There's something to be said for a game that can stand the test of time. Final Fantasy XI Online dates back to 2002, when it was originally released in Japan. Clearly inspired by the influential massively multiplayer PC game EverQuest, FFXI infused the online role-playing formula with the distinctive look and feel of Square Enix's hugely popular franchise. The game naturally attracted thousands of players, many of whom stuck with FFXI over the long haul, since it featured a deep character class system and a huge, evolving world to explore. However, it's simply impossible to look at FFXI for the Xbox 360 in the same way as the previously released PC and PlayStation 2 versions. Paradoxically, that's because this latest translation of the game is essentially no different than the others. It makes no concessions whatsoever to take advantage of the Xbox 360, and it practically goes out of its way to inconvenience and alienate new players. If you're addicted to FFXI already, now you can play it in HD on the Xbox 360 if you feel like buying another copy. But if you've avoided the game up until now, you'd best keep that up.
It's not that this is an inherently bad game--far from it. In theory, it offers tremendous lasting appeal, an incredibly vast world to explore, and lots of exciting character-development options. Despite borrowing the conventions of many other online role-playing games, FFXI has many unique traits and a distinctive style that can be very appealing. Most notably, the game features a whole slew of different character classes inspired by the Final Fantasy series, and eventually you can mix and match the abilities of these to suit your preference. From beastmasters to bards, the game's sheer variety of character options is remarkable, though initially (and for a while) only a few standard job types are available. Furthermore, FFXI offers plenty of story-driven content for those willing to undertake the numerous missions and quests that comprise the game's plot as well as its underlying political system, in which three rival nations struggle to control the world of Vana'diel. Tons of different trade guilds, a bazaar and auction house system, a huge variety of different weapons and equipment, and different modes of transportation, including massive airships and fast-running chocobos, also help add depth to the world.
However, the core of FFXI--and most online RPGs, for that matter--is exploration, combat, and leveling up. The game's sprawling environments and initially slow-paced combat makes the underlying action feel like a chore even early on. Inevitably, you'll want to find a group of like-minded players and hunker down to kill the same monsters over and over, in order to gain experience and level up in your chosen job. It's possible to change jobs at any time back at town--so if you're a 20th-level warrior, you can switch to being a black mage or a monk, though you'll wind up back at level one and basically have to start leveling up all over again. As if to force you to change jobs often, the game limits you to just one character slot, unless you pay extra on top of an already fairly steep monthly fee. Considering you're probably already paying for an Xbox Live Gold account, the need to pay a monthly fee is a considerable disincentive. For what it's worth, you don't need to have a paid Xbox Live account to play this game, though.
What you do need is a great deal of spare time and patience...and a USB keyboard, since typing is really the only effective way to communicate with other players in the game. Just beginning play for the very first time literally takes close to three hours, from the hour it takes just to install the game to your Xbox 360 hard drive (the game gobbles up more than a third of the total amount of free space on that thing), to the hour it takes to update the game files once you connect, to the hour it takes to enter about half a dozen registration codes and, finally, spending a few minutes to create your character. Like other versions of FFXI, this game is unfortunately saddled within Square Enix's PlayOnline viewer, a shell that provides you with a free e-mail address and some other completely unnecessary services. It must be an inextricable part of the game, but all it does here is make it more difficult for you to jump into a session of FFXI.
Once you're in the game, you'd better get comfortable, because the slow pacing means you'll have little to show for your time spent unless you play for at least several hours at a time. You'll also find it's almost impossible to make progress after a while unless you join a well-coordinated group of players. And after you manage to find an adequate group and start slowly grinding your way toward your next level, killing monster after monster, you'll naturally pressure each other to keep playing. In the past few years, online role-playing games have evolved to cater to more types of players, by doing a better job of accommodating people with less time on their hands or those who prefer the option to play solo. Such games as World of Warcraft and City of Heroes have attempted to become less restrictive, easier to get into, better looking, and simply more fun than their predecessors. By comparison, a game like FFXI feels like work, not play. No wonder the game's character classes are called jobs.
Another issue worth mentioning is that, for better or worse, FFXI throws all kinds of different players into the mix. That means you'll run into Japanese players running the PS2 version of the game, American players running the PC version of the game, and so on. Most of them have probably been at it for months already, so don't expect much sympathy as you try to learn the ropes. Don't expect the game to do a good job of teaching you the ropes, either. The manual spends about as much time explaining the registration process as it does telling you how to play, and the game itself pretty much drops you into the world without any instruction. At least the PlayOnline service itself offers some advice, though in FFXI, you'll have to learn most everything the hard way...or hope that an experienced player is kind enough to walk you through some of the finer points of etiquette, grouping, combat, macros, travel, and so on. Prepare for a frustrating uphill battle just trying to get your bearings in Vana'diel.
Part of what's traditionally made online role-playing games so enticing is the promise of feeling totally immersed in authentic fantasy worlds. In other words: good graphics. If nothing else, it's nice for a really time-consuming game to look attractive, since you're going to be staring at it for so long. When FFXI was first released for the PC and PS2, it looked great, thanks to some signature Final Fantasy touches. Those very same graphics on the Xbox 360 don't look so hot anymore, though. Short of bumping up the resolution to support widescreen HD displays, nothing was done to make this game presentable by the Xbox 360's standards. You can still look forward to some decent character graphics and environments, but this game looks seriously below par, and rough edges like an inexplicably uneven frame rate and distant objects suddenly popping up on the horizon hurt it further. Thankfully, the audio has stood the test of time better. The game's got a great soundtrack, and makes effective use of surround-sound audio systems if you've got one.
For all the problems that make this game so hard to approach, the allure of so much content to explore may still compel you to give the game a shot. With your purchase of FFXI for the Xbox 360 come three different expansion packs in addition to the core game. The Rise of the Zilart expansion shipped with all previous North American versions of the game, and introduced several new high-level character classes (the dragoon, the samurai, and the ninja) as well as new places to explore. The subsequent Chains of Promathia expansion catered exclusively to high-level players, offering them much more story-driven content to experience. The newest expansion, released alongside the Xbox 360 version of FFXI, is Treasures of Aht Urhgan, and it adds still more job types to the mix: the blue mage, the corsair, and the puppetmaster. Since changing your character's job fundamentally affects how you play, these additions are naturally exciting. High-level players will also naturally want to explore the dusty new lands of Aht Urhgan, including its vast fortress city. However, while each of these expansion packs add substantial amounts of content, none of them are likely to even come into play until you've already invested dozens of hours in the game. So while FFXI has grown over time, it hasn't really evolved. One of these expansion packs might have done something about the interface or the graphics, for example.
FFXI has always been a source of controversy among fans of the series, simply because it's the first game in the series proper to stray from Final Fantasy's roots. However, FFXI still had the air and allure of a Final Fantasy game to attract a fiercely loyal following, and the gameplay hooked them. Yet whatever mystique there was surrounding FFXI is gone now, and what's left is a great, big game that's almost intolerably cumbersome. If you're very brave, masochistic, or stubborn, you might find some rewarding experiences in FFXI. But chances are good that you won't. Considering this is the first time the Final Fantasy series has appeared on the Xbox, it's hard not to feel sorely disappointed by the slapdash job done in clumsily pushing this game onto the 360.