Virtual reality at its deadliest.
What happens when a virtual reality console meets an MMO? One would imagine a fully immersed experience as a result. What happens, then, when a virus wreaks havoc on the servers and users of the MMO? In .Hack//Infection, Kite, an MMO avatar, must traverse the lands of The World – the name of the popular VRMMO – to find a means to save his friend, Orca. What ensues is an epic adventure with mortality as a prize or punishment.
To detail the narrative a little further, Kite joins The World, a brand new and innovative virtual reality massively-multiplayer online role playing game (VRMMORPG). The virtual reality head set, I imagine, is similar to the PlayStation VR or the Oculus Rift; it acts as almost a console in itself and allows the user to access e-mails, internet news, and desktop/music options. Once Kite logs in to the game, he joins up with his friend, the avatar Orca, and joins him on a sweet adventure. It doesn’t take long before a virus enters the server, corrupting the boss enemy. When Orca attempts to battle the beastie to protect his noob friend, he is swiftly defeated, which sends his real life player into a deep coma. From there, Kite searches for a remedy for his fallen friend, acquiring new companions, weapons, and abilities in the process.
Gameplay is where the .hack series divides gamers. Some gamers, myself included, absolutely love the style of play. Others, however, grow tired of the hack-and-slash + ability usage formulaic dungeon crawling blend of gameplay that essentially makes up the four games in the initial saga. To elucidate what I mean: .hack//Infection follows Kite as he traverses dungeons with two party members. Near the beginning of the game, Kite finds a piece of gear that allows him to hack enemies and world gates. He uses this ability mostly to hack his way into locked servers, but it becomes useful during virus-infected boss fights (or really tough enemies). In order to explore the world of The World, the player must string together three unrelated words, opening a portal to whatever location he/she just designated. Once there, the player can roam the world or enter the sole dungeon (or toss an item into a pond to be greeted by a very strange face where, essentially, the player can upgrade gear or obtain a golden or silver axe). The point of exploring these areas is to obtain lock keys (through hacking specific enemies) that enable Kite to successfully hack into the aforementioned locked zones.
The majority of combat time will be spent within dungeons. Kite & friends wander the depths of a near infinite number of dungeons (the word combinations allow for a large amount of exploration should the player desire). Regardless of if the task at hand is a side-quest, free roam, or main storyline scenario, almost the entirety of .hack//Infection will take place in some form of a dungeon. Fighting within these dungeons is pretty much a hack-and-slash, as I already stated. The player mashes a button to do physical attacks or selects an ability/magic spell. Kite also has access to party commands, so he can issue orders to the other members of his group. This is useful during extremely tough battles (and there are plenty of those), where Kite can choose what abilities his party will use or simply request healing or damaging spells.
In between exploration and battles, Kite returns to the hub city of Mac Anu on Delta server. In Mac Anu, Kite can shop, speak with NPCs, or meet up with friends. For the majority of .hack//Infection, Kite spends his time in Mac Anu and Delta server. He does dabble in Theta server, but the real exploration of servers doesn’t begin until later in the series. Anyway, Mac Anu serves as The World’s ‘noob’ server and is an appropriate (and cool) setting to begin the game.
The true question I had for .hack//Infection is whether the game truly feels like an MMO. Obviously, with NPCs running around as alleged player characters programmed with a set response, the game can never feel like a real MMO. But if you ignore that small and unavoidable blunder, the rest of The World feels pretty legit. The hub cities, while pre-scripted, offer a large number of player characters who seemingly roam at random (some of them you can’t even talk to, so I suppose that makes up for the pre-scripted ones). What really stands out, though, at least in my mind, is the ability to peruse the forums of The World. Not only does reading through the comments in the forum provide useful story and side-quest information, but you can learn a lot about the lore, world, characters, and players that populate the game.
In my humble opinion, the largest drawback of the .hack series is the four disc saga. I don’t disapprove of having four discs. I enjoy the nostalgia of it. The problem that I do have, however, is that each disc cost full price to purchase. Now, I understand; each disc is an entire game, sure; but it was all the same storyline. Lost Odyssey was a mammoth, four disc game on the Xbox 360, but Microsoft didn’t split it four ways for four separate profits. With all of this said, I thoroughly enjoyed the .hack series and procured each copy.
.hack//Infection was the flagship title in a series that went on to span seven discs in the U.S. (not including any Japanese releases). Conceptually, the idea of a game set in an MMO world was pretty unique for the time. The soundtrack was pretty solid, and the voice acting wasn’t a disaster. Where the game ultimately lost fans, however, was in its potentially repetitive gameplay. If combat staleness isn’t necessarily a problem, the player will then be able to fully submerse him/herself in an interesting narrative and enjoyable characters.
Note: The .hack series is a pretty expensive endeavor to indulge in if you don’t already own the games. Buying all of the games new will run extremely high in price, and even the used copies are difficult to come across. I thoroughly enjoyed the games and would recommend them only if you know you’ll share the same enjoyment.