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Platform: GameCube Publisher: SEGA of America
Genre: Action MMORPG Developer: Sonic Team
Format: mini DVD-ROM Expected Release: Oct. 29th 2002

Preview Update
09/16/02
Jason Walton
Jason Walton

Phantasy Star Online for the Dreamcast was the world's first mainstream console-based online RPG. Introducing multiplayer action-based combat into a legendary role-playing universe, PSO had many skeptics, but the end result was groundbreaking. With the passing of the Dreamcast, many fans thought the days of PSO were numbered. Now, those fears have abated as Sonic Team has done an extensive upgrade of the original game, including addressing various issues the player base had brought forth, and will be bringing the experience to Nintendo’s GameCube later this year. Phantasy Star Online: Episode I & II contains everything the original release had and adds enough new content to keep veteran players occupied for months.

While Phantasy Star Online was an incredible experience, there were many issues that cropped up the longer the game was played. Perhaps the largest complaint players had were the limited number of areas available to explore. PSO only featured four levels with 2-3 stages per level, leaving players with a total of 10 stages of gameplay. The small number of arenas was aggravated by the fact that similar monsters were to be found throughout most levels. These limitations made the game repetitive very quickly. To address this issue, Sonic Team has chosen an alternate method of level design. By decreasing the number of stages per level to one or two, and making each stage much larger, they were able to add more variety to the scenery. For example, the Central Factory, which acts as a hub of sorts, will require players to clear the Jungle, Coast and Mountain stages before they can press on to challenge the Gar Griffon boss. The recently announced Deep Sea Plant offers even more variety with an underwater stage that is certainly going to prove interesting.

Another complaint that players had was the cramped feel of the old stages and the city aboard Pioneer 2. Stages in Episode II are now considerably larger and Pioneer 2's shopping district, along with the lobbies, has received a complete remodeling job rather than a palette-swap. Lobby 1, for example, will contain green foliage similar to that found in the Forest area and Lobby 10 will house its very own snowman. In this version, Pioneer 2 more appropriately resembles a city spaceship than a space dock.

Sadly, the original release of PSO spawned an armada of “griefers”, players who intentionally caused trouble for other players for their own amusement, but Sonic Team has finally addressed them thanks to tons of player input. Players will now have the option to ignore incoming text from annoying players, as well as automatically rejecting their incoming guild cards. One of the biggest problems caused by griefers was their exploitation of a teammate’s death. Dying in PSO would cause your character to drop their equipped weapon. In the event a griefer was in your team when you died, the bastard would run by and swipe your best blade from your fallen corpse before your friends could retrieve your gear. The chances of a player recovering their weapon from such a thief were next to none. This caused many players to start playing the game in password-protected rooms. To the cheers of thousands of players, this irritating aspect has finally been removed from the game. Now dying simply unequips your current weapon, tucking it snugly back into your inventory. Choosing to return to Pioneer 2 after dying incurs a penalty of losing all your carried meseta, while being resurrected through a Moon Atomizer or the Reverser technique incurs no penalty.

As stated in our earlier preview, Sonic Team has introduced three new classes to play: the sleek HUcaseal (female android hunter), the wise FOmar (male human force) and the sexy RAmarl (female human ranger). These additions bring the bring the roster to twelve classes: four hunters to fight in close-range combat, four rangers that excel at ranged gunnery, and four forces with mastery over magic techniques. Each of the four different classes has varied strengths and weaknesses, such as the newly introduced HUcaseal. This android class is exceptionally accurate while nearly as strong as their HUcast counterparts. As androids, the HUcaseal and Hucast have special abilities unique to their kind. They are able to see traps without any additional gear and have complete immunity to poison and paralysis. The variations in appearance and stats gives people plenty of options for the creation of their character(s). Not to leave players who enjoyed the old classes hanging, Sonic Team has included nine additional costumes for each of the original eight classes. Players wishing to recreate their old favorites will now have a much more impressive wardrobe to choose from. Alongside these changes and additions are remodeled versions of the original game's weaponry. The Dragon Slayer, which was just a palette-swapped broadsword, now resembles the Soul Edge from Namco's Soul Calibur. The Last Survivor, another broadsword color variation, is now reminiscent of Cloud's infamous Buster Sword from Final Fantasy VII. Not surprisingly, Sonic Team has thrown in a great deal of new items and weapons to find.

Phantasy Star Online: Episode I & II will also feature several class tweaks to achieve more balanced gameplay. Powerful abilities such as the Grants, Megid, and Reverser techniques are now exclusive to the Force classes. In an effort to equate the power of all the classes, the HUmar (male human hunter) no longer have access to the Shifta and Deband techniques (both increase attack and defensive power); abilities that gave them a significant advantage over the other classes in the original Phantasy Star Online. Techniques are to be more dependent on the MST statistic, unlike the previous release where the technique level had the most influence, which gives Forces the boost they need. These changes make all the available classes truly unique and are most certainly welcome.

While the original PSO revolutionized communication and expression via emoticons, PSO: Episode I & II will give players even more ways to express themselves. For amusement purposes, players can now perform various animations in the lobbies, such as dancing, posing, back flipping, and so forth. Players now have the option of taking a seat in a chair and conversing with others who are in the same lobby while awaiting a team to join.

In a move that will no doubt delight ADSL users, Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II will officially support PPPOE in addition to other broadband options, unlike the previous versions. With Nintendo offering both narrowband and broadband adapters for the GameCube, everyone will have a chance to join in on the action. Connecting online will feature new additions such as a bulletin board at login that informs players of recent updates to the servers. For those who choose to play offline, a 4-player split-screen mode is available which is a nice addition. Players can fit 4 characters on an empty GameCube Memory Card 59, which is a nice change from the Dreamcast's one-character-per-VMU restriction. PSO: Episode I & II, like the previous version, will require a Hunter's License to play, though SEGA has made no comment about the monthly fee when the game is released in the States.

With all the aforementioned additions and modifications, there’s no denying that Sonic Team has done their homework. By listening to their players, they’ve crafted another masterpiece with Phantasy Online: Episode I & II; which is more than enough reason for Phantasy Star Online veterans and new players alike to invest in a GameCube.

Look for a comprehensive review and screens of the import release before the end of this month!

Special thanks go to Ragol.com, Mamak International, and PSO World for providing a plethora of information combined into this preview.


Preview First-Look
1/06/02
Kermit Hooks III
Kermit Hooks III

Throughout their history, SEGA has always been the innovator amongst the major game companies, the trendsetter, even if it meant they were also to first to be stamped obsolete. On the other hand, their "never say die" attitude has continued to see to it that groundbreaking software is released again and again. Last year marked a milestone for the console industry, and for SEGA itself, as Phantasy Star Online for the Dreamcast was released. The game showcased some of the best visuals and gameplay of any MMORPG to date and took the industry by storm. For hundreds, even thousands of hours, gamers logged onto SEGA's servers and battled together against Boomas, Hildebears, Dragons, Robots, and other enemies galore.

Then, just as the mere 4 dungeons became repetitive, SEGA unveiled version 2, which sought to correct the problems of its predecessor, and for the most part succeeded. PSO peaked again, with the addition of two new areas, which were explicitly for the new and most anticipated feature: player versus player battle mode. The console market's online debut was a rabid success, infecting the homes of gamers everywhere. However, marred by the rampant cheating and the death of the Dreamcast, things began to look bleak. But, just then, an unlikely savior appeared, wearing a big... N on its chest? A few years ago, fans of the Phantasy Star series would've never envisioned a future installment on a Nintendo system, but sure enough the Gamecube will be receiving its own version of PSO.

Although dubbed simply Phantasy Star Online: Episode I & II, the Gamecube version will implement all of PSO ver. 2's enhancements, along with a slew of new features not present in either Dreamcast version. What was the game's greatest need? New areas. The GC version will have at least one new stage, the Jungle, which will be chock full of new enemies. Amongst them are a huge griffin-like creature, which is presumably the boss, and a machine of some sort with light-bending capabilities (it can disappear). The jungle is also by far the best looking area yet, a multi-tiered environment blessed by rich color, ample shading and lighting effects, and an overall heightened attention to detail. It is here that the Gamecube's hardware will be fully implemented, as this new stage was catered specifically to the system's abilities.

What's that you say? One new stage isn't much of an update? Well how about if they added not one, but three new character classes as well? Introducing the FOmar, the RAmarl, and the HUcaseal. Phantasy Star enthusiasts will welcome the FOmar to the lineup, especially after the frightening fashion statement made by the FOnewm. While he's no Rune Walsh, the FOmar shares his female counterpart's sense of style, with the long ornate robes and a variety of hats.The RAmarl looks like something out of a B action movie with a female lead ---Beret Debutantes on Mars?--- but no one's going to say that to her face, as she's wielding the same massive guns as her male equivalent. The HUcaseal is the star of the upcoming movie, "Phantasy Star vs. Predator" (yes, I'm kidding...), a sleek and savvy female android hunter who this editor will certainly be using as soon as the game debuts. The tall physique, that slender stature, those wicked curves and chiseled features, it could be love at first sight.

While it is uncertain what Sonic Team and Nintendo plan to do about the cheating hassle present on the Dreamcast versions, they have definitely decided on a closed network, meaning that DC and GC players will not be sharing the experience. As for the nuisance of item-swipers, PSO: Episode I & II is going to implement a new trading system so that players don't have to run off to passworded rooms just to prevent petty theft. There will be a trade window displaying the items or money to be exchanged, then both players have to agree to the deal. This is definitely a feature that should've been incorporated from the start.

So, the first ever online console RPG, also the second, will now become the third as well. Naturally, this installment will HAVE to be the best. Slated for release in the second quarter of 2002, Phantasy Star Online: Episode I & II will show Gamecube owners and Nintendo fanboys alike just what SEGA can do, and how quickly one, two or 653 hours can pass by without them noticing.



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