Playing (and writing) about games for a living, you have to be pretty flexible when it comes to games, taking in all types and genres. Some you develop a new-found love for, and some you'll always be hopeless at (like first person shooters, where we spend more time staring at the sky than actually killing things). But as someone who predominantly covers console games, there is one huge, gaping hole in our game-playing knowledge - the MMO, or "massively multiplayer online" adventures - online-only worlds filled with real-life people, hunting down enemies, grinding for gold and generally adventuring in a virtual fantasy world. Too socially awkward to play with real people, we tend to prefer to keep our game-playing private, but Japanese role-playing game series Sword Art Online offers us a nice compromise - all the fun of the bustling online worlds, but with none of the creepy blokes-pretending-to-be-women trying to get into your virtual pants. Fantastic!
Based on the anime of the same name, Sword Art Online is a game with a bit of a complex concept - while Hollow Realization itself isn't an MMO, you'll spend most of your time playing inside a recreation of one. In the world of the game, the titular 'Sword Art Online' is a virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or VRMMORPG for short, that all the cool kids play - so think World of Warcraft, but with virtual reality headsets and traditionally Japanese spiky hairstyles and huge swords. Venturing inside, you'll play your way through what, for the most part, is a single-player, story driven affair, coming across groups of computer-controlled 'players' that you can chat to, interact with, or even fight alongside. But Sword Art Online isn't a normal MMO - something sinister is going on inside, and everyone who's playing finds themselves trapped inside the virtual world. Fighting for their lives, they soon discover it's impossible to log out - with the only way to leave Sword Art Online being to climb to the top of a hundred floor tower, and defeating the boss there. Sounds easy enough - but there's a catch. Should your health bar reach zero, you won't just die in game. You'll die in real life, too...
Somewhat strangely however, previous Sword Art Online games have chosen to pick up the story part way through, with Hollow Fragment taking place 75 floors in, and Lost Song actually set after the game's finished - as per the story arcs in the accompanying anime series. The latest instalment, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, however, takes place in a brand new VRMMO called Sword Art: Origin. Quite why anyone would willingly re-enter a world that has a reputation for trying to kill you, we're not really sure, but the brand new world means that now you're playing right from the start, rather than jumping into the tale halfway through. And it seems a mysterious computer-controlled girl called Premiere plays a big part in the story too, following a message she sends Kirito - although, in honesty, we know very little about her either.
But the main difference with Hollow Realization is that the world of Sword Art is somewhat different to what we remember - instead of a chuffing great hundred floor tower, everything takes place on a single, sweeping floor of forests, deserts and towns galore. When we recently went hands on with the game, we found ourselves wandering through a forest, en route to the 'Teim Valais Estuary', plodding through a woodland teaming with enemies of all kinds, with parties of computer-controlled players strolling through periodically, to add to Sword Art's 'MMO' atmosphere. In fact, if you see any of these computer controlled parties, you can even jump in and lend them a hand in battle - and they'll thank you for your trouble after.
Of course, it wouldn't be a role playing game without plenty of battles, and the fields in Sword Art Online are swarming with foes to face off against. Battles take place in real-time, button mashing format, and are as easy to pick up as you'd hope - simply by hammering buttons we found we quickly turned the roaming buffalos into steaks, speedily squashing the giant Hornets too. Not that you can trounce every enemy without any effort, though - the 'Venemous Scouge', a hunchback crocodile beast was a bit more formidable, given his propensity to stun both us and our party members repeatedly. In true MMO style fashion, you also have access to a range of special attacks, stat-boosting buffs and healing spells in a grid in the lower centre of the screen - and there's an astonishing number of different options. With twenty shown on screen at once, and another forty scrollable below, it may be hard to know what 99% of the things do when you're first sitting down with the game (and we can't imagine it'll be that easy scrolling through the list while you're under attack), at least there's plenty of option for you to fine tune your strategy.
And when we first started, fine tuning was what we needed most. We don't know about you, but we have a nasty habit of falling over our fingers when first starting to play a game. So there we were, running through the field, where we spotted an enemy - a giant enemy crab (also known as a 'Swamp Scissors'), ripe for the taking. Without so much as a second thought, in we went for the kill, whacking it furiously with our sword, until it reared up for a powerful attack. "Quick" we thought "DODGE!" and hammered the button to roll out of the way. Wrong button. Rather than diving like a pro, we turn to face our enemy, smile and say... "Nice!", taunting the crab as it twats us round the face. Doh.
Using the aforementioned seventy billion skills aren't the only way to up your damage dealing potential though - for every subsequent hit you land on an enemy, your combo counter raises, ramping up the damage you deal each time. But get hit by an enemy, or in our case taunt instead of dodging, and your counter will be reset, returning your damage counter to the beginning. Generally speaking, your companions largely do their own thing, with a particularly vicious one of ours often running off to start brawls with any and everything nearby. You can however give your team mates orders to try and keep them in line a bit more, letting you battle a bit more strategically.
Within Hollow Realization's faux-MMO setting, you'll even be able to recruit a couple of real-life friends to help you on your quest, via the game's online multiplayer. In multiplayer, your party can swell to an impressive eight folks, four human and four computer-controlled AI characters, with each friend bringing along their favourite of their harem to help out. While it is a little ambiguous as to quite how this will work at the moment, the details we've seen state you'll be able to "join other players to complete the most difficult quests".
While the moody loner Kirito is they guy everyone who's seen the anime series will be familiar with, you don't have to play as him in Hollow Realization, as the game will be shipping with a pretty extensive character creator that lets you tweak your gender, appearance and weapon preferences to make your very own protagonist, even down to being able to set a different colour for each eye. However, you'll also be able to join forces with a plethora of other characters too, having them fight by your side throughout your adventure - and there's a fair few familiar faces from the anime here too, including Kirito's partner in crime, Asuna. The likes of the magic-wielding Leafa, pro blacksmith Lisbeth, dragon-taming Silca, the sniper/archer Sinon, previous game heroine Phillia and the purple-haired Strea can also make up Kirito's harem of companions too, although you can only take three along with you at a time. As with previous games, they'll all be romance-able too, via the side dating sim mode, where chatting to the girls and picking the right conversation options increases their affection for you, letting you grow closer and unlock all kinds of extra scenes...
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization will be sweeping it's way onto the Playstation 4 and PS Vita this Autumn - and we've been working our way through the accompanying anime series in anticipation. Having said that, we do find it a bit peculiar that, although the TV show is dubbed into English, the game instead opts for Japanese audio only, with English subtitles; but then again people get really funny about dubbing in Japanese games sometimes. And while details on the game are a little scant at the moment, Japan will be getting a closer look at Hollow Realization next week via a live-stream, so we'd expect the new details to start trickling out in the coming days, so make sure you check back! In the meantime, why not take a gander the latest trailer below: