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.hack//G.U. Vol. 1: Rebirth (PlayStation 2) artwork

.hack//G.U. Vol. 1: Rebirth (PlayStation 2) review

"Everything’s happening real-time (except when you access menus for healing items), so you can set up brutal combo attacks and then follow through with special moves that add significantly to the damage you inflict. Another benefit is that sometimes, colored bands of light will briefly circle around your impending victims. That’s your cue to use a special move, which will add to the experience points you and your friends gain once the confrontation has come to its bloody conclusion."

What if you were playing an online game and you encountered a glitch? Maybe a program had some issues and your character got stuck behind a wall, or perhaps a really powerful enemy tried to kill you but something on the server went awry and both of you were invincible until you had to reset the game. We can all imagine something like that happening, and maybe you’ve even experienced something along those lines. But what if the glitch were more serious? What if while playing such a game, you encountered such an anomaly and fell into a coma?

The .hack franchise explored that option several years ago, in a four-part series that put players (safely) in the role of adventurers who were investigating the strange circumstances that led to their friends lying in hospital beds in a vegetative state. Players waited a few months between each release and anxiously explored an artificial online game called “The World,” seeking out answers to mysteries, exchanging e-mails with fake friends that didn’t really exist, and always drawing closer to the heart of a sinister mystery.

.hack//G.U. is the continuation of the story those first four discs started. At the same time, it’s an all-new beginning. “The World” as you may have known it is gone, lost in a fire that consumed the building where the game’s servers were stored. In its place is a new version, one with more vibrant visuals and a new battle system, one with a battle arena and numerous other tweaks you’ll want to experience for yourself. A lot has changed, actually, some of it for the better and some not.

The most obvious change is the visual one. Remember the blurry and desolate locations from the first time around? In .hack//G.U., all of that has changed. Barren landscapes are replaced by lush beaches where waves lap the shores and wildflowers grow on hillsides, where bridges dangle across great divides and birds flutter away in the distance. You’ll explore underground caverns as waterfalls cascade toward deep pools of water. Ferns adorn the edge of grass-covered ledges that overlook the entire spectacle. In short, the game finally feels like the sort of title real people would pay a monthly fee to continue experiencing on a prolonged basis.

The monsters are also better, both because there are several different breeds in each locale and because they definitely look menacing when they should. No longer are they scrawny or blocky. Details are firmly in place, from the devious glint in a goblin knight’s eyes to the confidence larger adversaries exhibit as they shrug off your puny attacks. Their animations give you vital clues as to when they’re about to unleash a devastating attack. They still lumber through confrontations with the approximate intellect you’d expect from a gnat, but at least they look good doing it and at least they can slaughter you if you drop your guard for even a second. Some of that has to do with more aggressive character progression that rewards you every time you raise a level, rather than forcing you to level up 5 or 6 times before there’s a difference. Most of it, however, can be attributed to the battle system.

Any time you startle a group of enemies or they attack you, a barrier of light circles the area and keeps anyone from escaping while also restricting the battlefields to a reasonable space. This is definitely an improvement from the original games, where speedy little gnomes had a tendency to make fights drag on as they ran all over the place and you chased slowly after them. There’s none of that here, and in fact you’ll sometimes feel cramped for space as you get knocked this way and that by well-aimed attacks from your magic-wielding foes. Other times, you’ll counter their attacks and get in a few cool moves of your own.

One thing I particularly like about battles in this new system is that you can use special moves in a manner more similar to a fighting game, or to something like Tales of Destiny or Star Ocean. Everything’s happening real-time (except when you access menus for healing items), so you can set up brutal combo attacks and then follow through with special moves that add significantly to the damage you inflict. Another benefit is that sometimes, colored bands of light will briefly circle around your impending victims. That’s your cue to use a special move, which will add to the experience points you and your friends gain once the confrontation has come to its bloody conclusion.

The improved combat system adds a lot to the game, and so does the visual direction. You’d think the developers would have stopped there, content that they’d changed things up enough to satisfy people. However, they chose to keep tweaking. That’s where things get a little more difficult to quantify. On the one hand, the changes definitely help avoid the ‘been there, done that’ feeling that might otherwise have dogged this newest collection of .hack games. On the other, some of the changes don’t really improve the experience.

Some are simple, like filler content on various forums that will keep you reading for hours but hardly learning anything of interest, while others have a more obvious impact on the game’s overall pacing. One example of the latter is the new system that prevents you from choosing more advanced areas until the plot dictates that you’re ready. By the end of the disc, you’ll be able to reasonably reach around level 50 or so (and you’ll need to be near that point to survive the final encounters), but areas aren’t going to be available to let you power level. Instead, you can never explore something more than the approximate level of the next villain the game plans for you to battle. This gets tiresome because there’s almost never a time when leveling is easy, and you have to do it constantly.

One reason you must regularly level up is the arena, a change to the old formula that at first I liked. A few hours into the game, you’ll be able to visit this new location and fight your way through player versus player matches. The opponents available to you are always quite powerful, which means that you have to go level grinding if you want any real chance at success. Some players would naturally choose to ignore this aspect of the game, then, except that you can’t; it’s tied into the game’s plot.

It’s difficult to describe much of the story without ruining details or sounding extremely vague, so I’ll err toward the latter. Essentially, the game revolves around a new threat in the form of ‘player killers.’ The hero is a young man named Hasao who has been playing “The World” for quite some time. As the game opens, his uber-powerful character is stripped of his abilities by a mysterious run-in with one of the game’s glitches. Hasao is determined to find the one behind this awful turn of events, as he is certain it’s tied into the disappearance of his online friend, Shino.

From there, the story winds its way through guilds, player killers (called ‘PKers’ in the game) and PKKers (player killer killers). Everyone has an opinion on whether or not it’s fair to go around slaughtering noobs. Some argue that “if the game allows it, it must be fine” (a point I agree with) while others say that it’s horrible and goes against how the game is meant to be played. Those people tend to like looking at the flower-filled fields I mentioned.

As you progress through the game, you’ll find that Hasao doesn’t really fit in well with either group. He’ll kill whoever he wants to get what he wants, which is information about Tri-edge, a monster of sorts that looks suspiciously like a deformed version of Kite from the previous game. In fact, those who have played those past titles will be pleased at several points as they recognize allusions to earlier events and even meet some familiar faces (in strangely new roles). There’s some weird stuff afoot, and .hack fans will eat up every bit of it.

Around 20 to 25 hours in, depending on your play style, you’ll really be getting into everything. You’ll know your way around the towns and you’ll be familiar with everything I’ve discussed above, plus the many nuances that would bump this review up well beyond a readable point. You’ll like some characters, suspect others of duplicitous behavior and probably hate the way Hasao works so hard to be the loner that he behaves like an ass. Then, just when you’re really in the groove of things and buried deep within a mystery that you don’t want to end, it does and the credits roll. See you in a few months for the volume two…

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Staff review by Jason Venter (October 30, 2006)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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