Review by Tenshi No Shi
"Console gamers finally get a taste of a real MMORPG."
Up until about three months before the North American Playstation 2 debut of Final Fantasy XI, I had no intention of purchasing the game despite my love for the franchise. To be honest, I had yet to play any MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) that held my interest for more that a few hours (even one with the Star Wars license attached to it). However when it was confirmed that the HDD was only going to be sold prepackaged with Final Fantasy XI, I had little choice in the matter- It looked like I was getting Square-Enix's massive online endeavor regardless of my wishes. The weeks and days leading up to Final Fantasy XI's gave me time to further research the game and realize that maybe, just maybe, there might be something here worth my time. I should note before I continue this review that though I have now been playing Final Fantasy XI for more than four years, my review will only cover the original game and the first expansion Rise of Zilart (which is included in the North American release).
Most MMORPGs lack one thing: A plot. Final Fantasy XI not only delivers a solid story, it also immerses you in a rich, history-filled world that feels as much alive as it is massive in its scope. The tale of Vana'diel actually begins twenty years previous to the first time your nearly created persona steps foot on virtual land- A terrible war raged between the savage Beastmen and all the other intelligent races of Vana'diel; The versatile Hume, the hulking Galka, the strong-willed Elvaan, the lithe Mithra and the impish Tarutaru all struggled to survive the onslaught as city after city feel to the overwhelming hordes of the unified Beastmen under the rule of the Shadow Lord. In a last ditch effort, all the races united and crushed the evil army, regaining much of the land. As time passed, alliances began to crumble and now the citizens of Vana'diel once again stand in the shadow of a threat. The Beastmen hunger for the magical crystals buried deep within the earth and want to wipe out all other enlightened races. A whisper of the once thought dead Shadow Lord looms in the back of everyone's minds as the Beastmen once again amass armies...Granted, Final Fantasy XI's plot might win any awards, but when's the last time you played any game that made you feel like your every action altered the world around you? Plus with the expansions packs and downloadable content, the story is always evolving, thus staying fresh and revealing more of the mysteries of Vana'diel, so chances are you'll never get bored.
There's really not much else out there on the Playstation 2 in the MMORPG department to compare Final Fantasy XI to, except Everquest, which, let's face it, is about the fugliest game ever pressed to a disc. Not surprisingly, Square-Enix's effort is about a kajillion times better looking that its competition (and I use that word very loosely) but what is surprising is just how graphically impressive Final Fantasy XI is compared to anything else on Sony's black box. The opening CG movie (which you can view on the game disc) is by far the best piece of digital animation for a video game that I have yet to see. The in-game graphics are richly detailed- Everything from the variety of characters to the nearly over-populated cities, the menacing creatures to the vast swathes of land you must explore- having a life-like quality to them that makes you really feel like you're part of the fantasy. However, Final Fantasy XI is not without fault- The draw distance is noticeably short, textures and objects occasionally shimmer (or even vanish completely) and some transitions between adjoining areas on the world map lack any sort of subtle gradient of the two melding environments; One minute you're in a grassy valley and the next you're standing in the middle of a desert. These minor complaints aside, Final Fantasy XI is still a beautiful game.
No Final Fantasy adventure is complete without the accompanying epic score and the latest game is no exception. Perhaps not as grandiose as past soundtracks, Final Fantasy XI still has a fair share of memorable tunes. You'll even hear arranged versions of staple song from past Final Fantasy games, including the ever-popular end-of-battle fanfare. There's also different songs for battling solo, in a party or in a dungeon. But after logging over 500 hours of play time, the lack of variety began to wear on me. Then there's areas of the game that don't even have music, offering only the sounds of nature (like crashing thunder, the falling rain or the sweeping winds) to keep you company as sense of emptiness and desolation settle over the land. Audio effects, while obviously the most repetitious aspect of any game, are very well done in this case; The clash of weapons, the crescendo of a spell, the grunt of an enemy just before it attacks...all sound completely natural mesh tightly with the gameplay. However, save for the introduction movie, there is no voice acting to really judge here, but even that little bit manages to show if the level of quality that Square puts into a Final Fantasy title.
Before I launch into a lengthy discussion on Final Fantasy XI's controls, let me make one simply, yet undeniably, true statement- You absolutely need a keyboard to enjoy this game. The keyboard isn't listed as a requirement, but attempting to navigate the myriad of menus or using the on-screen virtual keyboard to tap out a frantic cry for help. That said, the menu system that is in place is very concisely organized and easy to navigate. I've read complaints (many from "professional" reviewers) that Final Fantasy XI's menus are a labyrinth maze of confusion that will, according to the authors, leave you frustrated and angry. Hmmmm. Maybe they should go back to playing Mary-Kate and Ashley Find Their Brains and leave Final Fantasy XI to the grown-ups. Seriously, the only grief I have is adding another player to your friend list is unnecessarily complicated (it would seem at first glance you are incapable of performing this action in-game and must instead rely upon your PlayOnline browser to complete such a simple task), but once you learn the keyboard command it's all gravy. The last thing I want to bring attention to is the macro system, an extremely versatile short-cut menu that allows for a complex set of commands to be accessed by pressing a button. For example, I've created a macro for my Black Mage that allows me to cast Water, pause for five seconds, cast Bio, pause two more seconds, then attack my targeted enemy with my staff. You can create hundreds of these macros, making them as simple or complex as you want. It may not be revolutionary but it's a welcome addition to a complex game.
Certainly a game which, by design, absolutely needs the HDD (thus the hundred dollar price tag) will be something like you've never experienced before on a console. Its complexity, while deserving of praise, isn't without fault. Indeed, the afore mentioned friend list management problems I encountered slightly dampened the mood of the gameplay. But another, even harsher gripe I have is the lack of thought that went into Tetra Master. Charging people an extra buck a month to play an online version of a previously free game is a crime in and of itself, but having the Tetra Master experience separate from Final Fantasy XI is an outrage. Why Square didn't allow players to carry around Tetra Master decks and challenge other adventurers (perhaps while waiting to form a party) for gil to spend in-game is a decision I will never understand. On the other hand, I have to give Square-Enix credit for creating PlayOnline; an all-inclusive, self-contained online operating system that manages your Friend List and e-mail account, give you access to chat rooms, plus puts help files, current game news and upcoming special events within easy reach. Oh yeah, it also lets you select from any online Square-Enix game you have installed on the HDD (obviously only Tetra Master and Final Fantasy XI are selectable for now). PlayOnline is also customizable- You can add ambient sound effects, change the background music and download new wallpaper to keep your "desktop" fresh. Best of all, updates to PlayOnline and Final Fantasy XI are automatic, so there's no worry that you're not playing the latest version. One of the most interesting aspects of the gameplay is the choice to supplement your Job Class (the type of characters you play as) with a support or Sub Job. Basically this give your character a stat boost while giving you access to a new set of abilities. In this way, you are afforded even more options of molding your avatar into something beyond just what you cobbled together at the initial character creation screen. There's really so much more to write about (like crafting, gardening and fishing), but few would take the time to read the volumes of information I could elaborate on, so I'll just wrap this paragraph up by saying that overall, Final Fantasy XI has a very solid design with far more going for it than against it.
In a game like this, the things that would traditionally define a bonus feature or unlockable extra are an integral part of the gameplay. Since the first expansion, Rise of Zilart, is already included in the North American release, the most note-worthy unlockable would be the opportunity to play advance job classes by attempting rather lengthy quests. When you first begin the game, your job options are limited to Black Mage, White Mage, Red Mage, Monk, Thief and Warrior. However, once you reach a certain level, you have the choice to discover nine additional classes- Samurai, Ninja, Paladin, Dark Knight, Beast Master, Bard, Summoner, Dragoon and Ranger. And while missions are pretty much required of you to complete if you wish to progress the story (and gain entry into new lands), there are hundreds of entirely optional quests you can discover that will raise your character's fame and earn you some sort of reward. Downloadable content (in the form of patches) are made available roughly once every few months and generally include gameplay tweaks, new items, mysterious areas to explore and even the much anticipated Player versus Player event of Ballista (which was added and has since been updated with new rules in subsequent patches). With so many extra things to do, it wonder anyone has the time for the main story.
I may not be a veteran of MMORPGs, but I am a seasoned gamer and have experienced thousands upon thousands of games, so I know what I like and have a pretty good idea of what makes a good game. Final Fantasy XI is the first title in it's genre to actually hold my interest- Its level of social interaction and Grand Theft Auto-like open-ended gameplay makes for an unparalleled experience. Installation of the HDD is easy (it takes about five minutes) and setting up the software is even easier (just follow the instructions). If you're only buying Final Fantasy XI for the hard-drive, take advantage of the free 30-day trial before passing judgment on it. If, however, you like role-playing games and don't mind sharing your world with a few thousand other like-minded individuals, Final Fantasy XI is the only game in town worth playing (at least on the Playstation 2)...
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 08/12/09
Game Release: Final Fantasy XI (US, 03/23/04)
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