Review by silverthornne
"Moogles and chocobos go online! Impressions as of Fall 2003"
This review is valid as of Fall 2003. Due to the evolving nature of this kind of video game, any negative issues may have already been fixed by the time you read this review, or some new problems may have made an appearance.
Final Fantasy XI. This series certainly needs no introduction, being a long running and quite beloved roleplaying series that has graced consoles (and at least 2 versions appeared on PC) for a very long time. What is new though is the approach taken by this title, which is totally unique as far as the Final Fantasy series is concerned. Expect no offline play in this latest installment, which I really believe should have simply been named Final Fantasy Online and that the XI should have been taken out, but it's their choice to do that.
Let's get the obvious out of the way. If you are a Final Fantasy veteran and are looking forward to the latest Japanese RPG thrills that has made the series so popular in Nintendo and Sony systems, then approach cautiously. This game has a lot more common with other titles in the MMORPG genre such as EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot than with most Final Fantasies, though it manages to keep that charm which Square had put into these titles that make them so enjoyable for the most part.
Being the MMORPG that it is, there is one main aim in FFXI, and that is to go out and improve your character via the rigours of battle. Just like most other titles in this genre, the game does have a lot of wonderful roleplaying opportunities if you meet with like minded individuals, and there are quite a lot of things you can do besides fighting, however these extra tasks take a very far back seat to the combat which this game has refined to the point that a successful party can literally turn combat into a choreography of wild special effects (not unlike a battle scene in your typical console FF outing). Of course, that is if your party is experienced enough to do that.
As a new installment in the Final Fantasy series, Square Enix made sure to keep the graphics within the context of the series, even if the way the game plays is so different. You will see familiar creatures such as Chocobos (which you can ride btw), Moogles, Funguars, Carbuncle, Ramuh, etc. All of them wonderfully rendered in real time 3D with very impressive textures on them. The only problems I have with the graphics have to do with the way the day and night circle works, in which night does not become dark enough and the sun blankets the land or disappears at an alarmingly fast speed, and that the environments though beautiful in design are not really as well treated as the character models were. There is also a lack of models for equipment, weapons, and monsters but the ones in there are so well done that many will not realize this problem until quite a while into the game.
Speaking of the models, character graphics are excellent. For those of us used to standard computer titles, seeing these Japanese designs can be quite refreshing (though I warn that some do have a bit of an overinjection of cuteness into them for those that don't like that). It is also good to note that their animation is consistent, well synchronized to what is going on during combat and just overall very well done. Many titles belonging to this genre suffer from problems in that area (take a look at the way EverQuest post Luclin models run as an example), and it is refreshing to see that FFXI handles itself so well in it.
Spell effects are quite good looking as well. Nothing too fancy, yet very pleasing to the eye. Even if you're not playing a magically inclined class you'll still see your bit of fireworks on your own when unleashing various weaponskills that you will have at your disposal during the course of the game. All in all, the graphics are very well done. Somewhat light on the technical side, but very rich in the conceptual one. I do have a bit of a problem with the Elvaan models as their arms were too exaggeratedly long IMO but it's something one can get used to.
Unfortunately, controlling FFXI via a computer will be a test of patience for all but the most forgiving players (or those who are playing this as their first computer title simply because they couldn't wait for the PS2 release). Keeping in mind that the game was designed for a console and then ported to PC I can see why some things work the way they do. Unfortunately, that way they work make very little sense within a PC, and I know quite a few PC players that have hunted down various control pads or adapters to play with a PS2 controller because of the weak integration of the mouse and keyboard for playing.
The first, and most obvious problem is the keyboard layout. By default, it is set to using the numeric keypad to move around and you need to change settings in order to have access to a common WASD configuration. Not a problem, except that the mouse will not supplement a WASD configuration very well because of the way the mouse look is implemented. There is also no strafing unless you hold down the shift key with this WASD configuration (can't strafe in 3rd person mode btw), and if you happen to have autorun enabled the strafing will not work. On the subject of autorun, it has a nasty habit of cancelling itself when you take a sharp turn and seems to remain activated in awkward moments. These are all small details that you will get used to in time, but they are very unusual decisions.
Another problem with the keyboard is that in order to access your macroed hotkeys you need to use the Ctrl and Alt buttons. Holding shift while doing so will let you cycle through the hotkey pages. Of course, the Windows key will crash you in this game so having those keys be the ones for instant macro access makes it quite tricky at first. So far I have been unsuccesful in my attempts to change the configuration in order to use other keys to access my hotkeys.
There are a bunch of other problems that I will refrain from getting into because this is becoming too long, but I do need to point out that the mouse is very weak as an input device in this title. It is limited to the active menu only, and using it to click on another menu will not activate that menu. It is also not very effective at picking up targets, and overall is a tool that you can't count on within this title. Quite a shame.
Now after saying all that, I must also say that it is remarkable how a game that feels so alien to control can be so wonderfully entertaining to play. At first there is absolutely no difference from other MMORPG's. You're cast into the world - time to learn your way around, get the hang of the interface little by little, and slaughter the smallest creatures in the food chain to stay alive. You will improve your various combat and magic skills in the process. All of that is familiar, I'm sure. Now where this game shines is in the details.
Let's start with quests. Even from the beginning you will notice one very unique thing: there are realtime cutscenes in the game, most of them related of course to the various quests you take on. Even if one knows that you are not the main hero - you're playing in the same world as thousands others - doing this makes the player feels as if s/he is really an important person in the world. You're not seeing a generic npc thanking every player that walks by for returning something, no. That npc talks exclusively to each and everyone. The only bad thing I would say about this engine so far is that there is a possibility of causing problems within a party. There was particular quest that most of my party was doing in an area in which we all were taken to one of these individual cutscenes save for our white mage who was not working on this quest. While we were all enjoying the development of the story, our poor white mage was confused as to where we all were while trying to remain alive from some undead that appeared on top of him. Nothing can be perfect, but I'll take the current implementation over another generic cookie cutter mmorpg npc that doesn't react to its surroundings (though speaking of this, guards definitely do not react to aid with monsters - both a blessing, and a curse).
Now for the meat of the game: the combat. FFXI has quite a few little things that make the combat stand out, particularly within a party. Players have a ''Tactical Point'' meter that fills out during battles, similar to FFVII's Limit Break gauge, but much faster to fill. Once this gauge fills out, players can unleash various advanced skills that are determined by the kind of weapon they are wielding and how high is their skill with it. These skills also have the capability to be chained within a party in order to add extra hurt to the monsters by means of a ''Renkei'' or ''Skillchain''. Basically, if the skills are of the same elemental property and are properly timed the Renkei comes into effect. This can be further magnified if the magic users in the party time a spell of the same elemental property to act within or at the end of the Renkei for a Magic Burst. Basically, this means that a seasoned group of players can become very devastating by means of simply keeping a coordinated battle strategy. It is quite enjoyable to do so, and makes the battles quite entertaining.
There is also another twist added to the fighting, and that is the presence of the ''Conquest''. Basically, there are 4 factions in the game. Three of these are the nations you can choose to reside in, and they keep a friendly rivalry with one another under the watchful eye Jeuno, a neutral nation. The other faction is the Beastmen faction. Every enemy you fight, from small rodents to anything big, scaly and with wings that will require a raid to take down is a beastman. This makes it seem like the game has very few factions, but the way it works out is interesting because these factions are constantly fighting over territory. Whenever you leave your town, you should ask for your guards to cast a spell called ''Signet'' on you. With this spell on, every beastman you kill in a region will give you Conquest Points and the nation with the most Conquest Points in a region will have control over it (tallies are done once a week on Sundays). If your nation has control of an area and you have Signet on, you can get crystals (which are necessary for tradeskills) from dead monsters. If the beastmen take that region (by too many players dying to them), then no crystals will drop. The nations with most control also have advantages related to trading as their merchant will have more wares available to sell. This system works as a very nice incentive for players to help each other so as not to lose control of regions to Beastmen while also fostering a degree of competitiveness for those who want to make their nation the most powerful.
As for what to play, FFXI has a somewhat small amount of races though they are all quite unique (no 3 varieties of little people + 3 varieties of elves - every race is unique). The humes which are basically humans, the elvaan which are similar to elves only in the ears and the name, the cute little tarutaru which make the best mages, the mithra which are cat people (and you can only play them as females unfortunately), and the galka which are the token big and stupid guys (only males). There are also 6 basic ''jobs'' at the beginning of the game (same as a character class in other games), and 9 extra jobs that you could open up via questing. Some races are better than others at some jobs, but like in most other mmorpg's even the worst race for a job could actually be successful in it with dedication. These jobs are for the most part ones that should be familiar to old time Final Fantasy players (Warrior, Thief, Red Mage, White Mage, Black Mage, Monk, Ninja, Dragoon, Samurai, Ranger, Beastmaster, Summoner, Bard, Dark Knight, and Paladin), and you can change your job at any time within your Mog House (more on that later). Now the real beauty of this system comes into play once the player is able to acquire a ''Sub Job'' via a quest. Once that is done, the player can hold 2 jobs, though the main job will determine most abilities. The sub job will serve as a support one that could potentially make the character much more effective (this subjob is limited to half the level of the main job - don't worry, you won't lose any levels in any jobs by changing them; the game just limits the level you can access in them when you use them as sub).
There are lots of other nice little touches all through the game, such as the ability to ride a Chocobo (after you acquire a chocobo driver's permit btw), and having your own house! The main nations have residential districts, and upon entering them the players get teleported to their own private little Mog Houses with a helpful Moogle in them. This little guy will take care of your safe (works as a bank in other titles), hold any deliveries to you (a very powerful and helpful system to send items to other players without needing to trade to them ''in person'' so to say), takes care of your plants if you choose to garden, and also helps you set up any furniture you buy. You can also pursue trade skills via crafting guilds, though the reliance on crystals in order to do so is a bit of a drag sometimes. My only concern is that there seems to be a lack of noncombat perks within the job classes (only RPG rogue class I've ever played that can't hide in shadows to cite an example), but the attention they've paid to other areas of the game negates this problem for the most part. Oh, it is also important to note for those not used to this genre that dying imposes an XP penalty, and you could ptentially lose a level by it. That does not bother me; it's not new in the MMORPG world, but it may throw some people off guard.
What a big surprise! An MMORPG with good music! Of course, that is because the people in charge of the music here have been the same ones that have done the scores for previous Final Fantasy titles, and it shows. There are various combat themes (for solo fights, dungeons, parties, boss battles, etc), and they all have that easy to recognize Final Fantasy combat score within them. You get to hear the classic FF combat win theme whenever you increase an experience level, and just all over the game you'll hear to classic themes reworked for this installment. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a way to turn the music completely off so far, but you can turn the volume all the way down if you find that you're getting bored of it.
Combat sounds are pretty much what you'd expect from an MMORPG. Nothing stellar here, but they work. Bard songs sound great though! There is no voice acting, though I definitely did not expect any to be in there.
Final Fantasy XI is an extremely impressive offering in the MMORPG genre made by a total newbie in it! Who would have thought Square Enix would have done so good in its first try? The game has some nagging control issues, but it is such a joy to play that one will look past them to enjoy what is one of the most refreshing titles in the somewhat crowded persistent online world category. Make no mistakes about it though, FFXI does not reinvent the wheel as far as MMORPG's are concerned (it does as far as interfaces go, and in a bad way though). You will still spend countless hours partying to level, you will still notice progress to come slow at times and face a lot of challenges and frustration as the item you need to attain refuses to drop. These, however, are issues that plauge the genre and so far no single game has fully solved them. FFXI's approach to instancing quests does go a long way to deal with it though. A 10 waiting to happen if they ever fix the control issues and add a few more out of combat perks for the jobs.
In the end, when all is said and done, FFXI is probably the most entertaining game to grace the MMORPG genre in the last 3 years. It can also only get better in the future, provided that Square Enix continues to be attentive with it and keeps it going smoothly.
FFXI also comes with an interesting tool called PlayOnline that acts as a sort of main hub of activity for the Square Enix network. You will either love or hate this little thing (I lean for the later right now), but either way you'll get used to interacting with it as you cannot enter FFXI (or Tetra Master - the card game from FFIX which can be played online and comes bundled with FFXI) without it. Unfortunately so many services means that the registration procedure for FFXI is tedious and feels like a chore. SE should have done something to ease down on this mess, but they didn't. Just a bit of a heads up for those who are not aware of it.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 11/12/03
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