Phantasy Star Online Version 2 Preview

We take an in depth look at the next step in the evolution of Sonic Team's online RPG

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Sonic Team's groundbreaking online console RPG for the Dreamcast, Phantasy Star Online, gets an update with the forthcoming Phantasy Star Online Version 2. Like its predecessor, PSO Version 2 will be setting a new precedent in console gaming by requiring gamers to pay for online play--15 dollars for three months of unlimited play. Offering bug fixes, new modes, new game options, new items, and enhanced security against hacking and item duping, PSO Version 2 aims to enhance your PSO gaming experience. Anxiously awaited in the US since its release earlier this year in Japan, PSO Version 2 is finally set to hit the Dreamcast this fall. We got our hands on a 65 percent complete build of the game to see if it's true that good things come to those who wait.

A little help?!

PSO Version 2's charms initially appear to be subtle when you're playing in the game's offline mode. New character colors, smoothed-out animation, and much better item balancing appear to be the most obvious features of the offline mode for those who start out with a new character for the game. However, if you're attached to your character from the original PSO, you'll be able to convert the data over from the original to use in Version 2. Converting a high-level character from PSO to Version 2 will let you access another of Version 2's enhancements: the "ultimate" difficulty setting, which is designed for those who can't bear the thought of starting out at level one again. Assuming you've cleared the game on normal, hard, and very hard and are at least at level 80 or above, when you start a new game, you'll have the option to select ultimate difficulty. A challenge for even the most seasoned PSO player, ultimate difficulty mixes things up a bit with different enemies that move blindingly fast and deal a whole lot of pain, as well as new versions of the various end bosses. To compensate for the new difficulty, PSO Version 2 will let characters be powered up to even higher levels. Characters can now be leveled up to level 200, and the maximum technique level has increased to 30. Force characters, though, will be the only character class that can truly take advantage of the higher technique levels, as they are the only characters able to use techniques discs above level 15. Items like health-restoring monomates and dimates will have greater effects in ultimate difficulty to compensate for the brutal amount of punishment doled out by the enemies.

If you have obsessed over tracking down all the rare equipment in PSO, you should brace yourself for more long nights of hunting, as Version 2 will feature a wider array of gear to track down. New and bizarre weapons, frames, and barriers can all be found in the game and run the gamut from the cool (incredibly powerful guns) to loopy (a bouquet of flowers). New mag cells will be available, too, allowing you to evolve your faithful companions into a variety of forms--including nearly every Sega video game system from Mega Drive to Dreamcast.

While the offline mode in PSO Version 2 is as engaging as its predecessor's, the game truly shines in its online offerings, thanks to some cool new modes. Waiting in the lobby has been spiced up considerably with the addition of Go Go Ball, a soccer game that up to 12 players can participate in. Played in special lobbies, this minigame has you kicking around large balls and attempting to score goals.

Go for the goal

Actual online games now feature more options. You can still play a basic game and play through any of the levels in offline mode with a group of friends. When creating a game this time, you'll find an option that will let you make the game specifically for Version 2 players or open to players of the original PSO as well. Another option will let you select a game type other than normal, so you'll be able to create a battle or challenge game. Battle mode games let you fight each other without the fear of doing any permanent damage to your character. After creating a game, you'll find yourself on Pioneer 2, as in a regular game. The transporter doors will be locked and the civilians will offer bits of info on the mode. When you're ready to fight, you'll go to the main desk at the Hunter's Guild. The game leader will then pick one of four types of battles to engage in. The first type will take place in a brand-new spaceship area and will let you join at your current level with whatever items you're holding. The second type will take place in the other new area in the game, a palace level, and force all players to start at level one with no items. Exploring will yield items to use in combat. Fortunately, this battle type is enemy-free. However, enemies make an appearance in the third type of battle, which takes place in the spaceship area. Each combatant will be at the same level but will not be able to keep any items. The presence of enemies adds a new bit of challenge to the game, as do warp pads, which let you zip around the area. The fourth and final type, set in the palace area, throws you into the battle at equal levels with no items and requires everyone to collect meseta. Battle mode offers a good equalizer by increasing the level of your character every time you return to a game after you're killed. Challenge mode games are also initiated from the Hunter's Guild desk after starting a game. The goal of a challenge mode game is to complete a level within a specified target time. The catch is that all players start at level 1, have a limited number of items, and can die only once.

In addition to enhancements to the core of the game, PSO Version 2 is set to offer some tweaks and refinements to the original PSO. Sonic Team is making a concerted effort to crack down on hacking and item-duping within the game. New warning screens appear to inform you of the consequences of engaging in such activities, which range from temporary to permanent bans from the game. When converting your saved character from the original Phantasy Star, any illegal items will be deleted from your inventory. Experience accumulated over level 100 will be reset to the exact amount of experience needed to reach level 100. You'll also need to input the serial key and access number from the original PSO when converting the data over. However, it should be noted that after your original PSO character data has been transferred over to Version 2, you will not be able to use it with the original game again.

Kill folks and look good while doing it

Other tweaks in Version 2 address issues from the original game. A refined guild card system will now let you sort and search through your cards, which is a handy feature for social players. A tweaked control map now allows you to swap between weapons on the fly instead of switching via the equip menus. A new save method when playing online, which saves to the VMU after visiting shops and the bank when on Pioneer 2, should help lower your amount of item loss. If you're fashion conscious, a costume-changing option will let you change your appearance for a fee.

Featuring graphics as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as those of the original PSO and two new areas (currently accessible only online) that are easily as beautiful as those found in the first game, PSO Version 2 is still a stunning game to behold. The addition of new modes and items should rekindle interest in the PSO universe for those who have logged in countless hours with the original in search of rares and mag cells. After much speculation and drama over the fees to play online, the 15 dollars for three months of unlimited play doesn't look so bad. It's significantly cheaper than the fee for some online PC games, amounting to merely the price of a few magazines or comic books. Those eager to jump into the PSO world again can look for Phantasy Star Online Version 2 when it ships this September.

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