Playing .hack is a lot like falling in love with someone you initially couldn't stomach. At first, everything about this person annoys you, but soon those terrifying ticks become endearing quirksand when that happens, all logic gets tossed out the window. You know you deserve better, but you can't help returning to her embrace, despite all those flaws that once bothered you so much.
At its core, .hack is not a good game. It suffers from so many problems that it nearly collapses under the weight of its self-inflicted woes. From the wildly unbalanced battle system to the spectacularly underwhelming graphics, .hack has all the makings of a frustrating flop.
And yet, it happened. I fell in love with the damned thing.
It took a while, mind you. In fact, I had to muddle through almost half of this 20-hour RPG before .hack really grabbed me. Once it did, though, I was blinded: I no longer focused on its obvious shortcomings; I just wanted to see what would happen next.
So, what hooked me? The story, which is easily one of the most unique tales told in a console RPG. The premise? A pal invites you to jump into a massively multiplayer online RPG, but during your first visit, your friend is destroyed by some sort of data bug. When you return to the "real world," you learn that your buddy has fallen into a coma, and now it's up to you to hop into the game-within-the-game and find out what happened.
This mind-bending premise allows for some fantastic interplay between the game and, well, the game. The game itself, after all, is a game within the game that you access by "logging on to" a fake online world. And when you're not playing, you can troll the message boards for clues or check your e-mail and correspond with other virtual players outside the "game" world. It's a marvelous method for allowing a story to unfold through everything but traditional narrative, forcing the player to piece together the clues to this meta-mystery by participating in .hack's world-within-a-world.
Too bad you have to spend so much time just coming to grips with the battle system. In some ways, .hack does too good a job of mimicking a real MMORPG, capturing all the flaws you'd find in a title like EverQuest. The real-time combat almost always feels like worka chore you have to suffer through in order to level-up and acquire better weapons so you can slog your way through the next dungeon.
But, as in a real MMORPG, you'll suddenly reach a point at which you're powerful enough to reap the rewards of all your effort (read: you won't die so many cheapo deaths). Right about that time, the story picks up, too, and that's when I gave in to .hack's unique charms. Oh, sure, all the old problems remained, but by then, I just didn't care as much.
And now, I'm hooked. I can't wait for the next chapter in this saga (.hack's story is told in four parts, with each game set to release about three months after the last). Heck, I might even pop into some of the randomly generated dungeons to level-up my characters a bit more, since I can carry my Save files over from one game to the next. Yeah, I know I already said that combat is a choreand I stand by my statementbut I just can't help myself. Funny how love works.