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
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.
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.
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.