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Final Fantasy XI: Online

Score: 90%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Media: CD/5
Players: 1000's
Genre: MMORPG

Graphics & Sound:

Whether you were waiting in dread or hope, few games have had such a large and varied group of people waiting in anticipation for its release as Square-Enix's newest title in the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy XI: Online. The big change is, of course, that FFXI marks Square-Enix's first massively multiplayer title and the first of the Final Fantasy series to be both online and multiplayer. This news was met with a wide variety of reactions by fans, some of which were sure this spelled certain doom for the game. While it's true that FFXI is a decidedly different game than its predecessors, it manages to merge MMO gameplay with the distinctive qualities of a Final Fantasy game perfectly. Final Fantasy XI is a terrific game. However, the fact that it's massively multiplayer will turn off some classic Final Fantasy fans, while the Final Fantasy-style of gameplay will turn off some MMORPG fans. For the rest of us, it's a damn good ride.

I'll talk about PlayOnline a bit before I get to Final Fantasy XI. When you purchase FFXI you are actually getting three different pieces of software. Final Fantasy XI, Tetra Master (an online version of the card game from Final Fantasy IX, and the PlayOnline viewer. PlayOnline is an 'entertainment network' which contains features such as e-mail, instant messaging, and chat. You know, stuff you can find anywhere on the internet. It is also the hub from which you access any of Square-Enix's online games. PlayOnline is interesting, fun, and confusing as hell. Installing and registering for PlayOnline and Final Fantasy XI was one of the most convoluted processes I've ever been subjected to. To be fair, while the process was convoluted and time consuming, it was also smooth. No strange errors, no server crashes, everything went well. The process was extremely confusing, and I felt as if I needed one too many login names and passwords. It works well guys, but it needs to be more streamlined. I'd like to give PlayOnline a little mini-score of 78 percent.

In this humble reviewer's opinion, the graphics of Final Fantasy XI are peerless among MMORPG games. It's no secret that Square games are some of the prettiest out there, and FFXI is no exception. The graphic quality of the game might be inferior in a 'technical' sense (polygon count, texture resolution, etc...) to some of the other MMORPGs out there, but FFXI proves that 'it is not the size of your polygon count, it is how you use it'. The overall aesthetic beats the snot out of anything else out there. I mean, what good is a super high detailed player model if it looks retarded? This is a game that definitely 'feels' like a Final Fantasy game in the visual sense. Of course, since the graphics are highly stylized, you might hate them with a passion if you don't like their particular style. The look of the tarutaru race alone has been known to cause people either 'awwww' at their cuteness, or to flee in disgust.

In an MMO first, Final Fantasy XI handles music in a more traditional RPG method. Rather than having short clips that play in certain places or times like most MMORPGs, FFXI goes the usual route of console RPGs and just gives each area its own musical theme. I doubt it comes as a big shock, but Final Fantasy XI's music is the best of any MMORPG I've played to date, by a huge margin. Even the battle music doesn't get terribly redundant after hours of playing.

Just as with the graphics, it's all the little things that make the sound effects in FFXI wonderful. The way different weapons, even among the same 'type', such as one-handed swords, make different noises upon impact. How heavy armor will rattle while you walk. The different sounds monsters will make when they decide to make a meal of you. Almost every spell sounds unique and you can usually tell which spell is being cast behind you by sound alone. Anyway, you get the picture.


Gameplay:

They said it couldn't be done. They said an MMORPG could never present a cohesive story, that it could never have cutscenes, and that the average player could never be the 'hero'. Final Fantasy XI proves them wrong.

Here's a 'paraphrase' of the backstory information related during the opening FMV. A being named the Shadow Lord rallied together the different races of beastmen and made war upon the 'civilized' races of Vana'diel. The nations of San d'Oria, Bastok, Windurst and Jeuno united their armies and defeated the Shadow Lord and his army. The game takes place 20 years later where these 4 kingdoms maintain a 'strained' peace while vying for supremacy over each other. However, it seems the different races of beastmen are gaining power again, and a dark power stirs, threatening to unite them once more.

Speaking of cutscenes, when I first heard that there were going to be actual cutscenes in FFXI I was pretty pumped to say the least. What I didn't expect was how many there were going to be. I only expected a few, in just the really important areas of the game, but you can see quite a few just walking around a town for the first time and talking to people. Of course, some of these aren't really earth shattering and can be about stuff as non-threatening as a tavern running out of salt. The really important plot progressing cutscenes are generally seen when you acquire and complete missions.

Now don't let the word mission scare you. I don't mean anything like the missions from Star Wars Galaxies. The quest system in Final Fantasy XI is easily one of the best I've seen. The quest log not only records the NPC who gave the quest, as well as their location, and the task you must complete, but it will also keep a record of quests you have completed. My only complaint is that it doesn't always record all the necessarily information you need to finish the quest, which means you have to write down information anyway which kind of defeats the purpose of the quest log.

There also seem to be what I refer to as 'secret quests'. Talking to an NPC that 'asks' for something won't always result in a quest being marked in your 'current' quest log. It will, however, be put in your 'completed' quest log when you finish it. Sometimes you really need to read between the lines of what some NPC's are saying to figure out that there's a quest there. Of course, this also can lead to you trying every crazy thought that passes into your head and results in some wasted time and money. It also behooves you to finish quests that don't result in anything substantial, as each quest you complete will raise your 'fame'. Some quests can only be received after achieving a certain fame level.

Missions and quests are actually two separate things. You can have any number of quests on your quest log at any one time but only one mission. Missions can most easily be described as quests that progress the overall story of the game. Missions must be completed in a more or less linear fashion, and are different depending on which nation you are a member of; San d'Oria, Bastok or Windurst (you can't officially 'join' Jeuno). Completing missions gives you rank points. After gaining enough rank points, your rank with your nation increases. While missions themselves usually don't directly result in substantial rewards, higher ranks mean cheaper prices from NPC's, access to more areas of the city, cutscenes and other perks. As far as being the central hero, the cutscenes themselves play out with you as an important, if not central, figure. Many others are seeing the same scenes played out with them as the central figure instead, but you'll just have to suspend your disbelief or something.

Final Fantasy XI marks a return of the job system found in the older Final Fantasy games. There are initially six basic jobs to choose from: warrior, monk, thief, white mage, black mage and red mage. When you reach level 30 there are some advanced jobs, such as paladin, summoner and bard, which you can unlock by completing certain quests. It pretty much works like the class systems found in most MMORPGs but with two unique twists. The first is that you can change jobs at your Mog House (kind of like your own private apartment that you can access in cities). This means you can try out different jobs without having to make a new character. This is a good thing, since each separate character you create will cost you an extra dollar a month. Also, since each job levels up separately, you could theoretically achieve the max level of 75 in every job, though it would take you years and years. The second twist is the concept of subjobs. You can complete a quest at level 18 which will allow you to 'equip' a subjob. Equipping a subjob increases your stats and gives you extra abilities, but you have to level up your subjob separately.

There are five different races to choose from in FFXI: hume, elvaan, tarutaru, mithra and galkan. Hume are the most balanced of the five and represent your typical 'human' race. In an interesting twist, the elvaan, which are more or less elves, are strong and powerful swordsman who aren't very dexterous or agile. Instead it's the tarutaru, tiny little midgets who ooze cuteness, who are the powerful magic wielders. Then we have the mithra who are the most dexterous of races, and finally the galkan who are big and strong, but are very poor at using magic. Race seems to matter a bit more in FFXI than most other MMORPGs, but you can still have a very effective taru warrior or galkan blackmage if you work hard enough at it.

While, Final Fantasy XI is primarily a cooperative game, PvP is non-existent, there is still an interesting method of competition between the three nations. Each nation has certain guards that can cast a sigil spell on you. When you kill monsters in a certain area while you have the sigil spell, you contribute points toward your nation controlling the region that the area is in. Controlling regions offers many perks. You can set your homepoint (where you appear when you die) and get the sigil spell cast on you at certain outposts for free when your nation controls the region the outpost is in. Nations that control more regions have more items for sale in town as well. There is also a traveling troupe of NPC's that set up shop in the nation with the most regions under their control. There is more, but I couldn't possibly list them all. In another twist, beastmen can also control regions. Every time a person dies in area, it contributes to the beastmen taking over the area.

No massively multiplayer RPG's are all about fighting these days. There also has to be some sort of crafting system, and Final Fantasy XI is no exception. Item crafting in FFXI is referred to as synthesizing. Players must use crystals, which they can obtain by killing monsters in regions under their nation's control, to synthesize ingredients into a finished product. Crystals come in different varieties such as fire, wind, earth, water, dark, etc. There are several different 'guilds' a player can join, each specializing in a different field of synthesizing, such as cooking, smithing, leather-working, etc. Players can raise their level in different crafting skills by collecting the appropriate items and crystals and combining them. Some of the more powerful and useful foods, items and equipment can only be created by players with a very high skill. There is also a guild that doesn't involve synthesizing, the fishing guild. FFXI boasts the deepest fishing gameplay I've yet seen in an MMO. I find it rather boring myself, but some people seem to enjoy it.


Difficulty:

It's no secret that MMORPGs aren't the easiest games in the world. They require a lot of time and frequently require you to coordinate the actions of many players. While the individual day-to-day battles in Final Fantasy XI can seem a little harder than most, in the overall grand scheme of things, it's one of the easier MMOs. Final Fantasy XI has a very forgiving leveling curve. Rather than the amount of experience required to progress nearly doubling every time you gain a level, the required experience in FFXI generally only goes up around 200 points a level. This really isn't a lot when you consider the fact that getting 150-200 xp a kill in a normal group isn't as rare as you might think.

Now some people have complained that the leveling system is too unforgiving in certain aspects. Namely, that you are too limited in the range of levels you can have in a group. At first glance it would seem that you couldn't get a good influx of xp points if the level difference of anyone in the party is greater than two levels. This is pretty much true at the lower levels, but as you get higher it begins to become less restrictive. The thing you have to realize is that the amount of experience you are awarded is based on the relationship between the level of the monster and the level of the highest-level person in the group. So as long as you are killing monsters that are a couple of levels higher than the highest-level player in your group, the xp will be fine.

Another very important thing to consider when talking about the difficulty in an MMORPG are the death penalties. It's pretty simple in FFXI. If you die, you lose 10 percent of the experience needed to level (if you need a total of 4200 exp to level, you'll lose 420 when you die) and you are sent back to your homepoint. There is no loss of equipment, and you don't have to spend time walking back to a corpse. Additionally, you can set your homepoint in far more places than most MMORPGs, which means you'll spend less time walking back to the area your party is fighting.

Speaking of walking time, this is one area where Final Fantasy XI can be pretty unforgiving to a lower level character. While higher level characters will get transportation options such as teleport spells, chocobos and airships, lower level characters pretty much have to walk everywhere, and the areas of FFXI can be big... very, very big.

Now like just about any other MMO game, some monsters will leave you alone if you don't bother them, and others will attack you as soon as they realize you are there. Final Fantasy XI has some very unique ways of handling this 'monster aggression'. Different monsters will attack you based on different principles, such as sight, sound, and smell. With some clever footwork, you can walk through a nest of mean monsters that attack based on sight. Sound and smell are a little trickier however. Time of day can even make a difference; monsters such as orcs and goblins see further at night.


Game Mechanics:

One of the really unique aspects of Final Fantasy XI is the way player 'guilds' are handled. Just about every MMORPG allows players to form player organizations. In FFXI they are called 'linkshells'. While most MMOs only allow a player to be a member of a single organization, FFXI allows you to be in as many as you want, though only one is 'active' at a time. There is a catch, however. In order to be a member of a linkshell, you have to be in possession of their 'linkpearl'. Linkpearls take up inventory space and inventory space in FFXI is extremely limited. Thankfully there are a series of quests that allow you to increase your inventory and mog safe (the FFXI equivalent of bank storage). However, completing these quests is usually very expensive.

Oh wait, I haven't talked about auction houses yet, have I? Any MMO worth it's salt nowadays has some 'automated' (as opposed to physically trading the item and money) method of pawning off your excess items and equipment to other players. In my opinion Final Fantasy XI nails the perfect way to do this. While most MMOs simply let you pick a specific price and put the item up for sale, FFXI uses a sort of 'blind auction system'. In truth it's not really an auction at all. There's really no actual 'bidding'. When a player puts something up for auction, they will select a minimum price to sell the item at. When another player goes to buy an item, they don't see how much the seller is actually charging, but he can view a 'price history' which lets him see what the last 12 or so people paid for the particular item he is interested in. The buyer then selects how much he is willing to pay for the item. As long as his offer is at least the minimum price the seller selected, they get the item. If he offers more than the minimum price, then the seller gets more money than they asked for. I won't get into a detailed economic discussion, but I think this prevents a lot of problems that can crop up in other online auction systems.

Another interesting aspect of battle I haven't mentioned yet is the 'skill chain', or 'renkai', system. As a player increases a certain weapon skill, such as one-handed swords, two-handed axes, or pole arms, he/she will learn weapon skills specific to that type of weapon. As a player takes or inflicts weapon damage in battle, he/she will accumulate technique points (TP). When a player accrues enough TP, he/she can use a weapon skill. Different skills contain different elemental attributes. When a group of players uses certain weapon skills with the correct timing, they can perform Skill Chains that will inflict extra damage to the enemy. The system is actually pretty deep and contains far more intricacies and strategy than most new players will, at first, realize.

The final Final Fantasy XI first I'm going to mention is one I've been awaiting for quite some time. FFXI has NPC's who are children! How can all these other games talk about how 'immersive' they are when there are no friggin children in the game, anywhere! I mean, what's up with that? The only thing I can come up with is that they figured it would be in poor taste for players to be able to mindlessly slaughter children. Thankfully that's not really an issue in Final Fantasy XI since you can't attack NPC's. Some players won't like this, and there is a certain level of immersion that is gained from being able to attack anything and everything. It's a tradeoff I guess: mindless slaughter or children.

Children... that reminds of something I wanna warn people about. So far it seems the community of Final Fantasy XI is younger, on average, that most other online games with a monthly fee. This means there are a lot more players between 12 and 16 than you usually find an MMORPG. It's not as horrible as you might think however. Since the game is geared towards cooperative play and there is a lack of any and all PvP, for the time being, the immature behavior seems to remain at a minimum. The real problem that crops up is in grouping. It's much easier to find yourself in a truly horrendous group. This will hopefully become less of a problem as people learn how to play the game. Until then I highly recommend trying to get into a Japanese group. Since they've had the game for a year now they are already very experienced, and the XP will fly. The auto-translate function is very handy and takes care of most communication problems.

There's no getting around it. Final Fantasy is one of the leanest, meanest, flat out best MMORPGs out there, period. That is, as long as it's the kind of thing you're into. There's no accounting for taste, and despite how good it is there will be some people that just won't dig it. If you've never liked the style of Final Fantasy games before, there's no reason to think you'll like this one. It's a bit of a cliché, but FFXI is one of those games where you either love it or you hate it. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to play some taruball. -punts the taru-


-Alucard, GameVortex Communications
AKA Stephen Triche

Minimum System Requirements:



Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, Pentium III 800mhz processor, 128 MB RAM, GeForce III, RADEON 9000, or better video card, DirectX 8.1, 6GB hard drive space, 56k modem
 

Test System:



Windows 98, Pentium III 700mhz, 448 MB RAM, Geforce 4 MX420

Windows Mia's Language Adventure: The Kidnap Caper Windows The Suffering

 
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