Phantasy Star Online Hands-On

Phantasy Star Online is Sega's biggest gamble yet. The first-ever console game to focus on a massively multiplayer aspect, PSO has the potential to change the way we think about Internet gaming on consoles.

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Easily one of Sega's biggest games this year, Phantasy Star Online is the first massively multiplayer game ever to hit consoles. Developed by Sega's prized Sonic Team, Phantasy Star Online promises to change the face of online gaming with its innovative online gameplay. We were able to spend a generous amount of time online with a close-to-final version of Phantasy Star Online, and we got a fairly accurate idea of how the final game will play.

Phantasy Star Online tells an entirely different story than the previous Phantasy Star games do. Earth is doomed, and its citizens are forced to look to the stars for a replacement planet. Teams of scientists decide that the distant and relatively unknown planet Ragol is a suitable enough home for humanity, so they dispatch a gigantic colony ship to explore and colonize the planet. Dubbed Pioneer 1, the craft is successful in building a gigantic dome on the face of Ragol, and it sends word to Earth that it is safe to proceed with phase two of the relocation. When Pioneer 2 reaches Ragol, it sends a signal to the dome at the surface of Ragol, which mysteriously sets off some sort of cataclysmic explosion. In Phantasy Star Online you play as one of the talented adventurers aboard Pioneer 2 who venture to the surface of Ragol to investigate what has happened.

You select one of nine characters, each belonging to a race and a character class. Characters are either human, newman, or android, and are either rangers, hunters, or force-wielders. These two distinctions, along with the gender of your character, make up the basic profile of your character, including particular strengths and weaknesses. It appears that the only difference between the races is that certain items can be used only by the appropriate race. We also know that androids are unable to harness the force, or magic, and therefore are not represented in the force class. Rangers use guns and usually attack from a distance, warriors are superb hand-to-hand fighters, and force characters use magic to fight battles. After selecting a character, you can then modify his or her basic appearance. The customizable interface resembles a very simplified create-a-wrestler or create-a-player mode in other games and lets you choose different parts that make up your character. Once you're done you can actually set the height and bulk of your character, then you're assigned a randomly chosen insignia that represents your character's home. While the ability to customize your character is certainly nice, the customization still seems a bit limited, and the short supply of different character classes guarantees that you'll see the same character several times in the lobbies of a packed online game.

At the start of every PSO game you'll be given the option of playing online or playing offline. There is not a huge difference between the two, except that you'll be playing with other players if you play online, and there are certain quests that can only be completed by having a party of several characters. When you start an online game you'll first connect to your ISP, then you'll select which online server you'd like to play on. That server will be divided into several blocks, and you'll have to choose which block you'd like to play on. While you can't actually see who's playing on each block, the game will tell you how many players and teams are playing on that block. Once you connect to the block, you'll be taken to a staging area where you can chat with other players and check to see what teams are playing. From here you can join open teams or form your own team. Teams consist of one to four PSO players who are all playing the game online at once. While millions of players could conceivably connect to the PSO servers and play the game, only four people can actually play the game together at one time. Once you join a team or start your own team, you're transported to the actual game.

The game starts you on Pioneer 2. The concourse of Pioneer 2 has everything you'll need to transport yourself down to the planet. There are lots of nonplayer characters to speak with and the usual RPG shops - a weapon store, an armor shop, and an item shop. Additionally, there's a medical center where you can go to heal yourself, a bank where you can deposit your extra money or items, and a hunter's guild, where you can select any of the game's quests to complete. Pioneer 2 also has a tekker - a knowledgeable shopkeeper who will help you appraise and identify unknown items for a fee. Unfortunately, Pioneer 2 seems to be the only actual bit of civilization you come across, and you never seem to travel to other towns to meet new people or find new items. As such, the rare and more expensive items are simply found by spending plenty of time playing the game. At first the shopkeepers have almost no items to sell you, but as time progresses, and as you level up through the game, the shopkeepers will have better and more-powerful weapons and armor for sale.

Once you connect to a team, you're considered a vital part of that team. Your stats are displayed to other team members, and their stat bars are displayed directly below yours. This helps you monitor their performance and life bar, and it is a great assistance for healers and force users. Additionally, any chatting between members of the team is displayed to all the members of the team, regardless of their physical location. This means that team members on Ragol can openly communicate with team members on Pioneer 2. Additionally, you'll be able to give guild cards to your teammates. Guild cards are like e-mail addresses - once you give them to someone they can send you simple mail through the game. When you receive mail, a small icon will appear at the top of the screen to indicate that you've received mail, and you'll be able to read the mail through the pause menu. The mail system lets you keep in contact with people you've played with and communicate with them if they're engaged in other team games.

Phantasy Star Online has three difficulty settings: normal, hard, and very hard. The biggest difference between the three is simply the number of hit points it takes to defeat enemies. Enemies take more hits to down in the harder difficulty levels and have much stronger attacks. In return, killing enemies on a higher setting rewards you with a ton of experience points. Additionally, better and more-rare items are a lot easier to find in the hard and very hard difficulty levels, which makes playing those levels very rewarding to players who can handle the difficulty. A good trick is to join a hard or very hard game with players who are of a much higher level than you and then feed off the experience points they gather. When an enemy is killed its experience points are awarded to every player that scored a hit on the monster before he died. Additionally, a small bonus is also awarded to the player who delivered the killing blow to the monster. This encourages players to hit every enemy in a group before they focus on killing a single enemy.

Every character in Phantasy Star Online has a mag. A mag is a small creature that floats above the shoulders of your character and aids you. Mags will block incoming attacks and can even develop powerful special attacks called photon blasts if you feed them enough. Mags become more powerful and evolve when you feed them items. You can feed your mag four items every four to five minutes. Each item has a distinct effect on your mag and will raise one of the mag's five stats. When one of the stat bars fills, the mag levels up and the bar resets. As your mag levels up it will become more powerful and be able to block more-powerful attacks and unleash a bigger and better photon blast. Unfortunately, your mag can only be leveled up to level 200, and at that point it becomes as powerful as the game will allow. Feeding your mag is a crucial part of the game, because mags can level up much faster than your character can.

Actually playing Phantasy Star Online can be a bit tedious at times. The basic premise of the game involves you starting a team and making your way to the hunter's guild, where you'll select a quest. The quest will load into the game's memory, and a small in-game cutscene will play that tells you about the quest. Then you'll transport yourself to the planet below and accomplish the quest. When you're done you will beam back to Pioneer 2 and make your way to the hunter's guild to collect your reward. Unfortunately, none of the quests really make any sense, and most of them are fetch quests - you must go to the planet and get something or take someone somewhere. Additionally, all of the quests essentially take place in the same areas on the planet and become very tiresome. The game has several environments, from forests to caves to ruins, and each area has two to three sub-areas. At the end of each area is an area boss who will reward you with a huge experience-point bonus and let you proceed to the next area after you beat him. A big drawback is that the game doesn't seem to remember what quests and areas you've already completed after you disconnect, which means you'll have to start at the beginning each time you connect. This makes the game extremely tedious, and it will hopefully be fixed in the final version of the game.

Once you get to the planet's surface, the areas are divided up into several open areas linked by narrow passageways. Enemies will usually spawn in the large areas and will keep you from moving on until you've defeated them. Also, enemies usually spawn in large groups, which forces you to run out of the room when a group reaches where you're standing. Enemies will not leave the rooms they spawned in and will not attack you if you're standing in a doorway or outside the room. As such, players will usually spend their time running into a room and scoring a few hits, then running right back out and waiting for the monsters to turn back around and ignore them. Once you've killed all the enemies in a room, another wave of enemies will usually spawn, which means you need to repeat the process all over again. Unfortunately, this makes the game a bit tiresome. The maps are actually very small in size, and you spend almost none of your time exploring and almost all of your time waiting to clear a room of a group of monsters.

The game features an auto-aiming reticule, which will select the most available monster you're facing. Unfortunately, there is no way to lock on to an enemy, and as soon as you move, the reticule will either select a new monster or select nothing at all. This, combined with the extremely difficult camera control, makes it difficult for ranged characters to attack. The reticule is often extremely touchy, and it requires a very steady hand to move between enemies. The auto-aiming feature is only slightly better for hand-to-hand fighters, who are often surrounded by enemies and don't need as much of a steady aim.

The surface of the planet features puzzles of sorts - mostly item crates that are hiding behind energy beams. You can usually turn these beams off by flipping a switch somewhere in the same room that the beams are, but in the harder levels sometimes the switch is in a neighboring room. Still, the puzzles are never difficult and are often a letdown. Items are usually hidden in plain sight, and the switches are usually large monoliths with a blinking light on them.

For your convenience the game lets you bind commands to most of the face keys of the Dreamcast, including the directions of the D-pad. These binds let you instantly use items, use your weapon's special attack, and say preset sentences. You'll be able to bind basic sentences to the face keys of your Dreamcast, as well as to buttons on your Dreamcast keyboard so you can chat with your friends even in the heat of battle.

At this point, Phantasy Star Online is a very addictive game, but it still has its problems. The novelty of playing online with loads of other people saves PSO from being a total loss, but a fairly boring gameplay system and a very difficult camera combined with almost no real plotline make Phantasy Star Online a questionable follow-up to the original Phantasy Star games. Still, Phantasy Star Online successfully does what no other console game has ever done before it and definitely shows not only promise but innovation and the ability to change the way we think about Internet gaming on consoles. Sega still has a good month to tweak the game and will hopefully address some of the issues that might hold Phantasy Star Online back. The game is scheduled to ship the first week of February.

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