Review by Tenshi No Shi
More than just an MMORPG with Chocobos.
Final Fantasy XI. The game that has held me, enthralled, for over two years now. Perhaps the one title that had me most excited about the Xbox 360 (though I played it on the Playstation 2 and PC)... Final Fantasy XI was even the first game I reserved back when retailers were taking preorders on Microsoft's new hardware. Why would I so eagerly anticipate a game that is just turning four (it launched in Japan May 16th 2002)? Maybe it's because it's Final Fantasy- one of the best role-playing video game franchises of all time. Or perhaps it was something familiar that I could easily get into on a brand new system. The idea of the new expansion pack, Treasures of Aht Urhgan, certainly played a small part in my eagerness, not to mention the inclusion of both of the previous expansions to make one complete experience. I think I can safely say I could go through a list of what-ifs that would take the better part of an hour, but instead I'll focus on delivering my opinion of Final Fantasy XI on the Xbox 360 now that I've had some serious play time with it.
Story? Wow, where to begin... Since the Xbox 360 version of Final Fantasy XI includes the base game, plus all three expansion packs (Rise of Zilart, Chains of Promathia and Treasures of Aht Urhgan), there are several major plot threads you can engage (not to mention several hundred minor tales you'll find along the way). The overall story of Final Fantasy XI deals with the division of the lands of Vana'diel among the five enlightened (those born of the Goddess Altana) races- The hulking Galka, the adaptable Hume, the arrogant Elvaan, the lithe Mithra, and the magical Tarutaru. There was much war between the three nations of Bastok (where the Humes and Galka resided), Sand'Oria (home of the Elvaan) and Windurst (where live the Mithra and Tarutaru). However, a grave danger threatened them all- The unification of the Beastmen under the rule of the Shadow Lord. Alliances were forged, technology and knowledge shared and armies combined with the sole purpose of defeating the advancing war machine of the Shadow Lord. However, nothing seemed to be able to stop the evil as it spread across the land like a virus. When all hope seemed lost, the ancient, forbidden magic of Summoning was revived and the mighty Fenrir crushed through the Shadow Lord's army. The Shadow Lord was defeated, his armies scattered and the peoples of Vana'diel freed from fear. Now, twenty years later, the alliances hardened in war are starting to crumble despite the rumors that the Shadow Lord has returned... From this point, you enter the world of Vana'diel and can discover if these rumors of the great evil returning are indeed true, uncover the true history of the Goddess Altana and God Promathia, unlock the secrets of the ancient technology scattered throughout the land, discover the mysterious of the Near East, or combat the Emptiness that threatens to devour the world. With so much going on, the world of Vana'diel truly feels "alive".
For a four-year old game on the Playstation 2, Final Fantasy XI looks damn good. For a three-year old PC game, the graphics were fairly impressive when the game launched. For an Xbox 360 game, however, Final Fantasy XI's visual appeal leaves a little to be desired. Granted, the game did receive a minor upgrade (the draw distance was doubled and the resolution was sharpened significantly), but unfortunately, comparisons to other Xbox 360 titles like Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter or Tomb Raider Legend will be made and the less-that-cutting-edge graphics will turn some gamers away. Since I spent a majority of my time playing this game on the Playstation 2 (despite having the PC version as well), the graphical leap from Sony's aging console to Microsoft's sleek new system was more than enough to make me happy. Strictly grading this game as an Xbox 360 game, the animation is above average, the environments are lush and detailed (not to mention there's such a wide variety of locales to visit) and the character and enemy models are pretty impressive (especially considering their age). So as a next-gen game, Final Fantasy XI is just above average, but it's honestly not the sort of thing that you'll notice once you actually play the game for the gameplay, not just the visuals.
Okay, so maybe the audio is a little outdated (Square-Enix did, however, see fit incorporate 5.1 surround sound into this release), but dammit if I still don't love the music. I admit that it took a few weeks of play to grow on me (I didn't like that some areas had no music at all), but the new tunes intermingled with familiar tracks slowly made me feel at home in the Final Fantasy XI Universe. After playing the game for three years, a few of the nations' themes have begun to wear on me and for that reason I wish Square had implemented a jukebox feature to cycle through a few different songs while in the major cities. The sound effects are passable enough- typical RPG bag of tricks with very few surprises- but it's all high quality so you can almost over-look the generic nature of it. Since there is no voice acting (and with good reason- think of the memory strain those tracks would add), here really isn't much more I can say about Final Fantasy XI's audio.
The controls for Final Fantasy XI are pretty much what you'd expect from an RPG, which makes it easy for those who may be forging into the MMO genre for the first time. Controller-wise, many key functions are mapped to the gamepad, making functions like healing, accessing menus, selection party members or cycling through targets a breeze. You can also access a virtual macro list, which takes several commands and simplifies them to the press of a button. While a little daunting at first, learning the macro "language" will help you perform several tasks at once, shaving off precious seconds in the heat of battle. While the game also has a virtual keyboard, I cannot stress enough how much a difference your gameplay experience will improve by investing in a cheap USB keyboard. Not only are more shortcuts accessible via a keyboard, but chatting, which is essential in a party environment, is made a hundred times easier. The game itself does not support the Xbox Live headset (for the same reason that the PC and PS2 versions do not- bandwidth issues), but if you're in a party of all Xbox 360 users, it's easy enough to set up a Live chat session. I really have no complaints about any aspect of Final Fantasy XI's control scheme, as it is both intuitive and responsive. Well, I do wish there were a few extra lines for programming macro commands...
Final Fantasy XI is a massive-multiplayer online role playing game and, as such, has certain characteristics to define it to this genre. In other words, the overall design of Final Fantasy XI, while similar to previous titles in the series, actually differs quite radically from what you may have played before. Granted, every generation the series seems to reinvent itself, so this one being something a little different isn't all that uncommon, but experience with the other titles doesn't really prepare you for what's in store. Imagine, if you will, a game that has all the familiar trappings of Final Fantasy that you're used to (chocobos, summons, airships, moogles...even an engineer named Cid) but instead of a roster of just ten or so characters, you have thousands, each controlled by another person. And picture now that the enemies can all be seen (and avoided) on screen rather than attacking randomly. Add to that a dozen crafts (Fishing, Gardening, Goldsmithing, Alchemy and Woodworking just to name a few), thousands of missions and quests, all in an open-ended environment and you just might begin to understand what you're getting yourself in to here. While no game is perfect (and this one is certainly no exception), the constantly expanded world in the form of expansions and updates, not to mention the almost monthly events that promote friendship and celebration, and you've got yourself a pretty balanced and well-designed online gaming experience.
The very nature of the game (an open-end massive multi-player online role playing game where nearly every aspect of the game is governed by a cohesive team directive) somewhat prohibits there ever being any true "secrets", but there are a few noteworthy examples nonetheless. There are easily a hundred or so hidden quests (though with all the Final Fantasy XI communities and information sites on the web, calling them secret is a bit of a stretch) scattered throughout Vana'diel, that range from gaining nothing more than gil to obtaining specific pieces of equipment and even unlocking new jobs. There are also puzzles to solve, hidden areas to explore and rare monsters to track down. The truly dedicated will even receive an exclusive item should they obtain and level all twenty jobs to 75. Square has built a rich world to explore with Final Fantasy XI, and it's the abstruse oddities waiting to be discovered that adds to the lived-in feel (and appeal) of the game.
I don't know, maybe I am a Final Fantasy fanboy, but I have fallen in love with Final Fantasy XI all over again thanks to my Xbox 360. Though the leap may be daunting, you really won't find a better MMORPG experience (especially on a console). Why did I so eagerly anticipate Final Fantasy XI? Because despite its aging graphic's system (particularly compared to other Xbox 360 titles), the actual gameplay is top-notch, the stories enthralling and the charm it has thanks to the richness of the Final Fantasy Universe just can't be rivaled.
Product Release: Final Fantasy XI (US, 04/18/06)
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