Square Enix fans will finally be able to end their candlelight vigils and take down the online petitions early next year when Final Fantasy XI ships for the PlayStation 2. The game, which has been out in Japan for nearly a year now, is a massively multiplayer online RPG set in a persistent world in the Final Fantasy universe. Final Fantasy XI is something of a landmark title for Square Enix and the PlayStation 2--it marks both the first online effort from Square Enix and the first online entry in the Final Fantasy series. We've been spending some time with the game during its beta-testing phase and are pleased with its progress.
Before you can play the game, you'll need to install the PlayStation 2's hard drive, which is pretty straightforward--you simply unwrap it and slide it into the PlayStation 2's expansion bay. Once the hard drive is in, you'll have to power up your PlayStation 2 and install the utility program on a memory card. The hard drive utility disc also features the latest DVD driver for the PS2. Once the drivers are loaded you'll be able to see the hard drive in the PlayStation 2 browser. Once all that's sorted, you'll have to install the PlayOnline viewer, which is the portal for playing Final Fantasy XI. After that's installed, you'll be able to set up your connection settings (PlayOnline supports dial-up and broadband connections), connect to PlayOnline, and get an account. When all that's squared away, you can install FFXI to the hard drive, which is where the game will be running from, and hop into the game. The whole setup process is straightforward but a bit on the lengthy side. The one thing to note is that Sony of America, which is publishing FFXI in the US, hasn't revealed the exact details on the pricing structure for the game. The PC version requires players to buy a PlayOnline account, which lets them create one character in FFXI. We expect that FFXI on the PS2 will follow a similar structure and have comparable fees, but nothing has been revealed so far.
Once you fire up the game, you'll be in more-familiar territory. Final Fantasy XI takes place in the world of Vana'diel, a magic land with a colorful history. A little over 20 years ago, the people of Vana'diel waged war against the forces of evil to protect the powers of the world's crystal. The war turned out pretty well, and the land remained peaceful for quite some time. However, recent events have brought about the return of evil to Vana'diel. The notable feature of Vana'diel is that, like the gameworlds in many PC online RPGs, it will be persistent, meaning that hundreds of players will be able to interact with one another throughout all the game's areas, even when you yourself are not logged on.
Before you can start exploring the world, however, you'll have to sort out who you want to be. You can choose from several different races: humes, which are equivalent to humans and are the most-balanced race; elvaan, which are equivalent to elves and are usually dark, tall, and skilled in close-ranged combat; and tarutaru, which are a hobbitlike race and are short, small, and skilled in the use of magic. You can choose to be male or female when playing as any one of the aforementioned races, but you aren't given a choice with the other two selectable races, mithra and galka. The mithra are a feline race of skilled hunters who live peacefully alongside the tarutaru. Since, as the game's lore goes, most of the male mithras remain within their own land, you'll usually see only female mithras. As a result, you'll only be able to choose to be a female mithra in the game. Galka, on the other hand, are a strong and tough ogre-sized race. Since their method of breeding involves the decidedly unsexy process of reincarnation, galkas do not have a gender. Once you've chosen your race and sex, you'll be able to customize your physical appearance by tweaking elements such as height, weight, facial features, and hair color.
Once you've settled on a look, you'll have to pick your character's job. Final Fantasy fans will recognize the job system, which was first introduced in Final Fantasy V and later incorporated into Final Fantasy Tactics. You can choose from several different jobs, such as warrior, monk, thief, white magician, black magician, and red magician. You will be able to learn abilities specifically for that job when your character has gained a level. For example, the warrior can learn the "mighty strike" ability, which lets him or her score more critical hits during battles. A black magician, on the other hand, can learn "pool of magic," which lets him or her cast spells without consuming magic points. You can also change your character's job, and doing so over the course of a game lets you acquire the jobs' different abilities. While each race has its own affinities, that doesn't mean a tarutaru is better at being a white magician or an elvaan is a more-suitable warrior. You'll find instead that there are simply slight differences in each race's initial stats, so you can still choose to become an elvaan white magician or a tarutaru warrior. The big differentiation between the characters comes as you gain experience in the game and start switching jobs and taking on support jobs that will enhance your character's range of abilities.
The final choice you'll have to make in the game is what faction you'll choose to represent. Despite the previous years of peace and happiness, Vana'diel is made up of several disparate factions. The Republic of Bastok, home of the humes, is an industrial area known for its production of gold-welded materials and mithril mining. Galkas chill in the southern part of Bastok, where their great strength is in high demand for labor. The Federation of Windurst, the 'hood of the tarutarus, is governed by a council of wise men. The city of Windurst itself was revived after the war with the help of the mithras and has become an institution for the research and development of magic. The Kingdom of San d'oria is the home of the elvaans and has been ruled by the Doragiyu family for generations. Peace and order in the city is maintained by royal chevaliers and temple chevaliers. Choosing a faction is basically an affiliation that will come into play in the game's "conquest mode," which is an ongoing secondary quest. You'll find several areas of unoccupied land--such as Gustaberg, Sarutabaruta, and Ronfaure--located around the main cities of the different factions. As players of the same faction fight and win battles against monsters within these areas, your faction will gain conquest points. These points are tallied on a regular basis, and the faction that has the highest score in that area will "occupy" the land, making it one of its own territories. The benefits, aside from bragging rights, are some tasty prizes.
As far as gameplay goes, FFXI should be a pretty broad departure from the RPG experiences most console gamers are used to. Anyone who's played an MMORPG on the PC, such as EverQuest, should take to the game like a fish to water, but console-centric gamers will likely experience a bit of stunned disorientation from all the freedom available. One of the coolest features is the ability to play with PC FFXI players in addition to PS2 players. You'll be able to roam through the world around your cities and interact with a variety of NPCs. You'll also have access to a number of shops and other locations to spend your hard-earned gil.
As mentioned, you're going to find a great deal of freedom in the game. You'll be able to adventure on your own or with friends, just for the fun of it or to participate in the conquest mode. But, for console gamers looking for structure, you'll find a variety of structured things to do as well. You'll be able to get missions and side quests from various characters in the game, which should help ease those not ready for the game's freedom into a different way of thinking. As far as combat goes, the battle system in Final Fantasy XI will be a departure from the systems in previous games in the series. Unlike in other Final Fantasy games, where you have random encounters with enemies, Final Fantasy XI has enemies that are visible on the field map. Also, the numbers that used to appear over characters to indicate damage sustained or health gained are gone--they have been replaced with a window on the lower part of the screen that displays all the game's statistical information. The game will now also implement a command-based real-time combat system similar to the systems used in EverQuest and Baldur's Gate. To engage in battle, you choose an enemy visible on the field map and select the "fight" command.
The graphics in the game have held up surprisingly well overall, especially when you consider how far back work must have started on them. The worlds are detailed and a bit sparse but feature wide-open spaces and a day-night cycle that alters the look of the world.
The audio in the game is solid overall. You'll hear a strong soundtrack with catchy tunes that suit the locales and actions. The sound effects are pretty good, although they're a bit understated. The enemies and other players all make a variety of grunts that work well enough but don't stand out particularly.
Based on what we've played so far, Final Fantasy XI is coming together pretty well. The game plays pretty well online right now and should be a unique new experience for gamers who have spent the bulk of their time on console RPGs. Square Enix fans should be especially pleased, as the game is currently slated to include the content from the expansion disc that was recently released in Japan. While we've logged in a fair amount of time in the game, there's still quite a bit to it. We'll be checking in over the next few months with more impressions. Final Fantasy XI is currently slated to ship early next year for the PlayStation 2. While exact details on pricing for the game and the hard drive peripheral haven't been revealed, we expect some news soon.