Full Review: You know all those dopey losers that hang out on Internet game boards? Well, now you have to play along with them.
Since Ultima Online gave birth to the idea of a role-playing game that put hundreds of thousands on servers to adventure on together, the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online RPG) genre has grown to be one of the biggest on the PC. Games like Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and most notoriously, Everquest have taken the genre into the realm of mainstream gaming with the idea of joining other players to tackle tough enemies, as well as running around killing weak stuff on your own to become tough enough to be a worthwhile teammate. On the PC, this genre is mature and not any old MMO can make a dent nowadays. On the console end, however, the MMORPG niche hasn't yet been carved. There's been tries ? Sega's great Phantasy Star Online is not quite MMO, but still a great online RPG, and Everquest has been ported over to PS2, though it hasn't quite been as popular on the PlayStation 2 as on the computer. But nothing has yet caught on in console land other than the aforementioned PSO.
That is, until Final Fantasy XI. Leave it to Square Enix, the worldwide leader and holy grail of offline console RPG's, to create their own MMO that not only can mix up well with the Everquests of the world, and inherit the revered brand name of Final Fantasy to put some marketing muscle behind it. US PS2 players are exceptionally lucky ? the flaws and problems of the Japanese versions have been ironed out, and the PC version released here late last year also has been fixed enough that PlayStation 2 owners can hop right in and play once they're allowed in. FF fans will be in for a shock though, as with some small exceptions, FFXI is a Final Fantasy in name only ? as much as a radical, ballsy departure as the last US FF game, Final Fantasy X-2. It's not without problems, and the usual MMO rules apply, but if you're going to try an MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI isn't a bad place to start if you can cough up the Benjamin to buy the HDD package. With expansions (Chains of Promathia is on the way this fall), and frequent updates, FFXI promises to be a game worth playing for a long time, if you can afford to.
Of course, before you can play, you have to set up your PS2 HDD package. With the game already installed on the drive, the only thing you must do is run the PlayOnline (which of course is the main browser for launching Square Enix online software) disc included in the set and get your account all taken care of (naturally if you've already played the PC version, you can carry your POL ID and Content ID over to the PS2, and vice versa, letting you play your character of choice on either platform. Admittedly, setting up PlayOnline and FFXI is a serious pain, as it will suck up an hour or so (on broadband, that is ? 56k might as well take a nap between processes) to register your ?CD Keys' for the FFXI, the Rise of the Zilart expansion, and Tetra Master if you want to play the FFIX mini-game, your POL ID, credit card info, and whatnot. On the plus side, PlayOnline is a robust browser that gives you your own @pol.com email, and the ability to create a profile to share among other players, as well as a chatroom to discuss whatever. Adding personal touches like music and wallpaper (from various SE games?naturally I gravitated to using wallpaper from FFX-2) lets you customize things to your liking ? and why not, since FFXI players will see this stuff a lot.
After your POL account is set up, it's actually time to play ? almost. As of now, there's a pair of updates you'll have to run to get your FFXI installation up to speed, which will occupy about three hours of time. Once that's done, you can get your Content ID up to speed. Your Content ID is your gateway to playing the game, as you must purchase one to play. It's effectively your billing profile ? if you have an active Content ID, you're earmarked to pay the $12.95 a month base fee, once the free month has expired. If you add a character for a dollar a month (which is pretty reasonable) or a dollar monthly fee to play Tetra Master, that goes onto your Content ID fee (but does count as a separate content ID). It works well and lets you manage things right there ? even letting you cancel out without making telephone calls and having to explain why you're canceling your account for now. You may reactivate it within 90 days ? if not you lose your character forever and ever.
Speaking of characters, the first step to FFXI love is creating one. Choosing from 5 different races ? from humans to Tarutaru, the itty bitties that you see running around, each offers different skills and attributes. For instance, Galka should never be mages, and Tarutaru are built to be mages?while the Elvaan and Hume races are pretty well-rounded to tackle any job class. There's tons of job classes to choose from, and all come out of Final Fantasy tradition, be it warriors, dark knights, monks, white/black/red mages, bards, summoners, etc. Each class offers different skills to round out a party, meaning you can experiment with different races and classes to find out which type of character is right for what you want to do. You're able to change classes at any time through your Mog House, so you're not stuck with one job at any time ? plus you eventually can gain a subjob to compliment your main job, though it never becomes as powerful as your main job class. The only real flaw with the character creation is the customization is fairly limited, meaning you'll see different versions of yourself running around at one time or another.
And then?you're on your own. After choosing your home nation within the world of Vana'diel (Bastok, San d'Oria, and Windurst are the three places you may hail from), and if you have a World Pass, your server of choice (if you have no WP, you're stuck where they put you, meaning if you and friends join up, it's tough to land on the same server, to keep balance between them all. It's possible to just roll up the server creating characters until they wind up there, but a World Pass is faster, though it's costly?a flawed system that creates balance but makes it tough to play with people you already know), you get a small cutscene announcing your arrival in your little corner of Vana'diel, and you're free to run around town getting familiar with the place. There's little in terms of story ? while Square is duly given credit for trying to make an MMORPG with a storyline of sorts, it really never takes off and is nowhere near as epic as past FF offline games. Vana'diel is recovering from a war with the Beastmen, and now the different nations are quietly pining to control outlying areas and increase their influence in the world. But that's just about it ? but anyhow, people play MMO's to level, do fetch quests, and interact with a huge community of players.
At first, your options are very limited, as it's too early to be hunting for parties if you're level 1 ? without much gil, even after turning in your Adventurer Pass, you can't buy anything ? so the best idea is to run around talking to the NPC's (the characters with green names, PC's are in white) and gathering quests. Quests range from fetching things that they're too scared to go after, or doing favors for others (which are pretty much fetch quests). But they present ways to get good weapons, armor, and other items, as well as earn gil ? especially quests that are repeatable to pile up on dinero. There's also the whole ?fame' thing, where your actions in your current nation will raise your notoriety. The repeatable quests help, so doing them often will raise your fame and make you known amongst the NPC's of your nation. However, it only applies to your current nation ? if you have high fame in San d'Oria and visit Bastok, your fame in Sandy means jack, and you'll have to earn the fame all over again. There are also missions you do for the government of your nation, which increase rank points within your government, but these are higher level tasks that shouldn't be taken until you're strong enough.
So, without a lot of options, your best option is to fight stuff. Like other MMORPG's, Final Fantasy XI is heavy on the fighting. At the outset, you'll be playing solo, gaining levels and strength to become useful to a group (after all, nobody wants a level 1 warrior on a quest to a dungeon). The first few levels come very easy, but after a while, the level grind gets tougher and tougher (as enemies give less and less experience as you level, eventually giving you none as you become numerous levels stronger than you) and you have to adventure further and further into the wild. The battle system is a veiled turn-based system, though Squenix calls it RTB, or Real Time Battle. In this case, there are no random battles ? instead, you're the one initiating the fights if you're near non-aggressive monsters (Goblins and some Orcs will come across the countryside to attack you though, aggressive little bastards). Approaching the enemies and selecting the attack command will shift the game to combat, which is a hands-off version of turn-based play. It's all automatic, kinda like the battle system in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is. You can control your character to dodge and counter enemy attacks, but the swinging and whatnot is all automatic. You can use various abilities you learn as you gain levels as well, or use your two-hour ability to really kick some tail. The two-hour ability is a super-move that can help you against tough enemies, but as it says, you can only use it every 2 hours in real-time.
Of course, in any game, the threat of dying is there, and it's no more risky than in solo play. However, SE made sure dying isn't a killer for your character ? instead, you can let a mage revive you with a small loss of EXP (which is a controversial subject on its own, with some people charging for revives and such), or return to your home point at a fairly nasty experience cut, or even a drop in level if you're close enough to drop one. It's not terribly hard to recover lost experience, so this is less of a hassle than other MMORPG's. Seeing as most likely you'll die a few times, be it because you're biting off more than you can chew, or you're in a terrible party. The idea is to not die constantly, because one who does that can drop lots of levels very quickly.
While solo play will be your main way of playing for the first dozen or so levels, eventually, to tackle the tougher enemies, you'll have to group up into parties. It's possible to suffer through the game on your own, but it's not as fun if you have a good party to hang with. This is when a USB keyboard comes into play. Using the PS2 controller, the software keyboard is okay for playing by yourself, but even then, having a USB keyboard (or a Nuby I-type or Logitech Netplay) will let you communicate with PC's that are looking for help, browsing through your bazaar, or looking to join up with you. There's a good set of pre-strung phrases, as well as the macro system letting you create a few commands with one button press (better used for speeding up special attacks though), but a USB keyboard is essential. Party play requires a lot of planning, to be sure nobody has a bad time ? picking a good group to tackle a mission is a strategic process to be sure. The game functions the same in a party as being a solo player, only now your specific skills can really come into play, like using a warrior as a tank for taking damage to protect other characters, and making sure a white mage stays back and heals instead of attacking. Knowing your role and shutting your mouth is the best way to be a good team member. For even larger tasks, alliances of up to 18 people can be made, which is like controlling a small army. The only downside to parties is how other players can affect your time; wind up with jerks and it's not a fun game, but when you have the right group, it's one of the best games around for multiplayer action. Thankfully, the FFXI community is pretty good, seeing as money has to be paid to continue playing. There are some bad apples (mostly idiots who scream all across town looking for attention), but mostly a good place to game if you're in a party setting.
And no, a headset would be a big problem in this game ? too much yelling and screaming from dopey PC's would lead to more voices in my head ? there's enough of them as is fighting around in there. If there was a game that was built for keyboard communication, Final Fantasy XI is it.
There's more to FFXI than fighting, however ? not when there's gil to be made! Unlike traditional FF games, gil doesn't grow on trees, or looted off huge dead fiends, but rather earned through the fetch quests and such. While it's hard to do anything without fighting, the numerous guilds (you name it, they have it, there's even a fisherman's guild for those who like fishing a lot) you can join let you turn things you find off dead enemies into cash money if you can make them. This requires being part of the conquest, with signet cast onto you, but that's something you should do right away, as it helps your nation in the balance of power (my nation of San d'Oria went from 1st to 3rd over the weekend) and nets you crystals that can be great for synthesizing items, and making some cash fast, be it through the bazaar or auction house. The auction house is pretty self-explanatory, but the bazaar is a bit different. Like your personal warehouse, the bazaar lets you sell items without interaction with other players, at your prices and even while you're out hunting and level building. By selecting things in your inventory, you can set prices and leave comments on the items, and then sell them off to other PC's as you wander around. They access your wares, take what they want, and leave. It's a good place to ditch crystals if you aren't going to use them (unless you want rank points once you hit rank 2), and you learn fast that people will buy them at the right price in droves. Since they're free off dead stuff, selling low will mean lots of spare gil for you, to buy stronger armor and weapons to make your character a badass.
There's also the Mog House, for those who like playing house. It serves as your ?safehouse' away from the rest of the players in the Residential Area, where you can safely log out, restore your health, and manage your inventory ? you can increase your inventory by buying things to decorate your Mog House, as your moogle friend can't hold everything, kupo! A few lucrative quests can come from the Mog House, and many others offer quests that upgrade your house so that you can make it more functional (for instance, a quest lets you actually dictate where you want to exit into town, as there's multiple routes to access your home. If you wanna come out in Bastok Mines rather than Port Bastok, you can do so. It's wise to make a habit out of visiting your Mog House frequently, for storage and health reasons.
There are some noteworthy things that are a bit off with the game - mostly issues of balance. As you need to be a demi-god to get the best means of transportation (level 20 to rent a Chocobo, Rank 5 or a half million gil to ride an airship), you'll be doing lots of walking. With many huge areas, full of aggressive monsters and tough terrain, getting from place to place can be a chore, especially if you're just learning new regions. It's all part of the MMO balance, but it does get frustrating. The other noteworthy thing is the poor ?check' system that tells you what kind of battle it will be ? easy, decent, tough, extremely tough, etc. A few times I've seen an enemy the game classifies as easy prey, but then pushes me into the lower reaches of HP leaving me to stand pat and heal for 5 minutes. The idea is fine, but it needs to be more accurate ? instead, you're forced to find out what's in your range and what should be avoided, if you can avoid it?as high-level aggressive monsters will hunt you down if you tip your presence off to them. Which is why the game forces you to party up with people ? if you want to reach tough areas, doing it alone can mean lots of death and EXP losses if you aren't good at avoiding aggro.
As you can see, there's a lot to do and see in Final Fantasy XI ? more than I have room to cover here, and it's impossible to discuss a game that's infinite and has no ?the end' to it whatsoever. The thing to keep in mind is the learning curve is fairly steep, and you'll put hours upon hours into the game before making any serious headway ? you might think you're making progress, but trust me, you aren't ? meaning lots of time will be spent figuring out how everything works, be it making effective macros, learning how to be a good party member, and the best ways to make money, along with gaining enough levels to be useful to other players. The other thing is the serious departure from FF norms ? while there's moogles, airships, Chocobo's, and even a guy named Cid, this is a FF merely in name, with hardly anything familiar. This is what makes FFXI a seriously strange game to discuss; while it's a great place to experiment with the MMORPG genre, it won't appeal to everyone ? including Final Fantasy fans who are unsure about this style change, especially one where other people can actually dictate how much fun you have, whether it's a good party or a bad one. Those who get into it will find a great time, even alone, as the fighting can be fun and the accomplishment of leveling and gaining fame in your nation is worth it if you can get addicted to the unique gameplay. But this is unquestionably not a game for everyone, as others will find the nonexistent story, very slow pace, hands-off battle system and unfamiliar style a bit dry. At a $100 price it's a bit steep for a ?trial period', even with a free month, but those who are FF fans will at least want to try it and see what the buzz is about.
And about that fee ? it's worth it. While $12.95 seems steep, as is the extra dollar to play Tetra
Master (the Final Fantasy IX card game?they shoulda used Triple Triad from FFVIII or, Blitzball from FFX at least. If they had online Blitz?there'd be no playing much FFXI for me, that's for sure) and a dollar per extra character, the amount of additions, fixes, expansion packs (though you have to pay for the Chains of Promathia expansion at the store, but still?lots and lots of new stuff in the package), and whatnot (there's been two major updates to the game since the March 23 release date, and one every 2 months is planned, with new quests, missions, and such) means you're paying for new stuff all the time, to keep the game fresh as you move to the current level 75 cap (which will take a long, long, long time). In other words, it's worth it if you can afford it and really get into the world of Vana'diel, merely because of the unique experience that is Final Fantasy XI.
For a MMO, which tend to have lackluster visuals (see Everquest Online Adventures), Final Fantasy XI is extremely nice looking, even on the PS2. While not your usual FF-quality (FFX and X-2 look worlds better), the sheer amount of terrain makes up for it, along with some of the best texture work I've seen on the PS2. Looking at the buildings in San d'Oria and the majestic kingdom feel, you can see the details right on the walls and walkways, and the trees that damn near look like the real thing. Then, you see the barren, desert-like world of Bastok, a mining town that's as dreary as they come ? especially compared to the bright and cheery Windurst. FFXI also has some great weather/time effects ? the shift from night to day and back again is as real as you can imagine, though it seems to get dark later and light by like 3 AM Vana'diel time (of course, this isn't our world, so it's different rules), and when it gets rainy and windy (like the first time I entered La Thiene Plateau outside Sandy), holy hell, it's a bit concerning to see bad weather, but it looks so damn nice that it's tough to argue about the merits of it. It may not look as good as the PC version, but PS2 owners have little to complain about.
Unfortunately, as this game doesn't have set main characters, the character designs are a bit generic and lacking a lot of personality ? even the NPC's all look mostly like your character (though obviously NPC's are always fairly similar in FF offline games). There's a good set of varying character designs per race, but none are unique in any way. What makes the difference is when you outfit new items on characters ? changing their swords, armor, and that sort will affect their appearance, which can make them unique. But after seeing years of high-quality character designs in FF games, FFXI is a step down. Another thing to keep in mind is that there are no overblown effects from casting spells or doing your Limit Break/Overdrive-esque move (the 2 hour ability, effectively), just reserved, colorful animations while you attack or cast magic. But it's still cool, at the same time, to watch a battle from a distance to see someone else cast magic, or summon their avatar into action.
A solid, but not epic soundtrack complements Final Fantasy XI pretty well (though to be cynical, this is a bit of a downer seeing that Nobuo Uematsu did a lot of the themes). There are few depressing tracks, rather a more cherry, sometimes synthesized soundtrack tells the tale of the game. The numerous battle themes are great (the solo dungeon battle theme is stellar), and each area has their own music if they have any (Gustaberg outside Bastok has a really cool world map theme). There's no recurring ?character' themes like other FF games, and without a real epic storyline, there's no dramatic themes to compliment it. Instead, you get a nice, light soundtrack that fits the theme of the game well, and hark! the return of the Crystal Theme in a few forms to make this feel like a Final Fantasy game.
The rest of the game is sound effects. There's no voice acting this time around, so you'll be reading text boxes until you're blue in the face. Instead, you get to hear the sound effects of other characters, as well as yourself. You'd not believe some of the effects ? a warrior with lots of armor will sound like it, clunking and clunking around looking for prey, and then drawing his sword to battle. A monk can pick up his knuckles from his waistband as they clank around into their hands, and mages make a racket when they summon spells. The amount of sounds you'll hear just wandering around the area is staggering, and makes up for the lack of voice acting. There's many other ambient effects, such as howling enemies, chirping birds, and whatever noises bats make, and the sound of worms burrowing into the ground to hide from nasty predators. Just standing around and taking in the area is fun all in itself.