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Developer:
CyberConnect2
Publisher: Bandai
Platform: Playstation 2
Release Date: May 7, 2003

by Ronald Wartow




Backdrop

If you believe in the theory that “You can’t get too much of a good thing!”, then .hack Part 2 Mutation is the game for you. Mutation begins precisely where .hack Part 1 Infection ended. While Mutation offers some minor innovations, this second of a 4-game series brings back the familiar gameplay, combat, skills, graphics, world features, available characters, and travel systems employed in the first game. On finishing Mutation, I persist in recommending the .hack series of games.


With the series now at the halfway point, gamers can look forward to .hack Part 3 Outbreak and .hack Part 4 Quarantine, to be released in early August and November, respectively. (All four games in the .hack series have already been released in Japan if you just can’t wait until August and November.)


Story

Mutation continues .hack’s greatest strength, its intriguing and compelling storyline. The games takes place just a few years from now. Kite, the central character, intensifies his quest to discover what sent his real world friend into a coma while playing a trendy MMORPG, The World. So as not to reveal how the first game ended, for those yet to play or finish it, please note that Kite’s online hacking romps and eventful encounters through virus-infected areas of The World raised more questions than were answered, a situation clearly expected from the first of a series of games.


Mutation moves the interesting story along in a variety of ways. Special events are triggered after defeating special bosses and dealings with both playable characters and NPC’s. The constantly changing Bulletin Board on The World, frequently updated Web News Articles, and the copious email flowing into Kite’s account continually add frequent pieces to the giant jigsaw puzzle that is .hack‘s plot. Sometimes, certain games generate events or missives to keep you on the right track. (One hilarious way this is done is when one of Kite’s comrades forces the hero to head for a specific area or dungeon. No amount of coaxing or tomfoolery can influence the game character to deviate from the required course of action.) Story interludes, so-called cut scenes, are effective and concise. (Contrast this to the pure agony of sitting through the cut scenes in Xenosaga: Episode I, at least two of which exceeded 45 minutes in length!)


For those who can’t get enough of .hack in the games, check out the blizzard of other available .hack media: a book, several anime TV series, and the anime DVD’s included with the games, which provide background and possible clues to secret areas.


Gameplay

If you played Infection, particularly to conclusion, Mutation’s gaming system, environments, and look and feel will be immediately familiar. (Our Infection review on this website is found at http://www.just-rpg.com/default.asp?pid=265 .) Returning in Mutation are another large secret area, the need to raise you comrades’ affection levels as high as possible, the Springs of Myst, and Goblin Tag, and Grunty raising.


What’s new? Mutation does offer some minor innovation. Fresh playable characters are accessible to quest in Kite’s party. The number of unlockable extras increases, and there is a new small town housing a server increasing access to The World‘s areas. New equipment can be found, and the level and skill quality of materiel increases. Treasure chests now contain more than throwaway items. Combat has turned a bit tougher, and changed slightly with the ability to Data Drain multiple enemies, the appearance of previously-unseen monsters, and more appealing boss battles. Grunties (the .hack equivalent of the Final Fantasy chocobo) raised can now be raced in towns for special prizes. You can even unlock flashback scenes from a .hack anime TV series.


Based on my experience, all that’s old and new played out to completion by mirroring Infection’s gameplay time of 12 to 15 hours, for a no-nonsense straightforward run through the game.


Mutation continues Infection’s credible job of simulating a real-world MMORPG atmosphere. You may return to Infection’s two towns and servers, and explore the new town, then head for the ubiquitous fields and dungeons. In addition to servers for The World, the towns still include equipment sources, save game ability at the Recorder, and most, importantly, trading with others players in the game’s virtual world for the very best in weapons, armor, and special items.


The Chaos Gate instant teleportation mechanism returns to whisk Kite and the party off to particular adventure destinations based on triple-keyword combinations that fix the destination‘s type and level of difficulty.


Combat

Anyone having mastered Infection’s combat system will feel right at home with Mutation’s. Except for some minor tweaks mentioned above, the system is identical. A player still has to make the sometimes difficult, strategic choice when fighting monsters -- go for the experience necessary to level, or Data Drain to acquire the good stuff and vital gate hacking Virus Cores? If the player wants to, a button mashing real-time combat heaven can be employed all through the game. The careful player may use the instant pause capability during combat. Once paused, the combatant may give or change orders to others in the party, including using skills or magic, or just reflect on what to do next. Manipulating disparate ecological factors affixed to areas and equipment, like fire versus water, is a key to successful monster combat.


Combat felt to be more difficult, as Mutation’s monsters seem radically ramped up in skill, tactics, and strength. My party appeared to suffer crippling status attacks at the beginning of many combats, something rarely experienced in Infection. As with Infection, there seem to be wide gaps between power levels of monsters in the same area. That’s not supposed to happen, since the keywords result in a display of an area’s destination level. Camera angles, controlled by L1, L2, R1, and R2 and the right analog stick are still crucial, since, you do no damage unless you face a monster.


Side Quest Mania

Nothing excites an RPG gamer more than numerous side quests, garnering the best equipment, plenty of intermediate goals, and collecting stuff for rewards. Mutation fills this need commendably. For more gaming fun, the Mutation player can even complete goals not achieved while playing Infection.


Mutation gives the player back The Book of 1000, split into 8 Ryu books (1000 is binary for 8.), which calculates your accomplishments, contains lots of useful info, and gauges whether new extras are to be unlocked. Maxing out the statistics and information updated in the books through progress is a game unto itself.


Valid Criticism

Unlike Infection, Mutation contains no ingame tutorial, and just the briefest of story background. The manual, once again, is uninformative and bare. New players will need to practice way too much trial and error because of this, and probably will be baffled. Though all of the emails, and board messages from Infection, are brought over to Mutation, that’s a lot of reading, a real game stopper, just to get the flavor of what the game involves. A decent summary in the manual or ingame would have been helpful.


Worse, there is absolutely no information ingame or in the manual on bringing over your Infection save data into Mutation. This anticipated and admirable ability is a linchpin of the .hack games, brazenly trumpeted on Mutation’s back cover. When you boot the game, an option to “Convert” appears, but what this means is left entirely to the player’s surmise. Through trial and error, I discovered that you can bring over all your characters’ data from Infection, but only if you have defeated the major boss at game’s end.


There is no mention that there really is a tremendous benefit to finishing Infection and converting its data to Mutation. Unless you transfer data, new Mutation players begin with characters assured of being defeated early and often, making for a frustrating experience. Because of this, I highly recommend that Infection be played and completed before tackling Mutation.


During the frenetic real-time button mashing combat, in many ways similar to Kingdom Hearts, there is one huge deficiency in the Mutation scheme, carried over from Infection. There is no ability to auto-target one or more of the numerous enemies flying around the combat screen. To target a specific enemy, the player needs to awkwardly spin the ingame camera, using the controls mentioned above. Moreover, doing all this spinning at times seems to turn the combat screen into a disorienting mishmash of colors, blurred graphics and statistics.


Tenuous Criticism

More than one gaming site, and a vocal minority of gamers online opine that .hack should have been a single long-play game rather than four full-priced potentially short, uneventful games with the same gaming system and world environment. I staunchly respect opinions divergent from mine, but feel these criticisms unfairly ignore recent RPG gaming history, the gameplay bang for your buck in the series' games, and Bandai's clearly stated intentions.


The reason .hack became a series of 4 concise games, rather than one huge game, was just reported in an interview with some of the games’ creators. (http://www.rpgfan.com/news/2003/1487.html). Apparently, the .hack series follows the customary route of Japanese comic books, where a sprawling, intricate story is normally spread over 4 issues. The first introduces the story and mystery, followed by a direct sequel. The third volume initiates a core incident or conflict. All is resolved by volume four. (Note that the Xenosaga series apparently is also set up this way.)


As for game completion time, Mutation, like Infection, takes about 12 to 15 hours sticking to the main plot, carrying out the appropriate leveling, and doing little else. If a player decides to fully exploit all the gameplay offered, completion time easily doubles, or even triples. Many will want to perform all the side quests, develop playable characters to the max, explore the huge number of The World’s areas, unlock all the extras, top out your hero’s level with the best gear ready for transfer to Outbreak, spend time to raise and race Grunties, maximize the affection level of Kite’s comrades, or just plain experience The World. (See Side Quest Mania, above)


As for the use of a virtually identical or static gaming system in the .hack games, Bandai has always presented a consistent front that .hack is a series of games, and a first at that. The official .hack website clearly confirms this and announces the new features in Mutation as simply more exciting battles by using higher level skills and equipments, improved party member AI programming to allow for advanced battle tactics, new comrades, and the ability to race the Grunties you raise for great prizes. That’s it!


The critics bemoan the fact that .hack is a series not a paramount game followed by traditional sequels that bring forth improvements to the gaming system. The more sequels, the more improvements. These critics seems to have forgotten that the sequels to some of the greatest RPG’s ever made used the same gaming engine as the original, including Baldur’s Gate II, and Icewindale II. In fact, PC RPG’ers have played those games, plus others, for over 5 years, and all have used the virtually unchanged Bioware Infinity Engine. On the console side, the triad of games of the well-liked Suikoden trilogy all contain the major plot device of finding and recruiting 108 NPC’s. Like the .hack games, those games did not mess with a proven system, and the purpose of the sequels was to advance or modify their terrific storylines, whether the games are sequels or not.


For those complaining about the monetary outlay for the series, there are less expensive methods to acquire the games. Game rental is now widely available and extremely inexpensive. Also, there are many online avenues to get the games cheaper if you are search carefully. The best online, in our opinion, is eBay, where recent knockdown prices for Infection and Mutation are in the $30-35 range. For Mutation, that’s an amazingly steep discount for a game released 3 weeks ago.


Final Words

After playing Mutation, I renew my unqualified endorsement for the .hack series. The story and gameplay are just too inventive and riveting to abandon without discovering how it all ends. The value of the series concept and its sound execution in the .hack games far outweigh the criticisms. I strongly encourage those “on the fence“ to look past the shortcomings. The one condition is that you should play and complete Infection first before tackling Mutation.


All that I liked in Infection returns in Mutation, plus a few new things to divert my attention. In fact, I, and all the legions of gamers who enjoyed Infection, celebrate the lack of newness in Mutation, plus breathe a sigh of relief that Bandai did not tinker with a great gaming system. That‘s what sucked me in, and kept me playing for hours on end. The very reasons presented by those who criticize the series actually intensify my desire to play it out to the end.


Finally, Mutation, like Infection, moved the enduring .hack storyline forward, but ended with a jolt that, put me on the edge of my seat. I eagerly await the next game in the series, Outbreak, to be released on August 5, 2003, where, as Bandai has suggested, I expect major plot events, all leading to the climactic end in Quarantine.


Final Grade: 87%




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