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Final Fantasy XI Online

Score: 85%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Media: DVD/1
Players: MMO
Genre: MMORPG

Graphics & Sound:

In a way, Final Fantasy XI Online makes sense on the Xbox 360. Final Fantasy XI is, of course, an online game and online gaming is seen as one of the 360’s main strengths. At the same time, FFXI feels completely and totally out of place on the system.

I was really impressed with FFXI's graphics when I first played it on the PS2 and PC. Coming back a few years later, I wasn’t as impressed and felt a little disappointed. Anyone expecting a high-def remake of the game will be greatly disappointed with what they see in the 360 version. Other than the new widescreen size, all you’re really getting here is the PC version with all of the graphical settings turned up. However, a full overhaul would have been a monstrous undertaking, so you really can’t blame Square-Enix for not exploiting the potential of the 360.

From an artistic point of view, FFXI still looks great. The world of Vana'diel looks incredible and is populated with some amazingly detailed characters. As you travel from one area to another, your surroundings change in a natural progression. As you go from fertile grasslands to a barren mountainside, everything changes gradually instead of instantly transporting you to a new, different looking area. From a tech point of view, things aren’t as rosy.

With all the praises come a few complaints, both of which are minor. Character animations are good, but tend to suffer from some jerkiness at times. Actions are also a bit stiff, especially in combat, but I've yet to see an online game with dynamic animations, so this is easily overlooked. To a slightly larger extent, after all of these years I’m still not pleased with the limited number of character looks available. While you can add some customization to your character via the equipment you choose, there are a few too many clones running around.

The soundtrack and sounds are all Final Fantasy, complete with new tunes and a few echoes of classic favorites. During times when music isn't playing in the background, ambient noises sound off all around you. It's all rather peaceful to hear the chirping of birds, the babbling of a brook or the war cries of a monster as it attacks you. Okay, so maybe the last one isn't that peaceful, but it's nice.


Gameplay:

The primary difference that sets Final Fantasy XI Online apart from other MMORPG's is that it features a story. Yes, Star Wars: Galaxies has tried to weave some storylines into the game, but who are we kidding? Where FFXI differs is that it tries to set you as the star of the game. Even though everyone is experiencing the same story, the game does a great job of making YOU feel like an important part of the world rather than being just another adventurer.

Before we go any further, I think it's important to point out that there is no Single-player mode in FFXI. Unlike every other Final Fantasy, FFXI can only be played online.

You begin by creating your character. There are five races from which to choose: Hume, Elvaan, Galka, Tarutaru and Mithra. Each of these races comes with their own racial benefits and penalties that make them more adept at certain jobs. For example, Humes are good, all-around characters that can pick up any job they want, while Elvaan are skilled swordsman and make for good warriors. The jobs you have to choose from come straight from the FF Universe and are separated into basic and advanced classes. Standards such as Monks, Fighters and Mages (of three varieties: Red, Black and White) make up the basic jobs, while jobs like Summoner, Samurai and Bard make up the advanced tree. When you start your adventure, you are limited to holding one job, but as you progress, you'll eventually be able to pick up another basic "sub-job", and eventually earn the chance to choose from one of the more powerful advanced jobs.

The 360 version of the game also includes all of the game’s expansions, giving you greater choice of where you want to take your character when they get to an advanced level. You can always choose Bard or Samurai for the original, or take one of the newly introduced jobs like Blue Mage, Puppeteer or Corsair.

In addition to selecting your race and job, you will also have to choose to align yourself with one of the game's three major nations in Vana'diel; The Kingdom of San d'Oria, Republic of Bastok or Federation of Windurst. Deciding which nation to join is a bigger decision that it first appears. Not only does this determine where you'll begin the game, but also if you choose your race's home nation, you'll receive a special ring. Your choice will also determine parts of your character's story. During the game, you'll be able to run missions for your nation, which will increase its presence in that area and improve its economical and social standings in the world. Where you go from here is up to you. You can choose to run quests to improve your standing in the world, ride a Chocobo or Airship, spend hours fishing in the lakes of Vana'diel or join a Linkshell (the in-game term for a clan).

The inclusion of both expansions means that 360 players can enjoy two new modes -- Besieged and Assault. Besieged is the FF XI equivalent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep in “The Lord of the Rings”. At certain points in the week, groups of beast men will begin attacking the town, at which point players are asked to help defend. Dying during a siege does not come with any penalties, but at the same time, it’s not a free experience spout either. Instead, participating in sieges opens up new items and quests.

In Assault, players get a series of quests that earn points which can later be spent on new items and equipment. Most of the new items found in the expansion are gained through amassing assault points, including a set of special items that must be appraised before equipping.


Difficulty:

Final Fantasy XI Online is what you make of it -- so there is no cut and dry difficulty level. As with every RPG, you are weak in the beginning, which limits what you can do. In order to make things easy on yourself, it's recommended that you stay close to your hometown early on. Brave souls can team up with other characters and take on bigger monsters. Traveling in parties is the recommended means of tackling the game, since you'll not only be able to take on tougher challenges, but it can also reduce the number of times you're transported back to your hometown after death, which results in an EXP penalty.

Seeing as how the 360 is getting the game so late in the game’s lifespan, I was hesitant to start up a new character and see how things went. Namely, I didn’t want to have to start from the beginning while everyone else was running around doing high-level quests. Thankfully, my newbie experience wasn’t as bad as I had imagined since I ran across several other new players who were also just starting out on the 360. This made progression much easier and a lot more fun.


Game Mechanics:

The interface can be a little confusing at first, but after a few hours in the woodshed they can be easily learned. All combat takes place in real-time menu based set up. All commands are handled through a system of menus, similar to the offline Final Fantasies. During combat you can choose to cast spells, attack or pull off special moves by selecting them on a menu. When you are grouped with other players, combat becomes a team effort. Party members can build on each other's attacks and, with the correct moves and timings, pull off devastating combo attacks. Out of combat an additional set of menus handle every other aspect of interaction. This is where most of the confusion comes in, especially when it comes to forming parties. It is highly recommended that players pick up a USB keyboard (something that should already be in the inventory of most online PS2 gamers already) since it makes communication with other players much easier.

Final Fantasy XI takes a slightly different approach to the standard formula MMORPG. Whereas other games seem to focus more on building your online 'life', FFXI's primary concern is adventuring with friends. Much of the game is based around story-driven quests you can embark upon for monetary, EXP and item gains. In the early stages of the game you can tackle things by yourself, but when you get to the later parts of the game, parties are a necessary part of the experience. I liked this focus since it builds upon the primary reason people play MMORPGs in the first place -- interaction with real humans. However, these interactions are where FFXI fails, at least on the 360.

The minute you install (yes, I said install) FFXI on your 360, it is abundantly clear that the game wasn’t made with Xbox Live in mind. Rather than logging into the game through Live you’re logging into PlayOnline (Square-Enix’s online server system), at which point you then log into FFXI. What this basically means is that you can’t use the microphone to communicate with players. Instead, you either have to use an in-game keyboard or plug on into one of the 360’s USB connections.

On top of that, you have to deal with FFXI’s inanely stupid random server assignment, which keeps you from joining a specific server that your friends may be on unless someone purchases a “World Pass”, which serves as an invitation to a specific server. It should also be noted that FFXI requires an additional monthly fee to play, regardless of if you’re playing for a Gold Live membership or not.

In the end, Final Fantasy XI Online on the 360 is just like Final Fantasy XI on the PS2 and PC, so every flaw and perfection found in those two versions is here as well. Where the 360 version fails, however, is that the game feels completely out of place. Rather than trying to mesh better with the already top-notch online service that is Live, FFXI tries to replace it with a clunkier one. If you’ve been dying to jump into FFXI and never had the opportunity, then this is probably your best bet. Otherwise, you could skip it and not miss much.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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