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games > final fantasy XI

final fantasy XI

Since Square Enix revealed that Final Fantasy XI would be an MMORPG, series fans have been crying for them to rename it Final Fantasy Online, to save the enumeration for a "real" Final Fantasy game. The game will certainly challenge series fans about what a Final Fantasy game is, and MMORPG fans are in for a similar challenge. After surmounting two very different learning curves, however, both camps will find Final Fantasy XI to be a beautiful and well-crafted game if they can get over some of its shortcomings.

A lot of Final Fantasy XI's gameplay trappings will seem familiar to MMORPG fans, but feel different than you might expect -- if two words were to sum up the game's differences from other games of this type, they would be "flexibility" and "focus." Probably the biggest difference is how the game's character classes, or "Jobs," are handled. After picking from one of the game's five races, there are six classes available to you at the start of the game, and you're free to move between them however you please. Levels are tracked on a per-job basis, so while you effectively start over when you change jobs for the first time, a pool of cross-class skills make the second go around much faster. Once your character reaches level 18, you'll be able to equip a "Support Job," which grants stat boosts and access to a portion of their skills. While some races are better at some jobs than others, the flexibility of this system allows for hundreds of possible character types.

Try and guess the tank in this group. Each of the starting six classes has a distinct role in a party, with advanced jobs taking on more specialized roles. This system not only allows for lots of character customization, but also lets the player adapt to his party if he's willing to put the time into another job. And in a uniquely Japanese take on party ability interactions, complimentary special attacks and spells can combine to deal extra damage with the proper timing. It's details like this that spice up the traditional, EQ-esque auto-battle and help make it feel less automatic.

Virtually all of the game's numerous gameplay systems feed into and stem from one: the conquest system. The three nations of Vana'diel, one of which you will join at the start of your journey, vie for control of the world. Each of the three nations are pretty much the same, although each has a few exclusive crafting guilds to join, different stores, and one or two favored races that receive a nice item on joining.

Your nation's adventurers' monster kills will be compared to the total number of deaths and tallied once a week, at which point the world's regions will change hands accordingly. Crystals are dropped in regions your nation controls, and are the center around which the Rank system and economy are built. By donating crystals to your nation's cause, you'll acquire Rank Points, which in turn unlock new missions, giving you incentive to keep on competing for kills.

Kweh! Rent a Chocobo and travel in style. Crafting is a key component of the game's economy, which is largely player-driven though the four cities' auction houses. Since crafting is as reliant on crystals as the Rank system, they affect that economy. There are stores that regularly stock items, but there are enough holes in the selection that players will inevitably turn to the auction house to stay properly outfitted. It all works rather well, with new players providing much of the raw materials to the experienced crafters, which are turned into saleable items and then sold at a profit -- rinse, repeat. While losing a region can be a setback for your nation, the Conquest system succeeds in letting you feel like you belong to a group and competing even though you're not directly fighting other players. And while it's not available yet, PvP play will be rolled out in a limited, conquest-centric form in the coming months to sate those with a taste for human blood.
So how will the gameplay stack up for this game's two audiences? As Final Fantasy XI has only been live for a little over a year and left to develop in the Japanese MMORPG vacuum, experienced MMORPG players will either love it or hate it. It doesn't have five years of expansion packs to benefit from, and the focused gameplay may feel limited to genre veterans. Most notable, however, is the game's interface. As the game was designed for a PS2 and ported to PCs for an audience without knowledge of MMORPG conventions, the interface will challenge dyed-in-the-wool players to overcome their expectations and muscle memory.

Final Fantasy fans, on the other hand, will have to learn a whole new set of gameplay ideals. With so much to learn, it's unfortunate that the game's manuals and design don't try harder to help people settle into their new world. Both groups, however, will benefit from playing the game the way it was meant to be played: with a controller. Not only will this help MMORPG standbys get accustomed to the controls faster, it's also a faster way to do most everything one does in the game. Still, one can't help but feel this is a MMORPG with training wheels, and if the core gameplay systems don't sound interesting to you now, you probably won't enjoy it.

Character creation -- limited, but attractive. Final Fantasy XI also introduces a new dynamic to the genre: the Japanese. Square Enix decided to not boot up any new servers for North American players, requiring us to play alongside innumerable Japanese players. This rather odd decision has its ups and downs: while this has denied us that "virgin world" experience we're used to at the start of a game, we are stepping into a fully-realized economy right away and benefiting from the experience of the Japanese. Personally, I've had a great time with the ever-helpful Japanese players and their established economy, but Square should probably have set up new servers to give people a choice. Fortunately, there are options to help deal with the Japanese players -- a clunky "auto-translate" feature which lets you try and communicate or a language filter which helps you ignore them. Related to this controversial server allotment issue is the oft-maligned "World Pass" system, by which you pay for your friends to join you in the game for a small fee of in-game currency. While it's not as much trouble as some have made it out to be, picking your server is another thing that we take for granted that apparently the Japanese do not. Still, with so much competition out there, these stand out as wrongheaded inconveniences. While most people will be able to get over these once they start playing, for some it will remain inexcusable, like with me and the N-Gage's cartridge removal method. In general, however, dealing with Square's servers has been a breeze -- unlike the tumultuous Japanese launch, the U.S. launch went off without a hitch and there is almost no lag to speak of, even though all of the game servers are located in Japan.

The stately Elvaan. People often times complain about the standard MMORPG treadmill ... but what if that treadmill were really, really pretty? While it may not push your system to its limits, Final Fantasy XI boasts gorgeous art supported by a solid engine. The system requirements are surprisingly slim for a game this beautiful, especially when compared to suspiciously bland, yet system-throttling games like LucasArts' Star Wars Galaxies. As one has come to expect from Square Enix, Final Fantasy XI is a lavish production, sporting wonderful locations filled with lovingly animated characters and monsters, over-the-top particle effects, and great music. While there is the usual array of stat-, name- and color-swapped monsters, they all look fantastic and have great animations to go with every attack. The game's art style is an odd mixture of traditional fantasy and Japanese aesthetics, with monsters ranging from cute to gruesome. Everything, though, is a visual reward -- you'll be excited every time you enter a new area, see a new monster, or cast a new spell because they all look so cool.

Final Fantasy XI is certain to divide players over many issues, ranging from the focused gameplay to the server allocation, but a majority of players will find a lot to like here. A true test of this game is to see how it adapts to the addition of American players, the influx of PS2 players early next year, and how quick Japan is to respond to each audience's needs. For the time being, though, Final Fantasy XI is a great multiplayer game that promises months of fun -- it's beautiful, it's well-designed, and I can't wait to spend more time in it.

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