.hack Part 4: Quarantine
.hack Quarantine is a fascinating, baffling, enjoyable, infuriating, imaginative and yet bland game that has proved to be one of the trickiest that I have ever had to review and score.
The reason? Well, .hack Quarantine is the final chapter in a four part series including Outbreak, Mutation and Infection. The game takes the form of a simulated MMORPG (“Massively Multiplayer Online RPG” ) in which you control a character called Kite, in a game known as “The World”. Over the prior instalments a story develops which involves some kind of corruption occurring in “The World” and this affects not only the real life players but also starts disrupting the electronics systems elsewhere on earth. The reason the game proved so hard to judge was that I had not played the previous three games.
If your journey into the .hack story starts with this last instalment then you’ll need to be a fairly hardcore RPG player. Although you start at a nice high level, with plenty of cash and good equipment, you quickly find two situations that might stymie a more casual player. First of all, your character must use his “hacking” skills to access a “forbidden” server; a great concept but this is not explained either in the game, or in the manual and only by sifting through tons of “e-mails” and “forum posts”, that you can read when you “log out” of “The World” will you stumble across the way to do it.
Once this hurdle has been crossed, you come up against a Boss battle that seems impossible to win, as the creature takes almost no damage from your attacks. Only by using another “hacking” technique, can you prevail. The acquisition of this was obviously a big deal in a prior game but it is not obvious to a newcomer. Consequently, I found myself gazing at the Game Over screen more times than I have ever done for any other game I have played in the last few years.
The actual concept of the .hack series is rather a good one. The idea of using videogame characters to battle a computer virus in a virtual environment is extremely cool. Nice effects, like glitching screens and whirling streams of numbers on the “corrupted” server, lend a great deal of atmosphere. The other players, who you never see, have been well characterised, from the nervous newbie, who uses their real name, to the demented role-player who bombards you with scary e-mails. Someone must also have had a blast writing the “forum posts” and WEB news.
However, although initially very exciting, the lack of variety in the battling and environs does start to tell after 20 or so hours. Each place you fight is a randomly generated field with a treasure dungeon in the midst of it. And after you have seen around ten, you have seen them all. It also has some unforgivably long boss battles, some taking 40+ minutes to complete, winning not being down to skill but by having enough healing potions to outlast the enemy in a war of attrition. The in-game camera also causes concern. Because fighting is in real time not turn based, you have run about targeting and fighting using a lock-on system. But the camera controlled by the right analogue stick is very sensitive and losing track of faster enemies becomes aggravatingly commonplace.
Once the hacking concepts have been mastered, the game becomes somewhat easier. The style is similar to Sega’s Phantasy Star Online. “Players” gather in a hub city and you make a party to investigate the field area and fight through the dungeon to either a Boss or treasure. The AI does a reasonably good job of simulating intelligent responses from your team mates. You order them in battle to use skills, magic, healing etc and most of the time they won’t let you down. (Just on a side note, as a “Massively Multiplayer Online RPG” its actually extremely basic, offering not one whit of the depth of genuine present day “persistent world games” such as Everquest, Lineage 2 or World of Warcraft, which may explain why it starts to feel so repetitive after a while).
The nice thing about playing .hack Quarantine alone is that pretty much every sub-quest is there and optional character is available to recruit from the prior games, so this episode seems to be very eventful. However, reports from players, who recruited all the characters in prior games, seem to suggest that, as a finale, Quarantine is a let-down, with too much reliance on forcing the player to find virus cores to unlock the next story related section.
It becomes difficult to score Quarantine in the final analysis. Played on its own it is a tricky, but exciting game, based on a great concept, let down by poor controls, lack of varied environments and very tough Boss Battles. As the end of a series it brings nothing new to the table and those who have played through the prior three chapters will be disappointed that no new elements have been added, making it somewhat a chore to reach the admittedly exciting ending.
If you have not experienced .hack before, then it may be wise to start with this and part three of the series, Mutation. That way you’ll experience most of the significant events of the plot without feeling to much of the drudgery the gameplay can sometimes devolve into. All four games are available at budget price, each packaged with a rather splendid manga DVD which takes the .hack story even further. As a concept, .hack is a great one, but perhaps one which should not have been stretched past two games at the most.