy dog, only when he humped someone's poodle, I'd shoot the poodle with an explosive bullet instead of apologising to its owner. Then, I'd shoot the owner.
Often my pets would run off completely. At higher levels of combat - and especially in groups - the last thing you want is your pets acting like a freelance Leeroy Jenkins. If Flagship don't want this class to be underused, they'd do well to sort this out.