The MMORPG genre, while still in its relative infancy on consoles, has been a staple on the PC for several years. This winter, Square Enix will be bringing the eleventh installment of the critically acclaimed Final Fantasy series to Windows-based PCs to butt heads with giants like EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided.
As an online-only experience, Final Fantasy XI will indeed be pay-to-play, but promises a world of endless adventure for each individual as well as thousands of other gamers. With a PS2 release slated for early next year, Final Fantasy XI is a true cross-platform title, allowing players to interact and adventure together regardless of whether they’re on the PC or their PS2. Also, as Final Fantasy XI has been actively played in Japan for well over a year courtesy of Square Enix’s PlayOnline service, gamers can expect that the North American release will be silky smooth compared to some of the more recent disastrous MMORPG launches.
Last week, RPGFan had the distinct pleasure of sampling a taste of what the Final Fantasy XI experience would be like when the PC version is released this winter. Together with editors from several other online and offline publications, we begin our tour of the vast world of Vana’diel.
We began in a ruined city, closed and decayed. The ancient carved walls extended around us, showing off architecture long lost to the current inhabitants of Vana’diel. The lush polygonal models of the player avatars showed Square Enix’s trademark commitment to detail and visual flair; each piece of armor, painstakingly drawn and rendered. The gleam of light from sharp steel and the warm glow of the torch on polished armor plates were eye-catching. Small touches such as blinking eyes, the gentle brush of hair with quick movement and the finely animated intricacies of the character emotes surpassed what I’d ever seen in most other online role playing games.
Among my companions were representatives from the four major races in Vana’diel. First there are the Humes, adept at mechanical operations and works of science. Human in appearance, they share the Republic of Bastok with the juggernaut Galka. The Galka are a breed of massive man-beasts who work the mines in Bastok and are the young nation’s primary source of labor.
Next there are the Elvaan, lithe elvish creatures who are elegant in stature and long in limb. These natural bowmen and artisans hail from the ancient kingdom of San D’Oria. Their beauty is only matched by their fierce nationalism and distrust of outsiders. They are a nation rich in heritage and aren't shy to tout their self-importance to the other races.
Last but not least are Mithra and the Tarutaru.The Mithra are a breed of female felines who are adept at speed and cunning, unlike the towering, and sometimes brutish Galka. The Tarutaru, however, are a diminutive race; short in stature but tall in mystical power. Both the Mithra and the Taru hail from the nation of Windurst, a country of natural magic founded by the Taru tribes and protected by the nomad Mithra.
In our group, every job class was represented and then some. RPG fans familiar with the job system founded in Final Fantasy Tactics will find the initial job classes found in FFXI to be most familiar. First there are Warriors, masters of melee weapons and conductors of the flow of battle. These versatile soldiers have the greatest weapon variety in the game, as well as being able to draw and lock the attention of a rampaging opponent with their skill, "Provoke."
Next are the Monks, a fan favorite. This job specializes in hand-to-hand combat and will be the largest dealer of physical damage due to their ability to strike with both fists for concurrent blows. Next are the Black Mages; wielders of elemental power, they provide the forefront of magical offense. On the other side, there are the White Mages; these healers are a boon in any party due to their vast array of curative and restorative powers.
Then we have the Red Mages; while not masters of elemental or curative magic, these casters have access to both black and white magic. They also specialize in status-ailments and infusing their weapons with elemental magic. They are also the only casters who can use swords and wear armor, making them the hardiest of the caster classes.
Finally, what party would be complete without a roguish Thief? With their speed and cunning, Thieves can steal items from enemies and can even increase the party’s chance of finding rare loot from the vanquished with their "Treasure Hunt" ability. They are also unmatched in speed and their ability "Sneak Attack" can yield devastating amounts of damage to the unweary opponent.
Each of my companions was clad in the garb and armor representative of their profession. As we met each other for the first time, I marveled at the ease of communication via the keyboard and hotkey shortcuts. Before the enclosure devolved into a chatroom, our guide took us out into the Elvaan city of San D’Oria. Our stay in this mighty castle town was brief as our White Mage teleported us to a Crag in the highlands. The Crag itself was magnificent - towering over us, we were told there are several of these huge structures found throughout Vana’diel and are tied to mysterious Gate Crystals.
Teleportation in Final Fantasy XI is used through the use of the magic spell, "Teleport." With this players can transport their party to any Crag they’ve visited before. Though how one gains access to the spell is still a tighly guarded secret. This was the first step in our journey across this vast world.
Next, we were introduced to the staple mode of transportation in Vana’diel: Chocobo riding. The adorable pack-mules... err... fowls return to carry on the job they’ve done since the very first Final Fantasy games. After renting our flock of land-running avians from a local vendor, we set out across the plains, free from the attacks of the numerous monsters and rampaging sheep that would have sought to end our journey. Looking back as we left the enemy in the dust, I felt bad for the players who were forced to travel such vast distances on foot during their earliest levels of experience. But enough talk - we ride! Across the open fields we raced, over the hill and through the woods and into Jugner Forest.
As we journeyed through the brush we saw an amazing array of wildlife from Orcs to bees of mammoth size. As we were riding Chocobo-back, we were not disturbed by any of the creatures of the wild as they went about their business: wandering aimlessly while eating new players foolish enough to enter the forest. Before long we arrived in the plateaus of Battalia Downs in time to catch a glimpse of a tiger running off into the distance, most likely after a Taru snack.
Finally we came to our destination, one of the most prestigious of all the nations in Vana’diel, the Grand Duchy of Jeuno. From the moment we rode into the streets of Jeuno, I gasped as I saw the architectural nature of the city. Built around a towering spire, this city on the coast bore the elegance of an avenue on the Danube, yet had the ecclectic style of a clockwork fairytale. Sadly, wanderlust could not be quenched as our host stealthily teleported us back to a Crag while we were in the midst of enjoying a beautiful sunset over the city.
No sooner had we returned to the Crag were we attacked by a "Notorious Monster." This particular boss-creature was a gargantuan ram the size of a Winnebago, hell-bent on knocking us clear across the field. We stood fast and engaged the beast in fierce combat with a familiar system. Final Fantasy XI marks the return of the Active-Time Battle (ATB) System, where enemies attacks take place in real-time, as are the player's commands. Quick thinking and a good knowledge of the roles of each party member are the keys to victory.
In Final Fantasy XI, each job has specific skills that make them useful in combat. Some are actively used such as the Warrior’s "Provoke", while some are passive like the Thief’s "Treasure Hunt." In addition to job skills each weapon-type has its own series of abilities called Weapon Skills. These resemble the Limit Breaks present in the console Final Fantasy games. As players land successful blows or are damaged in battle, their TP gauge will fill. Once it reaches 100%, any of the equipped weapons’ Weapon Skills can be executed. The TP bar can be filled to 300% to multiply the overall effect of any Weapon Skill. Players have the option of resting after battle to rejuvenate their HP and MP, though for every bit of energy recharged, it siphons off what is saved in the TP gauge.
To add an element of strategy, players can chose to store their TP and execute Weapon Skills in unison to create a Weapon Skillchain. This rapid execution of several different Weapon Skills can create a unique team attack that will deal enormous amounts of damage to an enemy. What is the order of Weapon Skills that will create a Weapon Skillchain? Players will have to practice their timing and attack variety to unlock them all. Magic users should fear not as they can contribute to a Skillchain with a "Magic Burst."
Using a combined effort of Weapon Skills, Job Abilities and magic, we were able to bring the sheep to its knees. As we took a breather, a dust storm whipped across the plain, sending blades of stinging grass careening into the air. As the storm clouds rolled overhead I was in awe of the ambience around me. Perhaps our victory wouldn't have been so simple without such an overcast and rainy day. In Final Fantasy XI, gamers will have to pay attention to the elements as they too can have a significant impact on the battle. Spells and many abilities may reach their full potential when used on days that share the corresponding element.
Our next stop was a hidden grotto marked with a flaming arcane seal deep within the borders of San D'Oria. Upon touching the seal, we were transported to what appeared to be an occult shrine that jutted out of the rock with spires of black marble. Here we took part in a scripted story event before facing our enemy, the Dread Dragon.
The fire breathing beast was massive, dealing immense amounts of damage to our front-line fighters. Unfortunately the undead dragon had a distinct affinity to our White Mage when she began healing. Thankfully the Warriors made good use of their "Provoke" ability to draw attention away from our hen-pecked healer. With teamwork, we eventually slew the wyrm and came face to face with its demon puppet master. After cleaning the clock of that particular myopic bag of flying flab, we were treated to another beautifully scripted story event that helped move along the plot which brought our journey to a close...
What’s this you ask? An MMORPG with a plot? What are in-game real-time cinemas for story-driven quests doing in a game like this? How could this be? Who put the RPG back into my MMORPG? Where’s my mindless leveling and loot-whoring? Where’s my lack of NPC interaction and bland locales? I don’t beleive any extrapolation is necessary to further explain what Square Enix is trying to accomplish with Final Fantasy XI.
From what we’ve seen so far, Square Enix has taken their visual and creative expertise and brought a soul to the seemingly hollow MMORPG experience. What many die-hard RPG fans have shunned as an empty and unrewarding genre may finally become something worthwhile and riveting.