First released in Japan for the PlayStation 2, Final Fantasy XI has now hit North American shores for the PC. Unlike the PS2 version, which was the first game of its kind on the console, Final Fantasy XI for the PC arrives amidst fierce competition from games like EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies, and Dark Age of Camelot. Will the "Final Fantasy" brand name help distinguish this online RPG from all the others out there? Yes, actually, it will. However, the real question is whether Final Fantasy XI offers compelling gameplay that can't already be found in other, similar games. We'll have the answer to that question in our full review, which will be posted in the coming days.
For now, we can state that Final Fantasy XI doesn't give a good first impression. The game requires six gigabytes of hard drive space for installation, and the process of installing--first the "PlayOnline" software from one CD-ROM, followed by Final Fantasy XI on three CD-ROMs, followed by the included Rise of the Zilart expansion pack on a fifth CD-ROM--takes roughly half an hour. On a fast system. Subsequently, registration via the PlayOnline software felt quite cumbersome and was functionally identical to the PlayStation 2 version of the game. We needed to enter our personal information, including our credit card info, as expected. Then, however, we needed to enter no fewer than three different registration keys--one for the PlayOnline service, one for Final Fantasy XI, and one for the expansion pack. PlayOnline automatically generates an account name when you register, and you need to manually write this nonsensical string of letters and numbers down--and keep it handy--because you won't be able to log in without it. Simply put, it's a convoluted, time-consuming process to actually get into the game, especially for the first time.
Also, Final Fantasy XI only allows you to create a single character, by default, though for a small additional fee you may create more. Another strange design decision is that you cannot choose which server to play on; you're automatically assigned to one. So if you wanted to play the game with a friend, there would be no guarantee--initially--that you could meet up in-game. However, you can later purchase an item called a "world pass" if you wanted to meet up with a friend online. This system is decidedly different from that of other online RPGs.
The most surprising aspect of Final Fantasy XI came prior to us even making our first character, though. The game's automatic patching utility needed to update more than 7,000 game files, a process which took more than 30 additional minutes of time, and that's with a very high-speed Internet connection. Though the system requirements suggest that a 56K modem is sufficient for playing the game, clearly, the amount of time it would take to download all these updates would be completely prohibitive for narrowband users.
The game itself is a little easier to swallow than the installation and registration process. Character creation is a straightforward matter of choosing from the game's assortment of character races, selecting one of several different faces for your character, and then giving him or her a name and starting profession. Then, you may choose from one of three starting cities.
The actual game seems to be up and running just fine. While we found the city of Bastok to be rather sparsely populated with players, at this time, the gameplay didn't suffer from any lag, and, visually, the game looks quite good. Character models look detailed when viewed up close, and the environments suitably fit the fantasy theme. Transitions from area to area are not seamless; the screen fades to black for a number of seconds as you transition from one main area to the next.
We, of course, made a beeline for the city gates. "Beeline" is appropriate, since, upon exiting the premises, we proceeded to get into scuffles with our monk character, who began gaining experience by punching giant bees (technically, "huge hornets") to death.
Final Fantasy XI of course has some nuances of its own, but the core gameplay, as with most other online RPGs, does heavily revolve around relatively slow-paced, somewhat passive combat. It's viable to fight solo at first, but as with other online RPGs, this game encourages you to join forces with other players, so that, collectively, you can beat up bigger monsters and gain more experience points.
Admittedly, we've barely scratched the surface of Final Fantasy XI--no thanks to the byzantine startup process. Stay tuned for our full review in the coming days, and look for media updates between now and then. As mentioned, the North American PC version of the game is in stores now, and a PlayStation 2 is on its way early next year, and will be bundled with Sony's PlayStation 2 hard drive.