Right then, let's get started. If I've come to learn anything about you in the many, many years we've all been together (other than your collective love of aniseed balls), it's that when it comes to games such as Final Fantasy XI Online you don't want loads of waffle setting the scene, describing the game contents and going into great depth about crafting processes. No, what you want is a straight answer to two or three key questions.
First, what does FFXI offer that you're not going to get in the EverQuests and Dark Age Of Camelots of this world? Second, is it even worth your while jumping into a world that's already been extensively chronicled by American and Japanese gamers for the best part of two years now? Third, shouldn't we all just wait on a bit for the EverQuest II/World Of Warcraft double whammy about to hit us in the gut several months from now?
Good questions all, so let's deal with them in turn shall we? (Incidentally, if you do want a detailed rewording of the manual then go and read the FFXI website. We practise actual journalism here.)
So, what differentiates FFXI from the others then? Well for starters, you're
not going to find another MMOG that's anywhere near as welcoming as this. While the whole PlayOnline front-end interface might initially seem a cumbersome folly, it's not long before you're wishing all your online games could be handled through such a console-style browser. It's a hell of a lot easier on the eye than Windows, and having all your contacts, community options and breaking news in such a friendly, happy place puts you in a good mood before you even start the game proper. PC developers really need to start learning lessons of presentation from our console brethren.
As for the game itself, while for the most part it subscribes to all the usual fantasy MMORPG traditions, it at least does it all with a level of polish that Mr Sheen would be hard pushed to rival. While some MMOGs might be content to throw meaningless level grinding quest templates at you over and over again to see you rise the ranks, FFXI's missions all have some kind of meaningful story attached, the majority of which even come with (in-game engine powered) cut-scenes.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. The single biggest thing that puts most people off playing a MMOG is the fear of the grind. Repetitive rat killing for hours on end does not make for a enjoyable night's gaming. With everything here having some sort of purpose (whether it's simply helping a small boy find his father, or teaming up to kill a giant dragon wyrm in a far-flung cavern), you not only enjoy your time in the game, but you actually feel as though you're making some sort of difference to the world.
I haven't mentioned FFXI's own brand of game mechanics, and for good reason. The game does things like combat, crafting, skill advancement and levelling in its own way. Combat follows traditional FF styles, only with a real-time element thrown in. Crafting adheres to the mystical backdrop of the game world, involving fusing crystals with energy rather than hitting bits of metal with a hammer and tongs. Levelling is a mixture of individual skill ratings and overall character experience points. All of it is horses for courses (or chocobos for, uh, track-obos...). You'll either like the way it works or you won't. There are better gaming systems, there are worse. Everything is solidly built and there are precious few instances of fighting the mechanics rather than the monsters on show.
Combat is a touch random in places, and in large group situations it can often be very confusing as to what is making an impact on the enemy and what isn't. But apart from that, there's not much you can criticise in the game's overall construction. (That is, unless you count oft-bemoaned problems like the insane World Pass system that prevents you from choosing which server you get to play on, a limit of one character per account, extremely limited character customisation options and a level/reward ratio that, in my view, errs on the side of extremely stingy.)
Breaking The Ice
From a social standpoint, FFXI is something of a curate's egg. After all, you might have the most polished game in all
of Christendom, but if your inhabitants all avoid each other like the plague and interact only to shaft each other in the marketplace, you might as well be making Streatham High Street Online.
With the game having been available to Johnny Foreigner already, the sudden influx of European adventurers exploring the lower reaches of the world provokes different reactions depending on your server.
Despite officially sanctioned endeavours such as linkshells (personalised chat rooms), mentor systems (old hands helping out the newbies) and even authorised wedding ceremonies all encouraging the denizens of Vana'diel to play happily together, FFXI tends to be one of the more insular MMOs in community terms. Hopefully we'll see this change as our European style, grace and savoir faire slowly wins hearts, and if not at least we'll have each other to share time zones with.
And the competition? True, the noises coming from the World Of Warcraft camps are already proclaiming it as a new dawn in online gaming. The EQ2 beta test is winning almost as many plaudits and since it'll only be a few more months before they get here, what chance does FFXI really have?
World Of EverCraft
Well, having sampled all three I can state that Square Enix's effort will be able to hold its own. A half million-strong community is a hard thing to shift so you'll not be lost for things to do and people to do it with (if you can get them talking). Plus we Euronauts get to enjoy the latest expansion, Chains Of Promathia right from the get-go so there's
plenty of scope for exploration.
Basically, Square Enix has had one hell of a headstart on the other contenders and has managed to construct a solid, enjoyable and absorbing world that doesn't resort to grinding. World Of Warcraft may have the balance and EverQuest II the heritage, but FFXI has the players and right now, that counts for everything.
A solid, second-tier fantasy world
- Never short of something to do
- Story-driven quests aid to the sense of purpose
- High population levels
- Still looks beautiful
- Quirky design features serve to annoy
- Combat often confusing