The world of online RPGs is a congested one these days. Just about every studio you can name is working on an MMORPG of some sort, making it very difficult for any particular game to make its mark in the mainstream. It's amid this hive of activity that Sega has quietly released the US version of Phantasy Star Online: Blue Burst. How does the game fare in an already overcrowded market? The core of PSO:BB isn't too different from the original PSO which first appeared on the Dreamcast 5 years ago. The game's basic premise is that the denizens of the planet Coral have had to flee their world due to an nvironmental catastrophe. They search for and locate the seemingy-ideal world of Ragol, and a ship (Pioneer 1) is dispatched there with a group of settlers. However, when Pioneer 2, containing far more people than the first ship, arrives seven years later, a mysterious explosion shakes the planet - and now it's up to the Hunters of Pioneer 2 to explore the strange world of Ragol and piece together what happened. As any decent online RPG would, PSO lets you have some control over how your character looks. You first pick a character archetype from a given set of 12, which are formed by mixing and matching the game's three races Human, Newman and Android) with the three main classes (Hunter, Ranger and Force). For instance, you could choose to make a HUmar, a human Hunter, for a balanced type of character, or a RAcast, an android Ranger which can melee quite well, or a FOnewearl, a newman Force that excels at both support and attack spells. Each class has its own benefits and drawbacks, and there are some race-specific abilities you can get with certain classes - for instance, newmen can regenerate TP (technique points, used to cast techniques or spells) and androids are immune to poison. PSO also lets you customise your character to a decent extent, by selecting things like face type, skin colour, outfit colour, hairstyle and the like. There's a decent variety, but it definitely pales in comparision to the level of customisation offered by other online games like City of Heroes. After you've made your character, you can team up with up to three other players in an instanced version of the game world to battle hordes of enemies, collect rare items and level up. The formula is pretty simple, but incredibly addictive, as there is a fair amount of strategy that goes into the battle system. In addition, the game gets very challenging on the later difficulties. There are 4 difficulty levels and 3 "Episodes," (I, II and IV, Episode III being the GC-exclusive PSO C.A.R.D. Revolution) each with different areas and monsters. You unlock the next difficulty level for a given Episode by beating "Government quests," which is obviously a nod to the trend towards questing in modern MMORPGs. The problem is that PSO:BB's government quests pretty much have you clearing out the same areas repeatedly without much NPC interaction or real motivation. Some quests are timed, and others require you to find certain objects, but this hardly serves to resolve the monotony. The government quests in the PC-exclusive episode IV, however, are much more interesting and challenging to play (although the end result is rather anticlimatic), and actually involve some NPC interaction and puzzle-solving, so it's a shame that the same amount of care wasn't put into crafting the quests for Episodes I and II. You can also partake of optional "Side Story" quests from the Hunter's Guild, which can be more interesting than anything that the Government quests have to offer. There are also special online quests that can be done with your teammates, including some seasonal and novelty quests. The actual combat is largely unchanged since the Dreamcast version of the game. Each class has access to a variety of weapons (although some weapons are only usable by certain classes), each with a weak and strong attack. Some weapons also possess special attacks, which have effects such as causing elemental damage or status effects. These attacks can be chained to form 3-attack combos, which form the basis of the combat system. Positioning and teamwork also play a critical role in combat, especially on the higher difficulty levels. You can play PSO single-player, but you'd be missing the point of the game, as well as a lot of the fun that goes with it. The combat system is simple enough for a newbie to pick up, but it's quite addictive and can provide hours upon hours of fun. To this date, there are very few games that have been able to provide such satisfying hack-and-slash (or hack-and-shoot) gameplay as PSO. However, the game stumbles a little in terms of how these mechanics were ported to the PC. The console versions of PSO used an "action palette," which mapped various actions to the four buttons of your controller, while letting you access a secondary palette by holding down a trigger button. This decision made sense when you were limited to the 10 or so buttons that a standard console control pad offered. However, it makes NO sense on the PC where a gamer has a mouse and over 100 keys at his/her disposal. PSO:BB still uses this archaic system which can be rather frustrating, especially since certain commands override any commands you might have already mapped to those buttons. For instance, to pick up items, you press your middle palette button, overriding anything you might have mapped there, like an attack. This makes no sense whatsoever given the much more flexible control offered by the PC platform. In addition, when your Mag (a helper machine that you can raise to your specifications) acquires a Photon Blast (kind of like a super move), the blast overrides your secondary action palette, which again makes no sense given the numerous alternative key mappings at your disposal. The game tries to make up for this by offering 10 additional customisable hotkeys, which are much-appreciated but don't address the deeper issues with the controls. The game also lets you choose between gamepad, mouse and keyboard controls, but most people will undoubtedly opt for a gamepad since the mouse controls are awfully unwieldy and imprecise, and the keyboard controls tend to be rather stiff. Graphically, the game has been improved for the PC, although not by much. You now have access to higher resolutions and features like full-screen antialiasing, which naturally make the game a lot prettier on today's high-powered graphics cards. However, the graphical quality is inconsistent from area to area. The Episode I content dates all the way back to theDreamcast, and it really shows. The level layouts are quite uniform and bland, and the graphical quality isn't quite up to par with what one might expect from a 2005 game. Episode II and IV don't suffer from this problem so much, since they were developed for more recent systems, and have much more organic and interesting level layouts, as well as some nice graphical effects like reflection and water refraction. The character and enemy models, however, are all still relatively low-polygon, which is rather a shame, especially in the light of Sega's other remakes of old Dreamcast titles such as Sonic Adventure DX, which feature higher-polygon models. Another problem is that the game itself hasn't really been optimised that well from the XBox, and it lags even on high-end systems. There's no reason why a decent PC should run Half-Life 2 at 60 frames per second and then choke on a game like PSO:BB...it's pretty much just shoddy coding. In addition, while each area does have its own signature enemies, in a lot of cases the enemies use AI patterns recycled from other enemies. This is especially disappointing in Episode IV, where about the half of the newly-created enemies mostly use AI and attack patterns/animations recycled from Episode I monsters. Episode II fares the best in this regard, but the first half of this episode uses enemies recycled wholesale from Episode I. The main challenge of the game derives not from the AI of the monsters, but from how overpowered they can get on later difficulties, firing spells that kill you in one hit or moving twice as fast as you do. While admittedly this is a fairly standard feature of hack-and-slash games, seeing more variety in the way monsters attack and move would have been nice. The sound is largely what you'd expect from a game like this. The sound effects are largely unobtrusive and suitable for what they're supposed to represent. There's still no voice acting of any kind, which is understandable given the game's emphasis on multiplayer combat over single player action. The music is decently-produced, with some tracks dating back all the way to the first version of PSO on the Dreamcast. There are a few standout tracks, most notably the boss battle background music, but some tracks tend to grate on one's nerves (especially the BGM for areas such as the caves and the mines). In any case, if it annoys you it can be turned off fairly easily. Sega isn't exactly blind to the game's flaws, and as a result, PSO:BB is a free download from their website, and it only costs $8.99 per month to play, as opposed to the more common fee of $13-$15 charged by more mainstream online RPGs like Ragnarok Online and World of Warcraft, making it good value for money. The game also has a small but tightly-knit community that's been around since the Dreamcast days, meaning that you should be able to find people to play with fairly easily. However, Sega's service has been spotty at best - there are a number of bugs that have yet to be patched, and hackers and dupers still have relatively free rein. The developers appear to be relying on players to report these people, but all too often, a person is reported and nothing happens. There isn't much of a GM presence in the game either, with only 1 or 2 GMs policing all of the game's 8 servers. Arguably this is because the game's community is so small, but one can't help but feel that players are being neglected, sometimes. PSO:BB isn't a bad game (quite the opposite - it's still wickedly fun), but the port to PC suffers from a number of problems that are quite frankly inexcusable for a port to a supposedly superior platform. Fans of action RPGs as well as the original PSO can derive a good amount of fun from this 5-year old gem, but it's hard to see how it could appeal to more seasoned MMORPG players with its inconsistent graphics, lack of enemy variety and unintuitive control scheme.
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