Many folk like the new possibilities the Internet has brought to RPGaming, but many still hesitate to embrace the idea of Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs. No, the demand is still strong for good ol’ RPGs with a strong storyline and linear gameplay. It is with this contradiction in mind that Bandai has created the .hack series. The first game in the series, .hack//Infection, will give players the opportunity to enjoy the feeling of playing with people all over the world, while still enjoying a classic offline adventure.
Those familiar with the science fiction series Otherland by Tad Williams will be able to spot some similarities in the story of .hack. Set in the near future (2007 to be exact) when destructive computer viruses are destroying networks and even indirectly harming people, the action of this game takes place within a fictional game, a MMORPG called The World. One of the biggest fans of the game is Orca, who one day decides to take his newbie friend Kite for a little fun in The World when he gets killed by some monster. Of course, in the magical world of video games that’s never a problem, but after the incident Orca goes into a coma. Convinced that the game had something to do with it, Kite determines to search until he finds it. After being bestowed with the power to hack the game and change around its intended programming, he becomes an outlaw struggling to find his way. If that isn’t exciting enough, then one might still be enraptured by the deep back-story surrounding .hack, with its bizarre predictions for the next five years.
All very well, but what about the game? Well .hack is an action-RPG, one that borrows the style of Phantasy Star Online as opposed to the dungeon crawling of Zelda. Kite wanders around and slashes enemies as arcade type messages such as "Battle Mode" swarm the screen. There are no random encounters; instead there are preset encounter points à la Chrono Trigger or Kingdom Hearts, where walking over them results in a battle. A welcome advantage in .hack, however, is that Kite can acquire an ability to detect these points, which should cut down on annoying, repetitive battles. The game has a lock-on target feature to aid in combat. This last can be crucial since the game lacks any automatic camera so things can become quite a mess. Enemies do give out much needed experience points, but not cash. Money can only be acquired through selling items. The experience is important because the difficulty of the game can get very high and sudden, unexpected death is seldom far away.
Although .hack//Infection is a linear game, and key areas can only be opened up through events in the story, there is opportunity to visit extra areas for leveling up and treasure. Adjective "keywords" learnt from various sources do this. Choosing a combination of these adjectives creates a new randomized area for the party to explore. These areas can be quite dangerous so it’s wise to keep an eye on the recommendation the game provides vis à vis the player’s level. If things get too dicey, then it is allowed to warp back to town once the player is out of reach of the enemy, unless Kite and company are exploring a dungeon. Of course, all the best treasure is in the dungeons, but then it wouldn’t be treasure if it were gift-wrapped. As for the towns, they posses excellent designs, and each is unique in their own style. The townsfolk (who drop in and out of character, switching between travelers in a fantasyland to the video gamers they actually are) provide very important information, such as the aforementioned keywords.
Another important source of information is the email system and the in-game message boards. Yes, The World’s MMORPGness is carried through to the last detail. .hack’s title screen boots up into The World’s, where Kite can talk to other people online, such as his party members. .hack has a cast of respectable size, although there are only three in the party at any one time. Battles can get cumbersome with everybody running around, but at least the friendly AI is half-decent. The player can compliment this with shorthand orders to the party; "Attack!" would probably be a good example. The free-willed party members and the commands that they get add to the MMORPG illusion. The real world/video game World of .hack is further contrasted by the anime DVD that is included with the game. This DVD shows what happens in "real life" during this troubling time in Kite’s life. It’s pretty weird to think that cartoon characters represent the real life aspect, but anyway.
The in-game characters are probably more interesting to look at. This game features art from Yoshiyuki Sadamato, a famed character designer. It looks like he went all out for .hack, as each character manages to evoke interest and mystery. The backgrounds and scene designs are no less impressive, except when it comes to the randomized keyword areas. The details in those locations are boring and scattered. Actually, while the design and art is very well done, overall it suffers from poor execution. There is widespread blurring in the game and the animation is a bit blocky. Hey, just like a real MMORPG! Happily, the music makes up for any visual blemishes. All the sampled tracks are catchy and the whole soundtrack reportedly captures emotions while managing to stick in the head. Unhappily, .hack is the first game in a little while that is said to have a sketchy localization. This is quite unfortunate, and though it is hard to believe that the translation could be bad enough to actually harm the story, it is still annoying to have language difficulties like poor grammar and pathetic diction. Hey, just like a real MMORPG! On second thought, chances are it’s not worth the worry, since the main story sequences are voiced over. The voices sound a bit corny, but if it gets too annoying, the option exists to listen to the original Japanese voices.
.hack//Infection has already been delayed once, which caught many people off guard. The delay was partially due to Bandai’s desire to release the quartet as a tri-monthly serial. Whilst it is evident that //Infection provides some fine gameplay at a challenging difficulty level, it is a concern that the length and depth of the game might suffer if things are put off until later games in the series. Well, that is something that will have to be examined when more detail on .hack//Malignant Mutation arrives. At least we won’t have to wait until 2007 to play one of the most original RPGs in recent memory. .hack//Infection comes to North America on the third of February, 2003.