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By: Michael Beckett
.hack was to be a unique experience - a game within a game, a story set in an online game in the near future. With its unusual brand of social commentary, the series had the potential to become not just a highly entertaining narrative, but a truly classic gaming experience. Unfortunately, due to the fractured and inconsistent delivery of the tale and a long, needlessly drawn out series of Virus Core fetch-quests, .hack's fate (and its last title, .hack//Quarantine) is to be little more than a failed attempt at a grand narrative.
The idea of a system identical to, or at the least highly similar to, modern MMORPGs on an offline game is a highly intriguing one, and at the start of it, an entertaining one. However, at seventy-odd hours long, .hack was not a series which can afford to rely upon novelty. By Outbreak, the shine had worn off and the real-time system had revealed itself as a truly dull experience. Rushing your foes and jamming the X button gets old fast. Opening and re-opening the menu to repeatedly replenish your health gets old fast. The lack of any real challenge, the lack of any real control, makes the combat system of this game eminently forgettable.
The control of .hack is reliable in most circumstances, but has a tendency to flip out on menus - players may occasionally find their cursor slipping one or two points above or below where they had intended. During combat, the commands Kite is able to give to his allies are varied enough to allow solid control over most situations, but in a game with such simple combat situations players will find themselves using only three or four of the dozen or so commands with any regularity.
Taste in music plays a great deal into whether or not the player will find the music of .hack pleasing or not. Those with a taste for techno or ambient themes will find Yuji Kajiura's music refreshing, while those with more classical or rock-oriented tastes will quickly become bored with it.
Voice acting has consistently improved over the course of the series, and pleasantly enough the irritating pauses in dialogue have all but disappeared at this point. Localization has improved similarly during the series' progression, and the voice actors themselves seem far more comfortable in their roles than they have in previous episodes, all of which makes for a far more interesting and enjoyable story. Where Outbreak and Mutation staggered and seemed to snare on their own plot, Quarantine provides a compelling conclusion to the tale.
One of the main controversies surrounding the .hack series was this; since the separate parts of the series were being released as self-contained episodes, should each episode be treated as an individual game? Or, as each episode used the same combat system, continued the same plot, and utilized the same graphic engine, should it be treated as one game? The answer is that the series was comprised of four very similar games, each one leading into the next. Thus with each installment, originality becomes lessened to some extent. .hack// Quarantine avoided this in some ways by providing an unusual and unexpected conclusion to its story while remaining nearly identical in every other respect.
Though the .hack series provided in its story some interesting ideas of where the world in general and the Internet in particular might be headed, the sheer volume of material needed to be viewed, played or read in order to get the entire scope of the story cuts replay value significantly. .hack//Quarantine does provide a number of minigames and sidequests after the conclusion of the plot, leading to a time to complete of between fifteen and approximately fifty hours. Overall, the game is not difficult for a gamer with fast reflexes and a thumb poised over the menu button, but it does test the players' endurance with drawn out Virus Core hunting and long dungeons.
In the end, I am forced to wonder if it wouldn't have been better to release the .hack series as one game - it would have avoided or at least stifled the inevitable sense of disillusionment with the games' phantom MMORPG world. Although it brought a solid narrative to the table, .hack is a series mired in poor pacing and bad design, a good example of what happens to ambitious plans in the hands of the unskilled.
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