.hack//G.U. Vol. 1: Rebirth - Staff Review  

Rescue the Girl
by Adriaan "omegabyte" den Ouden

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20-30 Hours
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   .hack is an unusual series. It's a game that takes place inside another game, and what's more, it's also a multimedia series, the story for which takes place across a wide array of books, manga, anime, and games. While the first incarnation of the .hack saga has long since come to an end, the new saga, entitled .hack//G.U., is just beginning.

   .hack//G.U. Vol. 1: Rebirth takes place seven years after the events of .hack//Quarantine. After a catastrophic fire at the CyberConnect Corporation's headquarters destroys all the player data for "The World" (a massively multiplayer online role-playing game with over 20 million subscribers world-wide), "The World R:2" is developed as a sequel, featuring similar systems to the original World, but also with many new ones. This new version of the World hasn't sold as well, but still maintains over 12 million users. The game begins as the main character, Haseo, creates his character and first enters the World. The game takes the player through a tutorial level teaching the basics of combat, and upon the completion of said tutorial, Haseo is targeted by a group of PKs - Player Killers. While the PKs easily take him out, a mysterious man with a gigantic gun on his arm comes to his aid, reviving him and offering him a simple greeting: "Welcome to the World." Fast forward six months, and Haseo is now a level 133 PKK (Player Killer Killer), on the hunt for the player called Tri-Edge who PKed his friend Shino, putting her into a coma in the real world. Soon after slaughtering a group of PKs, he gets word that Tri-Edge can be found in a certain location and goes to face him. Tri-Edge easily defeats him, however, and he finds himself data-drained back down to level one!

   This is where the game begins. Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, all the above events take place in the opening cut scenes before actually taking control of Haseo and starting the meat of the game. Needless to say, the story is central to .hack//G.U., and it makes sure to grip you right from the start, throwing a hundred questions at the player and offering no answers. While this was also true in the original .hack series, G.U. offers up innumerable game play upgrades, particularly to the combat system, which has transformed from a rather bland and uninventive hack 'n' slash routine to a faster, more intuitive system that requires both strategy and timing.

Area words are back again, but this time with a new and improved interface. Area words are back again, but this time with a new and improved interface.

   While the main character, Haseo, may appear at first to be a Twin Blade like his predecessor Kite, he is actually, in fact, a new class to "The World R:2," the Adept Rogue. What makes this class unique is that it is able to undergo an upgrade quest which not only changes Haseo's physical appearance, but also allows him to equip additional types of weapons. In Vol. 1: Rebirth, Haseo eventually gains the ability to equip a broadsword in addition to his twin swords, and knowing when and where to use each weapon is key to successful battles. Skills are also easier to use in this incarnation of .hack, being activated by the "Skill Trigger," a simple menu that opens up by pressing R1. After activating the skill trigger, pressing any one of the four face buttons will unleash a corresponding attack. Your skills will then become unavailable for a short time until a bar above your character's head recharges. This system is a lot more fluid than navigating the main menu as in the first series, but other than being more practical, skills have other uses.

   For one, after an enemy has taken a certain amount of damage, it will begin to glow purple. When that happens, a Rengeki attack becomes available, which causes skills used at that time to do significantly more damage, and also increases the experience gained at the end of the battle. Using the Rengeki attacks successfully not only helps Haseo and his teammates level up, but helps them to defeat enemies more efficiently and adds another level of strategy to the combat system. Certain enemies are also able to fly or have armor and are difficult to damage before knocking them out of the sky or breaking their armor. While it's possible to whittle away at their health with normal attacks, different skills have different properties that make them more effective against these defenses. Pierce skills will do a lot more damage to a foe's armor, while Aerial attacks will damage a foe's flight ability much easier than other skills. While Rebirth offers up a much improved combat system from the original series, it still feels as though it is incomplete, and naturally so as it is only the first game of the new trilogy.

   There is also another level to combat in the form of Avatar battles. These battles never happen randomly and are almost certainly boss fights whenever they occur. During an avatar battle, you take control of a monstrous entity called an avatar. As an avatar, you can circle around your opponent, make quick dashes around the combat area, use a ranged attack that can stun the enemy, and also use a melee scythe attack which can knock away projectiles and do significant damage to stunned opponents. While increasing Haseo's level will also increase the power of his avatar, generally these battles require more skill than anything, and almost play out like a space shooter from old arcade games. Predicting and dodging attacks becomes extremely important, as there is no way to heal during these fights, and opponents have frustrating amounts of health. Once their health bar drops to zero, the battle enters "data-drain" mode, where the player must charge up and successfully hit his opponent with a data-drain within sixty seconds. They're not going to make it easy for you though, as they will constantly be moving around, stopping only for split seconds, and some will even continue attacking you, which reduces the data-drain's charge if you're hit. Failure to data-drain him within these sixty seconds will cause the fight to continue, the opponent having healed a small portion of his health that must once again be whittled down.

Skeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiith! Skeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiith!

   Because the game doesn't put you in the shoes of an actual character, but rather a person playing a character, logging in and out of "The World" and visiting your desktop plays a major role in both the story and the gameplay. From the desktop Haseo can check his e-mail (which is usually filled with messages sent by friends in the World), check the forums for new area words, information, and other gossip, read and watch news about what's happening in the real world, and even change the desktop's background image and music. While this method of storytelling is certainly unique (and effective), it can be frustrating having to log in and out of the World repeatedly during certain parts of the story.

   Visually the game is quite pretty, but it really shines through during the prerendered cut scenes. Unfortunately, while the graphics are well done, there aren't very many of them. That is to say, the number of dungeons and fields that you can visit are really quite limited, and you'll find yourself in the same style of area many times throughout the course of the game, though the maps themselves will be quite different. In addition, the number of different enemy types is also fairly restricted. While it's not that noticeable during the course of the story, you will definitely begin to notice should you choose to level your characters to 50 (the current maximum) in preparation for the next volume. The length of time required to level up is quite low - generally only a single dungeon to go up two or three levels if it starts out a couple of levels higher - which certainly helps reduce the graphical repetition, but reduces the amount of overall gameplay.

   As far as sound is concerned, the music is good, but not terribly great, though a few pieces do stand out. The song in Mac Anu, the starting city, is very catchy, and of course there is also the memorable "Mecha Grunty Theme Song" (don't ask, play the game and find out). The voice acting is superb, however, and virtually the entire game is voiced, though oddly enough the voice actor for Haseo is different from the one in the anime prequel .hack//Roots, which may throw some people for a loop should they choose to go through both.

   The game isn't very long, clocking in at somewhere between 20 and 30 hours, but seeing as itís only the first part of three, it shouldn't be that surprising. It should be noted that it would be unwise to play this game unless planning to take on the two that come after it, as the cliffhanger ending may frustrate the player to no end. All in all, G.U. is a marked improvement from the original .hack game series, with an excellent story, interesting characters, and a vastly improved gameplay experience. While it still has a few flaws, it's well worth playing.

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