I've had this fantasy before...
Despite a pretty hefty wait, Xbox Live! has finally started showing its promise of smooth online gaming and has helped breathe some life into the system, which has suffered a little from a lack of really top quality games. And what better game to port over to the Xbox than the Dreamcast smash Phantasy Star Online?
For the most part, this is the same game as it was on the DC so many years ago. Dubbed Phantasy Star Online: Episode I and II, the Xbox version is a sort of bundle. Episode I contains both the Dreamcast original and the DC's PSO v.2, while Episode II is the same new adventure found in the Gamecube edition, which involves the science foundation of the colony. Keep in mind, the off-line portion of the game and its stories of the Planet Ragol are secondary to the online aspects of the game.
Phantasy Star Online is not a persistent world like Everquest. Instead, when you log in you initially select from one of several ships, each containing a few waiting area blocks. To get a game going, you simply find four buddies or join a game already in progress. During the game, there are two principal areas: the adventure field and Pioneer 2. Pioneer 2 is essentially the safe zone where you can go purchase new items, store money and goods, and rejuvenate yourself, while the adventure field is where all the action takes place.
As in past iterations, the game begins with the creation of your online counterpart. You can choose from three character classes: Hunters, Rangers and Force. Hunters primarily focus on short ranged, melee fighting, Rangers are proficient with gun weaponry, and the Force characters are adept at magic casting. Fighters, archers and mages, all the way.
Each class has four variations, and each of these has its own strengths and weaknesses, bringing the total number of options to twelve. After you choose your character, you suit up in a range of different clothing and color schemes. There's also the option to adjust your character's girth, creating a lean, mean hunting machine or a chunky little spellcaster.
The battles remain identical to their Dreamcast roots, leaving ample room for improvement. In other words, it's still basically a straightforward shoot 'em up. Melee fighting involves small combos of heavy and light attacks dependent upon timing. Unlike Zelda, dodging is not opponent-centric; characters simply must scoot out of the way to avoid a shot. The controls are a bit stiff, but sufficient.
The driving force of the game is still to find items, upgrade your Mag and improve your stats, which can be done both online and off. There's a minimal story to the single-player game, told through little messages left around the maps. There's also the ability to play the game in split-screen, but if one member of the party dies and decides to return back to base, then it's back to base for everyone.
The highlight of the game is still going online, made even more interesting on the Xbox with the addition of voice chatting. It works really well for PSO, negating the need to stop and hammer out a few quick messages to your party. The game flows smoothly and naturally; you'll be offering combat backup and strategic maneuvering advice quickly and efficiently.
And you know that one whiny guy who always begs for items? Well, now you have a voice to match the whiner - and it's most likely that of a squeaky 10 year-old. If you want to go incognito, the voice operations actually allow you to alter your voice into a husky gruff man or a robot's electric hurm.
Like any online community experience, the value and fun is heavily dependent upon who you play with. Some people will incessantly ramble on about inane things, like the size of their Mags or what words are censored out ('Turd' is censored, but 'Poo' isn't, by the way). It's usually friendly and welcoming, and if you find a jerk, you can report him to the powers that be.
In order to play Phantasy Star Online, you must buy a Hunter's License. The first two months are free, and after that, the current monthly rate is set at $8.95. While you don't have to buy a Hunter's License, you must have Xbox Live! in order to even play Phantasy Star Online's single-player mode. Whether this is an anti-cheating measure or a leftover detail from the Japanese release (in Japan, Xbox Live! came packaged with PSO), the fact of the matter is that you need Xbox Live! to play this game.
In terms of value, then, this is a bit of a steep investment. You're looking at the retail cost of the game, plus nine bucks a month to even play it alone. Still, the Xbox version is recommended over the Gamecube version. While both have monthly rates and the Xbox does have the cost of Xbox Live! to figure in, the voice support is crucial to the experience. If you want a keyboard, there's an offer to order a USB adapter for "free." Keep in mind the cost is probably underwritten in the fat $7 shipping and handling rate.
Instead of the Xbox Live! subscription, Gamecube PSO-ers have to track down one of the hard-to-find broadband modems and a keyboard, which have only recently become prevalent in the States. Previously, just to chat with other GC PSO-ers, you had to import an $80-100 controller keyboard hybrid. Thus, many of the people you play against will be keyboard-less and silent.
However, the Gamecube version lets you keep your character long after all online subscriptions have ended. Though the single-player is not particularly thrilling, at least the character can be retained.
Visually, PSO is decent if not exactly groundbreaking. Distance draw problems mar the effort a bit, but by and large the game looks fine. Of course, it look a lot like it did on the Dreamcast so many years ago, which is to say it's a little stale. Most of the music has a certain calm, peacefulness to it; even after hours of play, it still accents the sci-fi adventuring just right.
Phantasy Star is all about the stats, and stat building is not the end all be all of a good game. But when you find a good group to play with, where everyone helps each other out, it becomes an actual adventure. Even though the game mechanics are due for a tune up, the addition of voice and the smooth online experience are enough to make the Xbox version of PSO stand tall as the best one thus far.