When it was released earlier this year, Phantasy Star Online offered a console gaming experience that was unlike anything that had come before. While there were definitely some weak aspects to the game, most notably its camera, story, and single-player offline mode, they were overshadowed by its strengths. The ambitious game offered online play for up to four players, a groundbreaking multilingual chat system, the Phantasy Star name, and some of the best graphics seen on the Dreamcast. Now, less than a year after PSO's release, Yuji Naka and Sonic Team follow up on the original PSO with Phantasy Star Online Version 2. PSO Version 2 retains PSO's core gameplay and enhances it with gameplay tweaks and extra modes. Rather than a true sequel, the game is more of an expansion of the original game that is ultimately a more polished product.
For those familiar with Phantasy Star Online, PSO Version 2 will offer no major surprises with its graphics. The game offers the same caliber of graphics from the original game, albeit with a few tweaks here and there to help performance--such as modifying certain animations and being more selective about what is displayed on the horizon. The new areas that players find themselves in during multiplayer games, the ruins and the spaceship, match the quality of those found in the original game. Character creation now offers the extra costumes that could be unlocked in the original PSO by inputting a character specific code. Additionally, veteran PSO players will be able to import their characters over for use in Version 2.
The core gameplay in PSO Version 2 remains largely the same as that found in PSO, with some tweaks and additions. In offline mode, you'll find the game is more balanced, providing meseta and useful items regularly. A new batch of rare items and mags have been added to the game. The improved balance makes leveling up to the new character max of 200 a much smoother process. A new ultimate difficulty mode, open to characters level 80 and above, is available once you clear the very hard mode. However, taking on ultimate mode solo is tantamount to suicide. The remixed versions of the enemies and bosses are brutal, and the enemies are especially dangerous, as they move like lightning and travel in packs.
The bulk of PSO Version 2's additions can be found in the game's online mode in the form of new multiplayer games. Given the popularity of interacting with other players online in the original game, Sonic Team has cooked up some choice new ways play with friends online. Special lobbies will let you play a rousing game of soccer with up to 12 friends and will have you hitting a massive ball around a field and into a goal. In the actual game, you'll have a few extra options now when making an online game. You'll be able to make a game open to all PSO players or specific to just Version 2 players. In addition, you can now change the game type to battle or challenge for a change of pace. Battle offers four deathmatch variations for you on which to duke it out, while challenge requires you to clear a level within a set time. All functionality from the original game, online quests and downloadable quests to play in offline mode, remains as well, offering a lot to do online.
You'll also notice a few new tweaks in the online mode, which are aimed at preventing item loss and hacking. When playing online, the game saves to your VMU when you visit shops and transport to and from Pioneer 1 to help reduce loss during crashes. The constant saving should let you restore your game from a crash without losing as many items as you did in the original PSO after being visited by the "black screen of death" or the specter of disconnection. Sega is also claiming that hackers will be kept on the straight and narrow thanks to the game's detection of hacked items. Illegal items are automatically deleted when PSO data is imported to Version 2, meaning some gamers may be traveling rather light if they try to bring over duped items. Warning messages before you log on even warn of potential banning from the PSO servers if you engage in "illegal" activity.
PSO Version 2's online play also breaks dubious new ground thanks to its "pay to play" structure that requires you to buy a "hunter's license" that's good for three months of gaming before you can play online. Averaging out to roughly $5 a month, the $15 charge is reasonable, although some console gamers may find it a bit jarring given that the original was and will remain free. To complicate matters, once character data from the original PSO has been converted for use with Version 2, you won't be able to play online with that character in the original game. While Version 2's offline single-player game is still playable and does offer a lot to discover, the game is sorely lacking without online play.
As the Dreamcast fades out of the gaming market, quality games will be few and far between. With its better balance, new features, and addictive gameplay, PSO Version 2 stands out as one of the last great games for the system. While the pay-to-play structure requires a bit more dedication from you to get online, it offers enough rewards to make it worth it checking out.