Fans of the original .hack series and anime have another reason to dust off their virtual desktops with .hack//G.U. Vol. 1//Rebirth scheduled to release early next week. With a story intertwiend with .hack//Roots - a new anime series that debuts on Cartoon Network in November - the game takes place in the not-so-distant future, where a fantasy online role-playing game called The World has become a cultural phenomenon.
You control Haseo, a brash Adept Rogue who needs to find a way to save his friend Shino from certain death by hunting down Tri-Edge, a mysterious PK (Player Killer) who put Shino into a real-life coma with his in-game attacks.
Like the original .hack games, .hack//G.U. succeeds in enveloping you in the premise that you are a pawn investigating a dire mystery within a MMORPG. You'll post on the (totally fictional) forums to look for healers to party with, check your emails for clues, and search the news for information that will lead you to Tri-Edge.
But things aren't always so serious. The World is a game, after all, and towns are filled with player characters who add depth and humor to the experience. One player named b1u3 will explain that she really wanted to make a character named Blue, but that it was already taken. Another female character will confess that she's a guy in real life.
Unfortunately, .hack//G.U. also suffers from the same faults of the original saga. Dungeons are as repetitive and tiring, just as before. There are only three: a field area, a cave area and a Japanese castle area. Battling on these three backgrounds over and over again will wear you out. Although lots of gorgeous new areas like the Lost Grounds waterfall where Haseo often met with Shino in the .hack//Roots series have been added, they primarily serve as a stage for cut scenes and you can’t interact with them at all.
The battle system has also been revamped and now has a fast paced beat 'em-up feel to it. Rengeki Attacks - special flashy attack moves - and the Awakening Mode - a team-based attack - help make the battles more enjoyable.
Even though there's more action, battles are still a mindless X-button-mashing affair. As with the dungeon areas, there aren't a lot of different monsters to fight, either. Also, since you're always fighting monsters that are the same level as you, you never really get the feeling that your character is becoming stronger. Battling in the newbie areas with your level one weapons feels about the same as fighting in high level zones.
Haseo will eventually learn how to unlock his Avatar, a giant scythe-wielding data monster which defies The World 's system parameters and allows him to use the infamous soul-sucking Data Drain ability. Avatar battles play out like a 3D shooter - you'll fly about dodging and slashing through your enemies' attacks while blasting them with energy shots. The Avatar battles are pretty fun and add much-needed depth to the battle system, but are introduced far too late in the game to make much of an impact for this volume.
You'll also be able to manage Canard, a guild focused on helping noobs in The World. As your guild rank grows by collecting more items and completing quests, you’ll be able to unlock additional rooms in your guild hall like the Alchemist Shop - which lets you customize your weapons and armor.
In the end, playing .hack//G.U. Vol. 1//Rebirth is like drinking fine wine from a plastic sippy cup. It has a compelling story and premise, served up with repetitive dungeons and stale battles. We'd like to see more variety - more dungeons, monsters and more quests in the next volume - so the gameplay comes closer to matching the original .hack's high caliber story. Fans of the original series will no doubt enjoy this new title, with its many references and nods to the previous games and various anime series. However, they should also expect the same flaws which prevented the original games from shining.