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.hack Part 1: Infection

There’s nothing quite like the MMORPG genre. Famous for their addictive nature and their sometimes frightening devotees, these games continue to grow in popularity each year. Stereotypes about the genre say that all you do is fight generic enemies, explore boring areas, and all the while trying to accomplish the never-ending quest of getting the best gear. Diehard fans adamantly deny this, or they at least try to. They’re usually too busy playing to do anything else. Trust me; I was like that a while ago.

.Hack Part 1: Infection is the first of a four game series (each one is sold separately, of course) and the whole series employs a unique gimmick to draw the gamer in. It’s a game within a game, and the back of the box says you play through a “simulated MMORPG” AKA the whole game is offline. .Hack takes place in the year 2008, where a popular MMORPG called “The World” is dominating the sales charts with over 20 million copies sold. You play as a young boy, who is in turn playing as a character in “The World” named Kite. Confused yet? It gets worse.

Anyways, when the boy starts to play the game with a veteran friend of his a virus breaks out and “kills” his friend’s character, and in turn the friend suffers a real-life coma that he can’t wake up from. Kite does exactly what I hope my friends would do if I was in a coma; play a videogame to find out how to cure me.

The storyline tries to be serious, but it all falls flat when you realize these are just people playing a game. Why is that guy acting like he’s sacrificing his life for me? Why does that annoying boy cry about not being liked by a girl he plays with? It’s a videogame! All of these characters need to go outside for a walk or something. I guess this could be considered “realism” considering some of the scary people I’ve met through online games, but this silliness leaves a lot to be desired in the narrative.

Maybe it’d be easier to care about the characters if there was some decent real-world interaction. You never actually see the faces behind “The World” characters, and the only action that takes place outside of the game is checking your e-mail, reading the forum, and perusing the occasional news article. “Kite” never does anything away from his computer, so it’s hard to relate to anything going on.

The gameplay doesn’t fare much better than the silly storyline. The heart of most RPG’s, whether online or not, is the combat, but at least that manages to be one of better parts of .Hack . It’s typical hack-and-slash in which you control the main character, and give simplified commands to the other two party members. It’s fast-paced and never really bores, but the poor camera angles makes things disorienting. You can change it on the fly, though you’ll still often find yourself hammering the attack button without doing anything because the enemies are too far away.

Overall, the combat is a mixed bag, but it certainly stands strong when compared to appalling tediousness of the whole game. You explore dungeon after dungeon after dungeon while slowly advancing the story. I know that there are plenty of RPG’s that follow the same formula, but at least those games have the decency to vary the styles of the dungeons. That certainly isn’t the case in .Hack because each one of the dungeon feels exactly the same aside from the minor changes in the visuals. There’s no puzzles, no variety, and most importantly, no fun. It’s like the developers were trying to parody a flaw in MMORPG’s by magnifying it and making it as outrageous as possible, but if this is a parody then somebody has a sadistic sense of humor.

As frustrating as the monotony is how little the “offline online-RPG” angle is utilized. There are some staples of the genre in this offline game, such as trading and characters using annoying emoticons but aside from that there isn’t much else. You only see a couple characters outside of the town, and those are only in scripted events. Should there be other people whacking monsters with their sword and whatnot? Did those 20 million subscribers just buy the game so they can lounge around the town like homeless people?

Graphically, the results are decidedly mixed. The dungeons look and feel so bland, but there are some in-game cutscenes that are artistically stunning. Sadly, these scenes are few and far between, but at least the music and voice acting delivers on all levels. The cast is composed of veterans of various anime shows, so things sound absolutely professional. The music also manages to impress with a variety of soothing melodies, engaging battle music and foreboding dungeon crawling tunes. It’s just a shame about the gameplay.

Even with most of the sidequests completed, .Hack only clocked in at around 13 hours. I can’t imagine spending more than 20 hours on this game to complete even most of the most mind-numbing sidequests. There is no shortage of areas to explore, but they are all nearly identical with little incentive to explore. Apparently the company behind this game realized how short the package is, because they through in a decent 45 minute anime that manages to be better than the whole game. Go figure.

It definitely isn’t a good sign when the first game of a four-part series falls so flat. The most disturbing thing about .Hack is how short it is. Perhaps the whole series, or at least two of the games, could have easily fit on one disc. If the obvious ploy to quadruple profits isn’t enough to turn you off from buying this game, then the mind-numbing repetition probably will. Only give this one a rental if you’re an RPG fanatic because your money would be better spent on a game with an actual ending.

5 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003. Get in touch on Twitter @akarge.

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