In an industry plagued with sequels, spin-offs, prequels and more, it is surprising, and certainly refreshing, when a developer attempts to introduce a completely fresh title to the market. This is especially true when it comes to RPGs, as most games in the genre are sequels or prequels to something else. .hack infection part 1 is based on Japanese anime and manga, but this will be the first installment of the story in the video game medium. What makes .hack so much different from other RPG titles, or any game for that matter, is its basic approach. The game will be split between two realities; a ‘real’ world, in which players navigate a desktop PC, and an online game world, aptly named "The World". Gameplay will be focused on both areas, but the meat of the project is in The World, a game within a game, reportedly very similar to current MMORPGs such as Everquest. In The World, players can battle enemies, gain experience levels, buy weapons and armor, even items, just like most every other RPG on the market. However, the difference here is in the unstated perception that your character in The World is just an avatar for your ‘real’ character, who exists in ‘real’ life.
When your 'real life' character is invited into The World by a friend, you are drawn into a world that is amazing, and dangerous. There is a virus circulating throughout The World, infecting certain areas, characters, and even the people playing the game in real life. Shortly after, your friend is also affected by the in game virus, and you set off to investigate The World to track down the virus. In order to do so, you must walk a fine line between The World, an imaginary game space, and the real world, looking for clues in both places and putting the pieces together.
When navigating the real world, the only landscape is that of a PC with a handful of navigational tools on the desktop. You can access your e-mail by selecting the Mailer icon, Internet news by selecting the News icon, as well as Accessory, Audio, and Data icons. Accessory and Audio allow you to simply change the wallpaper and sound settings on your PC, while Data is where you’ll save and load games. The Mailer and News icons are actually vital to gameplay, as you will need to uncover clues sent to you via e-mail or discussed on newscasts.
There is another icon on your real world PC, which is basically just a shortcut to open The World on your computer. Once you use this icon, you will be transported to the game’s main menu, which has three options: Log In, Board, and Quit. Log In allows you to access The World, while Board lets you browse a gaming forum dedicated to the game. These forums are yet another important are of the game, as you will meet other players participating in the game, some of whom may have valuable information. It is also another way of progressing the story, by passing along certain supplemental plot elements. Finally, if you select Quit, you will be transported back to the real world of your PC desktop.
Once you log in to The World, you will be able to play the game like it were any other online game, interacting with other characters, enemies, etc. However, the gameplay mechanics of .hack are quite different from the standard ATB battles found in most modern RPGs. All battles are real time 3D, though you can pause the battle to activate special commands, items, etc. from the menu if you wish. Also, once in The World, you can access various locales by using gates different servers, which host different parts of The World. Access to these servers is granted by code word clearance, and you can obtain the code words either through playing the game in The World or by scouring the forums. Speaking of the game forums, this is where you go to interact with other players and parties you meet in The World. You can talk with them, and some may wish to form an alliance, depending on your actions in the game world.
Where the game earns its name is in the extended aspects of the gameplay. While the combat in the game will be fairly straightforward, techniques acquired throughout will gradually allow you to ‘hack’ your way into the game world, allowing you to bypass security lockouts on various servers, corrupt enemy data, and more. How, and more importantly how often, you use these more advanced skills will affect The World in different ways, ranging from fun to quite unpleasant, creating a neat little ironic balance to the game.
Since .hack is based on anime and manga, it is only natural that the in game graphics be equally influenced. Expect heavy doses of anime and manga influenced graphics and sound. If you want the full anime effect you may want to make use of the option to play the game with the Japanese voice acting, or you can play with an all-English soundtrack as well. There will also be an option for subtitles in both English and Japanese as well.
Overall, .hack infection part 1 may seem gimmicky, but it promises to freshen up what many believe to be a stale genre. With a rather unique approach to game design, layout, and story, .hack will be nothing if not interesting. Look for Bandai to ship .hack sometime during quarter 1, 2003.
12/5/2002 Ryan Hartmann