Final Fantasy XI Online
I'm man enough that I can begin with an admission. Back in 1997,1 scraped together some cash and bought a PlayStation. I had some time on my hands (alright, I'd been sacked), so I also brought home Final Fantasy VII. Much to the amusement of friends and peers, that game was played to death. Every single secret was ferreted out, with nary a glance at a strategy guide. But after the full splendour of that success, the series held no further interest for me. At least not until Square Enix unleashed Final Fantasy XI, the first MMOG in the long-running series. The game has been available to Japanese PC and PlayStation 2 owners since late 2002, but only recently began beta testing elsewhere in the world on Windows platforms.
Looking at this game coming down the pipe, it's easy to see a turf war brewing. On one side are the currently dominant titles, led by Everquest. Facing off is this upstart, with more than a dozen previous releases and literally decades of development to draw upon. Other entries in the series have sported everything from super-deformed anime characters to the more realistic designs of Final Fantasy X. The online adventure runs with the latter style, though to keep the vocal die-hards happy, the designers have included the Tarutaru, a gibberishspouting playable race of magically inclined bobble-heads to live alongside humans, elves and the like.
The game world is a blend of familiar and somewhat alien fantasy elements called Vana'diel, a fantasy land divided into three kingdoms. A great war has recently ended, leaving each government subtly jockeying for power. That's where you come in. Upon entering the game, you'll have to declare allegiance to one of the three. As you fight monsters outside of town, you'll increase the holdings of your homeland, in addition to lining your own pockets. The years of back story really shine through, as Vana'diel already feels like a fully developed culture with extensive guilds and plenty of history.
Not Just A Dead-End Job
There are two different task structures in FFXI. 'Missions' are state-sponsored jobs that form the bulk of the storyline, and offer rank rewards. Alternately, 'quests' are often errand-based affairs, doled out by NPCs in town. They're optional, but recommended. While many quests may be undertaken alone, missions run at a much higher difficulty, and will require you to party up with others. The need to share-gotten gains with others is far preferable to the loneliness of constant death.
Whether solo or party-based, battles are all real time, characterised by the garishly colourful weapon and spell effects that are the series' trademark. There's not another MMOG that looks anything like it, nor one that moves as quickly. FFXI has adapted the limit break system from Final Fantasy VII, which presents you with a third energy bar to watch, on top of health and magic points. In combat, the gauge increases with each hit and as it maxes out, various combo and special attacks become available. The meter tops out at 300 per cent, and the higher it gets, the more damage will be dealt by your devastating special attacks. Along with special job-related abilities, these specials are the core of combat.
As you wander through the lush fields and streams and dank dungeons, some glaring omissions do presently stand out. Where, for instance, is the player killing, or the corpse-guarding? Fortunately, you won't have to track down your dead carcass when some punk bumblebee takes you apart, as dying is a relatively low-impact affair - simply costing some experience points, unless a kind mage is on hand to raise you from the dead. Dying is cheap, sure, but having to trudge back to battle is more fun when you're not preoccupied with the fear of looters.
Strangely, while the series has always been charactensed with strikingly colourful graphics, FFXI has a somewhat washed-out look. The palette is subdued, with the exception of brightly flanng spell effects. Many backgrounds are downright grainy, even using uncompressed textures. However, the consistently interesting designs do make the look easy to get used to. And surprisingly, most of my t me in the beta was lag-free. There will be a monthly fee, currently set to compete with EverQuest and the like. The fee will buy one character, but for-a small additional premium more can be yours.
Download Final Fantasy XI Online
Right Then, let s get started. If I've come to learn anything about you in the many, many years we've all been together (other than your collective love of aniseed balls), it's that when it comes to games such as Final Fantasy XI Online you don't want loads of waffle setting the scene, describing the game contents and going into great depth about crafting processes. No, what you want is a straight answer to two or three key questions.
First, what does FFXI offer that you're not going to get in the Everquest and Dark Age Of Camelots of this world? Second, is it even worth your while jumping into a world that's already been extensively chronicled by American and Japanese gamers for the best part of two years now? Third, shouldn't we all just wait on a bit for the EverQuest ll/World Of Warcraft double whammy about to hit us in the gut several months from now?
Good questions all, so let's deal with them in turn shall we? (Incidentally, if you do want a detailed rewording of the manual then go and read the FFXI website. We practise actual journalism here.)
So, what differentiates FFXI from the others then? Well for starters, you're not going to find another MMOG that's anywhere near as welcoming as this. While the whole PlayOnline front-end interface might initially seem a cumbersome folly, it's not long before you're wishing all your online games could be handled through such a console-style browser. It's a hell of a lot easier on the eye than Windows, and having all your contacts, community options and breaking news in such a friendly, happy place puts you in a good mood before you even start the game proper. PC developers really need to start learning lessons of presentation from our console brethren.
As for the game itself, while for the most part it subscribes to all the usual fantasy MMORPG traditions, it at least does it all with a level of polish that Mr Sheen would be hard pushed to rival. While some MMOGs might be content to throw meaningless level grinding quest templates at you over and over again to see you rise the ranks, FFXI's missions all have some kind of meaningful story attached, the majority of which even come with (ingame engine powered) cut-scenes.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. The single biggest thing that puts most people off playing a MMOG is the fear of the grind. Repetitive rat killing for hours on end does not make for a enjoyable night's gaming. With everything here having some sort of purpose (whether it's simply helping a small boy find his father, or teaming up to kill a giant dragon wyrm in a far-flung cavern), you not only enjoy your time in the game, but you actually feel as though you're making some sort of difference to the world.
I haven't mentioned FFXI's own brand of game mechanics, and for good reason. The game does things like combat, crafting, skill advancement and levelling in its own way. Combat follows traditional FF styles, only with a real-time element thrown in. Crafting adheres to the mystical backdrop of the game world, involving fusing crystals with energy rather than hitting bits of metal with a hammer and tongs. Levelling is a mixture of individual skill ratings and overall character experience points. All of it is horses for courses (or chocobos for, uh, track-obos...). You'll either like the way it works or you won't. There are better gaming systems, there are worse. Everything is solidly built and there are precious few instances of fighting the mechanics rather than the monsters on show.
Combat is a touch random in places, and in large group situations it can often be very confusing as to what is making an impact on the enemy and what isn't. But apart from that, there's not much you can criticise in the game's overall construction. (That is, unless you count oft-bemoaned problems like the insane World Pass system that prevents you from choosing which server you get to play on, a limit of one character per account, extremely limited character customisation options and a level/reward ratio that, in my view, errs on the side of extremely stingy.)
Breaking The Ice
From a social standpoint, FFXI is something of a curate's egg. After all, you might have the most polished game in all of Christendom, but if your inhabitants all avoid each other like the plague and interact only to shaft each other in the marketplace, you might as well be making Streatham High Street Online. With the game having been available to Johnny Foreigner already, the sudden influx of European adventurers exploring the lower reaches of the world provokes different reactions depending on your server.
Despite officially sanctioned endeavours such as linkshells (personalised chat rooms), mentor systems (old hands helping out the newbies) and even authorised wedding ceremonies all encouraging the denizens of Vana'diel to play happily together, FFXI tends to be one of the more insular MMOs in community terms. Hopefully we'll see this change as our European style, grace and savoir faire slowly wins hearts, and if not at least we'll have each other to share time zones with.
And the competition? True, the noises coming from the World of Warcraft camps are already proclaiming it as a new dawn in online gaming. The EQ2 beta test is winning almost as many plaudits and since it'll only be a few more months before they get here, what chance does FFXI really have?
World Of Evercraft
Well, having sampled all three I can state that Square Enix's effort will be able to hold its own. A half million-strong community is a hard thing to shift so you'll not be lost for things to do and people to do it with (if you can get them talking). Plus we Euronauts get to enjoy the latest expansion, Chains Of Promathia right from the get-go so there's plenty of scope for exploration.
Basically, Square Enix has had one hell of a headstart on the other contenders and has managed to construct a solid, enjoyable and absorbing world that doesn't resort to grinding. World Of Warcraft may have the balance and EverQuest II the heritage, but FFXI has the players and right now, that counts for everything.
Final Fantasy XI is finally here, and damn, is it a 10,000 hit-point monster. But be warned: This isn't your little bro's Final Fantasy. Chocobo trappings aside, it shares more similarities with massively multiplayer online role-playing games like EverQuest Online Adventures and Asheron's Call (PC) than it does with classic Fantasy titles. And that means it may not only threaten to take over your life, but also frustrate the heck out of you. Yet, you'll find few games as rewarding (and addictive), provided you're the kind of person willing to put in the time. Just don't expect to hit the ground running. You ain't gonna save the world from Armageddon (or Sephiroth), fight three-story-tall hell spawns, or pilot a state-of-the-art flying galleon--at least not at first. Rather, you'll perform the occasional delivery mission for a beleaguered townsperson, kill dozens upon dozens of lowly (and often cute) critters, and hawk animal parts in the game's virtual auction house. Sound like fun? Well, it is. Every tiny success in Final Fantasy XI--be it selling a valuable item at the auction house or completing a mission you've been gnawing at for days--brings with it an immense feeling of accomplishment. And soon enough, your character stops being a total chump, and you're able to explore the enormous, beautiful world of Vana'diel at your leisure. Two big factors keep FFXI from being the online RPG of my dreams. First, after about 15 hours of play, it becomes basically impossible to get anything done without a big group, which usually takes some time to assemble (though usually less time than in EverQuest). And second, it's a pain in the ass to play with your friends. You have to buy an expensive in-game item called a World Pass and give your pals the pass number, and then they have to create all-new characters on your server. Ouch! Still, I've been playing FFXI since it came out on PC last year, and I picked up the PS2 version just so I could play it on my couch. Call it psychosis, call it true love, call it whatever. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a chocobo to ride.
Ever since EverQuest Online Adventures tried (and failed) to do it on PS2, I've wondered whether it's possible to create a vibrant, massively multiplayer role-playing community on consoles. With the Stateside PS2 release of Final Fantasy XI, I see clearly now that the answer is yes. FFXI does something brilliant: It throws console gamers right into the mix with a community that's been brewing now for over a year in Japan and many months on PC. The results are astonishing. I was never at a loss for a good group--in fact, I had to fend off eager role-players itchin' to score with me (loot and experience, I mean!). Whenever I had a question, veteran players were always willing to take a minute to show me the ropes. Even beyond the community aspect, FFXI is awesome. Exploring the huge, beautiful world (with the help of an excellent map system) is exciting by itself. Tons of quests make it easy to find your next goal, and the immersion into the Final Fantasy world is complete, from classes and races down to the nonplayer-character dialogue and music. I just worry that nonfans won't make the time-consuming leap. After weeks on the bumblebee-slayin' treadmill (have I lost weight?), I'm finally getting to dig in. But why does it have to take so damn long?
Readers with long memories and even longer back-issue collections may remember that EGM called FFXI "Final Fantasy...mih a few thousand of your closest friends" half a year ago. This statement, while nice and snappy, isn't completely accurate--you'll need a lot of friends, yes, but this game will cause serious culture shock in diehard Fantasy fanatics. If you aren't familiar with large-scale online RPGs, your first few hours with FFXI will be more than a little daunting. There's lingo to learn, a new and alien battle system to master, and a game world almost the size of real-life Earth to explore. Trouble is, as a level 1 questling, there's not much you can do besides hug the outskirts of town and whap away at butterflies all day. In other words, FFXI starts out very, very slowly and stays slow for hours--that's where the culture shock comes from. Join a party, though, and the world suddenly becomes far more accessible. Grouping up is the only way to build your character rapidly in FFXI, and high-level heroes gain access to powerful jobs and items, exotic missions, and, well, more ways to earn experience points. But you won't mind the minor hassle of joining (or starting) a group, for some reason. That's what makes FFXI seem special in a way EverQuest Online Adventures isn't: While there's a learning curve so steep you need a pickax to climb it, the "we're all in this together" play mentality is unique and, yes, terribly addictive.
Squares first shot at a multiplayer online RPG arrived too close to deadline for us to give it the full review it deserves, so expect that next month. Sniff. Fortunately, we have some experience with the Japanese PS2 version (out for nearly two years now) and loads of stick time with the PC version (out here since last fall), so until FFXI gets the complete review treatment next month, heres a basic idea of what to expect.
Set in the sprawling world of Vanadiel, FFXI is at once just like Final Fantasy and nothing like it at all. You begin by choosing your characters class and race (everybody loves the hobbit-like tarutaru, trust us), and after that, youre really on your own free to explore the countryside, level up, change jobs Final Fantasy V-style, level up, die horrible deaths at the hands of powerful monsters, and level up some more.
Like Everquest Online Adventures and other online RPGs, FFXI suffers from treadmill syndrome it takes literally hours of doggedly building your characters attributes before you can do anything really cool. Unlike EQOA, though, this process is actually fun, as the emphasis is on story and exploration rather than mundane rat extermination and finding devious ways to work the system. The audiovisuals are pure Square quality, too not as high-res as the PC version, of course, but still among the best in the genre.
For those who love RPGs, there are few titles that cause as much anticipation as a Final Fantasy release. You can generally count on an in-depth well-developed story, dynamic gameplay elements, and high quality graphics and audio aspects. What makes this latest addition, Final Fantasy XI, different from previous releases however is substantial. Although many of the elements are still reasonably represented, a number have been drastically changed and effect the game on many different levels, both good and bad.
For starters, Final Fantasy XI is a MMORPG and the first one released on the Playstation 2. This has a number of implications starting with requiring a hard disk drive, network connector, and keyboard if you plan on communication with other players. If you don't have these items (HDD comes with game), you're looking at $170 to get started plus monthly access bills. In addition, MMORPGs generally don't have well-developed plots and usually require a ton of free time to do well.
That may be rather depressing, especially if you don't like MMORPGs but for those that do, Final Fantasy XI won't disappoint. The general gameplay fits with what you would expect from an online RPG starting with character customization. The customization allows you to select from five different races, a number of different job classes such as warrior or white mage, and three unique regions. These options should be enough to satisfy most expectations and start the game off on the right foot.
Once you're off and running, which is no simple task, Final Fantasy XI falls in line with other MMORPGs. The battle system for instance is simple and fairly standard as you just target your enemy and wait for someone emerge victorious. You can however learn more power moves depending on the weapon selection and execute them once the tactical meter increases past 100. Attacks can also be chained together with other players for increased damage adding another dimension to the battle system.
Final Fantasy XI should keep you engrossed with a number of other features such as learning specific skills or selling at the bazaar. In addition, the graphics and audio follow suit with graphics that are slightly dated but still perform adequately and audio that fits in with most expectations for a MMORPG.
As long as you realize Final Fantasy XI has veered off significantly from the classic RPG standard to a MMORPG you shouldn't find yourself with buyer's remorse. As a MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI is definitely one of the best around and for those who enjoy them prepare for hours upon hours of fun. If however that isn't your thing but you're a die hard Final Fantasy fan, maybe try the PC version as you're initial cost will be much smaller.