In the sixteen years that the Final Fantasy series has been around, players have been treated to some of the most cinematic games ever seen. With production values that rival those of Hollywood blockbusters, every title produced by Squaresoft has established new benchmarks for graphics, plotlines and gameplay. Even better, there were plenty of mini-games, secrets and side quests to keep players interested and eager for the next installment. Well, the latest version threw fans for a loop, when it was announced that the next Final Fantasy game wouldn’t just be a role-playing game, but would be a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. Even wilder, console players wouldn’t get their hands on the game first, PC gamers would. Call it an early holiday present for computers as Final Fantasy XI has arrived from recently merged Square Enix.
Being that FFXI is a constantly evolving title, it can be hard to put a finger on the specific plot of the game. However, the basic premise of the game, one that is continually replayed during the intro of every boot-up of FFXI, can be distilled into a summary. The land of Vana’Diel is a large, relatively peaceful continent divided into three nations: The technological Republic of Bastok, the warrior society Kingdom of San d’Oria and the communal Federation of Windurst. While typically pursing its own interests, these three nations joined together to destroy a surging army of beasts and creatures in a massive conflagration known as the Great War. With the forces of evil finally defeated, the three nations returned to their lands, engaging in secret plans for expansion and conquest of neutral lands.
Of course, this merely sets up the massively multiplayer convention to allow players to affect the fate of the world by successfully completing quests received from NPCs. Gamers can also take on nationally sanctioned missions to expand their nation’s sphere of influence, which is globally tracked by FFXI’s servers every week. Based on the success or failures of the heroes of each country, territory will actually change owners, giving players access to additional missions. This provides a large incentive for players to brave the wilderness and take on the creatures lurking in the numerous environments throughout Vana’Diel.
Before traveling in these lands, players have to choose the character that suits them best. Final Fantasy XI offers five different character races, and although each is suited towards different classes (or “jobs” as they’re known in FFXI), they aren’t restricted from choosing any specialization or a specific nation to pledge allegiance to. Humes are the most average of the five groups, and are typically average with their skills. Galka are powerful male beasts whose attributes make them ideal fighters. Contrasting them are the Tarutaru that are better suited as magic users. The Mithra are a nomadic group comprised primarily of thieves. Finally, the Elvaan are both strong fighters and magic users. After choosing the character’s race, a specific class is chosen, such as the warrior, monk, or mage, each with their own particular skills granted to them. Fortunately, players are not restricted to holding these classes if they aren’t interesting to them, and can swap between them at will within reason (experience caps limiting the amount of abilities you’ll gain prevent rampant job switching). Later in the game, players will be able to take on “support classes,” turning their simple fighter or thief into a paladin or a ninja, for example.
Aside from the obvious impact of evolving your character into a more powerful hero, your classes also give you new skills that can help you within the global economy of Vana’Diel itself. Like most massively multiplayer veterans (particularly Everquest) will tell you, much of the “downtime” of these online role-playing games involves making crafts, weapons or other items to sell or supplement your equipment. Players will acquire plenty of raw materials from killing monsters, but you can also mine them will other activities, such as fishing or logging. These resources can be sold to craftsmen for a profit or personally worked on in your spare time into new items that can be auctioned off.
As with all other massively multiplayer games, combat plays a huge role in Final Fantasy XI. However, unlike other titles, which can sometimes foster a lone wolf attitude in its players, FFXI forces cooperation and party dynamics as a premium. Yet this isn’t as restrictive as it sounds. When your character is starting out, he or she is more than capable of handling some of the minor beasts that are roaming the woods. Along with the basic attacks, players have access to both job and weapon skills that need to be powered up to be used, but provide additional attacks or greater damage. There will probably be a few moments where you’ll need to rest and heal yourself, but otherwise, you’ll be fine. The difficulty slowly ramps up, however, with some of the higher-level quests and missions, ones that will require help from other players simply to survive. However, players are also rewarded by the addition of combo attacks, powerful moves that cause obscene amounts of pain to enemies when party members are charged up. Gamers have to beware, however, because monsters can pull off similar moves against heroes.
These, and the dozens of other features found within FFXI are all wrapped up under the shell of PlayOnline, Square Enix’s all-encompassing online environment. Around for a number of years in a few different formats, PlayOnline provides friend lists, e-mail addresses, downloadable file management and chat services. But included with the service is something that could qualify as an online game all its own: Tetra Master. A cross between Magic: The Gathering and the card battle found in FFIX, this strategy mini-game is a nice diversion from consistently fighting in Vana’Diel, and can be used as a distraction while waiting for partymates to finally log on to continue your adventure.
Like other Final Fantasy games, you expect a certain visual style, presentation or quality to come from FFXI, and it doesn’t disappoint. From the opening cinematic to the first steps into your chosen kingdom, FFXI looks just as good, if not better than most massively multiplayer games. This is particularly impressive with the “relatively” light system requirements on the graphics (more on this later). Couple that with the fact that there is relatively little slowdown regardless of the number of objects or people in a given space, and you’re looking at a game whose screenshots really don’t convey how pretty this game is. Character models are large and expressive (even with the diminutive kewpie doll-like tarutaru), and the animation for each attack, spell or skill from players and monsters alike is unique and smoothly drawn.
In fact, the largest complaint that you can find with the graphics of the game are the wildly swung camera angles that occur, primarily within combat situations. Players will frequently encounter a somewhat disorienting shift in perspective whenever combat is joined, apparently to what the game feels is the best angle for the action. Unfortunately, this constantly requires frequent shifting or manipulating to keep enemies in view, which can be rather frustrating. Similarly, there isn’t much to complain about with the sound or musical quality of the game, considering the orchestral beauty that typically accompanies a Final Fantasy game. This infuses the music found in FFXI, from the dramatic combat music to the whimsical tunes connected to Tetra Master. However, songs to tend to repeat themselves frequently, prompting a speedy reach for the volume control on your speakers.
While FFXI has some of the typical issues found with most massively multiplayer games that aren’t worth going into here, Square Enix is constantly patching and upgrading the game, providing new features, in-game events (Halloween in Vana’Diel, for example) and quests for players to explore. This actually brings me to the issues that I do have with the game, most, if not all of which revolve around system or server problems. FFXI launched in North America with the same servers and players from the already released Japanese version, unbalancing the gameplay significantly thanks to the higher level of some vets on board. While not a major issue, it does make the balancing of the game seem somewhat off. I don’t know if they could’ve set up a newbie world and then transport players to pre-established server worlds later, but this could be intimidating to beginners or casual players. (Plus, while player killing hasn’t been implemented yet, when it does, it’s going to be nasty.)
This also brings me to a separate issue, that of the world pass. Unfortunately, without specifically purchasing a world pass to every server that’s run, you’re randomly assigned a world, which doesn’t guarantee that you’ll play with friends of yours that happen to also own FFXI. Although I understand the desire for party interaction, hampering the ability of a player to decide who they choose to play with can’t be good. Take that, and add in some of the system oddities, and you’ve got a game that might wind up turning off some people to the Vana’Diel experience. When you first log in, you have to throw in a series of passwords in a number of slots, complicating the actual registration of a handle and character itself. This is on top of the fact that it takes over an hour to install and patch the game, not to mention that it swallows over six gigs on your hard drive. Finally, once you get into the game, you have to deal with a counter-intuitive control scheme laid out on your keyboard. Although customizable and capable of recording macros based on player’s preferences, it can still take numerous trips back to the instruction manual to get a full handle on where every command is, something that harms the accessibility of the game.
Regardless of these problems (and a number of other ones that you might find rather subjective based on your experience with MMORPGs), Final Fantasy XI is one of those games that will probably appeal to any RPG fan, simply by the sheer scope of Vana’Diel and its ever-changing world. If you’ve never played one of these games, you might want to take a look at this one, especially for the PlayOnline service, the Tetra Master mini-game, and the number of features that set it apart from most other multiplayer games on the market.