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Phantasy Star Online ver. 2

Score: 95%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sonic Team
Media: GD-Rom/1
Players: 1 - X (Online)
Genre: Miscellaneous


Graphics & Sound:

Phantasy Star Online ver. 2 is a pleasant surprise in the graphics field. In my opinion, it one of the best looking games on the Dreamcast, (second only to Shenmue). Characters are clean cut and have a lot of details like smudges on their faces and folds in their clothes. One of the ways that the Sonic Team set the mood is with the colors that were used. The cities feel like sprawling metropolises with dark, impersonal buildings, and flashing neon signs. The jungles however feel like unexplored regions of a new world because of the lush greens and earth tones. Since Phantasy Star Online ver. 2 is an online game, it is important that there are a ton of different character models, so you don't run into a carbon copy of a guy you were just talking to. Instead of creating all of the characters themselves, the developer made a few different base models and left a lot of customization up to the player. What I found to be very useful was the ability to change the hair and clothing not by using preset colors, but by letting you modify the RGB values for the particular item. Also, I was able to adjust the height and girth of the character. This meant that I could create anyone I wanted and it would be totally mine. (I decided to make a Sephiroth looking fellow named Balthazar.)

I was impressed with the sound and music of PSO ver. 2 throughout the entire game. It could be emotion stirring and powerful at times with a full orchestra, and could also be quiet and serve simply as background noise. The sound effects did the job equally as well. Everything was dead on, from the sword swipes to the footsteps. What I would have liked to have heard is some voice acting, but sadly it was lacking.


Gameplay:

Those of you who have grown up on the Final Fantasy series will notice the battles first. Instead of walking around to encountering random enemies and enter a separate battle sequence, you see the enemies on screen and get to decide if you want to fight or not. In PSO ver. 2, battles take place in real time and they are fully 3-D, which means that you have to concentrate on finding weak spots more than using different kinds of elements. Enemies usually move in packs and have pretty good AI. The last thing you want is to be ambushed by a group of four wolves and have your back showing, but that is what they try to do most of the time.

One of the most interesting and useful aspects of PSO ver. 2 is the control scheme. Attacks are assigned to the four face buttons which means that you can chose whatever attacks best suit your style without having to sift through menu after menu. Also, the Dreamcast Keyboard is supported for talking with your compadres, and an auto translation feature was included to break the speech barrier when you play with someone from a different country. When you type 'Flank the enemy from the back!,' a kid in Japan will see it in his language.

The Offline Mode is interesting for first time players, but the story is pretty weak and in my opinion, it serves mainly to build levels for the Online Mode. In order to play online you have to be signed up for the Sega.net service and own a Hunter's License. The Hunter's License is actually a three month service you buy to play the game. It costs fifteen dollars (not meseta) in addition to your Sega.net charges and has to be purchased online. It took a lot of hunting, but I found the page and I was on my way. While it's true that tens of thousands of players can be online simultaneously, players are distributed so that you won't see the vast majority of them. After successfully connecting to the network, you're prompted to choose a ship. Don't get hung up on this part; they're all the same. From there you pick a lobby. And that's it. Once you are in the lobby it can be overwhelming to see all of the people walking around, but after a while it becomes very manageable. Character names and levels appear above a person's head to let you recognize them, and it's just a matter of finding a party to join. In addition to playing the actual game with other online players, you have the option of playing several mini-games including the new 12 person soccer game. It's hard to express how incredibly cool it is playing in a party with three other people (provided the three other people aren't obnoxious dorks). It adds a whole new gameplay dynamic when decisions must be made with a group in mind. The party may disagree on what type of quest to go on (the online quests aren't as varied as their offline counterparts; they're mostly about killing large quantities of things) and some kind of consensus must be made. When the game is played cooperatively, players will oftentimes donate weapons that they themselves can't use to the cause, and this can add a sense of camaraderie. The best way to find and keep a good party is to trade Guild Cards with your friends. These serve as little Rolodex cards that can tell you where your friends are instead of having to search through tons of lobbies. While the network rolls along very smoothly at most times, there can be cases of hiccups during the peak hours. Usually they aren't a problem, but during a critical boss fight they can turn fatal. All in all, the online mode of PSO ver. 2 gives it an unprecedented level of replay value.


Difficulty:

A lot of the difficulty in PSO ver. 2 comes when you start out. If you go online with a level one player, people brand you as a loser and won't take you into their party. This is why the Offline Mode is included. I suggest working up your levels to the point where people will have the courtesy to fight along your side before taking the Online Mode for a spin. Other than that, the game's difficulty falls into the usual RPG fare - if you can kill the bad guy then do it; if not, you better start running. And don't worry about any difficult storylines like in Lunar or Final Fantasy 7 either. (sigh)

Game Mechanics:

I don't know if our Dreamcast is getting old, but when the character models were loading, it was spinning so fast it sounded like the thing was going to drill a hole right through the floor. Other than sounding like a redlining Honda, the load times were acceptable and I also found the time it took to save a 45 block file was quite fast. Although I had never played the first PSO I thought it was nice for Sonic Team to allow players to load characters from the first one. A big concern for the online play was that people were cheating. PSO ver. 2 addressed that issue by upping the security level to keep five of the same level 200 characters walking around the servers. Once you start the game, you are asked to put in the user number and access code that came with the game. This number gets branded on both the Dreamcast and the character, so you can't copy files to a friends card. If the codes don't match up, or if the code is already in the server, the game won't run. However, one problem I can see with this is what will happen if you buy a used copy of the game. That code has already been used once, so will it work a second time on a different console? Also you have to put the numbers in when you buy a Hunting License, so you could have to wait for the previous player's contract to run out. And now that I think of it, I don't even know if you could go online if you rented the game.

What Guys thinks: PSO ver. 1 proved to be the staple online game for consoles and I think that the additions to the version 2 make it all the better. Some people might not like the fact that you have to pay fifteen dollars for a Hunter's License, but it is well worth the minimal price. My only concern is that because the Dreamcast has died, a lot of PSO ver. 2 players might get burned when the servers shut down - and don't think that they won't. I thought the Sega Satellite for Genesis would be around forever, but it died faster than the 32x. My recommendation is to start playing this game as soon and as much as possible.


-Joe Guys, GameVortex Communications
AKA Joe Labani

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