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A Brief Glimpse of "The World"
By: Paul Koehler
It came as one of the most anticipated RPGs of 2002, and promised to make waves in a genre that has more or less stayed to formula since the mid 1990s. Bandai's four-part series, starting with .hack//Infection, was released to an eager gaming community expecting "The World" out of it. While Bandai was wise to stall the first title's release as to make the wait between each title smaller, the question is: did .hack//Infection live up to the hype? While it is a great introduction to a potentially great series, much is left to be desired in a package that has so far left many wanting for more.
What it provided was the start to a great story, and a plot that has breathed innovation into the genre. Set in the year 2007, RPGamers play as Kite, an 8th grader who is introduced to an addictive MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online RPG) known as "The World" by his friend Orca. However, things take a horrible turn for the worse, and Orca goes into a coma in the real world after being attacked by an unknown monster. Anime fans will also appreciate .hack//Liminality; the first OVA to coincide with Bandai's .hack//sign series. It's interesting to see clips of the video game as part of the opening sequence, but it is unfortunate that the game and OVA seem to have separate plots. Continuity issues aside, the game does well as a fake MMORPG environment.
Since the game is played from the perspective of a user (and not the characters themselves), a desktop interface and message board are used frequently in the game. To advance the game's plot, players must return to check their email and messages on the board so they can find different areas to warp to. When actually in the game, Kite can also gain the member addresses of different player characters that he can invite at various times. Weapons and armor are best gained through interaction with other NPCs, who frequently roam the main town in each server. To add a sense of realism to the MMORPG world, not all of the characters are available at all times. PCs will often throw in their own comments, marked by a small speech bubble - as if their users were typing them in real time. If there is an issue with the game's interface, it is the camera. There is no way to automatically adjust the camera, as players must constantly readjust the view using the Left and Right controller keys. However, it is very easy to get used to after less than an hour of gameplay.
Individual quests in .hack//Infection usually take place in predefined playing fields. To move there, the heart of each town contains a portal called a Chaos Gate, which is used to access those fields and other servers. To create these areas, the game uses a keyword creation system in which one word or phrase is selected from three separate lists to create an area that has certain attributes. Each of these affects the type of monsters, their elemental affinity, and their difficulty.
For the majority of the game, the level of the playing fields is an important factor as players can be quickly overwhelmed by a powerful group of monsters. .hack//Infection uses a semi real-time battle system which is best described as "hack-and-slash" style. The action pauses when the menu screen is accessed, and there items, spells, or skills can be used. Area effect range is an important aspect of spell or skill usage, and elemental affinity plays a huge part in damaging enemies. While parties can consist of Kite and two companions, players can only control Kite - who can issue general commands by pressing the square button. These AI commands will direct the party to attack, use skills, or heal each other.
Unique to Kite is the "Data Drain" ability, in which he uses his bracelet to sap a monster's power. Powerful equipment is often dropped by drained monsters, and Virus Cores used to hack into protected playing fields can only be obtained using this skill. Also, some bosses cannot be defeated at all unless this ability is used. While powerful, using the technique has its disadvantages. Kite will slowly become infected after using this skill, and the effects can only be cleared by defeating monsters without draining. Monsters that are drained provide almost no experience points, and repeated draining could possibly cause Kite to go berserk, immediately ending the game.
While these different facets make for interesting battles, none of the effects or scenery is particularly impressive. Compared to other recent titles for the PlayStation 2, .hack's graphics fail to impress in some aspects and downright fail in others. Particularly bad are the backgrounds, which are blurry in the playing fields and towns. Perhaps the best feature of the game's graphics are the individual character artwork, headed by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame.
Appropriate to a dungeon-crawler, the music is particularly bland. None of the tracks particularly stand out, but the game designers did a good job in blending in the battle tracks with everything else, which is especially important considering the seamless transition between both modes. Perhaps the most appropriate sound effects in the game are those in the damaged playing fields, where static and electrical interference are common. This and the English voice acting aren't too bad. Bandai deserves credit for not slacking in this department.
However, Bandai deserves even more credit for having the option to play the game with Japanese voiceovers and English subtitles. As one of the first console RPGs to implement this option, this is a trend that should be kept up for other Japanese imported games as they are ported to other markets. As a result, players have the option of hearing both forms of audio, which should make a lot of anime "purists" happy.
It's too bad that there wasn't much gameplay in .hack//Infection, even if it is the first of a four-part series of games. This game can easily be beaten in less than 20 hours, and despite the sidequests, RPGamers have a right to feel a little short-changed for an asking price of $50 US Dollars, even with the inclusion of .hack//Liminality, because this game can be easily beaten on a weekend rental.
Bandai is most likely the victim of high expectations for this game, and while .hack//Infection is not a failure in many aspects - its value as a standalone game right now is questionable. At the very least, make sure to rent the game - some of its features (and the storyline) are true innovations in console RPGs, something that has been needed for a long time. For that alone this game deserves a look, but RPGamers will have to wait until the release of .hack//Mutation in May to see whether this series will live up to its billing.
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