Above all else at the .Hack presentation by Atari and Bandai, it was clear that the latter are very proud of their RPG series with a difference. And from what we saw, they have good reason to be.
.Hack (that's dot Hack, in case you were wondering) will be released in four instalments, the first being .Hack//Infection, which will be available for PS2 in March. While .Hack is, in many ways, a traditional Japanese turn-based RPG, the game structure promises something that hasn't been done quite like this before.
The game is set in 2007, where an online game called The World has gained huge popularity. In the background, a newly created AI is hidden in the system and is gleaning all the information pouring into the game. Exactly what the reason is for this isn't known to us but we'd take a wild flaming guess that it's not for a peachy purpose.
You play the role of 14-year-old Kite, who is totally absorbed with the new online game. His friend Orca is attacked in the virtual system by a mysterious monster - and subsequently ends up in a coma in the real world. Which is a wake-up call that boundaries between the virtual and real are far from distinct. Kite's only chance of helping the fallen Orca is to continue playing The World. And that, as they say, is your RPG quest: over four games uncover what is behind the avant-garde online programme.
From a gameplay perspective, the most noteworthy difference of .Hack from its peers is that it simulates a massively multiplayer online RPG, aping The World of 2007. The game is a totally enclosed console title but replicates the artifice of being online with people you get to know throughout the experience.
As soon as you enter the game, you're greeted by a menu that imitates a real networked world, with the topics The World, Mailer, News, Accessories, Audio and Data (check out the screenshot to the right). These work in much the same way as you'd experience by going online for real and so the subterfuge of authenticity begins. During the game you'll need to check forum boards and news for clues and the mailer will be an essential part of gameplay interaction as you meet fellow online gamers.
Personally, we really like this approach as it gives a fresh face to the interaction of standard RPGs. Although once logged into The World, the game remains traditional with chin-wagging being ever-present. It has that feel of two games in one - a standard RPG while logged in but, having logged out (and no longer in The World), there's a whole other game going on which is more about simulated personal communication than slashing swords and casting spells.
Bandai have really gone to town on this world of artifice, as there's an anime series and comic book that expands upon events within the game. What's more, all four games will come packaged with an anime DVD that also elaborates on the world of .Hack. While we were told that the DVD wouldn't follow your story exactly, but instead concentrates on other aspects of The World and its goings on, it still indicates that the game would have to be rather linear to be able to be linked in with all this peripheral material. That said, Final Fantasy titles are pretty linear, much more so than they may appear, and we've never had a problem enjoying them.
.Hack is an ambitious and imaginative project that has already seen success in Japan and comes with the kind of multi-media collaboration we haven't seen since The Matrix/Enter the Matrix/Animatrix package. We can only imagine that the UK gaming community will be happy for another RPG to make it to our shores and one offering a new take on an old model has to be welcomed with open arms - or a magical spell laced with dragon teeth, or something.
.Hack//Infection is the first game of the .Hack series and will be in the shops on 26 March. The second title arrives in May followed by the third in Sept and the fourth in Nov.