Chi may think that Phantasy Star Online is the beginning of a technology which will uplift and unite the planet into a happy and harmonious future, but I happen to be a bigger fan of Blade Runner than 2001. Personally, I found that PSO was the perfect technology to usher in a new age of missed potential and overrated boredom, rather than something which broke down global barriers and enlightened me.
For starters, Phantasy Star Online seems more like a first step in establishing the framework for an online world, rather than a fully-fleshed game. It's a very bold first step forward, and it gets much respect for that. There's a seed with a lot of potential here, but the game in its current form isn't very much fun.
While Chi seems to have enjoyed the various chat portions of the game far more than I did, that's all the game really is—a chat. Avatar based, which definitely adds some novelty, but still a chat. Anyone who has a computer and an ISP has access to the same type of core entertainment available here. Sure, it's supposed to be a game as well, but if the game itself isn't fun, then all that's left is a good way to get online and meet people. While this definitely has its charms, it's not really a fun "game." I'd much rather be playing something more satisfying when I'm in the mood for a game, and be chatting somewhere online without having to put up with people begging for the game's rare weapons when I'm in the mood to chat. Call me an extreme nationalist, but I didn't think it was very interesting to spend much time with the pictograms in order to talk to international players.
While it's true that the game's "Guild Card" and "Simple Email" systems help to make connections between players and expand the social aspects of the thing in a very positive way, when you get right down to it the game is extremely simple, monotonous and boring. With the basis of the game being "kill monsters, level up, repeat" I found little reason to keep playing no matter who I was chatting or playing with. Sure, it was fun to get together with people that I knew and kill a few beasties for a while, but the game is repetition incarnate. Even worse, there's not a whole world to explore here—only four major areas and a tiny central hub. Dungeon design is incredibly straightforward and plain (nice graphics aside), and team tactics for any kind of puzzle-solving never come into play except when all four members of a team need to stand on an equal amount of circles to unlock a door. PSO may have drawn some of its inspiration from Blizzard's seminal hit Diablo, but I'll take Diablo over this game any day.
As I've already mentioned, gameplay is as simple as could be. Create a character, go out and kill some monsters to level up, buy items and repeat. That's literally all there is to it. Nothing else. The game's main draw of finding better items and leveling up is a very a hollow pursuit, since the end goal is to basically enter dungeons and kill some more. In Diablo, while the goal was essentially the same, the game got quite frenetic at times and had a very rapid, arcade-like pace in addition to the countless weapons and spells available to you. Gauntlet Legends, a similar title, didn't have nearly the amount of customizing options that Diablo had, but it still retained the fast-action feel and got the adrenaline pumping. In PSO, things move much slower (to help avoid lag, probably) and never gets your heart racing the way being surrounded by hordes of enemies in the other games did. The pace is just too slow for an exploit this simple and basic, and there is far too much emphasis on leveling up—one of my least favorite things to do in any title.
In addition, the game's single-player mode is a joke, being comprised of the exact same gameplay as featured online, only disguised as a series of "quests." While on one of these "quests," the goal is always—surprise!—go into dungeons and kill monsters no matter what the plot of the mission is. The lack of any compelling story or world elements outside of a few shops really hurts the game, in my opinion. I fully realize the disc is called "Phantasy Star ONLINE," but the tacked-on single-player mode is a joke for those gamers who aren't taking their Dreamcasts online, and there's no goal for playing online except to level up, chat and collect items. I suppose some people would find this appealing enough, but for something that's supposed to be an RPG—online or not—I need more motivation.
Finally, the game's actual controls need work, which is surprising considering that the majority of the game is spent in dungeon-hacking. The camera is often less than optimal, requiring more manual adjusting than I care for. While the characters usually control just fine, for classes who use ranged weapons it's tougher than you'd think to get a bead on enemies. No incredibly major complaints here, but it's not as polished as you'd expect from Sega.
I think PSO has a very admirable goal in aiming to unite people worldwide, but once the people are there, there's not much to do with them. Like other Sega releases (most notably Seaman and Shenmue), Phantasy Star Online is a game which garners instant respect, and a lot of it, but is difficult to fully embrace due to the nature of the actual gameplay. The big "S" has created an extremely innovative game that blazes new territory and breaks new ground, yet again it's more concerned with advancing the field than making a game which is actually fun—a necessary and vital role, but sometimes a disappointing one. However, all complaints aside, PSO is only a first step, and if Sega continues on the path it has created, it could lead to something truly special indeed. Hopefully their recent shift to becoming a software-only company will help them focus on sharpening up their already strong development skills and create a sequel which is closer to being a full-fledged and well-rounded game than Phantasy Star Online currently is.