No doubt, the PS2 HDD drive and FFXI is a serious investment in online gaming. In addition to the $100 bill for the HDD, players will need a network adaptor plus an internet connection to play FFXI. A keyboard is technically not required, but the ability to communicate with other players is the point of playing an MMORPG and the game’s virtual keyboard is a clumsy way to do so. FFXI also has a monthly subscription fee after a 30-day free trial. The subscription runs $12.95 per month plus $1.00 for each additional character beyond the first.
So, after all that $$$ outlay, is it worth it? For any player interested in Final Fantasy or MMORPGs in general, it absolutely is. FFXI is a well-designed and highly polished game that can last a dedicated gamer months, or even years due to its continually expanding world. Though obviously more generic and open-ended than a single player RPG, Square’s style and focus on story comes through in the FFXI world of Vana’diel.
Hardware & Setup:
There’s not that much to the HDD; it’s a 40 GB plug-and-play device that allows players to save online and offline content. Installing the device involves plugging it into the back of the network adaptor – no fuss, no muss. Setting up FFXI is another matter. It requires the player to set up their connection, register with Square’s PlayOnline service through which FFXI is run, download and install the game’s patches and expansions, register in FFXI, and create a character. It took me about an hour to get through all this, with the patch and expansion downloads making up the bulk of that (I pity those who use dialup to download those). It’s a convoluted process but once registered, players can not only play FFXI but also can use the PlayOnline lobby – which by itself is a free service – for sending and receiving email, chatting, managing friends lists, and reading about FFXI.
Of course, signing onto FFXI is not required; the HDD is a quality peripheral. Sony plans to have additional content available for download to the HDD soon, specifically mentioned are new missions for SOCOM II and the upcoming Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain. If XBox Live is any indication, it’s only a matter of time before Sony follows suit in supporting and expanding other games via downloadable content. But as of now, outside of FFXI and Tetramaster, the HDD lacks any other pre-installed content, media player or otherwise, and has little other function except for storing save games.
FFXI allows players to participate in the story of Vana’diel, a world once beset by beastmen who played the part of evil hordes by destroying cities and innocents. The world’s people eventually united against the beastman threat and managed to drive them away. Now twenty years after the attacks, the nations call on adventurers of all types (well, technically Japanese and North Americans as of now, but you know what I mean) to fight against the rapidly expanding forces of darkness. Final Fantasy trademarks like chocobos, airships and moogles are all present in an otherwise standard MMORPG system of building up character levels, skills, and equipment.
Square did not sell the story short entirely. FFXI occasionally shows cut scenes when a player starts or completes certain quests. The trappings of a plot (at least in my little area of the world) became evident, involving a President distrusted by his people, a returning hero of the Galka race, and a rich girl who helps the poor. Players partake in the plot by completing quests and missions given by townspeople or a city’s government. It’s easy to miss the story in the midst of players spouting technical game jargon and acronyms, but it’s there for players wanting at least some of the feel of a classic Square RPG.
For the most part, FFXI keeps to MMORPG conventions. But it has some unique features, one of these being the conquest system. In this, players of the three nations passively compete with each other for control of a territory. By killing monsters in a territory while under a certain spell, players accrue “conquest points” for their nation. These points are tallied up and the nation with the most points at the end of a certain period of time gets control of a territory. This translates into new products becoming available in their town (and bragging rights if you’re really into it). This system allows even those players who have completed most of the quests or reached a powerful level can focus on loftier, nationalistic goals. It’s not player vs. player, but it allows some sense of competition (note: a player vs. player sub-game is currently being developed, but even that involves no actual player killing).
Another difference is the game’s economy, which relies much more on player craft and adventuring skills than it does on currency. Early weapons and armor stores have little in the way of supplies, instead an Auction House allows players to put treasure they find up for sale, with the item going to the highest bidder. This system, along with a nice individualized bazaar where each character can directly sell anything they have, keeps the game from being imbalanced by player’s who can buy the finest equipment.
Like most MMORPGs, FFXI’s game play mostly involves developing ones character, both combat and craft skills. By killing monsters, completing quests, crafting items and…killing more monsters, a character gains experience levels and skill points that in turn allow them to take on tougher fights or more involved quests.
Play begins by creating a character from one of five races and one of six classes. Race puts a slight slant on stats, and the classes include Final Fantasy staples like White and Black mages. There are comparatively fewer faces and body types to choose from for the different races, but enough to keep a crowd looking diverse. One of the nice things about FFXI is that a character can change their class anytime, and six more advanced classes – Ninjas, Dragoons, etc. – become available later for more options. No class seemed especially overpowering, such that there was a wide range of diversity. Upon reaching a certain level, characters can also assign a subjob to further diversify their characters.
Upon first appearing in Vana’diel, a player can go about town talking to the various townsfolk to pick up quests and shop, as well as functional things like put an item up for auction, hear the weather for an area, or send gifts to friends. The game’s interface can seem intimidating at first with its numerous options, and it does take time to learn the nuances. More advanced players can set macros to quickly execute a series of keystrokes.
Players will soon be out in huge wilderness or dungeon areas, some of which take 15-20 real time minutes to run across. In these areas, they can enter combat with the many monsters overrunning the realm. Combat is automated, such that a character need only target and select Attack to start chopping or bashing on the beast. Because of this, it’s not terribly exciting to play solo; the only diversity comes from deciding when to use one’s skills or spells.
Monster difficulty ramps up considerably past the first few areas however, and this is where the party dynamics make for much more exciting game play (provided of course a player joins a likeable party). A group of mages and warriors, timing their skills properly, can take down much tougher monsters than one alone. The game also includes a skill chain feature that can cause extra damage to monsters for parties that correctly time their special attacks. The game includes boss monsters as well that provide a serious challenge to veteran parties. Should a player die, they suffer an experience penalty, which stings a lot when it causes one to drop a level.
Quests are divided into “quests” and “missions”, with the former often being requests to find or deliver this or that item. Missions involve endeavors carried out for one’s nation, rewarding a player who completes them with “Conquest points” used for purchasing special items from the game’s guards and increasing a nation’s conquest rating for an area. There are plenty of quests available, but given the distance and effort it takes to complete some of them, they often get overshadowed by the drive to level one’s character. The cut scenes and seeds of an interesting plot do add to the immersion.
Aside from combat and exploring the game’s expansive worlds, players can also develop nine different craft skills. Any player can work on any craft, with items dropped by monsters or purchased from shops composing the raw materials necessary. Players can also garden, harvest, mine, fish and cut lumber for materials. Items can be stored in a Mog House – a private area for individual players.
Past MMORPGs have always had problems with lag and exploits. Square’s greatest success with FFXI comes from the fact that they’ve addressed these and made them non-issues. First and foremost, the game ran smoothly for me, even on dialup – hardly any instance of game-breaking lag time, even when my character dived into an enormous crowd of players gathered for a goofy Easter event.
As mentioned, there’s no player killing, and antagonistic players can be “blacklisted” and ignored easily. The lack of powerful items for purchase outside of the Auction House keeps players of similar levels relatively equal in power, and this is reinforced by level requirements for weapons, armor and spells. The party experience is distributed based on levels, such that players are encouraged to group with those close to their level or else earn less experience. To combat another exploit, the game is designed so that once a player or party starts attacking a monster, no other player can interfere with the combat unless asked (which leads to surreal scenes of goblins chasing one player through and beyond a crowd of players).
One of the drawbacks of this experience system is that new players who want to join their higher level friends are basically left out in the cold until they get more experienced. A player’s initial game server is also chosen for them. To join a server a friend is on, they have to be invited by that friend with a password from a “World Pass” item. I guess this was done to keep servers from having lopsided populations, but this limitation is a frustrating deterrent to friends or online clans who want to join FFXI.
Like other online RPGS, the key to FFXI’s appeal is the community. I’ve often read how Everquest players who have long since tired of the repetitive monster bashing still remain because they can chat it up with online friends. FFXI includes all the chat and search tools to easily create a fun online community. The player search features are the highlight of the game, allowing players to easily find and communicate with players.
Players can form parties that in turn expand into alliances, communicating with one another through the game’s system of Linkshells (and, yes indeed, there was even an NPC dude who would arrange marriages between players…). Anyway, these linkshells function as a group-specific chat channel, another communication option for players interested in teaming up for some adventure and banter in Vana’diel. Square even included an awkward but functional system of keywords to allow Japanese and English-speaking players to communicate with one another. The “game experience may change during online play” of course, but Square provides all the tools to make it easy for players to make and keep in touch with FFXI friends, if they’re on the same server.
It’s no single-player Square game in terms of graphics, but for an MMORPG, FFXI looks wonderful. The 3D characters and monsters feature fine details and impressive combat animations to boot. The graphic scale stands out in particular; areas and the landmarks therein are enormous, made moreso by impressive draw distances.
Some outdoor areas also feature fine graphic effects for weather – dust storms in one area actually affected game play as the decreased vision forced my party to tread carefully to avoid running into a dangerous monster. There’s plenty of text that normally overlays the screen most of the time, but a player can hide or customize the look of the various menus to view the action.
FFXI features fine music in the Square tradition for some areas. Accomplished sound effects mostly involve the swipe of weapons or the roar of spells.
Tales of MMORPG “addiction” have been around since Ultima Online, and FFXI has all the ingredients to hook players in for the long haul. Reaching a powerful level can easily take several months. FFXI requires a lot of time spent leveling to survive the next area, and this concept is the other key to the game’s lasting appeal. For those who don’t get hooked on developing their character into an effective adventurer, the hours spent fighting similar monster after similar monster is liable to become boring after only a few days. For those who do feel that special geek rush when their character achieves a certain level or conquers a certain boss monster though, the game delivers.
OVERALL SCORE: 90%