If you've ever played an Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) then you know that they're either total hell or all the game you'll ever need. They're huge, deep, and completely and overwhelmingly addictive.
If you buy Final Fantasy XI thinking you're getting into something remotely like any other Final Fantasy game, you're in for a shock. The game's sensory presentation is the only thing really "Final Fantasy" about it, as a gorgeously gender-neutral cast wanders around a world that's incredibly pretty even when it's ugly; where even the most vile enemies look like exotic tropical flowers. Chocobos trot by, trailing haunting themes that put other MMORPGs to shame.
While there's some lore wrapped around the game's enormous towns and certain missions have some semblance of a subplot, the game is hardly story-driven. It's tied up in all the same trappings that bind other MMORPGs - your character, alone, isn't all that interesting or good. Only once you're in a group with other players is your full potential realised.
The heart of the game is combat. Up to six characters engage in specific activities dictated by their chosen job: black mages stand back and deal out "nuke" damage; warriors stand up front "tanking" (taking blows and making sure everyone else doesn't); and bards sing songs to support the group. There are 15 professions all told, and knowledge of your job's place in society is essential if you want to survive.
Between battles, you sit down to recover, chatting about what went wrong, Simpsons reruns, what's for dinner tonight... hopefully finding common interests and new friends, creating guilds, and becoming a part of the online community. It requires a large time commitment (you've got to play for a couple hours at a time if you hope to make any progress), and gameplay basically boils down to a level quest - making progress for progress's sake. If this doesn't sound fun, then please, don't buy this game.
Compared to some other (PC) games of its type, Final Fantasy XI comes across as deliberate and unforgiving. Playing solo is almost required until you reach Level 10 as you sort of "learn the ropes" of the gameplay. But solo play isn't even an option anymore, really, once you're past Level 12. The experience penalty for dying is atrocious (there's nothing more disheartening than losing two hours of work), and once you reach a certain point (around Level 15), progress becomes painfully slow. The game also makes some welcome tweaks to the MMO formula - there are no corpse runs, no kill-stealing, and a cool subjob system, just to name a few.
Getting online is simple, and the game suffers from zero technical and network flaws, as you're playing on servers that have been up and running for over a year.
For many, Final Fantasy XI will be the Holy Grail of non-linearity: a wide-open RPG universe with Final Fantasy flair, defined by its players as much as its developers, beloved for all its flaws.
Score CardVisuals: A huge and beautiful fantasy world, but the interface could be better
Audio: Atmospheric, with great sound effects
Gameplay: Requires a considerable time investment and is quite slow in places
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix