In the history of electronic RPGs, one series has stood apart from the rest in terms of quality, popularity and financial success: Final Fantasy. The name comes from (legend has it) the concerns of the series developer, Squaresoft, who fretted that they were spending so much money on the game that if they didn't make it back, it really would be the final fantasy. Since that first title, they haven't had to worry about a FF not selling like hotcakes - until now, eleven games later. This is the first online game in the series, and the first numbered Final Fantasy to represent a major departure. Fans have been very critical of the series in the past and bought up the games anyway, but will they this time?
This eleventh installment is visually amazing. The areas are detailed to perfection, with backgrounds projecting unique character and history. The character renders are the most lifelike I've seen in an RPG, and chocobos have never looked better. The game supposedly lacks its predecessor's fine polish, but you wouldn't know it from the screenshots. The music is also on par with what we've come to expect for the series, although there are less tracks in the game than normal. This is a bit disappointing, because some areas of the game are without music.
In creating a character to venture out in this massively multiplayer world, players will have a choice of five races: Humes (humans, y'all know these guys); Elvaans (tall sword wielding elves); Tarutarus (little magic using mini-elves); Mithra, matriarchal anti-technology folk and finally the ogrish Golka. The race you choose determines where your character is from, and territory matters in this game. In regards to your character's skills, FFXI employs the old Job System seen in previous Fantasies. Jobs range from Warrior to Red Mage to Paladin to Bard. If you can't make up your mind, that's fine, jobs can be switched as you go.
Battles will also be handled differently. Enemies can be seen on the field, and battle begins when you walk into one. The common MMORPG "auto-attack" is used here, so your character will keep whacking the enemy until you give him/her an alternate command. Casting spells can be a bit chancy; if an enemy hits you while you're chanting, the spell may cancel. All very well, but it's after the battle, when experience is collected, that the trouble occurs. The amount of experience you receive depends upon your level versus your opponents, and thus it's difficult to get a decent amount of experience from an enemy. The problem is also present in party battles, since the highest level in the party is used to calculate the experience gained.
It's a shame about that latter point, because FFXI has a shot at claiming the throne that all MMORPGs aspire to: the game that makes the best use out of co-operative play. First of all, FFXI allows up to six characters in a party, and three parties can team up for major melees. That's 18 guys in a battle. What's more, there are various underhanded tricks Square employs to get you curmudgeons out there into the world. For instance, the ridiculous prices of items force players to use the bartering system with one-another. Also, there is no player killing whatsoever.
If player killing is how you get your kicks in MMORPGs, here's your chance to expand your horizons. The world of Vana'diel is enormous, with hundreds of NPC's occupying the towns. You can go fishing, join guilds, cook meals, watch the sun rise, read the Vana'diel Tribune and gain battle points. Every week the battle points in the region are tallied, and the country that gets the most earns some prizes.
As you can see, you can spend a whole lot of time on this game. Before you do that, however, you're going to have to spend a whole lot of money. Besides the cost of the game itself, gamers will have to pay a monthly fee with additional charges tacked on for every extra character. Then there's the PS2 hard drive, which Sony has been very hesitant to release in North America. It's a costly add-on, which is something that hasn't gotten much support over here in the past. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this entire game, however, is the fact that players can't choose which server they log on to. Nor is it possible to switch servers after a character has been logged on. What this means is that it's difficult to meet up with friends -- which really takes away from any multiplayer experience.
Throughout this preview I've compared FFXI to its predecessors, and that's not fair. Final Fantasy XI is its own game, and may wind up having a completely different fan base from the rest of the series. Whoever winds up playing this game though will certainly be playing it for a long time to come -- and not merely to justify the price of the hard drive to themselves, either.