Square-Enix has always strived to keep its flagship series Final Fantasy a notch above the rest. Whether it be graphics, music, or gameplay innovations, there's usually something newer or better in the latest Final Fantasy title. However, even with the tweaks and quirks added over the years, the series has retained a standard RPG format for nearly two decades. Final Fantasy XI: Online seeks to take the series in a completely different direction: to conquer the world of massive-multiplayer online RPG's (MMORPG).
Plot has always been a central focus of the Final Fantasy series. Unfortunately, the nature of a MMORPG does not lend itself to having a deep, involved plot and central characters with copious amounts of character development. Square-Enix attempted to break from this mold and incorporate one of the most involved plots seen in a game of this type. They succeeded, but this does not mean that FFXI will engross a gamer because of the story; rather, it's more of a bonus to make the game that much better rounded.
The story begins quite simply: there are three nations who must band together to defeat the Shadow Lord, who has apparently risen and is causing the world of Vana'diel to swarm with horrible creatures and monsters of every type. The burden is placed on the individual gamer to get to the root of the problem, as a representative of your chosen nation, and make sure Vana'diel is a safe place. The problem lies in plot progression and availability. Most of the story sequences are optional; technically, to play the game one need not engage in any missions for their nation (which is basically how the game's plot progresses). This works for those who do not want to concern themselves with the plot, although certain rewards are given for completing missions for a character's respective nation. The largest problem lies in the progression of the plot. Only serious, dedicated gamers will see the plot through to the end; in fact, for one to even see one of the more revealing plot sequences, about 400 hours must be logged into FFXI.
Character interaction is twofold: there are non-playable characters that can tell stories or assign simple quests (most of them are fetch quests) and of course the online interaction with other FFXI players. Character creation is straight-forward, and the player can choose from five different races (each race having slight advantages and disadvantages in certain statistical areas) and customize their appearance. In reality, the appearance modifications are far too limited, and many of the players will end up seeing a double of them once, twice, maybe even a few times a day. This is one area I wish Square-Enix had put more thought into; with the vast world and various areas to explore in FFXI, one would think the character creation system would be littered with nuances and specifics to be altered to the player's desires.
Once the character has been created, players are thrust into a choice of three bustling cities. Here players are free to do whatever they want: FFXI has many options for even the most difficult to please. Most will begin by leveling a specific job class up. Final Fantasy XI has various job classes for characters to utilize in combat with the Shadow Lord's evil minions. The base job classes available to all players upon beginning the game are somewhat generic classes, such as warrior and black mage. Once a player has leveled a specific job to level 30 (FFXI uses the experience points gained in battle to level the character's job, not the character's base stats: in essence, as a level 30 warrior your character may have 500 HP and have many abilities, but if you return to your home and decide you want to be a red mage for the first time, it's back to level 1) they can unlock more specific job classes through quests, such as paladin and ninja. Though only fifteen job classes in all, there are enough to allow for a degree of diversity and so players can switch back and forth to spice the gameplay experience up. Also worthy of note is the particular care Square-Enix took in balancing the job classes. Though some classes have specific advantages, such as a paladin's incredible defense rating, they also have disadvantages (which in the previous example's case would be the paladin's mediocre attack rating). No one class is more important than another, though it won't take a player long to realize a white mage's healing powers are required for just about every group, making them the single most important class.
Leveling up a character's job class is as simple as stepping outside a city or town's boundaries and engaging an enemy in combat. Early on, it is best for players to engage in solo combat to maximize the amount of experience they get. As time presses on, though, it becomes necessary for a player to group with five other characters and form a full party (each party is limited to six members, though alliances can be formed of multiple parties). These six adventurers will travel to popular dungeons or spawn areas for characters their level and do battle, working in tandem to vanquish the Shadow Lord's various foes and increase their skills, abilities, and experience. Battling is much like every other MMORPG; clicking on the enemy to engage, and based on weapons, statistics, etc., the character automatically physically attacks. Depending on the job class a character can use MP to cast spells, summon avatars, or even use special moves. Combat can become somewhat repetitive, but this is the case in every MMORPG; and when this happens, FFXI has dozens of options for the player to keep interested. One can fish, goldsmith, mine, or even learn how to cook. Much like combat abilities and jobs, these skills also gain experience and levels, and players can do things such as create armor or cook food (which are useful for status boosts) and make some extra money by selling their wares.
Economy is always an issue, but the folks at Square-Enix have developed a decent system that will ensure some semblance of balance. Most people utilize the auction houses located in major cities as a source of moneymaking: much like popular online auction website eBay, players can put their items for sale in the auction house and set a "reserve" selling price. Other players can visit and bid on these items and they will only sell if the minimum reserve is met. Money is promptly delivered to a character's Mog house, so there are no messy transactions. Of course NPC stores still exist, and characters can also sell their wares by setting up a bazaar. A bazaar places a logo above your character's head, indicating there are items for sale in your inventory. Any other character can click on you and browse your wares and make purchases.
The world of Vana'diel is not only incredibly diverse, as seen by the various options to keep any player occupied, but it is also gorgeous. The world is constructed of detailed, colorful textures, and character models are intricately designed. Small details such as the berries falling from a tree to the facial expression of a character are animated wonderfully.
Weather and time progression make the world seem all the more real, as characters might travel through the Pashow Marshlands on a particularly sunny day, or sometimes on a damp, rainy evening. Characters and enemies alike animate fluidly, and the incredible amount of polygons that must be displayed does require a somewhat decent computer to take advantage of. At lower settings, Final Fantasy XI: Online looks passable, but with all shadows and weather effects in place at higher resolutions, it truly shines as one of the most visually appealing MMORPGs on the market.
It is difficult to compose a soundtrack worthy of mention for a game such as Final Fantasy XI. Players will probably spend hundreds upon hundreds of hours traveling across the world of Vana'diel, so a certain style of music is necessary. Gaudy themes are not welcome, due to the sheer amount of repetition, so music must be low-key, but catchy. Rather than including the compelling scores found in previous Final Fantasy titles, found here is a soundtrack that could be best described as "non invasive". Surely human nature is such that anyone playing FFXI for so long will tire of the music; but overall, it is a well composed soundtrack complete with memorable riffs and appropriate style. Several different battle themes are included in order to keep the music players will hear the freshest, but after a thousand and some battles, it does tend to tire. Sound effects are among the best in the market; from the trickling or raindrops to the clashing of swords and shields, FFXI implements a wide variety of sound effects for various spells, abilities, and various environment-related phenomena.
One issue that bothered me was the lack of a completely customizable control scheme. Though there are several options in terms of control, Final Fantasy XI's predetermined methods may not be to every player's liking. Controlling the character with the mouse proves sloppy, and it becomes necessary to use a traditional WASD style of control.
Kudos must be given to Square-Enix for keeping FFXI running so incredibly smoothly. Even through the U.S. launch there were no problems, and aside from the game's laborious initial installation time and patching updates (which in total will take about three and a half hours on broadband, and the end result is a directory over 8 gigabytes in size) the servers are efficient, lag is kept to a minimum, and there are absolutely no major bugs to report. If there's one thing that MMORPG gamers want, it's a smooth game, and FFXI is the best in this regard.
There are several things players must realize before delving into Final Fantasy XI: Online. Though the game does offer some new twists on the genre, the gameplay itself remains largely unchained from popular MMORPG titles such as EverQuest. If games such as this have never interested you, Final Fantasy XI: Online will not change your mind. FFXI is not a game someone can pick up and play for a few minutes - it requires dedication and many hours in order to see the true fruits of your labor(s). If you're up to the task, Final Fantasy XI: Online offers the most polished, complete MMORPG experience on the market.