February 16th, 2003 | PlayStation 2 | Review
.hack//Infection
An MMO game with players this smart has to be fiction.

BY BANDAI & CYBER CONNECT2, 2003

25 WORDS OR LESS:
An unassuming kid introduced to an online RPG is soon thrust into a mystery surrounding odd events that are affecting the game and its players.

AOHell

Sometimes all it takes is one tiny idea to garner a gigantic amount of attention. That’s what happened to Bandai when they announced an ambitious new franchise called .hack a little over a year ago. .hack is a multimedia saga about an ominous company, its wildly popular online RPG and a string of baffling and tragic occurances that may be part of something greater. Infection is the first of four seperate game volumes, currently only on PS2. The rest will be released as the year goes on, with the final volume set to be released this fall (April in Japan). .hack also exists in anime and manga forms, concentrating on different groups of characters but almost mandatory to see if you wish to understand more of the mythology behind the series. It’s a complex tale crafted by a trio of popular figures in the anime business and overall an ambitious project that some thought wouldn’t even make it to America. But lo and behold, here we are looking at it in beautiful English, and we couldn’t be happier.

Our story begins in the year 2010. Society has recently recovered from a series of devastating events that crippled the Internet and left a few dead bodies in their wake. With quick action from world governments, we’re now in a new "network generation," all running on a super-secure and super-dominant operating system called ALTIMIT, created by the Japanese CyberConnect (CC) Corporation. In 2007, CC released a massively-multiplayer online RPG for ALTIMIT called The World, and before they knew it it was biggest-selling game in the entire world. Just about 20 million people play The World currently, reinforcing CC’s dominance of the software industry.

You play Kite, or rather, you play a kid whose character name in The World is Kite. Your friend Yasuhiko is an avid player of the game; in fact he’s quite famous in it. He invites you to play and see what all the fuss about, so one day you finally get set up and meet your friend (known as Orca in the game) as he starts to show you around. You begin to learn the basics about the gameplay and are eventually guided to a low-level area to hone your battle skills. As you and Orca make your way through the first tiny dungeon, you witness a ghostly little girl being chased by a towering faceless monster. You make it to the end of the dungeon and are soon warped into some kind of netherworld. Here the monster tries to eliminate the girl but Orca jumps in and gets disintegrated by some sort of weird beam. He falls to the ground and Kite is forced to log out without him. A day later it’s discovered Yasuhiko collapsed soon after that encounter and is now in a coma.

From here on, Infection becomes a detective story as Kite tries to find out what happened in that dungeon, what exactly happened to Yasuhiko and how exactly can he make everything better again. He won’t be alone in his sleuthing, however: Kite’s initial aid and confidant is Black Rose, a firey girl of the Heavy Blade class. She eventually gets wrapped up in things along with Kite and will be the one to gather info when he can’t.

Finding clues and getting help from your friends comes from two main sources: standard e-mail and The World’s user message board. Here is where .hack not only emulates online RPGs but the online experience as a whole. The message board in particular is chock full of eerily (and humorously) accurate depictions of discussions among players and fans of the game, with messages covered in Japanese-style smillies and the occasional flame war, just with better spelling. It’s one of many indicators of the commendable English translation; the text part anyway. Yes, while much of .hack is spoken, the English voice track is good enough to get the job done and little else. Lines can always be skipped at the flick of a button, though, and if it gets too grating, you can easily switch to the Japanese voice track at any point during the game. No doubt that the more fickle geeks will have already done so before starting a new game.

Actually diving in and playing .hack (or is that The World?!?) is rather simple. You begin in a Root Town, which changes depending on the server you’re on. The towns feature the standard save points, item and weapon shops, etc. At the edge is the Chaos Gate, the portal that stands between you and the rest of The World. Instead of your usual pre-made overworlds ("fields") to run around and hit shit in, The World provides you with the Keyword system, a simple formula of stringing together three words or phrases that each have their own variables and create a customized field with its own elemental stats and overall difficulty. You can select words yourself or randomize a string and create one that way, but for most of Infection you’ll be going to the fields mentioned by fellow players in order to discover more clues. In fact, this system would be that much more unique if it wasn’t chained to the linearity of the game’s plot. As it stands, Keywords are merely an extra way to build your levels.

As the game goes on you’ll be meeting new characters that will buddy-up and give you their member address so you can add them to your party. Each one will have their own little quirks (which usually boil down to manic collecting of certain items or weapons), and if you keep them in heavy rotation you can even learn more about them through e-mails. Since parties are only three members and The World’s character classes are pretty straightforward, selecting members falls on who you think will help you out more in fights and who will last long enough to heal you in time (or who you’ll be forced to join with to further the story). As an added bonus, your friends will continue to gain levels when you’re not with them, which at times can save you the headache of having to drag them onto a field for some strengthening when you need them the most.

Once actually on a field, the fun begins! Controlling Kite is fairly easy, except for the mandatory camera control you’ll have to wrestle with to get situated properly. You can tap the R2 button to instantly whip the camera a few feet behind you if you’re tired of slowly swinging it around with L/R1, but it’s not a perfect solution. There’s also a first-person view, but it’s more of a peripheral feature, as using it in battle will instantly disorient you; thanks anyway, guys. Fields and dungeons are sprinkled with yellow portals that contain the generic monsters of the game. Once you get close enough, out they come. You can use basic attacks when you get in there and the "crosshair" appears on the enemy, as well as use special skills attached to your weapons, and magic scrolls to enact a singular spell. If you’re expecting one-at-a-time, slow-and-steady fighting like the kind in say, PSO, you’ll be surprised. Battles are rather fast-moving as long as you know what you’re doing.

Be warned that battles can get crowded, especially in a dungeon. So crowded in fact that you can barely see yourself in the mess of monsters and spells and chat bubbles, but keep your concentration and you should have room to breathe again. And in case you were fearing it, yes, dungeons are randomly-generated. If that makes you retch, let it be known that in Infection the dungeons will rarely ever total more than 5 floors, and the only really tedious parts are cracking open every single treasure in an item room. Otherwise they don’t amount to anything compared to a real online RPG and won’t put you to sleep before you’re done.

A neat little feature that again tries to mimic online RPGs is the Chat Menu. Pressing the square button will bring up a set of commands to bark to your teammates, and even enable you to change their equipment or their targeted enemy. For example, something you’ll probably be doing often is telling everyone to use "First Aid" techniques to heal the party instead of you using up all those hard-earned potions. All in all it’s a very good tool to have and makes choosing the right party a little bit more imperative.

Early in the game, Kite is given a bracelet by the mysterious little girl. He can’t see the bracelet, but others can. Its powers allow Kite to hack The World and alter its code, known formally as Data Draining. There will be a number of fields and dungeons that look positively wrecked, with "rips" in the textures revealing source code and the like. There are boss monsters in the dungeons of these fields who are also damaged in some way. By weakening the monster to the point that its protection breaks (the aptly-named Protect Break), Kite can then Data Drain the monster and turn it back to normal, finally able to defeat it. Kite will then obtain what’s known as a Virus Core. Virus Cores can be collected from any monster in the game that Kite Data Drains. The Cores are what Kite will need to hack into gates blocked off by The World’s administrators and may contain a new piece of the puzzle. This is called Gate Hacking, and makes script kiddies look like physics professors. Once Kite tries to enter a blocked-off gate, the Gate Hacking menu appears. From there he must insert Virus Cores into corresponding slots on a cross formation. If he has the right Cores, Kite opens the gate and can continue on. More like CAKE Hacking! Am I right?!…

Data Draining is not all fun and games, though. Kite will become infected the more he Data Drains, which has a variety of results. A Data Drain could lead to Kite poisoning himself, or maybe obtaining a rare item in the process. Its effects are unpredictable, and the more it happens, the closer Kite will be to death. Luckily, a graph of Kite’s body will be shown just before he Drains, telling him how much he’s infected by the color of the graph. So keep it on the down-low and maybe you won’t end up in a coma either.

Okay, so .hack is fun and neat and shiny, but it’s not perfect. Let’s begin outlining its faults with an easy target: the graphics. Not much has been discussed about the graphics because, well, there ain’t much to discuss. The first thing you’ll notice are the characters, who outside of cutscenes are really not all that detailed for a second or third-year PS2 game. This would make sense if there were more NPCs running around with you in The World as it wouldn’t tax the system as much, but the reality is there’s not many fellow players with you at all.

Perhaps most puzzling about the visuals is that the Root Towns in The World’s servers are quite scenic for their small sizes, while the fields and dungeons (the places you’ll be spending most of your time, obviously) are sparse, boring and downright ugly. With a dungeon it’s a little more understandable, but when you’re the only party fighting on a vast field of repetitive textures and the occasional landform, you start to wonder what came first in development. But even though I make it sound like a train wreck, the graphics are often competent and at times practical for fitting in with the style of The World. Chances are you’ll be having too much fun anyway to wince every time you warp to a new field.

What can’t be saved as easily as the graphics is the music. Just for fun, let’s say that you bought a Final Fantasy soundtrack album. It’s your favorite soundtrack of the series but there’s still the five or six droning, kinda plinky tracks that you always skip because they don’t click with you the same way as the rest do. Now let’s say that Nobuo Uematsu reads your exclusive impressions of the album on your LiveJournal and gets all cheesed off because it turns out those tracks are his personal favorites. Then in a fit of rage and menthol cigarettes, he composes a game’s worth of tunes that’s exactly the kind of stuff you don’t like and sells it all to Bandai. That would be the end result of .hack’s music: a lot of stuff that doesn’t do much, with one or two tracks that are halfway listenable. Amusingly, you can earn tracks to play on your ALTIMIT desktop, and a couple of field types are void of music altogether! Oh well, at least it’s just the first game.

Calling .hack unique is an understatement. In just this first volume we’re introduced to a complex story that appeals to people that discuss the finer points of Suikoden character relationships, as well as relatively straightforward gameplay that sucks in rampant level-uppers and just plain fun seekers alike. As one plays, it becomes clear that Cyber Connect 2 struggled to keep neither element boring and for the most part succeeded. Put bluntly, .hack is a welcome reinvention of the genre that no one should miss. Keep in mind that a wild ride just began here, with three more stops on the way. Ray Barnholt

Information

.hack official site
Bandai

.hack//Liminality is the name of the DVD anime series that comes with every volume of .hack. Its timeframe parallels the game but focuses on “real life” outside The World. The first episode focuses on Mai Minase, a teenage girl who along with her boyfriend collapse after playing The World. With the boyfriend comatose, Mai soon runs into a former executive of the CC Corporation and eventually the two begin to investigate what the company is up to. Successive episodes will introduce more main characters that will help our heroes solve the mystery.

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