In theory, .hack is an absolutely wonderful idea for a game. You play as someone who is playing a game. It's a novel concept, and the backstory behind it is very interesting. Unfortunately, the game your character is playing just isn't all that amazing. Shoddy controls, poor pacing, and a great deal of monotony overshadow most of the game's more interesting aspects. .hack has the potential to achieve greatness as the series progresses, but as it stands, part one is a merely average game.
.hack's main faults lie in its overly repetitive gameplay. The entire game is spent traversing random dungeons to gain levels and progress the plot. This isn't a problem in itself, as it has been accomplished with great success in games such as Diablo and Phantasy Star Online. The problem with .hack is it's astounding lack of variety in dungeon layouts. There are under a dozen different room types used, with each dungeon being assembled from these pieces. After a couple hours of playing, you'll start to recognize the rooms instantly. Oh, here's the four-way junction! OK, now we're in the U-shaped room! This wouldn't be so bad if the dungeons themselves at least looked different, but alas, there are a scant few decorative schemes present, and you WILL see each of these themes several times each throughout the game. As a result, you will most likely feel as if you are playing the same dungeon over and over again.
Combat in .hack is both overly simple and clunky. It's highly reminiscent of Phantasy Star Online, yet it lacks the multiple hit combos and weapon variety of that game. Instead, your character is confined to one type of weapon throughout the entire game, with upgraded version looking and handling exactly alike. The only differences lie in the weapon's statistical attributes. This takes all of the excitement out of acquiring a powerful new weapon, something that is generally a large part of the fun in games of this type. Combat consists almost entirely of running up to an enemy and pressing the attack button over and over, with no real strategy. When you get low on health or you want to cast a spell, you can open up the menu at any time and do as you wish. This also pauses the game, and items are used as soon as you press the confirm button. This essentially removes the difficulty from almost every fight, as you can heal as much as you like as long as you have a lot of potions. You can also pause the game to issue simple orders to your party members, such as "Use skills" or "First aid". Fortunately, the AI-controlled party members generally do as they're told. Overall, the battle system is repetitive, just like the rest of the game.
The visuals in .hack come in two flavors. The first of these is the cutscene graphics, which are fantastic. The first time you see Kite perform the Data Drain, you will more than likely be quite pleased. Unfortunately, this doesn't carry over to the actual in-game graphics. While crawling through the dungeons or exploring towns, your characters are incredibly blocky and blandly textured. The environments themselves aren't much better, for the most part. The two towns in the game are fairly interesting, but the dungeons are quite insipid. The textures are exactly the same for every room of any given dungeon, and they are poorly done on top of it. Given that the story segments are few and far between in .hack, you'll often be left to stare and the bland dungeon graphics for hours on end.
Even with its dull gameplay, .hack could've been a truly compelling experience if it had contained a deep, interesting story. Instead of that, however, .hack presents the player with an incredible concept and limitless potential for a plot, then totally drops the ball when it comes to execution. Early on in the game, the plot progresses at a rapid pace, presenting the player with numerous mysteries to unravel. As a newbie to a popular online game called "The World", you are being shown around by your friend Yasuhiko, who is an experienced player. During a seemingly routine trip through a low-level dungeon, he is attacked by a monster that he cannot damage. His character, Orca, disappears from the game, and you find out that he has fallen into a coma in the real world. This is essentially the opening of the game. Unfortunately, the plot really doesn't progress any further than that. New characters are introduced, but few of them seem to have any significance to the main storyline. The game ends without ever having revealed new information, which makes for a very unfulfilling experience. Future episodes of the series may very well correct this fault, but for now, .hack's story is nothing more than a very good idea that has yet to see it's full potential realized.
Controlling .hack often ends up becoming an exercise in frustration. The main problem lies in the camera. Almost every battle you engage in will result in at least one of the enemies being offscreen and launching ranged attacks at you. The camera does not adjust itself to keep your character in view, and there is no lock-on targeting, which is unacceptable in a 3D action RPG. This often results in having to run around in circles while trying to manipulate the camera so you can find your enemies. This makes combat even more of a chore. There is also an option to play the game in first person mode, using the dual analog stick setup that is common in most console FPSs. This is fine in theory, but it's impossible to move and attack at the same time when your right thumb is required to press the X button and turn your character with the analog stick all at the same time.
The sound and music in .hack is of varying quality. The music is generally forgettable. It does its job and isn't annoying, but none of it is worth listening to outside of the game. One interesting feature of the game is the voice acting can be set to either English or Japanese, which is great for anyone who dislikes dubbed voiceovers. The English voices are decent, but nothing special, and the Japanese voices were, well, Japanese. Because of that, there is no way for me to accurately judge their quality. They aren't annoying, though, which is a good thing.
Overall, .hack is fairly disappointing, simply because it doesn't live up to its enormous potential. The core gameplay is too repetitive and the story doesn't ever take off like it should. It hints at good things to come in future installments of the series, but when taken as a stand-alone game, .hack//INFECTION is nothing more than a very average dungeon hack.
© 2003 Bandai