Reviewed: September 18, 2003
Reviewed by: Bertrand Lemon
Released: May 6, 2003
Before we get into it too deep here, I would highly recommend that you have either played .hack//INFECTION Part 1 or at least read my review for it. I'm treating most of the issues in the first game "as read" for the purpose of this review, so there's a good chance you'll be lost without it. Much like this review, the first one also a fairly lengthy read. And if you start to get confused with all the weird names and numbers just remember that Part 1 of the game ".hack" is called ".hack//infection" and Part 2 is called ".hack//mutation". Just remember: Infection first, mutation second. And for good measure, keep in mind that outbreak comes after that.
As you may have deduced, .hack//MUTATION Part 2 is the second part in the .hack series. It is not a sequel per se but rather the second installment in a four-part mini-series - an epic saga with a singular story spanning four unique titles. Each separate game flows directly into the one following it, so I'm going to reiterate something I said in my review of part 1 and mention that this game absolutely must be played as a series. If you're expecting to play one of these games, expect to play them all. This isn't like Final Fantasy where you can just jump into the series at any time.
And while I'm reiterating things I mentioned in the other review, I'll give a brief plot synopsis for those of you who haven't played the original or read my review.
In the year 2007, the CyberConnect corporation releases a MMORPG called "The World", which becomes wildly successful. Like crazy successful. The Sims + Everquest x Quake successful. Everyone's playing it. The game is so fun, in fact, that most people ignore the growing number of players who lapse into comas from gameplay.
So you, playing as a character in the "real" world, who is in turn playing as a character in "The World", are a latecomer to the whole experience. You meet your friend Yasuhiko and get into a virtual battle that puts Yasuhiko is a coma in the real world, leaving you to play the game not only in hopes of growing in levels and finding rare items, but also to find out what happened to your friend. Your biggest asset in all this is a bracelet that allows you to Data Drain; that is, rewrite the programming of enemies to a form that's easier to take care of.
Okay, got it? So that's the situation laid out before you. And at the end of .hack//infection, very little has been solved. Yasuhiko is still in a coma, nobody has given you any answers, and you have all these cryptic notes and clues that never quite pan out to mean anything. And that is a trend you're going to have to get used to.
But the plot development, which is all but non-existent in the first installment, starts to rev its engines in part 2. You're not just being ignored this time around, you're being threatened. It's clear you're on your way to finding something sinister, and the game's going to do all it can to stop that from happening. Although, I'll mention that upon completing Mutation, your questions will still greatly outweigh your answers.
The fundamentals of gameplay stay exactly the same as they were previously. Missions still involve finding a dungeon in a field, and finding the goal of the mission on the bottom level of the dungeon. Combat still works with a combination of real-time fighting and pause-menu skill selection, your camera still hovers in a relative position until you tell it to do otherwise, and you still control your NPCs by selecting from a list of orders in the chat menu. All the basics, down to the controller configuration, remain the same. So the nuances here are about the additions.
The first addition youíll take note of is the new Lambda server, which youíll be spending nearly all your time on, as youíve most likely outgrown every field the previous two servers would have to offer. Working the keywords is fundamentally the same, although with an expanded list of keywords to use, plus new results gained from using the same keywords on the new server.
And of course, thereís a handful of new NPCs you can have in your party as well. A rather silly looking fighter named Morla, whose skills in battle are eclipsed only by his skills in yelling; Rachel, a very wealth-centered woman with a Long Island accent that is most assuredly not "like buttah"; a solemn ninja-type named Moonstone who has a penchant for strips of cloth; a spear-handler named Nuke Usagimaru, who I never once invited into my party and Iím not sure why; and a genuinely awesome spellcaster named Wiseman, who wonít actually join your party until the last boss is defeated. Oddly enough, the same stipulation is true of Mia the anthropomorphic cat-girl who you meet up with early on in part one. You can get Elk, the boy whoís in love with Mia, whenever you like, but Mia is handling more important things, apparently.
I should mention here that full exploration of your roster of friends is somewhat hindered by your dependence on BlackRose, the amazon. Sheís the first character you meet in Infection who doesnít end up in a coma, and in Mutation, she clearly defines herself as the most important NPC, and youíre required to have her along on a large number of missions.
Thereís also better treatment of the NPCís affection for you than there was in the first installment. When you give your party members equipment as a gift (which you end up doing a lot, since all the NPCís are incapable of upgrading their equipment without you) or answer their e-mails politely, their affection for you will go up, which will change their dialogue with you. Granted, this doesnít affect the game in any real way, but itís just another way to get simulated MMORPG immersion that much more encompassing.
It goes without saying, of course, that youíll find a host of new weapons, armor, spells and items in the new installment, including a sizable list of rare weapons (weapons which can only be found under a specific circumstance). Youíll also gain a new ability early on called "Data Arc", which has the same effect as Data Drain, but affects multiple enemies if theyíre close together. However - since you have to weaken enemies before you can drain them, and since the radius for Data Arc is quite small, and since it costs twice as many skill points to cast Data Arc anyway - this ability will rarely (if ever) be worth the finesse it takes to make it beneficial.
It should be equally obvious that there is a new army of monsters to fight as well. Since youíve become stronger as the game progressed, your new adversaries will have to accommodate, and they do. A good portion of the every-day monsters you encounter will have some sort of special skill to make sure youíre on your toes and your partyís well balanced. Some monsters will have the ability to heal themselves and other monsters, and some will be able to raise other monsters from the dead. Others will be completely immune to physical or magical attacks, which will most likely render one of your party members useless. Far more so than Infection, youíll need to figure out who youíre up against and order your party members accordingly.
Which brings up a relatively new aspect to battles - using your character as an administrator. Nearly every battle in Infection was handled by you and your fighter NPC hacking away at everything in sight while your spellcaster sat in the corner and healed you. In Mutation, it takes a lot more foresight and attention.
For example, if you were to encounter two Squidbods and an Easter Rock, youíd have to know that the Squidbods were immune to physical attacks, and the Easter Rock has the ability to heal as well as resurrect. So youíd have to tell your fighter to attack the Easter Rock and your spellcaster to heal, take out the Easter Rock, then move into a corner and tell your fighter to follow you, (otherwise (s)heíll keep needlessly attacking the Squidbod while telling you "Hey! Itís not working!") then tell everyone to stand still and cast magic. This is a rather extreme case, but there will be fights where you spend so much time delegating, you donít deliver a single hitpoint of damage.
The bosses have been tooled up in Mutation as well. Infection only had you fighting one real, bonafide, "event" type of boss, and Mutation has either two or three, depending on if you need a cutscene introduction for it to be an event. This scared me for a second, when early on in the game, you fight a boss who has a cutscene introduction thatís almost identical to the one for the end boss of the first game. Of course, if that were the end of part 2, this review would be written a lot differently.
And itís with mixed feelings that I write the part about the grunties. They did expand on the potential somewhat; the Lambda server offers two new grunties you can breed. Thereís Bony Grunty, who punctuates his sentences with a sound thatís written as "Rattle!", but sounds more like heís being electrocuted and enjoying it; and thereís Snakey Grunty. Not surprisingly, Snakey Grunty punctuates his sentences with "Hiss!" Also, in addition to riding your grunties around in the field to avoid combat (an ability expanded by the option of choosing which grunty youíd like to ride) you can also ride them on a flag race through town in an effort to get rare prizes.
And while thatís all well and good, I still think the potential has been overlooked. What about taking your grunties into battle? What about selling grunties off to farmers? What about continuously feeding your grunties different kinds of foods to affect its abilities and worth? What about annexing off a piece of property as your grunty farm, where you encourage your grunties to breed and supply milk, which has magical and regenerative effects? These are just a few ideas, folks. Show the grunties some love.
For those of you with only one memory card, I do need to make a brief mention of the save file this game creates. Mutation creates a save file thatís 705k which, although big, seems basically justified, but it creates itís own save file separate from the one created by Infection. While thatís still nothing compared to the flagrant memory card abuse of the 4.5M file created by WWF Smackdown: Just Bring It, Iíve held out in buying a new memory card so far, so the 1.4M currently taken up by these two games is making that difficult.
Truth be told, thereís not a lot of nuances in the graphics department. The central point for the Lambda server (Cultural City Carmina Gadelica) has a very cool-looking torchlight-in-the-twilight, and thereís some new graphical effects employed when all the towns get corroded away by the spreading virus (thatís not a spoiler, I promise), but other than that, thereís not any huge new graphics revelations.
Of course, thereís graphics to go with all the new characters and monsters, and true to form theyíre all very colorful and smoothly rendered. And thereís also new graphics to go along with the new spells you acquire. But Iím noticing that I havenít said anything about the individual weapon modeling, which was a great touch.
With a combination of the first two games, there are a lot of weapons you can amass and give to people. And each weapon a character equips will be represented in their avatar. Every spear, every knife, every weapon that can be equipped has itís own unique look. And they didnít cheap out by just reskinning the same model either thereís a lot of different shapes the weapons can take. And some rare weapons have their own graphical effects as well. For example, Danteís Blades donít actually have a solid blade, but a red glowing vapor trail that leads out of the pommel. Oddly enough, the weapons with more severe graphical effects are usually crippled in some way an aspect Iíd assume is intentional, as the effects can slow the game down if thereís enough things moving on the screen.
Of course, the representative weapons do take a time out for certain cutscenes, which is understandable as is the lack of representative armor pieces. Outside of the work that would require, it would detract from the individuality of the avatars.
I have to be honest with you on this one, I had the music off nearly the entire time I was playing this game. I toggled it on a couple times to find out what was new and what Iíd already heard before, but for the most part it was voice and sound effects only. That said, itís basically more of the same. Some new locations have new music to go along with them, thereís still a lot of employment of silence in dungeons, and the grunty-riding music is still grating as hell. But most of the music offered in the game is neither great nor terrible, itís just there. Itís something I wouldnít mind hearing, but with a stereo nearby, Iíd just prefer the new Fountains of Wayne CD or that Shudder To Think tape I thought I lost.
The voice work is still superb though, and I imagine that among the notes that the voice actors received in the recording booth, the word "subtle" was not one of them. Rachel, the Long Island girl, plays it big, and when I say Morla yells I mean it. There are several different flavors of "gruff" represented, and Mistral (the pubescent girl) continues to walk that line between cute and infuriating. Itís fun to hear.
Again Iím going to have to underscore the most important factor when it comes to this game: Itís a four-part series. Each game is sold separately, and each game is selling for retail price. So donít go in thinking youíll only play one game in the series, because you wonít. Itís even a worse idea with Mutation, because not only wonít you get an ending, you wonít get a beginning either.
One of my biggest curiosities when I first got this game was how they were going to make it work for people who havenít played the first game yet, even though theyíve made it possible, it is clearly not the best way to play.
Choosing "new game" on Mutation brings up the same character creation screen you see in Infection, (a simple matter of naming yourself) then it gives you the same "hereís-the-story-in-a-nutshell" flashback you get if youíre continuing from a save-state, then it brings you to the main menu. It puts you in the place of a character whose already played the first game in the most straight-forward way possible, so you only have the most pertinent of e-mail, most of them marked as read as are most of the bulletin board posts. The character they give you is at level 30 (which isnít bad, mine was level 33) but has a miserable assortment of items. So the first thing youíll want to do is get your characters better equipped, except you need to deal with the story first. Also, I noticed that the three secondary NPCs you get in Infection are unavailable from the start I successfully got one, Iím not sure about the other two.
In addition to crippling your resources, theyíve also crippled your information. In the beginning of Infection, your soon-to-be-comatose friend takes you out on a very necessary tutorial session teaching you all the varied controls of the game. I saw nothing of the sort with a fresh start on Mutation.
The more I think about it, I really donít think Iíd recommend that anyone play Mutation without playing Infection first. The items and NPCs can probably be brought up to par, although doing so would most likely be both difficult and dull, but the carefully set-up immersion into the MMORPG they created just goes out the window when youíre thrown into the game saying "Wait, uh...what am I doing? Oh, okay. I guess I kill this thing." In short, donít try playing this one until youíve played at least part of Infection first. And Iíd strongly recommend finishing it as well.
And then of course thereís the DVD that comes with the game. .hack//mutation comes with part 2 of .hack//liminality, a continuation of the story on the DVD that comes with .hack//infection. Itís hard to keep all these names straight, isnít it? Well just wait, because it gets tougher. Because .hack//liminality is actually a different storyline than the one in .hack//SIGN which is a cartoon series that Bandai sells separately and you can watch on the Cartoon Network. Oddly enough, SIGN (from the little Iíve seen) seems to follow along the characters represented in the game, while Liminality (the cartoon packaged with the game) has the same "mystery and intrigue behind a popular game" premise, but follows completely different characters that Iíve never run into in the course of gameplay.
I liked this episode of the cartoon a lot better than the one before it. Like the respective games they come packaged with, the first episode of Liminality just sets up "thereís a kid in a coma, the game may be responsible", while the second episode actually puts forth some action (computer systems fry, pandemonium, and nobody knows whoís responsible) Itís still not an extraordinary piece of animation and storytelling, but it is worthwhile.
And the last mention in the value category is for the coupons included with the game. Printed into the instruction book are $5 off manufacturerís coupons for both .hack//infection and .hack//outbreak (part 3). So if youíre ready to continue the saga, or if you thought youíd skip part one and then thought better of it, you can save five bucks on either end.
You might imagine, given the ratings and wordy reviews Iíve given to these games, that I really love .hack, and itís true, I do, and I wasnít sure I was going to the second time around.
After I finished Infection, I spent another two hours or so polishing my characters up, finding secret areas and items I read about on FAQís, and then just sort of let it rest. I tried talking some friends into playing it, but selling someone on an RPG is a lot more difficult than convincing them to play me in a couple rounds of Mortal Kombat. And besides, what if they do get addicted to it? Either theyíll be antisocial by playing a one-player game whenever they come over, or else theyíll take the game and I wonít see it again for a month. Neither idea sat well with me.
But there was a lapse in time before I got the second game, and as I tore off the cellophane wrapped around Mutation, I wondered if the feeling had worn off. Was I still going to sit up in long, late night stints, playing .hack and drinking coffee until I had newfound soreness in both my eyes and butt? Was I going to have a legal pad in front of me, in which Iíd scribble down notes not just for review, but about what equipment everyone had and where I could find certain items? Would I wonder if playing this game was necessarily a "good" thing? The answer was yes.
But Iím not sure whatís going to happen the next time around. Is Part 3 going to keep my interest, or is the series going to grow stagnant? We'll both know next month. Stay tuned.