Noted existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once observed: "Hell is other people." What's amazing about this is that he arrived at this accurate conclusion without once ever having played Sonic Team's Phantasy Star Online (PSO). Had Sartre spent any amount of time wandering the servers of consoledom's most popular online action Role-Playing Game (RPG), he might have concluded that hell is online gaming.
In theory, a game like PSO is every gamer's dream—join up with three other players from other parts of the country (or the world, once the Japanese servers get linked up) and go on an adventure to kill enemies, level up, and maybe find ultra rare weapons and items. However, like most utopias, the world of PSO sounds much better in theory than it does in reality. Unlike games with computer-controlled allies, every other character on PSO (aside from the monsters, of course) is controlled by another human being—complete with all the flaws and foibles most people seem to possess in abundance. These character flaws come into play regularly for some reason, leading those of us who are older, kinder, or just simply polite to wonder just what's wrong with people.
Still, the fact that I have a love/hate relationship with PSO and have spent over 800 hours with it (500 on the Dreamcast version and 300-and-counting on the GameCube release) has to say something about the enduring and addictive quality of the title. I'm continually amazed by how addictive the game can be, particularly when one considers how small it is in comparison to other online games like Sony's Everquest.
The latest version of Phantasy Star Online is subtitled Episode I and II. Apparently, Sega realized that they couldn't get away with reusing the same four levels found in the original game for the GameCube release, and have added a second game that ties in loosely with the first. Those looking for some kind of meaningful plot would be advised to look elsewhere since like the original title, Episode II features a storyline that is paper-thin at best.
Episode I is the same game as the Dreamcast version: four stages on the planet Ragol, a forest, caves, mines, and ruins. Players will wander through each, fighting a few different breeds of enemy and plundering for loot. Episode II offers up new areas—two VR missions, the temple and spaceship, a central control area, and the seabed. Episode II is the more interesting of the two games (despite the fact that the VR Temple mission is awful in its design), yet fewer people play it for some reason. Graphically, it's a fair improvement over Episode I, featuring nicer textures, some great reflections, and an overall sharper image graphically speaking. Of course, it's not without its problems, the most notable being some major slowdown from time to time if there are multiple enemies, spells, and characters all onscreen at once.
Episode I isn't any improvement over the original Dreamcast version. In fact, many of the same problems that plagued that game are still present and accounted for—some horrible pop-up, noticeable seams in the graphics, and the occasional bit of clipping. Still, for a game that's several years old, it's not exactly ugly; most of this is attributable to Sonic Team's aesthetic vision. Interesting juxtapositions are placed throughout the game—the technologically advanced Central Dome in the middle of the lush forest level is but one example. Truthfully, the ambition often makes up for many of the flaws.
Playing PSO is a unique experience dependant upon what kind of character a player chooses to be. Playing as a Hunter (who attacks and melee fights but can't use magic) is a far different experience than tackling the game as a Force (who relies on magic to the exclusion of most everything else). The Ranger class seems to be the most balanced, and is a good starting point for new players, offering a balanced growth potential and the ability to fight and use magic.
Each class has several different kinds of characters and a male and female version of each. Two new classes have been added for the GameCube version (the FOmar, a male force, and the HUcaseal, a female android) and gamers will see an abundance of these characters on the servers.
Once a character has been selected (complete with face, hair, costume, and name), players are thrust into the game. Gameplay is basically a hack-and-slash or cast-and-slash affair with a major emphasis on combat. The game falls into a predictable pattern after a short time: pipe down to an area, kill everything, pick up the loot, and move on. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
So, what keeps players coming back to the game? Two things: the chance of finding some incredibly rare weapon or item and leveling up for bragging rights.
Rare items are at a premium on the GameCube version since duping and cheating haven't yet marred the gameplay experience. On the DC version, rares were common since anyone could easily make multiple copies of any item they found. These "rares" would then be given or traded amongst the community until everyone had just about everything, making nothing at all rare. Fortunately, to this point, duping has not been an issue. However, getting back to the whole "hell is other people" thing, it's almost assuredly only a matter of time until someone figures out how to do it.
This lack of rares has brought about some ugly behavior in players—everyone makes a mad dash for any red box (rare items are displayed as red boxes when dropped) whether they need or can use the item or not. This "item whoring" extends beyond rares, though, with many players running into rooms, smashing boxes, and grabbing all the rewards while everyone else fights the hordes of spawned monsters. Again, it's human nature at its worst.
Leveling up holds its own unique allure for many gamers—it's a badge of devotion to show just how hardcore one is. There's nothing quite like walking into a lobby with a character in the 130s or higher and looking at all the peons milling about.
The original DC game allowed characters to reach level 100, which was no small feat. Version 2 upped it to 200 and added an Ultimate mode with more experience and more difficult enemies. The 'Cube version sticks at the level 200 cap, but has made the Ultimate mode game a little easier. Despite this, players will be putting in hundreds upon hundreds of hours (probably thousands, honestly) if they ever hope to see the level 200. Few will make it without cheating.
Which brings us to cheating...
Cheating was prevalent on the Dreamcast games. Gamesharked characters, items, and more were rampant. Anyone at level 100 was viewed with suspicion, since it was no challenge at all to create a level 100 character in a matter of minutes.
Stealing was also a regular occurrence, thanks mostly to a boneheaded decision by Sonic Team to cause the player to drop all of his money and his equipped weapon any time he died. When this happened, invariably, someone would wander over, pick up the character's stuff for themselves, then revive him (if he was lucky—lots of times, they'd force the player to return to the ship while they made their getaway).
As bad as that was, it was nothing compared to the player killing (wherein a friendly character could kill another character in the game), character killing (this killed the player's character on his memory card), Nol'ing (the character was changed into one of the game's low level non-playable characters and couldn't be changed back) and some of the more evil hacks out there.
Fortunately, at this early stage of the GameCube version's life, there's very little cheating. The game is essentially pure, items don't drop when you die, and Sega has assured gamers they're going to be more diligent in working to eradicate cheating on this version of the title. This doesn't come without a price, though—U.S. gamers pay $8.95 a month to play the game, which is significantly higher than it is in Japan. Why? Because according to Sega, most of the hacks originated here in America. So, cheaters not only hurt the game, they're hurting honest players' wallets as well.
That $8.95 a month is the smallest fee associated with PSO, which is one of the more costly gaming undertakings I've had in quite awhile. One must not only buy the game and a hunter's license (the monthly fee) if they want to play online, they must also buy a GameCube Network Adaptor. That's another $35, provided you can find one.
$35 isn't too bad a price—unless the peripheral goes the way of the 64DD. Currently, PSO is the GameCube's only online game, and will remain the only one for the foreseeable future. Nintendo has been very vocal about their reluctance to support online gaming, which makes the network adaptor one of those peripherals that might die a quick death.
For those who don't want to take the online plunge, PSO features an offline mode that has both single and multi-player games. The multiplayer mode allows four players to compete via split screen and seems like a nice idea in theory. However, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The single player mode is okay, particularly for getting the hang of the game before taking a new character online, but it really pales in comparison to the online portion.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the game's most glaring flaw-the complete lack of a keyboard. PSO on the GameCube is an online game with the most simplistic communication system imaginable. Players can type out messages, one letter at a time, on a virtual keyboard that's not even as nice as the one in Animal Crossing. If that doesn't appeal to the player, they can choose a bunch of pre-written statements and questions—some of which feature really great 'Engrish.' Japan got the ASCII keyboard/controller hybrid, while American gamers once again get the shaft. Totally inexcusable.
Despite the flaws and the fact that playing with other people is rarely as wonderful as it sounds in theory, Phantasy Star Online is still one heck of a game. Addictive personalities will no doubt find themselves caught up in the game to the exclusion of all else. There's always one more quest to undertake, one more rare to find, one more level to grow...it's these elements that keep people coming back. And while there are no shortage of poor players, item hoarders, and other undesirables on the servers, there are also some really great people too. Finding these folks (like my favorite questing companions Sickle and Ogsolskjaer) takes effort, but the reward is well worth it. Sartre may have found other people to be hell, but I'm betting he would have wound up addicted to this game anyway.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the GameCube version of the game.