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Year released: 2003
Company: Bandai
Genre: Role-Playing

One of the things I expected out of the PlayStation 2 when I bought was the fact that since the audiovisual elements of most games were going to be fairly comparable from one game to the next, the titles that would really catch my eye are the ones that have an intriguing concept and are willing to take a few risks as far as gameplay is concerned. The .hack series of games, to date incomplete but ongoing, exhibited both these traits, so this was one of the first games that I sought out which wasn't attached to some precreated franchise (DDR, Dragonball Z, Madden football). While past history with blind purchases has turned up some pretty unencouraging results, it looks as if the .hack series is going to be one of my favorites on this system for a while.

Based off a collection of anime shows of the same title, the game revolves around a pseudo-MMORPG, like Everquest or Asheron's Call. Granted, I've never taken part in any of these multi-user games, so I can't report on whether this game realistically portrays the MMORPG experience, but I do like the way the game is laid out. Basically, there's a large number of overworld areas that are unlocked by inputting a series of codewords into a portal. These words determine the strength of the enemies, the kind of terrain, and the weather conditions therein. Meanwhile, you'll be coming across a number of other players (computer-controlled, of course - you aren't really online) who you'll be able to add to your party and converse with as you check your E-mail in the game for correspondence.

But beyond all this, there's actually an underlying conflict in the game. While your friend (who's already decked out at Level 50) shows you the ropes of "The World", you come across a scene involving a pale-looking girl and an evil being. During the skirmish, your friend's character gets hacked, causing him to slip into a coma in the real world. But wait, it gets better - soon after you come across a book - the same book the evil being was looking for. By opening it, a bracelet attaches itself to your arm, and now you gain the ability to hack into the other enemies. This makes you the center of attention in the gaming community as you search for a way to bring your friend back from his coma.

It doesn't stop there, either. The makers of the game went so far as to include a video DVD with part of one of the .hack//liminality anime series, giving you even more exposition to work with. For a game that's going to unfold over four installments, it was crucial for the designers to come up with some way to absorb the player and get them interested as quickly as possible, and they managed to pull it off. But while the game serves up several helpings of backstory, the plot doesn't really progress all that much as the game goes on. Most of the time someone will supply a codeword to a corrupted area of the game, you and your party members will invesitgate it, come across a hacked enemy which you then must Data Drain, and head back to the Root Town. Lather, rinse, repeat. I'd complain about the game being repetitive, but then again repetitiveness has always been a character flaw in RPGs.

Visually, the game is mesmerizing. The colors are lush and vivid, and the animation is superb. Your party stats are on the bottom of the screen, suitably out of the way of the action. There are several different environments for both the overworld and the dungeons, and each one is immaculately drawn. Most impressive are the trails of random pieces of data floating around as you explore a corrupted field. Musically, the game has some things going for it - namely the seamless transition from field music to battle music - but as a whole there isn't any particular theme that I found all that memorable. The voice acting in the game is decent, and helps add to the characterization of the other players, but after a while some characters get a little annoying.

This is really the first game I've played that made major use of the analog sticks on my controller. Even so, I found myself a lot more comfortable using the standard pad for navigation and the L and R buttons for moving the camera. Speaking of which, it is a little confusing every now and then when you're facing to the left and you're trying to figure out which direction you need to go. The menus are also a little difficult to navigate. For some reason, I have a nasty habit of bringing up the party communication window when I meant to access the main menu, and vice versa. The button make up is a tad cluttered; they probably should've condensed communication into the other menu. The level design is quite straightforward - the overworld is mainly just an expansive field with magic portals littered across the landscape, and the dungeons are nearly impossible to get lost in. Considering the number of dungeons you'll be exploring, that's a plus.

The only real sticking point with this game is the challenge. As mentioned above, your character has the ability to "Data Drain" enemies, essentially turning them into much weaker monsters. This is a necessary skill when fighting most bosses as they're usually invulnerable before being drained. But the game prevents you from abusing this power by throwing in random status ailments when you use it, and increasing your infection level with each use. If the virus spreads too high, you go berserk and it's game over. I understand the need to cap one's use of this technique, but it renders the ability useless during normal play, as the risk is often more than the reward. Also, while the game makes sure that your comrades are at a level close to yours - relieving you from the need to dote on them all - some characters are extremely feeble. Elk is my favorite partner in the game (his timidity is endearing), but whenever I go out in the field with him, he always gets his head handed to him in short order.

It seems that the goal of the programmers was to get the player hooked on this game right away, and coast on the momentum accumulated in the opening to the end of the installment. To some degree, it works: I was well past the halfway point of this installment before I realized that I was merely repeating a cyclical process over and over. Still, the game moves at a fast enough pace that even with the lack of variety, you don't really get bored. The game's longevity was put to the test a while back when a dirty lens forbade me fom playing this (or any other PS2 game) for over a month. After cleaning the system, I popped the game back in, and was pleasantly surprised at the fact that I was able to pick up right where I left off.

There is a little controversy surrounding the organization of the game. As mentioned above, this is only the first installment of a game that will eventually span four discs. Now of course, one could accuse Bandai of trying to milk as much money out of gamers as possible by forcing them to buy four games, but I don't really mind. The game takes about 20 hours to complete, which to me is a perfect fit. It gives players a chane to pace themselves and not have to devote 80 hours all at once to a particular game. When you do get the second installment, all your character data carries over to the next game, so you can resume the storyline without any downtime.

While I hesitate to put .hack//infection on the same plane as the Final Fantasy series, largely because they're almost two different genres at this point, I will say that if the first installment is any indication, this game could become an enduring classic.

Overall Ratings:

Technical Scores
Atmosphere: 4/5
Layout: 4/5
Concept Scores
Plot: 5/5
Design and Control: 4/5
Innovation: 5/5
Playability Scores
Challenge: 4/6
Thrill: 5/6
Longevity: 5/6
Total Score: 84%