Before I was a fan of the anime Sword Art Online (see my review of the latest movie here), I got my first taste of the “VR MMO” genre of anime with the series .hack//SIGN. It captured my imagination as a young teenager and hooked me for the entirety of the series. So when the sequel games were released on the PlayStation 2, I jumped at the chance to get them.
Designed to be simulated MMORPGs that offer wide variation and open gameplay (to an extent), they had huge scope. However, the big question is, do they achieve their potential or just end up being fit for the bargain bin? Well, today we are going to look at the first in the series, .hack//Infection, and find out!
The base storyline of .Hack//Infection revolves around a VR MMORPG called The World. You play as Kite, who joins the game for the first time to play with his real life friend. However, something strange happens in the game and his friend ends up in a comma. This sets up the mystery and intrigue that permeates the entire series, as you try to find out what is causing players to fall into commas when playing the game.
Unlike other similar anime, such as Sword Art Online, the players aren’t trapped in the game. Instead, the storyline is actually expanded upon outside of the game through simulated message boards and forums. This adds a sense of realism to the plot, as you get to see various different “people” discussing events, theories and also rumours about things in The World. You also get access to side missions and quests through the message boards as well.
All of this adds up to a very unique and original storyline that, whilst the base plot bares similarity to Sword Art Online, really stands on its own as something different. The way that the story is revealed to you is also a stroke of genius. You l be dragged into The World, kicking and screaming. But then, you’ll be so intrigued and immersed in the plot that you won’t want to leave. That just goes to show how great the storyline really is.
Being that .Hack//Infection is a simulated MMORPG, the gameplay is effectively a hack and slash action RPG. You are free to run around the world, exploring the various dungeons, until you come into combat with an enemy. At that point, the game switches to “battle mode”, and you can start fighting in the open world as well. Whilst the enemies aren’t visible on the map at all times, you can see where they are by locating the giant yellow circles hovering just above the ground. These will “burst” when you get close enough, spewing out the enemies.
From a technical stand point, this was a very clever idea. It means that the area maps can be made larger without the risk of frame rate drop from having all of the enemies moving around at all times. It also means that you only need to fight a certain amount of enemies and can avoid the others.
Another clever gameplay mechanic that the developers put into .Hack//Infection to simulate the idea of an MMO is the fact that not every character will be “online” at all times. Sometimes, you might try to invite a character to your party, only to find that they are “offline” and not logged into the game. This makes it feel more like you are playing with real people and is a brilliant touch in terms of immersion.
The final thing to talk about when it comes to gameplay is the fact that, once you have weakened an enemy enough, you can use a special ability that Kite gains to hack into and rewrite the code of the enemy. This will turn them into a different creature that is usually easy to kill but moves very fast. When you do kill this new creature, you’ll get items called Virus Cores which are needed to unlock certain areas in the game.
In terms of graphical style, .Hack//Infection takes an anime style. Each character is models as though they were from an anime or manga, and some of the attack animations are as over the top as you would expect from an action anime. Speaking of the animations, everything feels very smooth and carefully crafted. Even the UI when you are “logged out” from The World is wonderful. As a teenager, I wanted to find a way to make my PC’s operating system replicate the fake Altimit operating system from the game.
However, its not all roses. The major fault I have with the game graphically is the design of the various game areas around dungeons. In the dungeons, everything feels like it should for a dungeon. But when you are in the above-ground area before you get into a dungeon, everything feels very empty.
This is, in part, due to the clever enemy spawning mentioned above. However, there also aren’t many landmarks or environmental elements in the area. You might come across a random tree or oasis, but for the most part, you are running through a flat and empty location trying to get to the dungeon. So that can be a bit disappointing when you consider how great the other elements of the game’s graphics are.
And That’s All Folks
In the end, .Hack//Infection is a thoroughly brilliant game in terms of storyline and gameplay. It is definitely one of the better RPGs on the PS2 and that says a lot! Whilst it is let down by some of the area design, most of the game looks and feels great whilst you are playing it too. Once you get started with .Hack//Infection, you’ll fall in love with the game. I would definitely recommend it!
Have you played any of the .Hack// games? Let me know what you thought of them in the comments below!