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PS2 Review: .hack//INFECTION

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Remember the good old days when hackers simply wanted fame or fortune? Or even hacked simply for kicks? Unfortunately viruses and hacking have taken a turn for the worse – much worse – in the .hack saga.

.hack//INFECTION is the first of a four part game series that is, in turn, part of an overarching .hack saga that includes other artistic expressions – most notably several anime series. Infection and subsequent games are not merely a retelling of the anime, but a unique entry into the .hack canon – adding its own distinctiveness to the collective.

The story is told over all four games and is intentionally dark and mysterious, so do not expect much in the way of grand revelations. Infection does have distinct starting/end points and plot twists, so it can stand on its own merit, but it will leave most players wanting more.

Kite is an average eighth grade kid who finally decides to login to the ultimate MMORPG – The World – which has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. His real-life friend, Orca, decides to take Kite under his wing and show him the ropes.

In their very first dungeon outing, Orca is attacked by a mysterious monster and killed. Normally a character death is not much cause for concern, but this unusual event also causes the real-life friend to lapse into a coma. Naturally Kite is concerned and is quickly caught up in events beyond his control. He obtains the unique ability to Data Drain monsters which assures that he will play a major role in uncovering just what is happening within The World.

This investigation occurs through a simulated message board, emailing NPCs, making friends, exploring safe capitals, and conquering dungeon areas. The cities are littered with talkative NPCs, item shops, storage dumps, etc. All the elements of an MMORPG, minus the monthly fee.

Infection is an instanced based ARPG. Kite and his group travel on an overworld map and encounter enemies, which seamlessly launches battle mode. In battle mode, the player controls Kite in real time (with pauses for menus) and the AI controls his companions. The AI can be influenced in its attack style by a series of overarching commands, but can also be directly ordered if necessary.

Battles are usually fast, frantic, and fun. The AI does a decent job of following orders, and is usually adept at staying alive. Controls are spot on (save for a completely manual camera that should have been a “smart” camera) with good shortcuts for all the major necessary actions.

Kite can recruit other players in The World by interacting with them or fulfilling certain sidequests. Once recruited, these characters can be chosen to fill in the two spots in Kite’s party, but, just as in real life, some players logoff and are not always available. Each character is locked into a certain class, each with the expected strengths and weaknesses.

Characters level up in the traditional manner, but the game is designed so that there is a soft upper limit to the max level that can be reached in this first installment. Characters gain experience for each enemy defeated, but the amount of experience decreases as characters gain levels, ala Suikoden.

This experience limitation was implemented because save data can be transferred between all four games, giving veterans access to better equipment and higher levels, but a limit was needed to prevent players from over-leveling in the first adventure. Players can still continue to level after the story is finished, but serious powerleveling quickly becomes difficult.

Notably, the game is packaged with a 45 minute anime DVD that is unique to this game. The events of the anime coincide with Kite’s quest and lend a real-world perspective to The World’s happenings. There are also unlockables for customization, and most will be found naturally in the course of the game. Infection also sports a pet raising system in which Kite can gather food for his Grunty. What food he feeds it will ultimately determine the nature of the Grunty.

However, Infection does have its share of difficulties and frustrations. Most prominent is the fact that story event dungeons usually have a treasure at the end of the dungeon. Oddly, once the story event is initiated and completed, Kite et al are transported out of the dungeon. Without the treasure. Of course, monsters respawn, so if you want that treasure be prepared to trek through the dungeon again.

Infection is also quite short for an RPG, clocking in at under 20 hours. While some RPGs can get away with being short, knowing that there are three more games immediately following Infection can bring frustration and pain to the wallet. This seems more marketing gimmick than anything as much more content could have been included in each release. Adding further insult, there is almost no replay value once the main story and side quests are completed.

Visually, Infection sports a believable MMORPG style world. There are obvious anime influences, but cut-scenes are rendered with the in-game engine. Environments are detailed and varied according to the atmosphere. Aurally, Infection renders a good soundtrack that provides a fine complement to the visual styling.

As an added bonus, players can choose between the original Japanese voice acting or the English dub created by Bandai. Veteran anime watchers will likely recognize familiar voice actors, and the dub is good effort by professionals, much better than many game voice-overs.

As for the recommendation, it is hard to recommend Infection by itself since it intricately ties into the rest of the series. However, Infection can easily be used as a barometer to test interest before investing further. The concept is very original, the battle system is enjoyable, and the story is mysterious. A must play for fans of the anime, and recommended for ARPG-lovers looking for something original and unique.

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