Preview: Final Fantasy XI (XB 360)

Publisher: Square Enix / Developer: Square Enix / Genre: MMORPG / Release Date: 05/01/06

If you’re an avid online gamer, you’ve probably nmoticed the same thing I (a not so avid online gamer) did: console gamers have almost no MMORPG’s. Phantasy Star Online notwithstanding, only two MMO’s have graced the consoles in the past few years. Everquest Online Adventures, which I’ve not played, was an attempt by Sony to bring console fans into the EQ universe, but was far inferior to the PC version. Final Fantasy XI on the PS2, on the other hand, was a fully fleshed out MMO experience, but console play required the PS2 HDD, which effectively alienated those who didn’t want to buy the HDD and those that ended up with Slimline PS2’s for one reason or another. The only other notable attempt to bring the genre to the consoles was True Fantasy Online, Microsoft’s answer to the MMO, which had managed to garner a large amount of fan interest before its eventual cancellation.

Well, fear not folks: that void is about to be filled by one of the very games that attempted to fill that void the first time around: Final Fantasy XI, the XBox 360 edition.

Microsoft and Square Enix are working together to bring console gamers the MMO experience on next generation hardware, complete with Xbox Live support. As the Official Xbox Magazine has provided a free beta in their February issue to those willing to give it a shot, and as I’ve given up way more of my life than I care to count to the world of Vanadiel, I figured I’d jump into the beta and see what, if anything, has changed.

IF YOU’VE NEVER PLAYED FFXI BEFORE:

The simplest way I can describe FFXI is to say that it’s Japanese Everquest. Unlike more modern MMO’s like City of Heroes and Worlds of Warcraft, FFXI has much more structured and rigid rules, which is apparent from the get go. You’ll be given a choice of five basic races and six jobs to play as from your introduction to the game world, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages, as well as its own role to fulfill. After making these choices, you’ll be asked to pick a starting city, and once that’s done, you’ll be dropped off in the city to make your way in the world.

After that, whatever you do is up to you.

Fans of the genre will find that FFXI has its own personal charms that make it interesting, though it also has little antiquities that can potentially render it less interesting than other games. Characters are not locked to the job that is chosen for them, but rather are allowed to switch between jobs freely, so if you happen to like a character but not his or her job class, switching is a snap. You can also assign a “subjob”, after completing a quest, which allows you to attach a second job to your character, thus giving them extra abilities and better stats based on what job is used.

Those that are dedicated will find several secondary job classes await them, as well as all sorts of quests and missions. A plethora of armor, weapons, spells, and skills are available as you progress, which not only gives you something to look forward to as you go, but also improves your character’s performance. There are also crafting guilds to join, notorious monsters to fight for fun and prizes, Linkshells (large groupings of players, IE player guilds) to join up with, and all sorts of locations to explore. Those that wish to simply play around, however, will find that FFXI is totally hardcore: progress really can’t be made outside of the party dynamic, especially at higher levels, and combat discourages party building beyond certain functional archetypes. For those that enjoy such a play style however, this game is totally up your alley.

FFXI is simple to play on the 360; the controller allows you to do just about everything you’d need to do while playing, though not as well as a mouse. For those that own one, a USB keyboard can be used both to play the game and chat with players. If you don’t have a keyboard, though, you’ll find you pretty much have to get one; FFXI doesn’t support the Xbox Live headset directly (you can chat with friends as normal, however) at this point, though this may be changed later. The actual gameplay is mostly real time, though combat is sort of a mix of real time and turn-based combat, as your characters will simply attack when they’re able to do so, but spells and skills can be enabled at any time (provided you can perform them). Players can also assign macros for skills and spells, not only to notify other players of their use, but also to allow them to keep certain skills active as soon as they can possibly be re-activated. It also bears noting that the custom soundtrack feature is (so far) in full effect here, so if you tire of the orchestral melodies of Vanadiel, you can always pump up your Bauhaus or Eric Clapton or Eminem or whatever.

IF YOU’VE PLAYED FFXI PREVIOUSLY:

The beta only allows access to the primary game and the two expansion packs, Rise of the Zilart and Chains of Promathia, which is how the game is expected to ship. In other words, anyone expecting to see the new content from Treasures of Aht Urhgan on launch will be disappointed. At this point it’s not been decided whether all of the available content will ship at once or if ToAU will ship as a separate software package, but it’s expected that ToAU will be complete before the Xbox 360 version of FFXI launches (which is expected to happen in May).

FFXI as it is now is virtually identical to its PC/PS2 counterparts, though some minor modifications might increase interest for former fans. As stated, XBox Live support, though not fully integrated, does exist, which will allow players (if they’re friends) to organize battle strategy through voice chat. The option to listen to your own tunes instead of the game soundtrack is also certainly welcome, especially for players that have been playing for some time, as it will keep the experience at least somewhat fresh. The graphics have also been tweaked slightly, and are noticeably improved; seeing them run in HD they look very nice, but even on standard TV’s you’ll see the game looks cleaner in general (I compared it to the PS2 version, and the game world looks noticeably less jagged, for reference). It’s still a touch archaic compared to most of the XBox 360 launch titles, but it looks solid in its own right.

So far, the game hasn’t shown any major bugs or flaws, and it seems that Square Enix has FFXI running smoothly on the 360. I haven’t noticed any unusual lag, and the server (Hydra) hasn’t required any sort of unusual maintenance as of yet, so it seems fairly certain FFXI will launch in May as expected.

FINAL COMMENTS:

If you’re looking to check out the beta, you might want to be aware that most of the low-level zones are crammed to the gills with players, so you’ll be fighting for creatures to kill. Just thought I should mention that, just in case.

Anyway, so far FFXI is shaping up about as well as could be expected at this point. Fans of the game probably won’t find anything here to draw them to this version over any other that’s available, but new players will certainly be able to feed their MMO Jones with this. At this point, FFXI for the 360 is unfortunately looking to be more of a direct port than anything else, sadly… if Square Enix can find a way to integrate XBox Live support into the game (especially full voice chat, hint hint) then this version will be far superior to any available version; otherwise, it’s shaping up as the exact same experience as before. Not that that’s a bad thing; for those that are MMO deprived, this will most likely be just what the doctor ordered. Stay tuned for its release in May.