I haven't yet embraced the phenomenon of the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) and I don't know that I will any time soon. My experience with the more primitive text-based MUDs (multi-user dungeons) has taught me that the online gaming community contains a frighteningly large number of annoying, intellectually-vacuous people. I don't mean that stupid people are uniquely drawn to online gaming, but rather the anonymity and the primeval "eat or be eaten" structure of online games seems to encourage and serve as a hub for those with unpleasant, ill-mannered little-boy mentalities.

The .hack series, of which INFECTION is the first of four announced titles, explores the dynamic of a MMORPG through a simulated environment called The World. I say simulated because no network adaptor is required; The World is actually offline and the other player-characters are computer generated and controlled. The simulation is uncannily accurate right down to the log-in screen that resembles a computer desktop complete with MP3 and movie player, email inbox, and a constantly updated player message board filled with chatty "netspeak" posts.

The illusion of an online community is maintained flawlessly, and the entire .hack//INFECTION experience takes place either navigating this desktop menu as the fourteen year-old Japanese schoolboy protagonist, or logged into The World as his online persona, Kite. Compared to my sometimes negative MUD experiences, The World is presented as a healthy community where players are cooperative and for the most part friendly. There is no player-killing, stealing, item-hogging, or harassment that can so often ruin the online experience. The World struck me as the sort of Utopian internet community that everyone wishes they were a part of until the trolls, perverts and spammers come rolling in. The fact that The World is such a healthy place socially makes it all the more disturbing when things start to go terribly wrong physically.

Many may recall the melodramatic account of the Shadowbane hacking that was published by Wired News. It described the chaos that ensued one night after hackers broke into the MMORPG and thousands of newbie players were slaughtered by hacked super-powerful creatures that had invaded the protected Newbie Island area. Now imagine if for every newbie persona killed by a hacked monster, their real-life player would fall into a very real coma. Welcome to the concept behind .hack//INFECTION.

The first victim of such an attack is one of Kite's friends, who ends up comatose in the hospital after being "data drained" by a monster whose code had been modified. This leaves Kite to search for answers and try to piece together exactly what is going on in The World. Using a special bracelet acquired under mysterious circumstances, Kite too can perform the data drain. He therefore becomes a sort of ethical hacker, using the bracelet to delve into the deeper layers of The World. The fabric is gradually peeled back to reveal a frightening instability in the code, which causes environments to deteriorate, monsters to become invulnerable to attack, and a mysterious half-formed ghostly girl to appear whose garbled emails to Kite indicate that she is in some sort of serious trouble.

The immersive World offers an admittedly one-sided perspective of things, because while we get to experience Kite's adventures online, we know nothing of the boy's life after he shuts down the computer terminal. Any gleanings into his personality come through Kite, and of course online personas are often deliberately different from their creators'.

For answers about the offline lives of The World's players, people must turn to other sources. The .hack game series is part of an ambitious project that spans three forms of media: videogames, comic books, and an anime television series. A DVD containing a 45 minute introductory anime comes packaged with the game and gives a fascinating glimpse of the world outside The World. This melding of media is not a case of feeding one off the other to rake in more profits. All are integral to fully understanding the storyline. The videogames present one side of the issue, the plugged in "inside," while the anime details the lives of the players once they log out—the comatose friends, and the mysterious and shady corporation who created The World. As a gimmick, it's nothing short of brilliant.

It's the intriguing story that provides the impetus to continue playing .hack for those who aren't attracted to the peculiarly addictive monotony of level-building, dungeon crawling and item hoarding. Dungeons are plentiful and are generated by way of a keyword system, meaning that it's possible for those who actually enjoy these things to do so to their heart's content. I personally didn't find it as alluring when I had no other real people to chat with along the way. There are companions who associate themselves with Kite and can be drafted into a party, but they are of course computer controlled and their speech-bubbled comments, while charming, do eventually start to repeat.

In .hack there is always something for the player to do in order to advance the plot; they are pushed forward and are never set adrift with no clear direction to pursue. For this reason, enduring dungeon after repetitive dungeon becomes bearable and even exciting given the promise of another story-advancing cutscene that hangs on its completion.

The battle system in .hack isn't the most intuitive but can be mastered with a little patience. The over-the-shoulder camera can be uncooperative and the means of rotating it back into a useful position is clumsy. Luckily Kite's companions don't act like total morons and can fight serviceably well on their own. Kite can issue simple commands to them via a menu, such as "Heal" "Use Skills" or "Attack Closest Enemy." Still, I found myself adopting some unorthodox battle strategies to deal with having a party with only one controllable character in it. I suppose it's hardly fair to expect characters who are supposed to be controlled by someone else sitting at the computer to react in a predictable and punctual manner at all times. At least this is what I told myself after dying because my colleague hadn't healed me right away after I gave her the command.

Were it a simply stand-alone title, .hack//INFECTION would deserve a much harsher critique. In many respects it's a very empty game, literally and figuratively. There is little variety among the keyword-generated levels beyond about ten different palette-swaps for backgrounds. Each level is a sparse expanse of overworld housing a single dungeon entrance, and the dungeon interiors suffer from the same repetition and lack of variety that the overworlds do. There are many weapons, armor and magic items to tinker with, yet at the same time they can easily be passed over without consequence if the player desires. However, it's when the clusters of detail emerge out of the emptiness that INFECTION shines. The character interactions and plot advancements, and the intrigues that keep piling up in The World make INFECTION a solid start to what is shaping up to be an extremely worth-while experience for those willing to stick with the series to the end. Rating: 8 out of 10.

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