Final Fantasy XI Chronicles, Part 2

We've been keeping up with Final Fantasy XI since its May 2001 release in Japan. In our follow-up hands-on account of this online game, learn more about the job system, Chocobos, social interaction, and more.

A lot can happen to the world in just a few short months. Just ask the developers of Final Fantasy XI, who've clearly been working hard to enhance the world of Square's first massively multiplayer online role-playing game since its debut in May. The first game in the extremely popular RPG series to be playable exclusively online, Final Fantasy XI got off to a shaky start when it was first released weeks ago in Japan. Limited availability of the required hard drive peripheral and the necessity for monthly surcharges and an Internet connection all ensured that Final Fantasy XI would never be the blockbuster success that many of its predecessors instantly became. Furthermore, the launch of Final Fantasy XI was plagued with problems, as those who did buy the game would often find themselves unable to log in and play something that, in effect, they were constantly paying for. The good news is that the shaky launch is over, and Square has learned a lot since then.

The world of Final Fantasy XI is starting to fill up.

Even now, as the PlayStation 2 version of the game begins to mature, Square is readying a PC version for release in Japan--a limited beta test of the PC version started in mid-June. If you've read our 2870303previous hands-on account of the game , you know that Final Fantasy XI--though it has an unmistakably "Final Fantasy" style to it--is reminiscent of existing MMORPGs such as EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot. Like those games, Final Fantasy XI is about exploring a vast, open-ended world filled with danger and battling its many foes either alone or in groups, all to gain experience points, hone your character's abilities, get your hands on better equipment, and generally move up in the world. Starting off, you can create a character by choosing from a number of different races and jobs (character classes in Final Fantasy XI). One of the best twists is that characters can change jobs--you're not stuck in the role you choose at the very beginning of your character's life. Later you can specialize your character by performing quests to earn advanced jobs and can even take on a secondary job to bolster your primary abilities.

The wilderness is vast and dangerous--better head out with some friends.

All this is easier said than done. We've been playing Final Fantasy XI since its release in Japan, and we're here to tell you straight-up that it's the most time-consuming Final Fantasy game to date. Remember taking 40 hours to play through Final Fantasy X? That's nothing. Square wants you for the long run this time--so make yourself at home in the world of Vana'diel. Though perhaps somewhat less demanding than the PC online RPGs that inspired it, Final Fantasy XI is still by all means the sort of game that you need to commit to and invest in. Right off the bat, you'll need all that extra hardware, ideally including a mouse and a keyboard. Also, as time wears on as you play Final Fantasy XI, same as us, you'll realize that it really isn't an event-driven game like any of its predecessors. The surprising plot twists and expressive characters from previous Final Fantasy games are replaced here by what can at times be an arduous process: fighting monsters out in the wilderness with other players looking to do the same. Don't expect deep personal motivations from the people you meet in Final Fantasy XI--they're just trying to level up, like you.

For what it's worth, the game has undergone some significant changes since its release. Like with many previous online RPGs, Square has seen fit to continuously refine the game over the weeks, adding in new content in the form of new nonplayer characters, new items, new graphics, and more. Similarly, the online nature of the game has permitted--or rather required--Square to quickly resolve any gameplay issues that have come up. And you'd best believe some issues have come up all right.

Saving the World

Judging by the design of Final Fantasy XI, it's apparent that the developers thoroughly researched other successful online RPGs, borrowing those games' most successful, most addictive elements for their own product. The developers shouldn't have been too surprised, then, when they found that some players had quickly discovered ways of exploiting their game. In what's decidedly a testament to how resourceful gamers truly can be, every single online RPG to date has been subject to player-found exploits, cheats, and hacks--no matter how hard the developers might have tried to anticipate such potential problems.

Dozens of players can be seen standing about town, chatting and trading.

In the case of Final Fantasy XI, one way that Square avoided many potential problems was to exclude any sort of player-vs.-player component from the game. In some online RPGs, player-killing has often come up as a serious problem. In others, it's a truly thrilling element that's an integral part of the game. More-recent online RPGs such as Dark Age of Camelot have introduced innovative ways of pitting players against one another in a proper context, to accentuate the fun of taking on human opponents without punishing players too much for falling victim to each other. Specifically, Dark Age of Camelot pits players from different cultural realms against one another, and such a context would have been appropriate for Final Fantasy XI, where players start out in one of three totally different cities, far away from each other. Why not let them duke it out in the name of their kingdom once they're powerful enough? Yet, for better or worse, in Final Fantasy XI the worst thing you can do to another player is to say a few harsh words and maybe use a few of the angry-looking social animations to mark your displeasure.

So you can't get away with murder, but reportedly some players have gotten away with finding ways of generating ridiculous amounts of money, with which they quickly bought up all the game's best gear and thus undermined the game's carefully contrived economy. Much like in the real world, access to unlimited wealth in the world of Vana'diel grants seemingly limitless possibilities to the player--possibilities that perhaps shouldn't be available to someone whose money was ill gotten.

Like in any Final Fantasy game, a lot of time is spent doing battle in FFXI.

Some players have also discovered certain areas of the world where they can engage in combat against enemies that cannot retaliate against them. These unfair fights translate into free, unlimited experience points--again, something that can allow the players who know of these exploits to become far more powerful much more quickly than typical players. In a precedent set by many previous online RPGs, Square has announced to the Final Fantasy XI community that anyone caught using such exploits may be banned from the game--a temporary solution to something that will likely be fixed for good.

This isn't to suggest that Final Fantasy XI is a world full of cheaters and schemers. As a matter of fact, looking around Vana'diel, it now appears more populous than before, and many players now seem very comfortable in the land. Many can be seen riding atop chocobos, the fast-running chickenlike steeds seen in every Final Fantasy game. Available for purchase once players reach a sufficiently high level, chocobos allow for fast, safe travel. Many players have also taken on some of the advanced jobs, such as the paladin, the dark knight, and the bard. These specialty classes do much to make the combat in Final Fantasy XI more complex at higher levels, compared with the relatively simple affair that it is when you're just starting out.

Final Fantasy XI is scheduled for release early next year for the PlayStation 2. Whether the PC version will be released stateside is still unconfirmed, though chances look good. At any rate, this seems like a long time to wait for something that's already available in parts of the world. But it's been said about most online RPGs to date that they're not really worth playing until a year or so after their release, which is when they finally are ready for prime time. That may well be true of Final Fantasy XI, a game that's clearly getting better with age and that will likely be off to a much better start when it finally shows up in this country, compared to when it first appeared in Japan.

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