Though talk of serialized content in video games has been making the rounds for nearly a decade now, there hasn't been much of it on consoles. The concept has been toyed with a few times in Japan, but for the most part, it's not something we've seen much of in the US. Namco Bandai's .hack series is one of the few fairly successful attempts at the approach, having seen four installments released every few months as part of a multichapter approach to storytelling.
To follow up on that initial experiment, the Japanese developer is hard at work on .hack//G.U. vol. 1//Rebirth, a brand new entry in the series that takes place years after the events in the quartet of games, which hit the US between February 2003 and January 2004. We've gotten several looks at the game over the past two years, as its made appearances at both the Tokyo Game Show and the Electronic Entertainment Expo, but now that it's hit the streets in Japan, we're able to get a look at a localized version of the game to see what's in store for this unique series.
As we mentioned, .hack//G.U. vol. 1//Rebirth picks up seven years after the original quartet of PlayStation 2 games--Infection, Mutation, Outbreak, and Quarantine. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game--known as The World--that was central to the first series returns in Rebirth in an ostensibly less harmful form and finds itself with a loyal user base of 12 million. You'll play as Haseo, a young man who's having a good old time playing through the game until one fateful day when he's ganked by a particularly nasty group of player killers. The traumatic experience sends him on a tear to take down all player killers, earning him the catchy nickname of "the terror of death." Everything comes to a screeching halt, though, when he confronts a mysterious figure who recently attacked and left in a real-life coma a friend of his.
Despite his mad nerd skills, Haseo gets brutalized and "data drained" all the way back to level one. To add insult to injury, people don't appear to remember who he was. However, this doesn't mean much to the young adventurer, as he sets out to discover who the mystery attacker is in the hope that he can help his comatose friend. While the game's story is all new and features a brand-new cast of characters, fans of the original games will notice cameos as they play. Some are more obvious than others, but if you pay attention to the people you meet, you'll encounter veteran players from the original title who are back in the world with new toons. One last tidbit about the game's story is that this time out, Namco Bandai is telling the tale over the course of three games, as opposed to four.
One neat aspect of the setup is that .hack//G.U. vol. 1//Rebirth will be accessible to players who've never tried a game in the series, because you'll be relearning everything along with Haseo. The game's structure mirrors the previous games, though there are a number of new aspects to the mechanics. As before, you'll divide your team between the real world of the game and the MMOG of The World. When in the real world, you'll be able to check forums and e-mail, as well as interact with characters outside of the game. While in The World, you'll be able to go questing, interact with other players, and level up your virtual characters. Though the MMOG is the core of the adventure, you'll need to alternate between the two locales to fully unravel the mystery of what's going on. For example, accessing new areas will require "addresses" made up of different words you'll have to discover.
The gameplay has seen a number of enhancements over the original four games, mostly revolving around combat. Standard combat as you explore the world is similar to the previous games, although there have been some tweaks. For instance, Haseo will be able to ride a cycle as he goes about his business, which helps shave off time when you're getting around. The bike also offers help in combat, as you can use it to ram enemies and earn preemptive strike bonuses, letting you get in the first hits in a fight. Also, the act of fighting has been beefed up to allow for more attack options. You'll be able to move freely during combat, switch weapons on the fly, perform various combos and finishers, and coordinate with your party, whose artificial intelligence is being improved.
An all-new element of fighting is the arena battle, where you'll use a powerful avatar to duel foes. These virtual fights have you shifting into a colossal form that comes packing its own unique attacks. Entering these fights lets you improve your rank among all the other players in The World. Besides the obvious perk of letting you beat on people, the battles let you earn items based on your level, as well.
Fans of the original series will be pleased to hear that Rebirth offers a unique reward for anyone who has their saves from the previous .hack games. The virtual e-mail in the game has been refined to offer improved functionality, which should make it easier to use. Finally, in a nod to the MMOG genre, you'll be able to form a guild and trade items with other players.
Rebirth's visuals benefit from a new art style and graphics engine, which results in a cleaner, sleeker look that's darker than earlier entries in the series. Many of the characters have a harder edge to them, as well, although there's still a good helping of brightly colored eccentricities in the mix. The environments follow the same eclectic approach as the original and provide a mix of atypical locales, such as open fields, cities, caves, and so on. The various effects used to sell the different attacks are suitably flashy and get the point across. The cinematics used to move the story along are well done and showcase the game's anime influences.
The audio in the game is also coming along well. The voice acting sounds good so far, and there's obviously a strong anime influence, so you can expect to hear broad vocal stylings that nail some archetypal personalities. The music sounds OK and seems to have a good range that mixes understated tunes with grander themes, which suit the visuals.
Based on what we've seen so far, .hack//G.U. vol. 1//Rebirth looks like an interesting follow up to the original series. There's a good mix of old and new in the adventure, whose story is still one of the most unique around, and the new art style keeps the game visually interesting. If you're a fan of the original games, or never got around to checking them out, .hack//G.U. vol. 1//Rebirth should be worth a look when it ships. The first volume of the game is set to ship this fall for the PlayStation 2, with the next two being slated to ship over the course of next year.