.hack Part 2: Mutation Preview

We check out the next installment in Bandai's RPG series.

The release of .hack Part 1 earlier this year marked the beginning of a promising experiment by developer Bandai. The RPG was the first entry in a series of games based on the popular Japanese anime and manga series of the same name. The franchise is well under way in Japan, where the fourth game, .hack Part 4, is set for release shortly, and the first three games met with critical and commercial success. For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the PlayStation 2 games are part of a larger multimedia narrative that's made up of .hack anime and manga. Each component tells a different facet of an overarching story that is set in the near future and revolves around a computer virus and an online game called The World. At its core, the .hack concept focuses on this game within a game, which is structured similarly to massively multiplayer PC games like EverQuest or Asheron's Call. The World is having a harmful effect on those who play it because of a computer virus that has infected the game's virtual world. The PlayStation 2 games revolve around the virtual persona, called Kite, of an eighth grader as he plays The World. When one of Kite's friends falls into a coma as a result of playing The World, Kite sets out to uncover the mysterious circumstances surrounding his friend's condition. Kite's quest for information forms the main thrust of the games, which are currently scheduled to ship three to four months apart. Although it may sound as though the complex story will require you to have played the first game, .hack Part 2: Mutation opens up with a concise summary of what's happened before. We recently had a chance to check out an English-language build of the game to see how the series is unfolding.

Kite is back and ready to hack.

As mentioned, .hack part 2: Mutation's story picks up where .hack Part 1: Infection left off. Following the climactic boss battle at the end of the first game, you discover that there's quite a bit more to the mystery of The World and its effect on its players. The game will feature the core cast of characters seen in the first title and introduce some new faces, both friendly and murderous, to the mix as your horizons broaden to include new servers. You may also notice that the game's tone is a bit darker, as the story reveals more of the unsavory side of The World and the system administrators.

You'll see some familiar faces in .hack Part 2: Mutation.

The gameplay in .hack Part 2: Mutation features the same mechanics and structure as the gameplay in its predecessor. Your time in the game will be divided between the "real world" and the online game. The real-world component of the game is a simple representation of a typical computer desktop, complete with six icons: mailer, news, accessory, audio, data, and The World. The mailer icon takes you to your e-mail inbox, where you'll find e-mail from characters you meet and exchange addresses with, as well as cryptic messages from mysterious characters you encounter. The news icon takes you to the in-game equivalent of an Internet news page that features a random sampling of news. Accessory lets you change the wallpaper on your desktop screen, while audio lets you do the same with your sound scheme. The data option lets you save your progress. Finally, The World icon is essentially a shortcut to the online game. Selecting it will start the program and take you to a title screen, complete with copyright info that is reminiscent of a PC MMORPG. You'll find three options here: log in, board, or quit. Logging in will put you in the game's virtual world and let you play the game. The board option lets you enter a forum dedicated to the game, allowing you to interact with other "players." This feature is basically a re-creation of a standard Internet message board. The board also serves as a slick way to pass along vital information to you about gameplay and story elements. If you select the quit option, you'll be kicked back to the desktop interface.

When playing The World, .hack Part 2: Mutation plays much like any other RPG. The game draws liberally from console and PC RPGs to create a very distinctive experience for a console game. You'll be able to do pretty much everything you'd expect, such as explore various worlds, battle enemies, level up, buy better weapons and armor, gather a party, and interact with other characters as Kite. Like its predecessor, .hack Part 2: Mutation follows a rigidly linear story. However, the game's interesting plot, which features all sorts of twists and mystery, keeps things lively. The game's design also does an impressive job of providing the illusion of freedom. For example, the warp gates you'll use to travel to different locations in the game rely on a fully realized keyword system. The system requires you to enter three words in order to access different areas. Each word affects one aspect of where you'll teleport, such as the elemental affinity of the region, the level of enemies, and the weather. As a result, you can actually cobble together your own combinations and explore on your own. While this can often have disastrous consequences if you try to take on a region populated by enemies you're not powerful enough to deal with on your own, the freedom it offers is a nice touch.

The game's combat is pretty easy to pick up.

Another cool feature is the game's party system, which lets you ask players you've exchanged addresses with in the game to form a party with you. The cast of characters includes an impressive array of gamer archetypes, and the dialogue and character interaction do a fine job of establishing everyone's personalities. You'll find the same personality in the plethora of messages posted to the forums you'll read on The World message board. While both of these elements are little touches, they go a long way toward giving life to .hack's virtual world.

The graphics in .hack Part 2: Mutation maintain the style and level of quality seen in its predecessor. The characters feature solid detail and a stylized design that helps sell the simulated-online-RPG experience. You'll find an assortment of character classes in the game, and they all feature distinct looks that are often in direct conflict with their actual personalities, which is an amusing touch. The environments in the game, grouped according to the different servers you'll access in The World, offer some nice variety. As a result of the story's development, you'll be able to access a variety of new environments and see some impressive new sights.

You'll find an impressive array of special effects in the game.

The audio in the game is strong, with an immersive mix of ambient music, voice, and sound effects. Each of the main towns on each server has its own unique theme. In some cases, the town will even have its own ambient sounds as well, depending on the weather. The voice acting suits the game's atmosphere and captures many of the characters' personalities to a T--Kite's youthful insecurity and Black Rose's loud bluster are especially good fits. Finally, the game features a convincing array of sound effects that do a fine job of capturing the action.

The second installment in the .hack franchise, which is currently slated to ship this May, is looking good and should please fans of the series. The game's story is pretty engaging and offers some nice twists. The quest is longer than its predecessor's, and you'll find a decent amount of extras once you've finished the game. We're pleased to see Bandai taking a chance by releasing the games in the space of a year. If you liked the first game, you'll definitely want to check out .hack Part 2: Mutation. If you're new to the series, this is as good a time as any to hop on the .hack train, as two more installments in the franchise are due later this year.

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