Dot.Hack Part 1: Infection Review
Imagine, if you will, deciding to spend time with a friend online playing an RPG. Your friend is pretty well-known in the online RPG world and has promised to show you the ropes. You meet up with him, learn the basics of the game, and then meet up with a terrifying monster that your friend swears is not supposed to be in the area that you're exploring. What's worse, the monster seems surrounded by some kind of computer graphics that make you think that you jacked into The Matrix. Heroically, your friend tells you to run away before you're killed. The monster systematically destroys your friend and you finally do get the wits about you enough to run. Obviously, your first experience in the new online RPG, "The World", makes you wonder whether it was worth the money for the software in the first place. Things get worse, however; the next day, you find out that your friend now lies in a real-life coma. How did this happen? Is this a coincidence? What forces are at work here?
Such begins .hack//INFECTION, the first in a series of four games scheduled for release over the next year. The .hack games are action RPGs at their cores, which take place in a simulated Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG, for short) environment. Most of INFECTION is spent battling monsters and plundering treasure, both above ground and within dungeon deeps. As with most RPGs, characters gain levels by defeating monsters and improve their stats, such as maximum Hit Points (HP) and Skill Points (SP). One thing that traditional RPG players will like is that experience points are not split up among party members; that means that each member of your party will get the maximum amount of experience points. That encourages adding members to your party to making exploring safer and easier.
INFECTION puts you in the role of Kite, the MMORPG newbie, as it were, as you try to delve deeper into "The World" and find out what happened to your good friend. In order to get clues, you'll have to peruse message boards and read your e-mail, just like you might in any good online RPG. The whole MMORPG feel is definitely alive in INFECTION, even if it might not be as realistic as some fans might like—especially in the random reactions of some non-player characters (NPCs) and limited choices of party members, but for simulating an online RPG without actually having to be online, it's not bad at all. The importance of checking message boards and e-mail is multi-pronged: you can get hints to opening new areas, defeating certain monsters, maintaining relationships with other party members, and more.
Before you start adventuring, though, you'll meet up with other characters in town and prepare to set out. You can talk to other NPCs, buy and/or sell weapons, spells, and items, and save your progress. NPCs will offer to trade certain rare items for certain other items that you may (or may not) have obtained in your travels. You should be aware, however, that you usually have to buy items for your party and must actually give the items to them... INFECTION is not set up with options to equip other members of your party. Some NPCs may also offer up "keywords", which are used to open up new areas.
Keywords are the root of opening new areas to explore in .hack. Three different keywords are needed in order to open up an area, and these keywords can be obtained in several different ways. Usually, the keywords are obtained in their proper order so that areas can automatically be opened up. There's also a list of keywords that the game accumulates over the life of your adventure, and it's possible to randomly put some together to see what happens. This option isn't really recommended, however, until your characters become fairly powerful. Also, there are some keywords that randomly appear within the .hack anime movie which is included with the game. These words pop up during the movie and they're easy to miss—so you'll have to watch with a close eye. These keywords help to set the stage for the strength of the monsters which inhabit the area, the elemental qualities of the monsters, the depth of the dungeon, and other variables.
Once you enter an area, there aren't really random encounters, per se. Monsters appear from various portals (which can be made visible if a certain item is used) and that's when the action RPG form of the game comes into play. Battles take place in real-time, with skillful movement needed to hack away at enemies while taking care not to get sliced and diced in the process. Magic, skills, and items can also be used during battle; this requires opening menus and might initially be a bit uncomfortable in the heat of battle, but it does get easier with time. The biggest problem with battles lies in the game's passive camera system. The camera must constantly be adjusted during battle in order to keep all enemies in sight, and this becomes far too cumbersome at times. The camera also becomes a problem as you travel and have to constantly adjust the camera to see doors and other features. Unfortunately, this camera problem probably won't be addressed for the rest of the series, either. Even after getting used to adjusting the camera, it's likely that many players (myself included) will wish that a more active camera had been implemented.
Since we've addressed the camera issue, let's talk about INFECTION's visuals. Straight away, the character designs in INFECTION are really quite a sight. They're quite detailed and colorful. The monster designs are considerably less impressive, save for a few boss battles. There also aren't a lot of different monsters to see, either. The random exploration levels are fairly bland, with blurred distance drawing and generally unimpressive objects. The dungeons, however, look much better, with venues ranging from castle-like walls to an almost alien-like interior (complete with squishy floor). Towns also boast decent texturing and have a few other well-detailed objects.
INFECTION boasts some very good music, complemented by decent voiceover work. The music boasts a few symphonic melodies to go with several vocal pieces and relaxing exploration music. The battle pieces are passable, although not as memorable as, say, Final Fantasy battle music has been over the years. There's a considerable amount of spoken dialogue, with much of it being fairly well-done. For anime fans, Bandai has decided to leave the original Japanese voiceover work as a selectable option in the game.
It's hard to grade INFECTION because it's the first part of a continuing series and, as such, raises more questions than answers with regards to the story. In order to complete this first chapter's storyline, many players should expect to spend about 25 hours. Once the story is finished, though, you have the option of continuing to level up your players and save the data to a memory card for use with the next .hack title, called MUTATION, which is due come May 2003. It's not the longest RPG around, but when the other chapters become available, the value of INFECTION to set the stage for upcoming .hack chapters will certainly increase. The passive camera, relatively short lifespan, and uninspired monster designs do drag this game's score down a bit... however, .hack attempts to try something new in the RPG genre, and RPG fans who are looking for something a little bit different might indeed be pleasantly surprised by INFECTION. I was certainly surprised by the game, but at the same time, can't totally ignore its flaws.
3/10/2003 Peter Skerritt