I was wrong on both accounts. By the end of the first episode, SAO distinguishes itself from .Hack//Sign. The central conflict is created when the game's creator teleports everyone to the starting town to inform them that he rigged the game so no one can log out. If they are forcibly disconnected from the game, the virtual reality equipment will emit a microwave frequency that will fry the brain; they die. If they die in game, the microwave thing happens; they die. There is a way out of the game: they have to fight their way through all 100 floors or levels of the game and defeat the final boss. Then everyone will be released. By the end of the first episode, I was thinking: "This is going to be just like Inu-Yasha or some other series where each episode will be the same basic thing--get through the current level, fight and defeat the boss (or on the rare occasion there might be a 2 episode sequence to break things up), and it will last a hundred episodes."
Thankfully, I was wrong there too. The narrative focuses more on character development and the game actually becomes more of a background. The story jumps levels, days, and months at a time. I appreciated this. SAO became more about observing how people changed and interacted with each other especially as time passed and real world memories lessened and game experiences became a way of life. The lack of magic, for me, was just fine. They had a wide range of "techniques" and "powers" that kept combat interesting, as well as tactics, skills and other game elements to keep things exciting. I really enjoyed this part of SAO. The first half was very well done, and I would highly recommend it.
The second half of SAO was incredibly disappointing. It became a totally different anime where the only connection was a virtual reality mmo game and the same characters. It moved from moderately-child friendly to only a few steps shy of outright hentai (including a scene that stops just short of tentacle rape). There are still some good story elements from this second half, but overall, I felt it did not hold up to the standard the first half set up. The narrative was weaker. We'd spend long periods just looking at the main male character's sister sitting in her underwear. Why? I have no idea. It served very little purpose to the story. I honestly felt the additional mature elements did not add anything to the series. I think it also bothered me because I had not expected the series to go this route. I do not like watching hentai. I avoid it whenever possible. We had previewed the first several episodes of the series and it seemed "safe". We preview anime before sitting down to consume an entire series primarily because anime can contain such adult material, and we usually try to get a feel for what a series will be like so we can say whether our kids can watch it or not. Initially SAO was okay. It was a little awkward when a little over half way through we had to stop the show and ask the kids to take themselves upstairs and find something else to do. We'd tell them how the story ended, but they did not need to be watching it. That was very disappointing to them.
My conclusion. The first half of SAO is great. The second half, not so much. I still really enjoyed the first part enough that my husband and I are planning on cosplaying Kirito and Asuna (the two main characters for most of SAO). I really liked a lot of the costume and character design. I liked how they handled the action and combat. I think the only thing I didn't like was the adult elements that appeared in the second half--it always stopped just short of really showing anything, but I think they still took things a little too far.