Fantasies don't come cheap.
If video games are essentially a great way to waste time, then the most efficient genre on the planet is the massively multiplayer online role-playing game. You want to burn away a weekend surrounded in pizza boxes and scratching at stubble? Forget the latest version of Madden " pop in a good MMORPG and you'll literally have to remind yourself to eat. I've seen this happen, and it's not pretty.
Massively multiplayer gaming is so hot these days, in fact, that we're seeing more entries than the market can theoretically support, especially when you tally up the retail and monthly costs of a few of these games. It can be an expensive habit, that's for sure.
But when it comes to games people will spend the money to play, you'd be hard pressed to find a more dedicated fan base than the one that has scooped up over 60 million worldwide units of the Final Fantasy series. Whether they were raised on the series back when it launched in 1987 or had their first taste back in 1997 with the breakthrough Final Fantasy VII, console role-playing gamers love their FF.
So it makes sense to combine these two passions, a feat managed by a collaboration between Square and Sony in the PS2 version of Final Fantasy XI. Exclusively bundled together with the new PS2 Hard Drive, the legendary series' first foray into massively multiplayer online gaming is a fun, well-designed and pleasantly stable RPG. It avoids the more serious technical pitfalls of the genre, offers incalculable hours of solid RPG goodness and marks a revolutionary step in programming by allowing PS2 and PC gamers to play together in the exact same world. However, it also marks a de-evolutionary step in money-conscious gaming by costing nearly as much as the PS2 itself.
Is the exorbitant cost a deal breaker? Well, that depends a lot on how much you like the deal to begin with.
Just to clear up a few things, let it be known that Final Fantasy XI for the PS2 can ONLY be bought along with the PS2 Hard Drive - there are no separate game-only or HDD-only packages. You get three things with the package: Final Fantasy XI (complete with the recent Rise of the Zilart expansion), Online Tetramaster (a cute card game found in FF IX) and the Hard Drive itself. Yes, this version of FF XI is the same as the PC game. You will be playing alongside PC gamers in the same servers.
The HDD is easy to install and the game comes pre-loaded; back-up game discs are provided in case the HDD fails or gets corrupted, but you likely won't need them at all. However, don't expect to just pop in the HDD and start creating a character, because setting up your PlayOnline account, downloading patches and entering registration codes can take well over a solid hour.
Once you muddle through this daunting experience, though, things get cooler. FF XI is a massively multiplayer game but manages to still have a sort of story, which involves the political machinations of four kingdoms as they squabble over territory and attempt to hold back the onslaught of the evil beastmen. You play as just one of many heroes out to solve this mess, though mostly you're here to putz around in the enormous world of Vana'diel.
This all begins with the character creation. FF XI lets you choose from five races and six starting jobs and gives you some basic appearance customization options. From there you're dumped into a server, penniless and pointless, with not much clue as to what to do or how to do it. Standard MMORPG fare, all the way.
But unlike other MMORPGs, FF XI features a single-player storyline aspect that nudges you along if you choose to follow it. There are missions and quests to undertake by talking to NPCs, enough to help guide you through the first stages of the game and familiarize you with the giant world. It even features little in-engine cut scenes to add some drama to the more important plot-related moments, which is a nice touch.
None of it is required, though. You can hop right in and start learning a trade like Blacksmithing or Alchemy, or buy a rod and reel and make your way as a fisherman. You can follow the plot as little or as much as you like, though uncovering the story by completing missions is the only way you'll really gain in rep and fight the big, juicy boss battles the FF series is known for.
The fighting, though, is where FF XI runs into its first gameplay hurdle. Combat is done in real-time and is handled automatically " you just lock on and start auto-whacking away. Aside from casting spells and using items or job-specific abilities, you can utilize "weapon abilities' by letting your Tactical Point meter increase over time. This is done through the natural progression of combat, and when the meter is high enough you can unleash a nice big attack. If you're in a party, you can also pull off Skillchains and Magic Bursts by coordinating attacks or magic, respectively.
And that's about it. There just isn't a ton of strategy to the combat " no terrain modifiers, no button-timing combos, no real skill involved, especially at the lower levels before you've amassed a hefty skill set. This is fairly routine for a MMORPG but might be off-putting to FF fans used to more ambitious combat systems.
Single-player FF fans might also grow impatient with the slow skill ramp up, a fact of just about every MMORPG on the planet. Get used to fighting rabbits, because it will be a while before you can upgrade to whacking at sheep. This isn't so much a problem with the game as the genre itself, though, so no big deal.
When you do manage to kill stuff and score some loot, FF XI provides a cool alternative to selling it back to the flaccid NPC shopkeeper by introducing the Auction House, a player-driven economy that lets you put items up for bid and set the prices. Often you can score more dough this way and even find fancy items for cheap, particularly if they're in excess. You'll find yourself periodically checking the Auction House to see what sold well and what didn't.
In order to get cash gained in an Auction, you have to swing by a "Residential Area,' just a fancy term for your own little secret house (you do not own property in FF XI). Here you can store extra valuables and interact with your pet Moogle, who can facilitate some of the cooler features in the game. One is gardening " buy a pot and find some seeds and you can grow flowers that will give you bonuses. The other more useful ability is Changing Jobs.
There are six starting jobs in FF XI, but when you reach a high enough level you can add a sub-job and choose from six extra job types; eventually you can choose from three more (introduced in the Rise of the Zilart expansion). At any point in the game, you can change professions and start back at the beginning levels of another job. You don't keep your benefits of your previous job " hit points and stats drop down to starting levels " but you don't lose levels in your old profession by switching. It's mainly just a cool way to allow you to keep things fresh if you grow tired of your job and want to try something else for a while.
Regardless of whether you're casting spells or using your fists, FF XI looks decent enough. The enemies look good and the enormous, constantly updated world loads quick enough. Aside from chugging in the heavily crowded areas, it runs smoothly and features plenty of color and flash.
The real key to the success of any MMORPG lies in the hands of its community, and strangely enough, the inhabitants of FF XI are by and large helpful and friendly, a far cry from the LmpBzkit887s screaming about poop found in many other games of this nature. Creating or joining parties is highly recommended (at the higher levels it's a necessity) and works well. You'll often get tips, cures, and even raised from the dead by other players, creating a pretty nurturing environment. Of course, that means the bloodthirsty pirate-types out there will have to wear muzzles " there is currently no Player vs. Player fighting in FF XI.
And unfortunately, even if you and LmpBzkt887 are friends, you probably won't be playing together. In an effort to keep the servers running smoothly, the developers chose to randomize which server you initially join. Even if you and a friend sign up at the exact same time, it's essentially a roll of the dice. To rectify this, they included the ability to purchase a World Pass within the game itself, which allows you to switch to another server and start up a new character for free. Nice try, but it costs some decent in-game cash, which means you'll have to spend some serious hours fighting and leveling up'only to ditch your character to move. Stupid.
As is the chatting issue. FF XI is a very stable, fully realized world, thanks in no small part to the fact that it's been online and tinkered with by the PC players since December. That also means that many of the people you're playing with are on PCs. The game doesn't come loaded with a keyboard (though it mercifully does have USB support) and chatting with the PS2 pad is just excruciating. I now call this the "Yerp" problem, so named after I was healed by a stranger, who then asked if I was alright, to which I replied (after a full minute of fumbling), "Yerp." Yerp, you're gonna need a keyboard.
Which brings us to the not-quite-a-million dollar question: is this game worth it? Well, to solve that ugly word problem, let's do some real math. The game retails for $100, netting you FF XI and the Hard Drive. If you're not currently online, you'll also need the Network Adapter for $40 retail, along with a USB keyboard. Now tack on the $13 monthly subscription rate (the first month is free) and you're easily looking at over $150 to really enjoy this game for two months. And that's just for one character on one server " each additional character costs an extra buck. Oh, so does Tetramaster, if you choose to play it. Can a wallet file rape charges?
Some will argue that the Hard Drive makes it a bargain, but currently only two games have announced HDD support: Syphon Filter: Omega Strain and SOCOM 2, both Sony games, and neither has actually implemented the support yet. Really it's just a big memory card which, along with the Network Adapter, effectively turns the PS2 into a poor man's Xbox (or I should say, rich man's, since you can get an Xbox for about the same price as this one game) a good three years late. Considering the shelf life of the PS2 is probably only another two years or so (the PS3 will purportedly hit stores in late 2005), the ends don't quite justify the means.
Obviously, the die-hard FF gamers out there with really rich parents, really good jobs or really nothing better to do with at least a hundred and thirteen bucks (probably more) won't care that it's potentially the most expensive game for their console. The rest of you, however, very much should. There is a cheaper version of this game available for your PC " you know, that thing you're using to read this review " which costs only 50 bucks and I guarantee comes equipped with a keyboard and network connection. Remember, you're playing in the exact same game world. If you have a good rig, it's easily the way to go.
Final Fantasy XI presents a grading nightmare quite unlike anything we're ever seen at GR. The game itself is good, far better than the online Everquest games for the PS2 and even holding up well next to fancier PC MMORPGs. It's genuinely fun and runs well. Plus, it comes with the HDD. However, it's hard to tell anyone to walk into a store and slap this kind of cash down just to play one video game when for the same money you could buy three or four. Wasting your time is one thing, but wasting your money is another entirely " make sure you're prepared before jumping into this fantasy. And that's my Final thought.