Every now a then, some rumor pops up on the internet about a game that has ignored the boundaries of technology, and entered our world. Be it the ridiculous Tails Doll curse of Sonic R, or the now internet famous haunted Majora's Mask. Things like this are human nature - we like ghost stories, even if most of them are unbelievable. But...what if they were true? what if a game could affect you in your everyday life, even to the point of putting you in a coma? This is the concept that .hack//Infection explores.
In .Hack//'s universe, everyone is playing "The World". It's an MMORPG much like World of Warcraft, or Everquest. It turns out that a handful of players wound up going comatose while playing the game, and after your friend ends up suffering this fate, you set out to discover why, but it turns out that's not the only weird thing going on. Multiple servers are getting hacked, and being implanted with enemies way too strong for the players in those areas. This game comes with a 45 minute DVD titled ".hack//Liminality part 1" and it is intended to be watched prior to starting. This is a lot of information to take in, and I was quite confused for a couple hours, but eventually things came to together and made a little bit more sense. Beyond these strange incidents, you seem to have a special ability to hack the virus infected enemies and revert them to their normal forms.
.hack// successfully emulates an MMORPG without actually being one. Other characters talk among themselves using 1337 speak, and even emoticons. All of these characters can be interacted with, and you can trade items and other such things. This MMO feel extends even to your party. People have lives, so all your friends won't always be online to help you. It pays to keep level balance among members in case someone is busy. There's even a message board you can post on, and read, and it's actually mandatory to progress in the game. You may find keywords that can be entered to reach new areas, or new information on the hacking and viruses.
Combat feels sort of weird at first, but in time it comes natural. The game is somewhat of a dungeon crawler, and battles aren't necessarily random. There are markers placed on the map, and you know when enemies are about to spawn. The weird feeling I mentioned comes from that fact that even if you are right on an enemy, and you press the attack button, it still might miss due to statistics. Magic is cast by opening a window which pauses the action and allows you to select from the list, and then choose a target. It's really a very strategic game, and not hack-and-slash at all. Once you get used to it, combat is actually kind of fun. Let's face it; you can craft the most beautiful story in the world, but if the battle system isn't fun, I'm not going to play your game.
This game is also very challenging at times, and when it is it is very frustrating. This is due to the fact that, as long as you're willing to grind ehre and there, the game can be enjoyed at a fairly relaxed pace, but every now and again The World just decides it doesn't like you, and throws in a difficult boss. I recall one early boss in which I, at level 10, was forced to battle with no party members against an infected enemy. I was tasked with doing over 600 damage with low level spells before I could "data drain(hack)" the enemy and make him more tolerable. Did I mention that he can kill you in around 2 hits? I felt like this was a bit much only a couple hours in, and things like this may put some people off.
The world of "the World" is very pretty to look at, although some of the areas start to resemble one another after a while. The character models look great for a Ps2 game, and they're very well detailed, and animated. .hack// doesn't push the Ps2 to any limits, but that doesn't make it ugly at all.
Musically, I wasn't impressed. The soundtrack isn't really bad, jsut bland and uninteresting. None of the songs really reach out and grab you, and that's very odd for a Japanese RPG. Usually the music is one of the highlights of these games. the good news is the voice acting is on par with that of the anime, and both English and Japanese voice tracks are available.
.hack//Infection is very interesting indeed, and it is also fun to play, if a bit repetitive. This is relatively short for its genre, but this is because it is Part 1 in a 4 part game series that was released over the course of the later half of 2002 and the beginning of 2003. your save data from Infection will carry over to Mutation (Part 2) and the same will happen for Outbreak and Quarantine (Parts 3 and 4 respectively). This data includes your character levels, money, items, and various other data, creating a seamless experience well ahead of its time. In fact, I don't think this kind of thing was really successfully used again until the Mass Effect series. Unfortunately, the last couple of parts are demanding quite the price, so you may have to dish out more than you're expecting to see the final outcome. All in all though, .hack// is solid, and I'd love to see this series come back sometime.