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Gameloft tries to make good with Dungeon Hunter 4

Gameloft is one of the most interesting companies on Apple's App Store. The company, run out of Paris, France, has earned a reputation for itself by essentially cloning popular console titles. When the App Store first began, huge console titles like Halo, Call of Duty, and Diablo didn't have apps of their own on the store, and Gameloft saw the opportunity to recreate those game styles on iOS devices. That's how the NOVA, Modern Combat, and Dungeon Hunter games got started, and because players hungry for those experiences didn't have any other options, Gameloft saw a lot of success.

These days, however, big companies like Activision and EA have discovered a lot of value on the App Store, and AAA developers are making games of their own. That's rendered Gameloft's model a little obsolete, but the company has an answer: A few years of success and hardcore development have made them experts in delivering high quality titles on mobile platforms, and so they're now starting to push out original content, and turn these titles once known as clones into standalone IPs of their own.

The one hiccup in this plan has been the move towards freemium markets. Dungeon Hunter was a series that started out as a Diablo clone, an action RPG that allows you to choose one of a few classes and hack and slash through a storyline, gaining equipment and XP as you went. Dungeon Hunter 2 was a refined version of the first title, and offered some great experiences, both as a singleplayer RPG and even a multiplayer co-op game.

Dungeon Hunter 3, however, saw Gameloft trying to turn the game into a purely freemium title, switching from a singleplayer storyline to a series of arenas, all designed to just keep players spending money on in-app purchases. The release earned Gameloft lots of jeers across the Internet, and you can still see the harsh fan feedback on the game's reviews.

This past week at GDC, Gameloft showed me Dungeon Hunter 4, and the title shows off both of what's great and terrible about the company lately. The latest version of the game, set for a release later this month, returns the series to a relatively linear storyline, and contains some really excellent action RPG gameplay, portrayed with some very impressive art. All of Gameloft's expertise is brought to bear, and Dungeon Hunter 4 looks like it will be a really fun return to the kind of gameplay that made Dungeon Hunter 2 so popular.

Unfortunately, despite abandoning the "arena" ideas that caused so many problems with the third game in the series, the freemium elements are still there in force. You will probably enjoy this one -- if you can avoid and ignore the bright in-app purchase buttons and currency markers that seem to litter the screen. Some of the game's mechanics are annoyingly freemium as well: You get a limited number of health potions every few hours, and you're required to buy more if you need them. Gear can be upgraded by questing through the game -- or you can just press a button below one of your pieces to get a better option. And the title will include a full crafting system, but it's likely that too will be burdened with lots of shortcuts and options for more purchases.

Obviously, this is only based on a few minutes with the game, and we don't know for sure what Dungeon Hunter 4 will be like in its final form. But Gameloft is in a tough place right now: At the same time that the company is making better games than ever before, it's also (forced, perhaps, by market forces) depending more than ever on the annoyances of freemium gaming. Dungeon Hunter 4 will be out later this month, and the few minutes of it that I saw at GDC got me really excited about how the game both looks and plays. We'll just hope that Gameloft can keep the freemium prompts to a minimum, allowing the game to pull players in thanks to its quality, not sales tricks and nonsense.

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