MMORPG without the MMO or a fun RPG
Compulsion is gamers’ nicotine. It’s our drug, our dark side. We’re suckers for a dangling digital carrot. We’ll willingly bang our heads against a thousand different brick walls if it means our Gamerscore will improve. Whatever our aim might be, the most compulsive games give us the misguided sense that we might accomplish the nearly impossible (or at least the senselessly difficult). They convince us that if we find every hidden item and outperform every other player, we will ultimately reach gaming nirvana. All we need do is freely sacrifice our time and sanity.
[image1]The mother of all compulsive games is the MMORPG. If you’ve tasted an MMORPG, you’ve also likely imagined yourself sitting in some dark alley rotting in your own filth, jonesing for that next “lvl” or that last piece of your armor collection. As a faux-MMORPG, .hack//G.U. Vol. 3//Redemption preys on our gaming compulsions and leaves us regretting ever having tried to satisfy them.
Conceptually, the .hack series is brilliant. The game is presented as an MMORPG, or more precisely, it’s presented as a game about an MMORPG. The sense that you’re playing a game within a game never fades, and the relationship between the real world and “The World”, the name of the in-game MMORPG, is seamless. As with all prior entries in the series, you begin the game at a desktop screen where you can access “The World”, email, forums, news, and a number of other items that replicate an actual PC desktop. Most of your time will be spent playing “The World”, but you will often access email and forum messages to further the plot.
As with the first .hack series, the latest trilogy tells the story of yet another sentient AI-type virus known as “AIDA” in the G.U. series that is infecting “The World”. AIDA is mysteriously tied to an evil “Player Killer” called Tri-Edge, whose victims in “The World” enter into a coma in the real world. You play as Haseo, a “Player Killer Killer” (how’s that for one-upmanship?) who hunts Tri-Edge throughout "The World". This game picks up right where the second one left off without skipping a beat, but if you haven’t played the prior games, Redemption doesn’t give you enough information to get you up to speed. In that case, just nod and act like you understand.
If this game could survive on story and concept alone, it would be fantastic. Unfortunately, it must also be played, and herein lay its greatest weaknesses. Because it isn’t quite a full-blown RPG and it isn’t quite an MMORPG, it doesn’t hit the high points of either genre. The dungeons are horribly repetitive (if occasionally pretty), and while dungeons can be randomly generated, they quickly become predictable and dull.
[image2]Inventory management occupies a relatively small part of your time compared to most other RPGs, and skill development comes across as an afterthought. Opportunities for exploration hardly exist, since the game adds only a handful of locations to those already available in the prior two games. One could argue that the locations remain the same for the sake of consistency (as in MMORPGs), but this game only pretends to be an MMORPG, with locations that aren’t made fresh or dynamic in any way. Actual MMORPGs benefit from actual people who make the same town and dungeon feel like they're rarely the same exact place. In Redemption, those familiar places are hollow and played-out.
Likewise, the combat mechanics are nearly identical to those found in prior entries. The only significant change to combat is the addition of “Avatar Awakenings” that work very much like the limit breaks of Final Fantasy VII, but the addition doesn’t drastically improve or alter the combat system. As before, fighting takes place in real time, and your other party members behave according to preset behaviors. Fighting amounts mostly to pressing the X-button as much as you can, punctuated by the occasional special move or item use. A “tougher” enemy usually stands out from his cohorts only because of his higher health, which is nothing that a few more presses of the X-button can’t handle. There are no random battles, so you can choose to avoid battles if you wish. But if you’ve played prior .hack games, you know that it’s best to fight anything you see and open any treasure chests you find.
Almost as impressive as the series’ concept is the game’s musical score. I admit leaving the game idle just so I could listen to a particular tune longer. The character models look great, but environmental textures look fuzzy. Even far less impressive are the dungeons, which quickly begin blurring together without much to distinguish themselves from one another. Voice acting isn’t stellar, but it also isn’t distractingly terrible. All in all, I would much rather watch this game play itself from beginning to end than play it myself.
[image3]Spanning a video game tetralogy, two anime series, a number of manga issues, and now another game trilogy, the scope of the .hack world is absolutely overwhelming. There’s no reason to play this game if you haven’t played the prior two games in the trilogy. The fact that this series is divided up into three parts only adds salt to the injury. Where an ordinary RPG would give you 60-100 hours in a single release, this game forces you to buy one-third of a game at full price. Once you shell out for all three games, you’ve bought a full-length RPG at triple the typical cost. And, much like the .hack tetrology that preceded it, each game in the trilogy is exactly like the others. The only substantial difference between them is in the story.
If you began the series, you are compelled to finish it. You have no choice. Otherwise, stay away.