Review by JonnyRam

"A brave new world"

Final Fantasy XI might not be what you were expecting. Square have made a brave decision to take their most popular franchise and make a game that is only playable online. But has that decision paid off?

There is no mistaking that Final Fantasy XI is a true Final Fantasy in every sense. Similar to the very first game in the series, you start off with a choice of six jobs (Warrior, Black mage, White mage, Thief, Monk and Red mage) and you can form your party from any combination of the above. The difference in XI is that you now have six people per party and most importantly, you have to go out and find these people from the other 2500+ players on your server. This is as much a part of the game as anything else. You don't have to form a party if you don't want to, but Square have tailored this game so that parties reap many more rewards than solo players.

The world of Vanad'iel is ruled by 4 countries: Bastok, a republic where mining and alchemy play a big part in the economy; San d'Oria, a religious kingdom with strong spirit; Windurst, a trading federation with a large supply of natural resources; and Jeuno, a neutral country occupying a key location. Your allegiance must be pledged to either Bastok, San d'Oria or Windurst at the start of the game, and the story will unravel in a different way depending on which you choose. All of the countries used to live peacefully together until darkness was brought into the world by the Shadow Lord. Darkness brought unrest and bitter fighting within each country. But now, with so many lives lost, it is time for the different races and nations to fight together and reclaim peace. And that's really one area where this game differs from the typical multiplayer online RPG. There is no player-killing. In fact, no harassment of any form towards other players is tolerated by Square. Game Masters exist to see that any unfriendly gamers are promptly dealt with.

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Graphics-wise, this game is splendid. There is some unavoidable slowdown in highly-populated areas, but the landscapes are varied and expansive. From the barren wastelands of Tahrongi to the dense forests in Jugner, every landscape on earth seems to have been included in some form.

There are many species of monsters, and even within the species, there are sub-species with clever graphical touches to distinguish them from their counterparts. An example of this is the difference between goblins - while the fighters wear metallic helmets, the mages wear leather masks.

Battle effects are numerous, and with a well-balanced party it can turn into a bit of a fireworks show. This wouldn't be a Final Fantasy without a huge array of magic, and Square seldom disappoint in this respect. On top of that there are many weapon skills - comparable to limit breaks - which also add sparks to the show.

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Music comes courtesy of Uematsu, Mizuta and Tanioka this time and is mostly orchestrated, or at least sounds that way. The range of music matches the diversity of landscapes perfectly and the kingdoms' themes also have a very clear association with the races that live there. There are four regular battle themes and a couple of pieces for boss fights. Most of the field areas have some music playing in the background when not in battle, but there are a few key territories that don't and the dungeons also lack incidental music, but this is far from a problem as the ambient noises from the environment are adequate.

Sound effects are crystal clear and presented in surround sound. Different races have a number of different cries while they are fighting and the monsters also have some good effects. One aspect that particularly sounded good were the footsteps. In the past Square have not achieved greatness in this respect, but this time around the noises are well suited to the different surfaces your character walks on.

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So the burning question now is how does it play. It is similar to the other games in the series in many ways. Fighters now have the added bonus of an ''auto attack'' function so they don't need to wear out the buttons, and they can now concentrate on linking weapon skills with other members of the team for huge damage. Mages are pretty much as they have always been... instead of a time meter, magic now has a reset time which varies from spell to spell.

While many people will concentrate on just levelling their characters as quickly as possible, there are many other parts of the game that can be enjoyed. First off, there are quests that can be carried out, a bit like chores, for people in and around the cities. You can obtain these by talking to the non-player characters. Completion of a quest normally results in a reward of either gil or equipment.

Similar to quests, but more story-driven are missions. Each nation has a different set of missions, for the start of the game, at least. The later missions can be carried out by parties of mixed nationality and start to bring the story into the limelight with several emotionally charged cut scenes breaking up long strings of battles. Completion of missions gains you gil and advancement in rank.

On top of this, there are guilds you can join which allow you to synthesize items to produce new items - either equipment, food, or other goods. These have an associated level and the work involved in increasing your skills can be quite lengthy and costly. But stick at it and the rewards are great. If you excel in certain areas, rare items can be made which sell for large amounts. In addition to item synthesis, fishing is also an enjoyable guild activity. There are other areas of play that can be explored too, such as trading - each character can sell things in their own bazaar, or in an auction house, mining, harvesting, etc.

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It all fits together so well. If you try everything the game has to offer, you will doubtless feel frustrated at the amount of time everything takes, but frustration is followed by immense satisfaction. What Square have created seems simplistic in many ways, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and this is a game that will leave you with weeks, no months, missing from your life. If you are already busy, be warned that you will have to make many sacrifices to succeed in this game. It will destroy your life without you realising, given half a chance. Where every previous Final Fantasy has been presented in a nicely wrapped package, this one seems to have no bounds. Even with months of playtime under your belt, there will still be so much left to discover.

Square have created a beast of a game. It is playable for beginners and experts alike. Personally, I had never played an MMORPG before this, but there was no problem getting used to the game. While loved by the majority of those who play it, some will despise it because of the freedom it gives, some will not be able to cope with the non-linear gameplay, others will miss the tightly directed storyline and videos of recent episodes. But whether you love it or hate it, you have to admire Square's ambition to take the series into new territory.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 10/15/02, Updated 10/15/02


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