Final Fantasy 11 Online
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.