When Sony Computer Entertainment America first announced that it would be bringing the Hard Disc Drive to North American shores, anticipation instantly flowed to the surface of the gaming industry, realizing that this could very well be the next big step in the evolution of PlayStation gaming But after years of unexplained delays, consumers couldn't be blamed for waning anticipation over what appeared to be nothing more than vaporware. In 2003, SCEA announced that not only was its Hard Disc Drive still coming, but also confirmed that it had signed on perhaps the most anticipated online title of this generation, in the form of Square Enix's Final Fantasy XI. And now, the wait is finally over, as both have and are well on their way to becoming yet another reason to own a PlayStation 2. For the first time ever, Final Fantasy is playable online, which results in a completely different experience for those fans who have remained dedicated since the franchise's early days on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
The real strength of this series has always been its ability to deliver a moving and engaging storyline while providing gamers with state of the art visuals and RPG-style gameplay. Final Fantasy XI does an admirable job of delivering on these aspects, although perhaps not quite as strongly as RPG-fanatics would have hoped. The online-only direction forces the game to become a completely non-linear, immensely massive real-time world, in which players are now tasked with the daunting responsibility of completing missions and quests spread out over vast miles of landscape. Naturally, telling a story instantly becomes more difficult because of this, which is why few MMORPGs attempt it.
A quality story does exist here, however, for gamers willing to invest countless hours into it. The world of Vana'Diel stands at the brink of war. Three independent yet powerful nations, united in their plight against a vicious race of beastmen, look to their last hope -- brave adventurers who battle for not only themselves, but on behalf of their respective nations. Players are essentially asked to write the history of the world of Vana'Diel through their actions, while meeting gamers from around the globe and working together to defeat some truly amazing creatures. Speaking of working together, this is handled via a near-perfect system of grouping players together based on an almost immeasurable number of statistics. Gamers venturing into the world of Vana'Diel for the first time with no like-minded friends to back them up will find themselves with many unique options to help find a group of players capable of not only helping each other progress through the game in an effective timeframe, but providing hours of countless entertaining discussion using Square Enix's amazingly detailed PlayOnline gaming network, which is completely integrated into Final Fantasy XI's backend.
Very similar to what Microsoft has created with its Xbox Live, PlayOnline provides instant access to email, downloadable content, screenshots, virtual print articles, comprehensive friend lists, real-time instant messaging, the latest news bulletins, server downtime information and customer service support, in addition to being the portal for all current and future Square Enix online titles for the PlayStation 2. Best of all, the connect times are both smooth and fast on dial-up and broadband modems, and this continues on into the game itself, as you'll rarely experience any sort of headache-inducing lag... unlike other popular PlayStation 2 online titles, that shall remain unnamed here *cough* SOCOM *cough*. Perhaps the only thing missing would be voice communication, but once you've played Final Fantasy XI for a few hours, you'll understand why. Not only would it be difficult to implement voice communication in an environment populated by thousands of gamers, but Final Fantasy XI is also one of the only titles you'll ever play with gamers overseas in Asia. That doesn't mean Square Enix might not add the feature sometime down the road; they very easily could, as your PlayStation 2 downloads any new updates to the Hard Disc Drive whenever you first log on.
The basic premise of Final Fantasy XI revolves around interacting with non-player characters to acquire "Missions" intended to increase both character statistics and knowledge of the aforementioned immense landscape of Vana'Diel. Split up into 4 main segments, the game's world will undoubtedly intimidate any newcomer, although these smaller missions do a good job of introducing supporting characters and landmarks scattered throughout the world. The bulk of the game's storyline, however, revolves around the "Conquests" handed to you by local governments of the respective nations. Through these conquests, players advance the story and move slowly towards occupying multiple territories by winning battles with the creatures. By having what the game refers to as Signet cast upon you before heading out to battle, points are awarded to your character's race when achieving victory, which goes towards granting possession of the territory you occupy to your nation, resulting in lower priced items and unlocking access to areas otherwise unreachable.
Now, while Final Fantasy XI is a massively multiplayer online game, there is a limit to the number of players who can access any particular server at any one time. Because of this, many identical Vana'Diels have been created on 31 different servers to ensure that the maximum number of people can enjoy the game. Each one of these servers is called a "World," and when you create your first character, it will automatically be assigned to one of these Worlds. If you have a World Pass, however, you can specify the World in which you would like to play.
Speaking of character creation, Final Fantasy XI offers a deep system that ensures character individuality. With 5 distinct races from which to choose, gamers can customize everything from hairstyle to gender to profession, and then build on this individuality throughout the game with new armor, clothing and weapons to modify your look in real time. Also, creating a character in its town of specified origin grants you a minor increase in stats, which can be helpful for anyone intent on focusing on particular Job attributes. These jobs, of which there are 6 initially available, allow players to decide what they'd like their strengths and weaknesses to be based on their playing styles, and is also completely adjustable at any point during your travels.
Currency in Vana'Diel is once again known as gil, a staple of past Final Fantasy games. Using it, players can purchase items from shops and NPC-merchants, although it is Final Fantasy XI's Auction and Bazaar systems that are the more attractive means for buying/selling your goods. In various locales in the major towns, auction houses exist to cater to the needs of the Final Fantasy XI-playing population by allowing individuals to place their items for sale on a worldwide market in the hope that other gamers will be looking for just such an item at a reasonable price. These auction houses are frequently the most active sections of any town, with people constantly checking the status of their items, or looking through the vast archives to find that elusive "diamond in the rough" great deal and get a bid in before someone else snags it. Also located outside of these auction houses are NPC-couriers whose sole purpose is to deliver goods or currency from player to player, delivered directly to that individual's virtual home residence, otherwise known as a Moogle House. This system allows for players to share items and funds with friends or allies in other cities (should the need ever arise) without having to make the ridiculously difficult trek to meet up and make the swap.
The Moogle House, otherwise known as your character's virtual bachelor pad, works just as you might expect, with the ability to store excess inventory, customize the look with furniture, and act as a Home Point should you ever die and require a respawn in a fairly safe and convenient location. It is also where you collect the cash you manage to collect via auctions, as well as acting as an outlet for your hobbies, such as gardening. And that's not even factoring in abilities such as fishing, item synthesis and many more that will keep you occupied for weeks, even if you aren't interested in the combat aspect of the game.
Enemies in Final Fantasy XI range from cute little bunnies (who require nothing more than a simple swing of your sword to defeat) to pants-wettingly intimidating creatures whom can only be defeated by the combined might of highly advanced warriors and mages. Thankfully, the random battles this franchise is so well known for have been removed in favor of a more compelling system, whereby enemies can be seen wandering the lands waiting to be challenged. Enemies normally wait until they are attacked before they show signs of aggression, but if your character has built up a particularly large amount of Hate (an unwanted attribute garnered during combat that encourages enemies to focus on you more than others), you may find yourself being attacked without warning. Suffice it to say, when wandering, always be prepared.
Players defeated in combat do have a few options to mull over while staring at their lifeless bodies, including waiting for someone with the ability to Revive (which must occur no more than one hour from the time you perished). Another option is to return to your last set "Home Point," massive crystals located in key points throughout the game that players can designate as their respawn location in the event of a chilling defeat. This option can prove costly however, as players lose a percentage of their current experience points in order to warp back to the crystals, thereby making dying often (without a powerful white mage around to bring you back) a very expensive proposition.
Conversely, partnering up with a group of players might seem like a good idea to defeat your more difficult enemies, but keep in mind the levels of the players you are joining up with; anyone more than 2-3 levels higher than you will receive all of the EXP points earned during the battle, making it near impossible for you to ever level up your character.
One other note worth mentioning with regards to partying is the Lot system, which is how the game distributes the treasures collected during combat. When items are collected, they are inserted into a Treasure Chest, rather than going directly to the players. Players in the party are then given the opportunity to cast a Lot, otherwise known as a random point bid, on the individual pieces of treasure. Whichever player gets the highest random number wins the piece of treasure. Players can also select to Pass on the treasure, giving it up to their comrades as an act of good faith. Either way, it adds an extra element of strategy and enjoyment to the act of party adventuring.
Initially, traveling the world of Vana'Diel either in a pack or by yourself seems a bit daunting, considering the epic proportions instantly available to you. As you progress further into the game, however, and reach specific levels by completing missions and conquests, you'll unlock alternative travel methods such as Chocobo riding and Airship transportation. This most assuredly brings a much more user-friendly feeling to the proceedings, making the thought of traveling from one town to another a much less intimidating task.
While it initially seems like an impossible task, learning Final Fantasy XI's incredibly deep and powerful control scheme soon becomes second nature to anyone dedicated to playing the game for more than a few hours. Although it's possible to play Final Fantasy XI with only a Dual Shock controller, it's highly recommended that you connect a USB-compatible keyboard to your PlayStation 2 -- before doing anything else -- for a much smoother communication experience with other players. Battles occur in real-time, meaning there are no turns being taken. Because of this, it quickly becomes imperative to learn all the control scheme has to offer in order to make lightning-fast decisions (in order to gain the upper hand on some of the more difficult creatures found within the game). Most helpful in this regard is the Macro system, which allows for "quick slotting" of essentially any act or movement you can make. By writing and saving basic command code lines in the Macro windows beforehand, tedious tasks like casting spells, creating parties, or simply saying hello to other citizens of Vana'Diel, during gameplay becomes a simple and effective act, requiring only the press of a button. If you take nothing else from this review before first playing this game, take this: Macros are your best friend in Final Fantasy XI, and the quicker you learn to master writing them, the better off you'll be.
Camera control is completely adjustable, with the right analog stick being used to manipulate it however you please. It does a good job of detecting walls and such as well, meaning you'll rarely encounter moments in which clipping or anything of that sort occurs. Pressing on the R3 button also shifts the perspective of the game to first-person, which is an admittedly interesting new way to view a Final Fantasy game. You can also zoom the camera in and out using Page Up and Page Down on your USB keyboard, one of the only things the developers weren't able to squeeze onto the controller. Pressing the digital pad buttons shifts your targeting icon from object to object, which sometimes becomes an exercise in frustration in the more largely populated areas, as you try to lock on to something that the game seems to not want you to.
Chatting is handled via a USB keyboard, which you're required to purchase separately if you want to get the most out of the Final Fantasy XI community experience. Players can chat with anyone in their direct vicinity via the Say command, or extend their reach using the more annoying Shout command. Friends and allies can also keep in constant contact using Linkshell and Party chat, both of which allow you to talk to each other no matter where in Vana'Diel you are currently situated. Linkshell is the more powerful of the two, however, as this directly ties into the fact that you can occupy what the game refers to as a Linkshell simply by accepting an invite with the press of your X button (and then being in touch with as many people as are in the Linkshell with you). And while Parties have a maximum of 6 members (with the ability to extend that by connecting 3 parties and creating an 18 member alliance), a Linkshell has no player limits. This means you'll always have plenty of friends to speak with, regardless of what time you log on or where you are situated. Because the process of logging off removes you from any existing Parties, being a part of a Linkshell becomes the best way to stay in constant touch with any new friends you meet in your journeys.
Having never played the PC edition of the game, which incidentally contains exactly the same content as its PlayStation 2 counterpart, I can't comment on how much better or worse the game looks on one platform versus the other. With that out of the way, Final Fantasy XI is a very good looking game that has its fair share of faults, but succeeds primarily in bringing the fantasy land of Vana'Diel to life in breathtaking fashion. Characters are highly detailed with terrific animations, whether engaged in combat or when simply waving at passersby. As mentioned earlier, environments are massive in size and scope, which results in instances of pop-in that thankfully don't detract from the core gameplay in the slightest. Framerates are steadily maintained around 30fps the majority of the time, with moments of absurd slowdown when large numbers of characters gather in areas high in detail (and all cast spells at once). This occurs most notably in the various towns' central areas, with fountains, fireworks, rivers and more all happening simultaneously, causing things to slow down to a crawl for seconds at a time.
Thankfully, slowdown is never an issue during battles in the wide open confines of Vana'Diel, which lessens the impact the framerate drops have on the overall experience. The resolution does leave something to be desired, however, as the entire game is presented with a somewhat grainy look, harkening back to our initial thoughts when we first played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Unfortunately, there's no option to crispen the image here, but it does still look good...just not as impressive as we had once hoped. That said, Final Fantasy XI makes Sony's other PlayStation 2 MMORPG, Everquest Online Adventures, look like a PS One title by comparison and is definitely no slouch graphically. Particle effects are perhaps the engine's strongest suit, with brilliant flashes of light and color frequently displayed during battles, making the initial Job profession of "Mage" a rather appealing one to many first-time players.
Environments follow strict real-time day/night cycles, with weather patterns frequently changing depending on the time of year. Watching as the sun breaks over the horizon on a new day -- only to see the heat cause mist to rise from the streams and rivers -- is truly a sight to behold. If Square Enix has accomplished anything, it's that Vana'Diel actually feels like a living, breathing environment. Perhaps our most enjoyable moments have come from simply instructing our character to sit down and just... watch. Watch as characters run by, or watch as ambient life goes about its daily business. Just be sure to modify your PlayOnline settings before you plan on being inactive in the game for any extended period of time, or the system will automatically log your Internet connection out and place your Hard Disc Drive in sleep mode.
The soundtrack in Final Fantasy XI is not going to win any awards for originality, but it gets the job done. Fans of past entries in the series will find much to like here. Final Fantasy XI's in-game audio effects, on the other hand, are state of the art. Presented in Dolby Digital (DD5.1 for cut scenes), every ambient effect such as birds chirping, water flowing, or gravel crunching has been brought to life with talented precision. Unfortunately, however, the voiceovers that permeated Final Fantasy X are nowhere to be found here, with the exception of the CG cutscenes, which employ them with a certain reserved restraint.
Final Fantasy XI is perhaps the PlayStation 2's most ambitious title. Fortunately, years of development time and plenty of technical know-how have resulted in a title that, for once, meets the high level of hype placed upon it by consumers and media alike. Highly addictive gameplay that seems to never end, generally impressive visuals, and a portal designed around an interactive worldwide community all combine to make this the best possible solution SCEA could have hoped for with regards to launching its new 40GB Hard Disc Drive.