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Final Fantasy XI

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: SCEA
Genre: MMORPG
Players: 1-N/A
Similar To: EverQuest: Adventures
Rating: Teen
Published: 05 :28 : 04
Reviewed By: Ryan Newman

Overall: 7.5 = Good

 

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Released a few years ago in Japan, Final Fantasy XI, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), was released a while ago on PC and shortly thereafter on the PlayStation 2 in North America. Bringing the world of Final Fantasy to PC by way of the game world Vana'diel, players will be able to garden, craft, involve themselves in national politics, and dabble in a variety of professions (Square Enix refers to the classes as jobs) in a persistent world with an ongoing storyline. While the PC version itself is an investment due to the monthly fees ($12.95 a month for either), the PS2 version is a more considerable one due to the steep initial cost of covering the hard drive unit that must be purchased to store the game and its subsequent patches, which will set gamers back around $99 - tack on another $49 or so if you don't already have the network adaptor and $20-30 for a USB keyboard.

I'll speak of the hard drive first. While splitting the cost between a new game and a 40 gig hard drive makes the unit seem to be fairly priced, it's also very unintuitive - which also works well in describing Final Fantasy XI - almost to the point where the deal seems more break-even than anything else. As great of a deal as it may sound, the hard drive is basically limited to storing save files and the few downloadable goods there are for games out now that support it - none of the extra perks of mass storage, like saving music to the hard drive to have custom soundtracks. What really hurts the unit is that there is no direct connection between the game and it. To save a save file on the hard drive, the player has to first save to the memory card, then load the system up without a game in so they can access the drive from the browser, then copy the file from the card to the system: it's a needless hassle that really takes the whole 'must have' factor down a few notches. Of course, if you want to play Final Fantasy XI, it is a 'must have' regardless.

As I mentioned, Final Fantasy XI, like the hard drive, isn't very intuitive. After the initial setting up of the network (dial-up isn't recommended), the












 
player has to enter in numerous codes found in the back of the manual, sign up for the PlayOnline account, then sign into the PlayOnline browser, select games, then select Final Fantasy, then they get to download all the updates. Now, downloading updates and whatnot is part of the game, which is fine - the base game and the initial free add-on are both pre-installed on the hard drive, but there will still be a lengthy wait for newcomers - but the process of having to sign on to PlayOnline has to be done every single time the game is played. Most online titles require the player to accept an agreement that states something in the realm of the company not taking sole responsibility for what players do online, yadda yadda, but Final Fantasy XI takes that a step further: after signing into PlayOnline's viewer - which comes after booting up with no game, selecting hard drive, then the FF icon - the player then waits to connect, selects Games, selects Final Fantasy, then they read whatever announcements pop up, agree to the terms, then they have to agree to some silly screen that says that they shouldn't neglect family or obligations for the game, then select their character, then account name, and then they finally go to the world. Whew. Oddly enough, PlayOnline only has one other game to choose from, Tetra Master, the card game from previous Final Fantasy titles, which costs an additional $1 a month to play, so why do I need to go through all that just to get to the one game I signed up for? A shortcut menu would've been appreciated, since that process really does eat up a considerable amount of time when considering how many times the game will be played. But, then again, everything about this game takes a while.

"You can play Final Fantasy… or you can do something else" was a saying that Matt was very fond of. It basically means: you can have other hobbies, enjoy other games, basically do anything else, or you can play this game. Because Square really went for the jugular and requires a significant chunk of the player's time, much more so than in other online titles - something as simple as planting a flower takes at least 24 real-world hours to grow. Starting off, the player has an initial main job, which can be: fighter (takes heavy damage, good attack); black mage (offensive magic); white mage (defensive magic); red mage (a mixture); monk (better attack than fighter, but takes less damage); or a thief. Actually, the character creation is the shortest thing in FFXI, mainly because it's very thin. There are five races: Humes (humans), Elvaan (elves), Galka (ogres), Tarutaru (itty-bitty creatures), and Mithra (female cat things); each have minimal enhancements, like humes are being balanced in everything, suiting any job, while the Galkan are better suited as monks because of more hit points and an advantage in strength. The advantages are slight, but they are there; so there is no serious penalty in going with whatever appeals to you, while those who want the optimal combination can do a little research. With only a handful of alterable options (height, face, weight, hair), not only does it take about 5 minutes to create a character, but it also means that there will be quite a few look-alikes running around. There ends the lightening round of FFXI.

The initial job isn't the only class that the player can dabble in. Once the player gets to level 18, which is a task all its own, they can complete missions to gain the ability to sign on subjobs; the subjob is one of the main jobs, being less of a priority, but giving the player the ability to use skills of different classes and they can also be switched to if the player prefers that career. The leveling system with subs is a little convoluted, but it isn't so bad after a while. Gaining the ability to get a sub will take a while, though.

Before dabbling with subjobs and advanced jobs (ninja, summoner, samurai, dragoon - which come at higher levels and their own quests) the player needs to entrench themselves in the game world. When making the character, the player selects what nation they want to be a part of. There is Bastok, San D'Oria, and Windurst. By taking and completing missions and quests, the player builds their rank within their nation. These ranks will allow for areas and missions to be unlocked. While doing the standard fetch quests, the player will also have to venture out beyond the immediate area surrounding their starting city and adventure into the wilds of the world. This can either be for a quest for someone in the city, a mission to get supplies to an outpost, or just to level up. During this time, the player takes part in the overall Conquest campaign. Guards in outposts or near a nation's entrances will cast signet on players, this will allow for the player to get extract crystals from defeated monsters and also gain conquest points. Areas within the world are controlled by nations who have the highest accumulative amount of conquest points; when a nation controls an area, there are a few benefits, like items for native citizens are cheaper and so on. The player can go to guards and also spend conquest points on scrolls to revive themselves, teleport themselves, or on special weapons and armor. The main perk of fighting for a nation is to get the crystals, as these are the primary source of income for new players and are integral in crafting.

This early period is really when the game gets into its stride. Gamers can solo for quite a bit, getting new abilities every 5 levels; some abilities are natural (the Monk's counter attack), while others are specific moves or spells that can be cast. During combat, the player also gains attributes in whatever they do; meaning, a Black Mage casting stone will increase in elemental magic and if they use a staff to finish off foes they increase their abilities with staffs. What's interesting, and pretty cool, is that the game allows the player to switch main jobs at any time- since each additional character costs $1 a month, I'd say this is reasonable - but it saves all their items and abilities, but it will also allow some traits to carry over: my Monk had some low staff abilities that transferred over to my Black Mage when I switched main jobs. By using weapons, characters can also gain weapon abilities, which are lifesavers on many occasions. Aside from hit and magic points, the game also has tactical points: these are gained during combat and allow the character to unleash powerful weapon-based moves. There are also two-hour abilities; these are special and powerful abilities that regenerate after two hours, eventually being added to the player's regular repertoire of moves later on. All of this is exciting to the new player: learning the layout of the land, checking out weapons, going to all the different outposts. There is also a mind-boggling amount of additional things the player can do, each of which can bring a substantial income to those willing to devote massive amounts of time to cultivating their experience in the areas. Fishing, gardening, metalworking, cooking, making furniture (each player gets their own, furnish-able apartment) etc. These just aren't "hmm, I'll fish," toss-in features, no, no, they are well thought out and require spending serious amounts of time to the craft; fishing requires getting a good rod (many will break), good bait, then casting and casting and casting, until the skill is high enough to catch some prize fish. Even gardeners have theories on what plants to plant on what days in what pots and what kinds of crystals to use and when for the best results. There are also side projects, like mining, that don't have skills attached to them, but can be done for extra income or to kill time. Quite a bit of time has gone into making these extra hobbies a significant part of the game, and it pays off.

To get good at anything, though, takes a significant amount of time - I've repeated this several times, and I will continue to do so, because you really need to be devoted if you want to get into FFXI. Sure, gardening is great, but remember, check the plant every real-world 24 hours or it dies, and doing so on a schedule to cultivate the best growth. But people do these and they take them seriously. Why? Aside from getting more involved in the game, it also gets cash - after a while. Money, called gil, is a precious commodity. A decent pair of boots can cost hours worth of fighting or mining. There is a nice counter to this: the auction house. Unlike Star Wars Galaxies, this auction system is immediate, allowing the player to get the results of a bid a few seconds after entering a price. If someone prefers to skip towns and just travel, they can sell their items themselves in their own bazaars. The last, and least desirable, option is to sell items for much less at shops. Still, money can be hard to come by for quite some time. Getting involved in any money-making venture requires significant start-up capital and time spent away from completing missions and quests. With quests being how one increases their ranking within the nation, missions generally give monetary rewards or items, it's important to keep a steady pace.

Every online title requires large sums of cash for quality items and has time-sensitive traits, but Final Fantasy XI goes to the extreme. Until level 20, and a mission complete, the player can't get a license to ride a chocobo. Even when they do, they can look to pay a large sum for the privilege of riding one. The airship isn't an option for a while either. Not unless they are in the mid 30s with a party that is stronger. So the only real alternative for players below 20, which is a significant amount of time, is mages. Mages can teleport and warp, but they have gone into business, selling spots to players who wish to warp to wherever they are going; while they aren't cheap, they are the best alternative to running for half an hour back and forth between city and hunting grounds. Needless to say, the lack of a quick transport for some time leaves the player spending way too much time running around: that plant needs to be checked, better start hoofing it. Making players walk serves a purpose, newcomers learning the lay of the land, but the graphics in FFXI, while not bad, aren't that great either with many monsters, objects, and textures repeated - it's like running on a merry-go-round that has a background that switches every 20-30 minutes - and over areas where enemy difficulty can spike anywhere between pushovers and death machines, it's just fun after a while.

Those new to the genre most likely won't mind this. The prospect of riding a chocobo and getting a subjob is too alluring to be bothered by all the time wasted. Not to mention that a great way to intersperse those long periods of doing nothing is joining parties and romping around the countrysides. The party system is great, in the beginning. To help keep communication simple, FFXI uses linkshells. Linkshells, the colored orbs next to a person's name indicate they are in one, require players to be invited into, and, in theory, are suppose to make grouping (parties max out at 6) and general communication easier. However, as useful the linkshell is, and it is, it can't negate the human condition to spend triple the amount of time setting a party up in relation to how long it stays active - there is always that one guy who has to eat right when things get going and the other who has to go to the bathroom. Especially in later levels, when parties are absolutely essential, which means solo players have to suck it up and play with people they may not necessarily like, the linkshell is pushed to its limits. If a new player gets into a good linkshell, though, it can make all the difference in the world; most are filled with kind folk who even donate cash, items, and, most importantly, give their knowledge to new players. It's a good idea, but it can't combat man's urge to feed in the middle of a quest.

While I'm traditionally a solo player, I will admit that FFXI has one awesome thing about parties: Skill Chains. A skill chain is when the players time and link their moves together, not only increasing the damage, but also gaining more experience for the group. Parties who stick together and stay on around the same times can be absolutely devastating. And they will need to be, because the enemies tend to go after the weakest link, which is normally the healer. But each class plays a significant role in the party. The warrior tries to enrage an enemy into attacking him, with the monk delivering damage, and the rest acting as support for the party. A finely-tuned party can survive even the toughest of enemies. To keep experienced players from power leveling their friends, the game has an experience cap. If someone in a party is too high, the group suffers; if the difference is a few levels, the lower characters only get the experience of the higher, so what was Tough to the player might get them 25 experience points because a member of the party is too powerful - sometimes, no experience is given. The goods that come from a successful kill are divided and gathered automatically, and if someone is interested in an item in the party, they can cast lots for it. The party system, early on, from fighting to divvying up the booty, is handled pretty well.

While most of FFXI is a grind, that really doesn't set in until the higher levels. A level 60 character can literally spend real-world weeks waiting for a party, then, when everyone is finally together, spend hours fighting incredibly difficult monsters with only one item, that everyone needs, being dropped. I played with a friend's higher-level characters and it can get pretty frustrating later on. With a level cap of 85, the game really loses its luster past 50. Up unto that point, the missions and quests will be pretty good, going on quests to kill especially tough monsters and to gain access to new abilities. The ability to try out all the different jobs is what will make or break people here, since some love getting everything and others get tired of all the time lost doing what they've already done or sitting around.

As far as bells and whistles go, FFXI delivers adequately. There is some significant draw-in, like Daytona USA on the Saturn draw-in, but there's an ability to turn most special effects off - this seems more of being carried over from the PC version, or it might help users with slower connections - it didn't help me in any noticeable way, but it's a nice option to have nonetheless. Character models look solid and the game has a definite style to it. The settings can range from harsh deserts to lush fields with windmills; sure, they can be repeated a bit too much, but it still looks good. The game also packs some solid effects: critical hits will result in bright flashes, spells will engulf the player with pyrotechnics (which looks even cooler in first-person view), and parties can make some good lightshows when pummeling a larger creature. Animations are also good, with gut punches looking solid and sprinting thieves looking like they really are running for their lives. The music is good, if a little repetitive. The music in the PlayOnline menu is initially a snappy jazz tune, but after hearing it a hundred times, I had the mute button at the ready. Sound effects are decent, with thuds and whacks for punches, and some spells giving off a slight echo sound, making them sound powerful.

Since this is the PlayStation 2 version, the experience is a little less than the PC version. Aside from graphics being limited to the hardware, the controls are also limited by space. Now, thanks to the USB ports, players can buy a USB keyboard and mouse to play the game with, but if you're like me, your console isn't set up in such a way to where that's conducive to comfortable playing. I ended up being a mini Logitech keyboard for when I had to talk, but found the controller much quicker to use for menu navigation and within the game world itself. Aside from menu swimming, the only other problem I had with controls was that the character becomes very difficult to control when auto-run is on. I'm not quite sure why, but they'll initially be sluggish, then whip into a direction quickly, and not always responding to the command to cancel the run.

There were more faults/design choices that nagged me. One pet peeve was that, aside from the fact that there is no sprint feature to help players get out of jams (I was killed most often by being doubled up on by a creature's friend that happened to spawn near the fight), an enemy was able to punch me when I was 20 feet away, but I could be literally pushing an enemy's back and still not be able to hit them because they were somehow out of sight. The game, in accordance with it wanting everything to last longer than it should, also requires players to 'check' an enemy to see how strong they are in comparison to the player, instead of using the traditional method of putting the enemy's name in a color that corresponds to a difficulty level. The game's drop rate was also skewed; one early quest requires parts of a certain monster, and I must have killed over 300 of that one kind and only received one out of the four needed parts to complete the task - thank goodness for the auction house. There is also very little reward for leveling; considering going up 5 levels can take a significant amount of time, getting stuff in-between those levels would help, instead of the merely additional hit and magic points. Also, singing on brings players to random servers, requiring players to purchase a world passes for a friend if they want to play on the same server together - this may or may not be of a significant use, but I just found it needless and weird. Some of these are common to the genre, but annoying nonetheless.

However, FFXI also does things right. The auction house and bizarre system are great, as is party combat. The ability to switch main jobs without many penalties was a nice way of side-stepping the limitation of one character per ID, and the sub and advanced jobs really gives players something to shoot for. The additional income services are well thought-out and add quite a bit to the game's possibilities. The praise is in moderation, because, after all, the game is a few years old now.

Overall: 7.5/10
For the PC, FFXI would be tougher to call. For PlayStation 2 users, however, it's a pretty easy sale. It's either this or the EverQuest offerings, and Final Fantasy XI presents a much more fulfilling gaming experience with jobs and hobbies to keep players busy for months. However, the fact that it still falls into the same traps as other online role-playing games is disheartening, as are its questionable methods and nagging faults. The hard drive could have been implemented a lot better and, as a result, seems more like an expensive way to play Final Fantasy rather than a bona fide means of getting the most out of the PS2. Things do change, and the promise of increased functionality for the drive and Square's constant maintenance and upgrades to the game system means that the experience should get more refined - they already delivered on the promise of player versus player, although it is limited and fairly new. For now, though, Final Fantasy XI on the PlayStation 2 is a solid offering that has the potential to be much better, but such a significant initial cost means that only those who have plenty of time devoted to it should take the plunge.

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