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As the first part of a series of instalments, .Hack Infection should capture and invigorate the player – forcing them to purchase further releases. After all, such a concept will reward those who commence from the beginning, and don’t join half way through.

Bandai has attempted to create the feeling of each release being an event, by including a DVD (reviewed in our DVD section) with an episode outlying the history before the game. Even the booklet is even composed in typical anime style, as it reads from right to left. Admirable, but these cannot detract from the fact that the game is only half the length of what you’d expect from a full price RPG release.

The game is set in the online computer game, known as The World, and one that has sold 20 million copies worldwide. However strange things have been happening in this online world, and the real one that lies outside your door. Only by exploring the game can you hope to find out why your friend is in a coma, and hopefully reverse whatever happened to him. Yet the online world is not as safe as it seems, players are vanishing, strange sights are being reported and the authorities are cording off areas that have become infected. As Kite, you must attempt to piece all of this together in the first of four games.

On paper the concept behind the game is different, and by attempting to replicate an online experience offline, bizarre. And the illusion is created straight away, by using a desktop; forum and mailing system that in the case of messages brought back memories of Burning Rangers. Everything has a purpose, including what may seem like random messages and topics on the forum. If topics do not contain key words for new areas, then they often serve as tutorials. Like so many RPG’s it is a linear experience, but moments like these when the emphasis is on you to explore and read, are enjoyable. Strangely you are unable to design your own character, their skills or abilities – staple fare online.

Whereas much work has gone into replicating an online environment (complete with fitting story) the actual game itself leaves a lot to be desired. Playstation 2 owners are the most fickle of gamers, and Infection will not sell copies based on its visuals. This is a grotty, blurred (and in places) a grotesque game that is outdated severely. Copying the ethics of Phantasy Star Online is a good foundation, but harnessing this with Saturn graphics, blurred textures and frankly nothingness leaves a game with no visual redeeming qualities. But the disappointment is not merely limited to the visuals; rather the character designs lack any finesse or originality.

Yet Gamestyle is never one to judge a game based on its visual quality – after all the heart of any RPG are its characters, the combat and experience systems, and of course, the storyline. The majority of Japanese RPG’s come with a turn based combat system, but Infection bucks this trend. Instead we have a real time “free for all” where you team members will gladly charge with little thought for your own safety. This can be a problem, as you take on the role of parent and protector, or just plain reviver. Hack into the wrong area, and your party can become easily wiped out – resulting in game over. Matters are not helped by a stubborn camera, that fails to often show what you require.

Given the talent involved in preparing the story it is not as good as one could have hoped for. Initially the story does provoke interest, as you strive to explore and piece together the strange online happenings. Its just unfortunate that the actual game itself manages to prune back much of your interest. The effort that has gone into replicating an online environment is admirable, but it can never replace the real thing. And the reason why such short levels, and back breaking trekking across online worlds actually works (in an online sense) is because of whom you play with. Imagine playing PSO with three CPU controller characters, and no one else. It would be better than Infection, but it would lack any reason to carry on playing beyond an initial trial period. You can play with Infection characters, and attempt to achieve limited responses, but its more a case of pushing all the buttons until you’ve found the correct one.

If only Infection included some sort of hacking experience (similar to that in Enter The Matrix) rather than the usual formulaic RPG levelling up, and clearing a room to open a door, or make a treasure chest appear. It’s all rather tiresome and disappointing in a release that promised something different. But what remains is a bog standard RPG, dressed up as something else but flattering to deceive.