By now, it isn't easy for a massively multiplayer online role-playing game to distinguish itself. Years ago, games like Ultima Online and especially 1998's EverQuest set the standards for this unique style of gaming, which today spans a seemingly countless number of similarly styled games that look identical on the surface--and, in many ways, actually are virtually identical. The inherent novelty of coexisting along with numerous other player characters in a persistent world has pretty much faded during the past several years, even as the monthly fees for these games have risen, while their gameplay hasn't really advanced--most MMORPGs still revolve around highly repetitive, time-consuming combat. Meanwhile, social interaction tends to be a means to an end: You need allies to be able to kill monsters more efficiently. Now, into this oversaturated category of games arrives Final Fantasy XI, which, if nothing else, carries a powerful brand name. Though the Final Fantasy series obviously is better known among console gamers, it's just about as famous of a series as they come. Final Fantasy XI is equal parts EverQuest and Final Fantasy, clearly deriving gameplay fundamentals from the former, but presenting them in the distinctive style of the latter. The result is an online RPG that manages to break the mold, if just barely--but, actually, that's no mean feat.
Final Fantasy XI may be a port of an online RPG for consoles, but it offers even more depth and content, and better looks, than most of its competition.
Interestingly, Final Fantasy XI is actually a port of a PlayStation 2 game, which was first released in Japan early last year. The North American PS2 version of the game is slated to be released in 2004 alongside the PS2 hard drive, making this the first time that a Final Fantasy game has debuted on the PC prior to on a video game platform on this continent. When Final Fantasy XI first launched, it experienced many of the growing pains that many online RPGs experience in the days following their release--server instability, game balance issues, exploits, and so on. The good news is, these issues have basically all been taken care of, so what you're getting out of Final Fantasy XI is an online RPG that's fully ripened. The game is stable and lag-free on a broadband connection (don't even think about playing over a dial-up connection). The character classes (called "jobs" here) are balanced, and each is respectable in its own right. There's a considerable amount of content for players of all levels, including content from a full-on expansion pack, which was released as a separate retail product in Japan. The gameplay, though not drastically different from that of other online RPGs at a glance, has some unique and interesting features.
Furthermore, if you're expecting that an online RPG originally designed for consoles and clearly derived from EverQuest would seem simplistic--or ugly--by the genre's current standards, you'd be mistaken. It's true that Final Fantasy XI is simpler in some ways than most other MMORPGs, but the simplified aspects--your character doesn't need to eat and cannot grow fatigued from running too much, for example--are mostly to the game's credit. Not all such omissions are praiseworthy, however. There's no player-vs.-player aspect to the game currently, though one is planned, and because Square Enix has delivered on its past promises for additional content (by introducing a higher level cap for player characters, new jobs, unique in-game events, and more), there's reason to be optimistic about this game's ongoing development. Additionally, Final Fantasy XI features better graphics, sound, and music than the vast majority of games like this. Since any Final Fantasy XI player will inevitably end up staring at those graphics and listening to those sounds for long stretches at a time, their quality does make a big difference.
The world of Vana'diel is consistent with the style and theme of many other Final Fantasy games.
Online RPGs are some of the most inaccessible games out there, for reasons that include their lack of an offline component, their steep learning curves, the time commitment they typically demand from the player, and their relatively costly monthly fees. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XI doesn't buck any of these bad trends. In fact, Final Fantasy XI seems to do its worst to give you a negative first impression. Its mouse-and-keyboard control scheme is functional, but entirely unconventional, so it will take a good few hours to get used to it. Even prior to that, the time it takes from the moment you first open the box and begin installing the game to your hard drive to the moment you first set foot in Final Fantasy XI's world of Vana'diel is longer than an hour, between the extensive amount of time required to merely install the game data (more than five gigabytes' worth) onto your hard drive, the time it takes to patch that outdated data to the latest version, and the time it takes to slog through the game's convoluted front end, entering several different registration codes along the way.
The front end warrants a closer look. Final Fantasy XI is really just one facet--but, certainly, by far the biggest attraction--of Square Enix's proprietary PlayOnline service, which has been translated directly from the PlayStation 2 to the PC. On the PS2, this self-contained service's offerings, including e-mail and a friends list, seemed to make sense. On your PC, you probably don't need another e-mail address. PlayOnline features another game, TetraMaster, in addition to Final Fantasy XI. Access to it costs another dollar per month on top of the $12 and change it costs per month to remain subscribed to Final Fantasy XI after your first 30 days, which are free. TetraMaster, which originated as a minigame in Final Fantasy IX, is a multiplayer card game reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering, and it can be fairly addictive. However, Final Fantasy XI could easily suck up all your spare time by itself, and it's costly enough as it is.
Getting Final Fantasy XI up and running for the first time is a chore, and the controls take a lot of getting used to--but your patience should eventually be rewarded.
Want to have more than one character on your Final Fantasy XI account? That will cost you, too: The first one's on the house, and any additional character slots cost $1 apiece on top of the monthly flat fee. Highway robbery, perhaps, but one of Final Fantasy XI's innovations is that it lets you change jobs freely. Sick of your warrior and want to try being a white mage, the Final Fantasy equivalent of a healer? You can go right ahead. You'll start back at the first level, but there's no penalty for leveling up in parallel as each of the starting professions, which also include the monk (a martial artist), the black mage (specializing in offense-oriented magic), the thief, and the red mage (a jack-of-all-trades). So you really don't need more than one character slot to experience most of what the game has to offer--except for the different player races, which include male and female humes (humans), elvaan (like elves, but tougher-looking), tarutaru (munchkins), mithra (cat girls), and galka (hairy ogrelike guys). However, like in most online RPGs, the character races in Final Fantasy XI look much more different than they actually are in gameplay terms. Each merely has a slightly different leaning (tarutaru are inclined toward magic, while the galka have relatively more hit points, for example), but none is restricted from any of the jobs.
When creating your character, you also decide which of the three regions of Vana'diel will be your home: Bastok, a mining town in the middle of a desert; San D'Oria, which looks like a medieval fortress; and Windurst, the most hospitable-looking of the three. Each, of course, has similar amenities and is a viable starting location for new players. And, reminiscent of the three analogous, competing realms of Dark Age of Camelot, players hailing from each of the three kingdoms of Final Fantasy XI will have a chance to undergo missions in the name of their country. These relatively high-level objectives give you some more incentive beyond just gaining more levels by killing monsters, though they do overlap with that all-important goal.
The gameplay is superficially similar to that of other online RPGs, but it has enough unique twists to make it compelling.