Review: .hack Infection (PS2)
by Lee Baxley on February 16, 2003

.hack//Infection
Genre: Role Playing Game (Dungeon Hack)
Platform: Playstation 2
Publisher: Bandai
Release Date: 2/11/03
Estimated Play Time: 15 hours to 40 hours
Official Home Page: www.dothack.com

A couple of years ago, Bandai (the makers of Gundam) announced a very ambitious, yet intriguing project. It was designed to be the ultimate crossover series, with games, TV shows, comics, and at some point, probably even movies. The title of this ambitious project is .hack pronounced Dot Hack). The project has become a huge success in Japan. The games are excellent sellers, the anime is the top rated on TV (they are on season 2 there, by the way), and I’m sure the manga is popular as well. Now that the project has made its way overseas, with the release of .hack//Infection on the PS2 and .hack//SIGN on Cartoon Network (and soon, DVD), those of us in North America get to experience the phenomenon
first hand. The question now is, will it will reach the success that it has experienced in Japan? Only time will tell.

Before beginning the review proper, I’d like to explain the concept of .hack. It is based on a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called “The World”. In the year 2010, “The World” has become the best selling game of any type, with over 20 Million registered users. Something starts going terribly wrong, and people playing the game start ending up in comas, in addition to other server related problems. The company that makes the game, when not trying to cover up what’s happening, blame it on hackers who have introduced a virus into the system. Is that what’s really happening, and if so, why the cover up? This is the basic premise of the .hack universe, to the best of my knowledge. Keep in mind, that I haven’t seen the anime yet, since I’m waiting for it to released on DVD, but I’m glad I have the .hack//SIGN: Login Limited Edition Box Set pre-ordered! Ahem. Anyhow, the entire series focuses on this MMORPG and the problems contained within.

The game .hack//Infection is actually the first of four .hack games. Once you complete the first game, you can save the game and then load your savegame in the second game in the series, .hack//Mutation, and still have everything from the first, much like Arc the Lad. In their grand scheme, Bandai decided to have four episodic games and I believe four seasons of the Anime, but I could be wrong. The games are scheduled to come out every 3 months starting February. Plus, they’re likely to do sequels to the whole thing, so .hack could very well be the biggest crossover phenomenon since Pokemon! Except, marketed to us big kids! So, now that I’ve talked about everything BUT the game, let’s get on with the review, shall we?

Story
The character you play is Kite, an average 8th grader. He is invited to join the world by his schoolmate, Yasuhiko, who goes by the name Orca of the Azure Sea. Orca, a legendary character within “The World”, who takes it so seriously that he gets pissed if he is referred to by his real name, offers to show Kite the ropes since Kite’s new and Orca’s just a nice guy. But it’s in Kite’s very first dungeon that things start to go sour.

While going through the dungeon, Kite and Orca see a ghostly girl being chased by a nasty looking guy with a big spear/cross/thing. They think little of it and continue on their merry way, until the dungeon disappears around them, and the two are in a different place altogether. The ghost girl reappears, gives Orca a book that she says is very powerful, and disappears. Then the nasty guy who was chasing her appears and goes after Orca. Kite’s friend valiantly tries to defend himself and protect Kite, but cannot do any damage to the creature/man. Orca is defeated, and a mysterious woman saves Kite. He is transported to another location, and the book that Orca received from the ghost girl is handed on to our hero. Kite logs off the game and tries to call his friend Yasuhiko to find out what the hell happened, only to find out that he has been in a coma since his game character was defeated.

The rest of the game is trying to answer many questions. Who was the ghost girl? Who was the evil guy who defeated Orca? Who was the lady who saved Kite? What is the book for? Why do I have to wait several weeks for my .hack//SIGN: Login Limited Edition Box Set to arrive? Well, those questions will be answered by the end of the game (except the last one), but there will be more questions by then. So then we’ve got to wait 3 months for the next game. BOO HOO! Just as a note, the story for this game is completely different from the story in the anime series. The anime is based on different characters and it set several years before the PS2 game.

The story as a whole is very intriguing and makes me eager to play the next game in the series, as well as see the anime. It’s quite unique, because I can’t remember playing a game with a story anywhere close to what this one is like. Most games can be lumped into one of several categories, either “save the world” or “save the princess” or “save the princess and the world”. While this game COULD be considered something like that (literally, save “The World”), that isn’t really Kite’s intention. He wants to find out what happened to his friend and find out how to help him. He wants answers, and those answers are in “The World”, so he doesn’t care what happens to it as long as he finds the answers.

Also, the game comes with a special OVA (Original Video Animation, basically direct to video anime) called .hack//Luminality, that is set at the same time as the game, but is set in the real world entirely, and features different characters. Each game comes with a different volume of the series. Volume 1 is The Case of Mai Minase, where a young girl named Mai is introduced to “The World” by her new boyfriend. Much like the case with Kite and Orca, Mai’s boyfriend has a powerful character in the game called Sieg, and together they go to a field so Mai can experience the game, but in this story, both of them end up passing out. Mai wakes up soon after, but her boyfriend does not. With the help of an ex-employee of the company that makes “The World”, she tries to find out exactly what happened by going back into the game with the same circumstances as before. The OVA is a really nice extra to the game, because it’s like a full blown anime DVD release. Bandai could have sold each disc separately for $25, but they were nice and included it with the game. The menus are very similar to the desktop in the game, and it includes several extras like Character Art and Bios, Creator Bios and Interviews, and the opening to .hack//SIGN. I applaud Bandai for including this with the game, because it truly helps draw you into the story.

Gameplay
This game is based on an MMORPG, but is single player. There is no online mode, but everything is there to simulate an online experience. How well did they pull off the experience? It was pulled off splendidly, in my opinion. They did an excellent job in making it feel like it is online and you are playing with other humans. You start out at a desktop of sorts, where you can read your mail, check the real world news (much of which revolves around “The World”), and even change your wallpaper or music playing (note: this starts out limited, but as time goes, you get more wallpapers and sounds). All of this is fine and dandy, but it gets EXTREMELY engrossing to the point where it FEELS like a MMORPG. The only really important part of this area is the Mail, which helps progress the storyline, the Data feature (to save your game) and Login to “The World”, but the other areas are a nice distraction. The news actually has some funny articles, one of which tells of how Bandai is coming out with a new system called the WonderHawk. For those of you that don’t know, Bandai has a decently popular portable console in Japan called the WonderSwan.

Once you log into “The World” servers, your choices there are to Login to the game itself, read the Bulletin Board System (BBS), or quit back to the desktop. The BBS is something that is really cool. It looks like an actual bulletin board on a website, with many different topics and posts. Newbies post questions such as “What does this item do?” and veterans reply with helpful information to that newbie (and you). It’s basically like the in game tutorial. As the story progresses, more posts are added to the board. It gives a nice feel of realism. Plus, they actually improved on reality. On this board, everyone can spell properly and speak using proper grammar, as well as use correct punctuation and capitalization. So, instead of “HELP!!!1 IM Stuk and i cant figur oot were 2 go!!!111″ you get, “Excuse me, I’m having a bit of difficulty in this dungeon, and would appreciate someone giving me advice on how to continue.” And instead of, “hahahah, u suX0r, dam n00b” you get, “Well, if you tell me where you are, I can try to help you out.” Granted, that’s not actually on the board, but it’s an example of some of the posts that are there.

The actual content of the game is played in “The World” itself. The game plays like a real-time or action RPG. There are no separate battle screens and everything is in real time. You can also see the Portals from where the enemies emerge from a distance, so there’s very little surprise. Rather than the standard Magic Points (MP), the game has Skill Points (SP) which function in the same manner as MP. The skills you have equipped are all based on what weapons and armor you have equipped. So if you change weapons, you could lose your cool skill, so it’s good to pay attention to what skills a weapon or armor has before switching. There are some skills are inherent to Kite though. The main one is Data Drain, which you learn a short way into the game. It allows you to weaken
an enemy that has been turned temporarily invincible (or a regular enemy that is almost dead), and in the process, get a Rare item, but less experience from it. Using Data Drain a certain amount of times gives you access to Ryu Books, which keep track of certain game stats, and as you reach milestones in those stats, you can gain access to new desktop images, music and movies (which can only be viewed when you complete the game). But it has a price, because if you use Data Drain too often, it can start having side effects, some positive (like healing and replenishing SP), but most negative. If you use it all the time, it will
eventually kill you.

Your characters gain level ups from defeating enemies , as per usual, but there are a few differences. Unlike most games, your experience is not split amongst the party. Every monster gives out a certain amount to each member of the party, so if you have more members, then there is no penalty. Likewise, it works more like typical MMORPGs in the fact that every level requires 1000 EXP to Level Up, but the higher your level is than the enemies’, the less experience you get for defeating it.

Everything else involving fighting is basically the same as typical dungeon crawl games. Dungeon’s aren’t randomly generated, for the most part, but there’s still chests (some boobytrapped) and items such as boxes and urns to break, and many different items to collect. I know that’s over simplifying things, but none of the actual battle system (other than the aforementioned skills) are innovative. You see a monster appear from a portal, which are scattered around, you walk up to it, and attack it with regular attacks or skills.

One thing that IS innovative is how you gain access to dungeons. There are a certain number of keywords in the game. There are 3 columns you can assign those keywords to. What keyword you assign to what column, and the combinations you make, are what determine what dungeon/field you go to. Most keyword combos you get from the Bulletin Board or from other people, but some you can make up yourself. I think these that you create let you gain access to randomly generated dungeons. It gives it a real feel of being able to play forever, if you wanted, considering the amount of different keywords there are available. But don’t forget, this is just the first of four games.

The last thing I want to touch on is other player characters. Some you meet will join you. You can email them if they’re online and ask them to help out. Also, those player characters can also be given commands, like to have them heal you or attack a certain way. It’s pretty cool how it’s all laid out, and easy to access. But one of the coolest things is trading. Just like with any MMORPG, you can trade with other characters. Whenever you’re in a town, there are several different characters running around, and each one of them has a variety of things to trade. There’s an approval meter at the top of the screen to know if they’ll accept the deal or not. There are at least 30 or more characters that rotate in and out of town, so you have a healthy choice of people to deal with. Some people are looking for only specific items, and others are looking for anything. And since you can trade up to 3 different items of yours, for one item of theirs, you could trade your 99 piles of dog crap for a Sword of Mucho Booty Kicking (TM), or something of the sort. You can even trade with members of your party, but typically it’s better to give them gifts so they like you more. If they like you a lot, they will email you, and you can reply to those emails, which helps make them like you even more.

So to cap off this lengthy area, the dungeon and fighting aspect is pretty
standard for this type of game, but everything else is done so well that, after a while it feels like you’re playing an actual MMORPG. There are times when I’ve wanted to throttle the person I was trading with because he wouldn’t take what I offered, but then I realized, these aren’t real people I’m dealing with, it’s all the computer. Because of this realism, in addition to the ability to access and customize your desktop, receiving and replying to mail, and reading the BBS, there is a very high immersion factor for this game.

Graphics
The graphics in this game are very good, but they aren’t outstanding. They’re pretty standard compared to many games coming out for the PS2 these days. The characters are modeled well, and don’t look blocky like a lot of games using 3D have been, and there is no noticeable aliasing (jaggies). All the cutscenes are done using the same graphic engine, and it works very well. The environment is all 3D as well, and though you can see that some of the objects are blocky, the textures make up for it. One thing that the graphics did exceptionally well is the expressions on the faces of the characters. You can easily tell when
someone is upset or scared. Also, they did a good job of synching the lips to the dialogue.

What really stands out in the graphics department is the character designs. The characters in .hack//Infection, just like .hack//SIGN, were designed by some prominent anime creators, and were designed in conjunction with the anime, so they all have the same feel. It really does look like all the characters were out of the same MMORPG, wearing similar clothes, but having different hair color, etc. The use of color was very well done, with a large array of colors on every character, but never really clashing. A top notch job was done on the designs.

Sound
There are three things to mention here. First, the sounds effects are good, better than many RPGs. There are a lot of different walking sounds, like when walking on dirt or squishing in mud. And the attack sounds are pretty good as well, although Kite’s attack sound reminds me of Lodoss War for the Dreamcast. I have no complaints with the effects since they complement the game exactly the way the should.

The music is interesting, but not exceptional. It is used as it should be, as a background to the game, and doesn’t stick out. The opening intro was interesting, but after that the rest hasn’t been particularly interesting. I think the music works, but it could be better. This is definitely not a soundtrack I would want to buy though.

What truly stands out, sound wise, is the voice acting. Being a big fan of anime in dubbed form (yes, I know, sacrilege), I was happy to be hearing many familiar voices. If you’ve seen Cowboy Bebop, Love Hina, Outlaw Star or Digimon, then you’ll probably recognize just about all of the voices in the game. Bandai used some of their A-list voice actors for the game, which I guess is to be expected. Oh, and if you’re a purist, you can chose to play the game with the Japanese voice acting intact (with or without subtitles).

Fun Factor
There is a whole lot of fun to be had in this game. There are several side quests you can go on, like Goblin Tag and racing through a dungeon to beat someone else’s time. You can also raise a Grunty, which is like a pig, by feeding him different types of Grunty Food, which can be found in fields and dungeons. Once you raise the Grunty to maturity, you can trade with him like any other person.

Also, if you are a collector, then there’s plenty to be collected here. As mentioned before, when you get milestones in the Ryu books, you gain access to new desktop images and music. The images are various artwork for the game, and all can be used as wallpaper for your desktop. The music is various background music you hear in the fields and dungeons, and you can set it as your default desktop music. There is quite a bit of each to unlock during the game.

This game should also appeal to a lot of people because if you want, you can speed through the game within 15 hours, if you don’t want to collect all the bonus stuff, or you can take your time and get everything, and make it last over 30-40 hours. It’s all up to the pace you want to take. Since all your stats and everything transfers over to the next game, it’s probably to your benefit to level up as much as you can, until you get sick of it, just so you can be a total bad ass in .hack//Mutation.

I doubt the replayability of the game won’t be very high, simply because this isn’t the complete story. To get the full effect, you’d have to play through all four games again. If they made an online version of this game, which wouldn’t be too hard since they have a lot of groundwork laid in these games alone, it would be very interesting though, because there are several different character classes, but your character is stuck with Twin Blades, which weaker than Axeman and Blademaster, but stronger than Wavemaster (basically, a magician). If you could choose a class, then you’d have a lot more variety.

Ratings
Gameplay: 9
Graphics: 9
Sound: 8
Fun Factor: 9

Short Attention Span Summary
Fans of action RPGs and dungeon crawl style games will find a lot to like here. It’s got some familiar elements, but is very unique and distinctive. Some people will probably not like the ending, because it is meant to be part one ofa four part series, and leaves you hanging, but that was always the intention.If you’ve seen the anime, then you’ll definitely want the game to be able to get the full experience. As a whole, I’d suggest to any fan of RPGs, including MMORPGs, to rent the game at least. Odds are, you’ll get hooked too.




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