When last year's Final Fantasy X was first released in Japan in July, publisher Square shipped (and sold) about 2 million copies in a single day. Final Fantasy XI, the first-ever online-only Final Fantasy game, was released on May 16 in Japan and shipped (and sold) a mere fraction of that. Requiring an expensive and currently hard-to-find hard drive, an Internet connection, and a monthly surcharge, and optionally a mouse and a keyboard, it's little wonder why Final Fantasy XI hasn't turned on as many gamers as some of its predecessors. As if the requirements for playing the game weren't already steep enough, the servers running Final Fantasy XI were plagued with problems at around launch time, preventing players from getting in and actually playing their new game. And causing Square to waive the monthly fee associated with its new PlayOnline service through June. In short, Final Fantasy XI is a bold experiment that isn't off to a particularly good start as far as the bottom line is concerned. In this respect, it's reminiscent of Square's ambitious 2001 film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within--a commendable undertaking but a commercial flop from the looks of things. Still, Square took a calculated risk with this new product, deliberately leveraging the good name of Final Fantasy to attempt to bring a new type of gaming experience to its legions of fans.
So now that it's finally out, how is it? That's what we're here to tell you.
Recently, Square announced that Final Fantasy XI would find its way to this country in early 2003--and who knows, maybe sooner, considering Final Fantasy X shipped some weeks sooner than expected in this territory. Regardless, we couldn't wait for the game's scheduled release in the United States months from now to begin playing what's by every means a dramatic departure for this famous role-playing series. So, armed with a Japanese PS2, a Japanese PS2 hard drive, a T-1 line, a keyboard, a mouse, and a copy of the game (including a copy of the required PlayOnline software and the 287-page PlayOnline reference guide), we've managed to delve into Final Fantasy XI's world of Vana'diel. And in this, the first of a number of ongoing reports chronicling our progress, we bring you preliminary details and the cold, hard facts on Final Fantasy XI, now that it's done and out there, costing people money.
What we've found is a game that now seems to be running pretty smoothly and bears more than a passing resemblance to previously released massively multiplayer online role-playing games for the PC, such as EverQuest, Anarchy Online, Asheron's Call, and Dark Age of Camelot. The influence of these games on the design of Final Fantasy XI should be unmistakably apparent to anyone who's played any of them, yet Final Fantasy XI does have a unique gameworld, impressive visuals, and a number of original ideas that make it much more than just a clone. Furthermore, fans of Final Fantasy will find that Final Fantasy XI does bear the signature touches that all Final Fantasy games do. Airships, chocobos, and moogles occupy Vana'diel--and that's enough of a reference point to make Final Fantasy fans feel right at home.
But let's back up for a moment. How is it that your PlayStation 2 enables you to play a game as complex as EverQuest in front of your TV set rather than on a PC? The short answer: not very easily. Find out more about that next.
PPPoE is Me
Frankly, we encountered some serious problems trying to get Final Fantasy XI up and running. It's the only PlayStation 2 game to date that requires a hard-core installation process in between taking it out of the disc case and seeing the game itself on your TV screen. Make no mistake, installation procedures are heretofore the stuff of PC gaming, and having to go through something like this with a console game is surprising and also rather frustrating. You're left with plenty of time to wonder about whether or not this game you're trying to get up and running is truly going to be worth the effort.
Granted, a lot of our problems stemmed from the fact that we're trying to play a Japanese game on Japanese servers--but from here in this country. Unless you or someone you know has a decent grasp of Japanese, you stand little chance of actually getting the game working. After all, you need to complete a number of steps and navigate some menus that would be convoluted in any language (though in this case, Japanese). Final Fantasy XI runs entirely off the hard drive--and so does the PlayOnline service, for that matter, so before you can get the former working, you need to install the latter first. Even before that, you need to install a driver to your memory card so that your PS2 recognizes that new hard drive of yours at start-up. This can take a number of minutes, since it hogs up a good chunk of your memory card.
At least you're ready to boot up PlayOnline now. This is Square's online gaming service, and it includes some community features, e-mail, and some games other than Final Fantasy XI, such as a mahjong game and an online version of Tetra Master, the collectible card game seen in the world of Final Fantasy IX. Before you can actually install PlayOnline, you need to log in and set up your account, so you'd best be ready with all your relevant account information and such. Final Fantasy XI currently supports both modem and PPPoE or Ethernet broadband connections. We haven't tried the modem option. Phone bill, you know.
Installing PlayOnline takes a while. It took us more than half an hour, possibly due to a less-than-ideal connection time. Once that was done, we were told to reset the system to begin installation of Final Fantasy XI. This installation in turn took about half an hour, and between PlayOnline and Final Fantasy XI, the two of them eat up a sizeable chunk of Sony's 40GB PS2 hard drive.
You play Final Fantasy XI not by inserting a disc into your PS2 but by booting it up without a disc inserted and then accessing your hard drive (as though it were a memory card) from the browser menu. Then you select the Final Fantasy XI icon of all the data stored on the drive. This was the penultimate of an awkward series of steps before we could actually get in the game--because once we were logged in to the game, the first thing it did was sit tight for another 20 minutes or so, downloading software updates from the game's servers. If other online role-playing games are any indication, then Final Fantasy XI will likely be patched often and patched hard. All told, and notwithstanding numerous difficulties trying to set up our connection, it still took around three hours in between opening the Final Fantasy XI disc case and beginning play.
So was it worth it? Find out about character creation and get our first impressions of the gameplay next.
Beginning Life in Vana'diel
Character creation in Final Fantasy XI is a pretty straightforward process. There are five different character types to choose from: You can play as a male or female hume, essentially humans with well-balanced starting attributes. You can play as a male or female elvaan, which are nimble elflike characters with ears that stick way out. Elvaans are actually physically stronger than humes but aren't as apt in the magical arts. You can also play as a male or female tarutaru, tiny doll-like characters who make the best magicians in the game but are obviously lacking in strength. There's also the mithra, a female-only race of cat people, which is the most dexterous of all the starting races and thus make the best thieves. And then there's the galka, a male-only race of hulking ogrelike creatures with tails. One look at these guys and you know they're plenty strong.
You can choose from a number of different faces and hair colors for each of the races, and as you decide, you'll see a real-time animation of one of the characters of that race, basically just lounging around. Each character type has his or her own theme, and interestingly, the female characters (except the tarutaru) can all be seen cavorting around, more like runway models than like adventurers.
You can name your character or have the game generate a random name for you, and you can also choose a starting profession, including warrior, monk, thief, white mage, black mage, and red mage. Fans of the Final Fantasy series should be well familiar with all these classes, and the entire job system in the game is reminiscent of that seen in Final Fantasy V as well as Final Fantasy Tactics. Whichever starting job you choose influences your character's core attributes and determines which sort of role you'll play on the battlefield, whether on the front lines dishing out damage or hanging back healing your comrades. The interesting, even innovative, thing about the job system is that you're not locked down to the particular job you choose--as in Final Fantasy V or Final Fantasy Tactics, when you play Final Fantasy XI, you'll have the option to change jobs and thus fundamentally change the type of character you're playing as.
There are also numerous other higher-level jobs that will become available as you gain experience, similar to the system seen in Dark Age of Camelot--jobs such as beast master, paladin, and dark knight.
Final Fantasy XI, like any Final Fantasy game or pretty much any massively multiplayer RPG, is fundamentally about working together in teams. Though some characters can effectively fight solo, especially at first, eventually you'll wish to befriend other characters, join up, and head out into the wilderness to explore, gain experience, and grow in power. Presumably, all the jobs were designed to support one another on the battlefield. A black mage and his destructive magic can be a force to be reckoned with, but especially so if he's got a warrior and a monk standing between him and his foes.
Of course, you don't just start fighting as soon as you enter into the world of Vana'diel. Actually, you currently have the option of choosing to begin in one of three starting cities. Each of these is a sprawling metropolis, filled with plenty of nonplayer characters and lots of room to walk around and socialize, as well as the typical amenities you'd expect from a Final Fantasy town. In our expedition, we noted a chocobo, an airship, and a moogle, among other things. We actually found these towns to be rather devoid of activity, each in turn. (Granted, we've been playing during off-peak hours.) We'd spot other players running about, but rarely did we see more than a few players around simultaneously. This gave city life a rather desolate feel, making us eager to get out of town and start fighting monsters--which seemed like a rather more exciting course of action than just running about city streets, trying to get used to controlling our character using just the left analog stick.
It wasn't long before we found the action we were looking for.
Taking Care of Beeswax
The influence of other online RPGs on Final Fantasy XI becomes most apparent when you engage in battle. Outside of town, you come across what are just like EverQuest's "newbie zones," frontier lands filled with wimpy monsters wandering around, just waiting for you to pound on them. Our character, a female hume monk named Esme, decided to get her hands dirty by taking on one of the many huge hornets buzzing about near town. To initiate combat, you just select a target and then select the "auto attack" option. Then your character and the opponent will exchange blows until one of you is dead. During combat, you can initiate any special attacks you have available, but as a newbie character, you'll have few, if any, of these to speak of.
The combat certainly looks good. Your view locks on the target, and you can adjust the camera angle for a more dynamic perspective. Your character assumes a fighting stance, and each time you hit, you'll hear a resounding thwack. Sometimes you'll hear your character utter a combat kiap. You'll also occasionally score critical hits, doling out even more damage than usual. Final Fantasy XI uses a skill-based system, meaning each time you do something, like throw a punch or swing a sword, you get slightly better at that ability. You also gain experience from defeating foes, and gaining levels gives you more hit points, making you able to take on more enemies. Early on, you can easily recover lost hit points by resting. Later, you'll probably require the services of a white mage for quick recuperation.
We'll be honest--most of our time with Final Fantasy XI thus far has been spent punching stuff to death. We've gone up a couple of levels, eager to fight something besides the same old hornets, worms, and bats. We haven't gone out of our way to socialize, partly because there aren't a lot of people around to socialize with, but also because solitary monks like us need no company. At least not yet.
To veterans of other online role-playing games: The experience of starting off playing Final Fantasy XI seems both very familiar yet also quite new. Certainly, the Final Fantasy name and the choice references to the series help make this game seem awfully exciting for dedicated series fans. Yet for those seeking the next big thing in online role-playing, it isn't obvious at first as to what Final Fantasy XI has that other currently available online RPGs don't, save for its good looks and its nice soundtrack. We hope this first look at Final Fantasy XI has given you a taste for what it's like to be playing this decidedly unusual PlayStation 2 game. And soon, as our monk grows in power, we'll fill you in on plenty more details about the job system, the world of Vana'diel, and how party-based combat actually plays out. Stay tuned.