About a year or so ago, someone suggested labeling massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) with a warning sticker not all that different from the one found on cigarettes. The games, these people argued, were as addictive as nicotine and had sucked in countless millions around the world-leading some to choose whatever the game du jour was over their loved ones, jobs, and other social activities. As proof of just how addictive and influential these games are, reporters and game opponents have latched onto stories of an Asian teen who died after an extended gaming session, and an American who committed suicide after some apparently bad days in EverQuest (which has the dubious distinction of being dubbed EverCrack by many players).
I scoffed at this idea when it was first launched-I'd played several MMORPGs and never found them particularly interesting. The games are designed to be time sinks for power-hungry gamers who don't mind spending hours grinding out a single level just so they can wear new equipment or cast a new spell. However, after spending some time with Square-Enix's first foray into the MMORPG world, Final Fantasy XI, I'm starting to see just how addictive and life-altering these games can be. Maybe that warning label isn't such a bad idea after all
FFXI casts players into the fictional world of Vana'diel, a land where three kingdoms and six different races co-exist peacefully. However, the beastmen in the outlands are up to something, and it's time for brave adventurers to band together and figure out just what it is and how to stop them.
One of the first things that stands out about FFXI is that there's an actual story involved in the game. Granted, it's not a major story, and it's not essential to enjoying the title, but for those gamers who like a reason for their missions and quests, it's pretty decent. Rather than simply wondering around on rather arbitrary fetch quests (something this game does have), FFXI also sends players on numerous quests where huge chunks of the main plotline are revealed during cutscenes after completion. Depending on what city players start in (there are three choices-players can choose whichever one appeals to them), things progress differently. However, by roughly level 30 everything merges into one main plotline as everyone works together to save the world from war and a reign of darkness.
Perhaps the greatest thing about FFXI is also its Achilles heel-the game is simply massive. I've never played a game where I could spend 12 hours playing it, then quit, and feel like I'd accomplished next to nothing. This game is loaded to the gills with things to do-when taking out hordes of monsters for levels gets old, players can craft items, fish, explore the world, complete menial tasks for non-playable characters, furnish their mog house, and do any number of other things. Anyone who says the game is boring because they can't find something to do is lying-seemingly everyone and everything can lead to something else. The real challenge is deciding what to do and when-the game throws so many options at the player it's overwhelming in the same way that Bethesda's Morrowind kept players multitasking for days. The difference is, FFXI may keep players engrossed for a year or more.
The game features the usual assortment of classes-mages (black, white, and red), warriors, thieves, and monks. Once players hit level 30, they can quest for advanced jobs like ninja, samurai, summoner, ranger, and more. In this regard, players can hit level 30 and pick a new trade-meaning the game essentially starts over. Add in subjobs (which come into play at level 18) and Square's ensured that players spend time trying out a variety of different roles. In fact, early on, it's advisable to try out everything-if one job doesn't suit the player, there's almost assuredly something else that will.
Aside from the jobs, the game features six unique races. Each race has advantages and disadvantages for certain classes-for example, the Taru Taru make great mages, but trying to warrior with one will be a challenge. Fortunately, the game's balanced enough that with the right equipment and a little skill any race can successfully play any class. Yes, some races are preferable to others for certain jobs, but players can be an effective Galkan mage despite the lack of magic points the Galkans receive.
Despite the game's depth and seemingly limitless number of things to do, there are some problems-some of them by design, some not.
First and foremost, for a game of this magnitude, there's simply not enough distinct facial and body choices for the characters. Seeing your "twin" in the game is a common occurrence, and while many people will assure you that armor will make a character unique, this isn't true at the lower levels where everyone wears the same stuff. A game like Phantasy Star Online has at least three times as many customization options for character creation-a fact that is unforgivable for a massive game like FFXI. Compounding the problem is that while armor and equipment shows up on the character as it's equipped, most of it looks the same. Visually, there's no difference between slacks and black slacks-despite being different items.
Another problem is that the game forces players into partying. While the heart of any MMORPG involves meeting up with a group and slaying stuff as a team, there are times when getting a party isn't feasible and soloing for a while would be the way to go. Unfortunately, Square's made it impossible to solo for experience past level 18 unless the player chooses to be a beastmaster. Since some jobs have a harder time getting a party than others (low level thieves, monks, etc.) this can lead to players spending more time looking for a group than actually playing. Making matters worse is that Square decided to remove power-leveling from the game (power-leveling being when a low level player teams up with a high level one who then kills tough monsters to get the low level player huge amounts of experience). This isn't a bad thing in and of itself-however, the way they removed it is troubling. To combat power-leveling, experience gains are determined by the highest member in the group-so, if a level 20 kills something that's too weak to be worthwhile, the lower players get no experience at all. Because of this, players must group together in a range for everyone to gain enough experience to make grouping worthwhile. The range early on is at most three levels-meaning a level 14 player can group with a 15 or 16 (or a 13 or 12) without screwing up the experience curve. This makes the arduous process of getting a group even more difficult. Not only does one have to find people who want to play, but they must also find people in the right level range.
The PlayStation 2 version of the game, while infinitely prettier than either console EverQuest, still isn't nearly as pretty as the PC version. The PS2 release suffers from a lot of graininess in terms of the graphics, and pop-up and draw in on the horizon are fairly frequent occurrences. These aren't game breakers, and it really is commendable that such a massive game looks as good as it does on the PS2 hardware and capped at a 56K running speed. However, players with an option between the two formats might want to consider playing on the PC.
FFXI is going to be a new experience for most console gamers-many of whom have never experienced an MMORPG before. Because of this, I found it troubling that Square sort of just throws players right into the game with little or no help at all. There's a cruddy little tutorial you can read before logging on, but really-who's going to read that when a massive new gaming world filled with thousands of people is waiting with the click of a button? Even those who do read it won't find much in the way of useful information. This is why players see so many "newbs" (slang for new players) running around clueless, getting killed regularly, and messing up some of the game's finely tuned balance. Complicating this even more is an absolutely awful menu system that makes navigating through the player's options even more daunting than it should be. Players will get used to everything in the game, but realize there's a learning curve.
And that learning curve brings us back to the whole "time sink" thing. FFXI isn't a game for the casual gamer. To get anything good, players have to commit literally hundreds of hours to leveling their characters, farming materials, working on craft skills, and doing quests. The first 200 hours of the game can be a chore, but those who stick with it are eventually rewarded with better gear, better forms of transportation, and a much larger world to play in. Perseverance is rewarded in this game-those who don't have it need not apply.
Since FFXI features a persistent world, things are constantly evolving-a fact that makes reviewing any MMORPG difficult. In fact, as I write this, a new update is being installed that will tweak some jobs, add new areas, new items, and more. In other words, tomorrow's FFXI will be a different game than today's. However, that doesn't change the fact that some of the jobs now are not nearly as useful as they should be. While only one is truly broken (the summoner-which should be a battle caster type mage but has instead been relegated to being a healer in most parties) many of the classes are in desperate need of some tweaking. However, Square has been very on the ball with listening to the community thus far, and I do believe that as FFXI ages things will continually improve.
Honestly, I could spend all day talking about Final Fantasy XI and never even scratch the surface of the experience. I've never had an interest in MMORPGs until now, and since this game has released, I've got a full-fledged addiction (witnessed by my 14 full days of playtime since the PlayStation 2 launch last month). While this game is probably not for everyone and still has room for numerous improvements, there's really no denying its charm. In a gaming community where critics like to throw around words like "immersive" this title truly is a world of its own. Just be prepared to kiss your loved ones, your job, and your social life goodbye when you boot it up for the first time.