Well it certainly took them long enough, but Sega and Sonic Team have finally released a proper sequel to one of the first online console games, Phantasy Star Online. Released on the Dreamcast back in 2001, PSO was an action-focused role-playing game that allowed four players to join over a dial-up connection and stomp through dungeons with guns and swords blazing. It was popular because it was simple to understand but contained some real depth by offering a lot of weird, rare items that had players replaying the same four worlds over and over again with the hope that they'd find something crazy. It was also popular because it was free to play online. Updates were released that never really caught on because they were marginal updates that didn't really bring much to the game. They also never caught on because Sega started charging a monthly fee to play the game. Phantasy Star Universe is a proper, built-from-the-ground-up sequel to PSO--at least as far as its gameplay is concerned. It has evolved a fair amount, but not to the extent that you'd call it a modern game. Plus, the online isn't massively multiplayer in any sense of the word and comes with a $9.99 per month fee. Fans of PSO will probably like it, but parts of it feel so ancient that it's difficult to recommend to anyone else.
Regardless of how you play the game, Phantasy Star Universe is very straightforward. You set up missions on a satellite space station or one of three planets in the area, which really changes how the game looks and what creatures you'll face. The action remains the same: The game puts things in front of you, and you need to kill those things with one of your many weapons. When you wipe out every monster in an area, a keycard usually drops to let you open a locked gate and move on to the next room. And in that room, you'll shoot or stab even more creatures. This all usually ends with some sort of conflict with a larger boss monster, but none of the bosses in the game are very difficult to fight. Everything unfolds in real time. In fact, there's actually no way to pause the game, so you'll have to be careful about when you want to access your inventory. But the game gives you quick access to six items and six sets of equipped weapons, so switching on the fly or using items to heal yourself doesn't take much effort at all.
There are multiple types of weapons in the game, but the basic distinction is between guns, things that stab, and wands or rods. Some of these items only require one hand to use, which lets you keep one hand free for a pistol. You can hold down a button to switch between your main hand and off-hand weapons, which lets you shoot things as you close in on them and finish them off with a few swipes of your sword. But some weapon sets are two-handed, such as large, Final Fantasy-like swords, dual one-handed swords, dual daggers, dual pistols, shotguns, and larger rifles. Unlike Phantasy Star Online, each weapon doesn't have a light and heavy attack, so you won't just be limited to throwing out shots from guns three at a time. Instead, you can purchase special items called photon arts and attach them to your weapons. For things like the one-handed sword, you earn a more powerful attack that can stagger or knock down an enemy, opening him up for some free hits. For guns, you can purchase different elemental affinities. Ideally you'd like the element to run counter to the type of enemy you're facing: fire creatures don't like ice, light creatures don't like dark, and so on. But there's also a chance that fire bullets will set creatures ablaze, which will do extra damage over time. Ice shots can freeze, light shots can confuse, and so on. Spells are attached to rods, which can deal out damage or heal you and your associates. The catch is that all of these photon arts drain the photon energy in your weapon, and it only recharges automatically when you have it equipped. You can use items to replenish your supply more quickly. For example, most of the guns charge back up pretty quickly. So you'll usually have your special attacks at your disposal, but not so much that you can just abuse them constantly. And, not every character is able to use every single weapon.
The three character classes all have different specialties. The hunter gets all the good melee weaponry, the ranger is the best with guns, and the force can use the game's best spell, technics. In addition to your character's level, you also level up in your current character class by completing missions, which gets you access to higher ranked weapons in that class. If you want to switch things around, you can change classes at any time. You'll keep your current class level, but you'll lose the benefits of that class until you change back. The game's different races also have different stats that make them better suited for one class or another. Humans are the well-rounded class that can do it all, but they don't necessarily excel at anything. Newmans have pointy ears and are best suited for the force class. Casts are the game's robots, and all that robotic brain stuff makes them good at shooting things. And beasts are your up-close-and-dirty melee class, receiving a bonus nanoblast attack at later levels.
The creatures you face in PSU aren't very bright, but at least they move a lot faster than PSO's lumbering foes. Throughout the course of the game, you'll fight weird alien penguin-looking things, small dragons, infected indigenous beasts, ancient relics that have come to life, and a multitude of different robots and other angry machinery. The bosses in the game include larger, more devious monsters, such as dragons, two-headed dragons, robots, and so on. And most of their attack patterns are extremely predictable. Dodging enemy attacks is usually as simple as getting out of the way, but you can usually interrupt enemies because many of them wind up for a second or two before they attack. A couple of well-placed hits will usually knock them out of their attack animation. So you'll be able to take on more and more groups of tougher enemies all by yourself as you get better and better at facing foes and avoiding damage. During the early parts of the game, this will make playing the online game by yourself a viable, if lonely, tactic.
There's a single-player story mode in Phantasy Star Universe that's broken up into 12 chapters and will last somewhere around 20 hours. In this mode, you're forced to play as 17-year-old, hoverboard-lover, Ethan Waber. Ethan hates authority until someone from the local security force, the Guardians, helps him save his sister during an attack on the satellite colony where they live. The attackers are a crazy alien infection known as the SEED, and their attacks on the satellite and the three planets around it are increasing. Imbued with a newfound sense of justice, Ethan joins the Guardians, quickly meets some sort of love interest and eventually saves the world. The single-player is really a love-it-or-hate-it sort of thing because, in many ways, the game is structured and presented like your average anime series. Each of the 12 chapters starts out with an animated FMV intro that is the same every time, just like a TV show. Each chapter tends to resolve some sort of mission or conflict at its conclusion and ends with another FMV that could just as easily serve as the end credits because it shows each character that was involved in that chapter. To top things off, they give you a cliff-hanger by showing you some bits of the next chapter, complete with an announcer who says "coming up next on Phantasy Star Universe." The anime trappings of its presentation are pervasive, right down to the game's hokey voice acting. Some people are going to get way into that, and the way each chapter ends with a look at what's ahead is good at keeping you engaged and interested in what's going to happen next. But if you can't get behind the way the story rolls out, you're really going to hate it. Although the story mode is easy enough for you to try beating it without dying once, it certainly doesn't help that the computer-controlled characters you team up with offline are totally ineffective.
The 360 version's achievement points are all locked up in the single-player game, where you'll earn points for beating specific bosses. You'll never have to go out of your way to get them, and for beating the game's final boss in both of its forms, you'll earn the final 400 points, giving you the full thousand. Considering all of the different things you can do online and with the different classes in the game, the achievements in Phantasy Star Universe are really lazy.
The long-term action is online. Much like Guild Wars, Phantasy Star Universe's online side is instanced, so there are multiple versions of every common area. You're randomly dropped into one every time you connect, though you can switch to different servers if you're looking for specific friends. On the Xbox 360, the first two or three servers seem to remain fairly populated, but the rest are absolute ghost towns. Also, you really don't get the impression that a lot of people are playing the game online. But the common areas are really only there for commerce and grouping purposes. Up to six players can be in a party, and once you start a mission, you'll never see anyone outside of your party until the mission is complete and you head back to a common area. So don't mistake this for a massively multiplayer game. It most definitely isn't one. That sort of makes the game's monthly fee a little hard to swallow, especially when consider that other games of the same type don't require a fee. On top of all that, the game doesn't even give you a 30-day trial to decide if it's your thing or not. That's pretty weak.
The game is more open-ended online, but that's more from a lack of structure than anything else. You can meet up at mission-start points or just jump into the mission menu to see if you can find any open parties to join mid-mission. Most of the missions are really dry. You get a sentence or so of text, then you're dumped in to go kill stuff. Playing with other players is nice, but playing with strangers can lead to some annoying situations when it comes to item and experience distribution. For some reason, the player who scores the final hit on a monster gets more experience than everyone else. So you might run into players that hang back for most of a boss fight then get really aggressive at the end, hoping to score that final hit. Or you might run into shady players who kick you out of their game right before a boss dies to ensure that they get all of the loot, which appears after the boss is defeated. The game offers rules for the distribution of both common and rare items, but none of the options fix this problem. So you'll probably just want to play with friends to be safe. Of course, convincing your friends to play a game with a seemingly unnecessary monthly fee is an uphill battle.
The other benefits of online play include more active commerce. Each player has his own bedroom area, and you can transform your room into a shop to sell items for whatever price you see fit. The game has a pretty handy set of shop-searching tools, and there are already a bunch of useful shops that are open and sell common items, which lower-level players would need for relatively low prices. In addition to finding and buying items, you can also craft your own. Many of the items that drop off of dead enemies or pop out of boxes when you bust them open are materials needed to synthesize items. It's kind of an arduous process. For starters, you need a synthesis board for the item you want to make, which serves as a blueprint. The board has a limited number of uses, so you can't just buy one board and pump out the same item forever. You also need specific items to create the item you want to make, which include wood, metal, photon energy, and plenty of other things. Typically, the more exquisite the weapon or armor you're trying to make, the rarer the items needed to make it. You need to insert the board and store all of the materials inside of a friendly robot that lives in your room then set it to synthesize. After that, you need to wait. Non-consumable items actually take time to craft, which is sort of crazy. Additionally, there's a chance of failure in the process. You can feed items to your synthesis machine to help it grow in level, which will make it better at synthesizing specific types of items. But based on how many crafting materials you find when you're out adventuring, it seems like you'd be better off getting into crafting rather than selling all of your materials.
Visually, PSU looks OK, but it doesn't really look like a modern game. While it gets by on the PlayStation 2, the Xbox 360 version doesn't look much better. It has plenty of jagged edges and a real lack of variety when it comes to the environments. Additionally, the game slows down here and there, particularly during large boss encounters, but it isn't limited to those cases. The interface is similarly dated. Although it's an improvement over Phantasy Star Online, the fact that it's better than a game released five years ago isn't an impressive or surprising feat. The game's audio is decent, but if you consider the length of time you're likely to spend playing it, the music gets very repetitive. So after 10 hours or so, you might just have to turn it off. Also, on surround-sound setups, the menu noises blare out of the center channel much louder than any of the game's other sound effects.
Although Sega has made claims about the game's post-release support with plenty of new missions planned, the game still isn't dynamic enough to support a monthly fee. It's too bad because this game can most definitely become addictive. But at its core, this is a six-player action role-playing game that has repetitive worlds and repetitive combat. PSO fans will probably appreciate the game's new setting and its somewhat streamlined gameplay, but those changes definitely don't make Phantasy Star Universe a modern game.