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09-14-2003, 12:19 AM
.hack Vol. 3 OUTBREAK Review from IGN

CyberConnect's latest sequel is definitely more of the same, but it offers the series' best storyline yet.


Seven months after the first .hack initially appeared on the PlayStation 2 and four months removed from the sequel, the teams at Bandai and CyberConnect2 have returned once again for yet another installment. Delayed by just over a month because of adjustments made by the translation team to some of the game's religious iconography, .hack//OUTBREAK (Part 3) is now officially here. Serving as the introduction to the second half of a four-part series, this newest edition is definitely the darkest of the bunch and continues the franchise's tradition of being an offline RPG set in an online world.

Kicking the butts of our protagonists and setting up some of the worst situations possible for its characters, OUTBREAK is not only most cinematic and plot-centric episode so far, it's also the most disheartening. But for those of us who finished the previous chapter in our battle with Magus at the SIGN Net Slums, it's pretty much what we've come to expect.

Of course, if newbies happen to stumble onto this in search of a quick RPG fix, they should take heed of this warning -- it isn't meant for them. As despite the player's ability to start the adventure regardless of whether or not they finished MUTATION, the game is simply too far along for casual players to get anything out of it. Although, from a storytelling standpoint Part 3 is definitely the strongest in the series so far. And as The Empire Strikes Back proved to Star Wars fans more than 20 years ago, you need to knock your heroes down before you can pick them back up again.

Gameplay
As Bandai has pretty much established by now, .hack isn't going to change very drastically between releases. As at its core, OUTBREAK is still very much the same title that its two predecessors were: the battle engine, structure, and interface is identical to INFECTION (as well as MUTATION) and the ideals of data draining, gate hacking, and NPC trading remain completely unchanged. But that doesn't mean that Part 3 isn't without its additions or alterations -- they're just not as major as your typical sequel. Besides, the .hack series has always had a solid foundation work with in the first place.

http://ps2media.ign.com/ps2/image/dothack_part3_090903_inline_01.jpg

That said, OUTBREAK's most immediate improvement is a smarter A.I. for your companions. Slightly upgraded in the last game but even further enhanced this time around, your party members react more realistically during battle. Instead of blindly using skills, healing one another, or using weapon-supported attacks exclusively based on orders, members will actually fill their time between instructions by performing more intelligent maneuvers.

If you order BlackRose to attack a Metal Emperor, for instance, she'll be far more inclined to heal herself if she's in the "Red Status" regardless if you told her to or not. Though she won't be doing this all the time and can still be caught unaware with a Triple Crush deathblow, the fact remains that she's smarter than she was before; and along with her supporting cast is becoming much a better expert at adaptation. It's definitely step in the right direction.

Interestingly enough, CyberConnect has also created smarter opponents and battlefields as well. Reaching levels that go as high as 70, the creatures in Part 3 are absolutely relentless, aggressive, and bloodthirsty. Potential targets finally do more than scatter recklessly and actually try to flank you for better efficiency -- while rocks and other overworld obstacles are now entirely solid and impenetrable. This eliminates the days of "invisible damage" suffered by friend and foe alike during skirmishes near landmarks.

Other new additions to OUTBREAK match the type of extras found in .hack//MUTATION. Up-to-the-minute scrolls, Summoner magic, weapons, equipment, and other such goodies have been added to your arsenal in an effort to help power up your character, and the added Root Town of Fort Auf ensures that you'll have plenty of new NPCs to meet, trades to make, and Grunties to raise. Not to mention the fact that the fresh Ryu Book bonuses let you customize your "desktop" further and the new Sigma server provides plenty of difficult challenges and sidequests.

And while we're dancing around the subject of Grunties, they too have been given an extra function. Much as they learned how to race for items and bonuses in MUTATION, everyone's favorite pig creature can now partake in what's known as the "Grunty Search." An option that allows your pet to be called to the battlefield like a bloodhound, Grunty Search is a great way to seek out hidden enemy portals, locate key items, and find various other things outside the dungeon entrance. It won't make a huge difference if you're a frequent explorer or user of Fairy Orbs, but it's a nice little benefit for those of us who decided to partake in the Grunty mini-game.

Players who are looking for more additions than what's listed above, however, will probably be disappointed. As the new characters that have been added to the lineup play just like the other members of their classes. Email and message board systems are still only used as nothing more plot devices, and the time needed to find and complete everything is a meager 20-25 hours. Though it must be said that out of all the .hack titles released so far, this is certainly the most challenging one.

Graphics
With the slight changes that have been made to the gameplay engine, we entertained the possibility that there could have been some improvements to the visuals too. But that just isn't the case. As low-res textures and the infamous PS2 jaggies are still very much what you can expect. The colors used for the environments bleed together for a somewhat muddy look as well and the camera has to be continuously adjusted for the best possible view.

But those issues don't necessarily make .hack an ugly game. The character designs are still some of the best of 2003 and the cinematic cut scenes are slickly represented. Details for the characters themselves fare much better than the environments and offer a healthy dose of polygonal realism -- or at least, as much realism as a offline-online RPG is supposed to have. Particle effects, magic spells, and the interface are equally solid.

Sound
There aren't many, but .hack//OUTBREAK does boast a couple of new songs to accompany its already-established soundtrack. Relying on bits of music from the previous two games, it sounds nearly identical to MUTATION and INFECTION. On its own, it's a more than acceptable collection of less than upbeat sounds, but in the context of the earlier titles it may prove a little repetitive over the long haul.

On a more promising note, the English voice acting in OUTBREAK has hit an all-new level of quality. Due to the sullen nature of the plot, most of the talent is a lot more subdued and helps convey their emotion rather convincingly. For the curious, the Japanese track is still the better of the two and the DPL2 recordings sound great if you have a receiver.
Closing Comments
While it's true that the .hack series is already showing its age due to the frequency of its follow-ups, this third edition is still a quality RPG. Despite the fact that expectations and criticisms continue to mount as time goes on, OUTBREAK manages to accomplish everything it sets out to do: which is to simply entertain its fans and make a lot of money while doing so.
Moreover, the franchise is meant to be an episodic chronicle anyway -- not a series of stand-alone sequels ala Xenosaga. So truthfully, it's an unrealistic expectation to anticipate something entirely new and innovative every couple of months; and anyone who goes into it searching for such a scenario is just setting themselves up for disappointment.

For those of us who have accepted the collection for what it is, however, and have allowed ourselves to be drawn into its phony online world, .hack//OUTBREAK can provide plenty of thrills and spills for 20 to 25 hours. It may not be the most ideal way to spend your fifty bucks with so many other role-playing candidates out there, but if you know what you're getting yourself into it's definitely worth it. Fans only, please.

-- Jeremy Dunham

Ratings: Description:
out of 10 click here for ratings guide

9.0 Presentation
Doing what it does best; OUTBREAK captures the feeling of being in an online role-playing game very well. From buddy lists and operating systems to email and message boards, CC Corp has it down.

7.5 Graphics
.hack is showing just a hint of its age with muddy backgrounds and still un-fixed camera problems. Luckily, the character designs rock and the art direction is top notch.

8.0 Sound
New music is rare and the rest is rehash but it's still good. Also worth noting is how the American vocalists have nailed their characters from a dramatic standpoint. Though it needs better foley.

8.0 Gameplay
The camera can still be an issue while playing, but the improvements to enemy and companion A.I. are definitely a good thing. The battle system seems to get better with age.

8.0 Lasting Appeal
Sidequests and mini-games are more plentiful this time than they were in the last installment, but the overall quest is still only about 25 hours. The plot twists in this one, however, kick major ass.

8.4 OVERALL:
(out of 10 / not an average)


9.1 READER SCORE: (based on average user scores)