GIA's FFXI Sum-up
For a game with no official plot or gameplay details, and a release date at least a year away, Final Fantasy XI has been the subject of an amazing amount of controversy. As the first online installment of the Final Fantasy series, it has been frequently pilloried for what assume will be a radical departure from the FF formula. In truth, however, almost nothing is known about Final Fantasy XI.
The gameplay is a mystery, but the true visual style of the game has at last been revealed. A brief trailer found on the "Other Side of Final Fantasy X" disc shows the first footage of the game that isn't a mock-up based on previous titles. Surprisingly, the graphics are a radical departure from previous games, and seem to have more in common with Onimusha or Kessen than the just-released Final Fantasy X. The trailer shows off traditional medieval-style knights, elves, and dragons, as well as a few more off-kilter concepts like the strange blue creature devouring what appears to be a group of Pikmin.
Outside of those hints, however, the official line on FF XI is that there is no official line. While many fans have assumed that Final Fantasy XI will adopt the hack-'n'-slash gameplay of PC titles such as EverQuest and Asheron's Call, this is pure speculation; Square has released almost no information about how FF XI will play. All that's known is that each player will have his or her own character and that said characters will gain levels -- hardly a definitive picture of the game.
Indeed, Final Fantasy series mastermind Hironobu Sakaguchi has stated that while most PC online RPGs leave most of the story and direction up to the players, "FF XI will be different in that respect." Of course, designing a game that can support thousands of players while still weaving a strong story will be Square's greatest challenge. The mission seems to be in good hands, however: the project is being headed by Hiromichi Tanaka, producer of Chrono Cross and Xenogears, and Koichi Ishii of the SaGa Frontier and Seiken Densetsu series.
While Final Fantasy XI itself remains tightly under wrap, Square has been much more open regarding the PlayOnline network that Final Fantasy XI will rely on. A partnership with NTT Communications, PlayOnline will be a subscriber-only online service akin to America Online. PlayStation 2 users will be able to access the network through the forthcoming PS2 network adapter. In order to minimize download time, much of the PlayOnline data will be stored on a client-side DVD.
While online gaming is obviously the focus of PlayOnline, the network will also include Internet browsing, news, e-mail, online shopping, instant messaging, chat, and online Weekly Jump comics. Square may even use the network to release downloadable updates to Final Fantasy XI or other games. This content will only be available through Square's "PVN" browser, which will come bundled with Final Fantasy XI. The PVN browser will also include a refined, online-playable version of Final Fantasy IX's Tetra Master card game and possibly a second online game named "Gummy Block."
Communication is also a major component of PlayOnline. According to Sakaguchi, Final Fantasy XI will likely incorporate some form of in-game bulletin board or messaging feature. In the original Square Millennium video, players also communicated with text bubbles over their characters' heads. Because players from all around the world will play on the same servers, Phantasy Star Online-style "symbol chat" will also be included. Fortunately, gamers won't have to hunt-and-peck out all their dialogue with a controller; a PlayStation 2 keyboard will be released for use with PlayOnline and possibly Final Fantasy XI.
One point of contention for many series fans has been the potential costs of playing Final Fantasy XI. According to the original reports, the PlayOnline service would require a monthly fee, and Final Fantasy XI an additional monthly fee on top of that -- not to mention the cost of the Final Fantasy XI game discs and any existing Internet access fees. Those statements date back to March 2000, so it's certainly possible that Square could eventually slash prices in order to remain competitive with Phantasy Star Online and PC titles such as EverQuest. On the other hand, Square's post-The Spirits Within financial situation may not allow them that luxury.
Final Fantasy XI is currently officially confirmed just for the PlayStation 2 and PC, but Square officials have been dropping hints that they'd like to see it on as many platforms as possible. While they haven't named either the Xbox or GameCube specifically, both of these systems' online capabilities could make them possible targets for the game. As character data will be stored on the PlayOnline server and not on memory cards, players will be able to access their adventure from any copy of the game.
Originally due out late in 2001 worldwide, Final Fantasy XI has been postponed to until March 2002 in Japan. With Final Fantasy X's North American release planned for around the same time, it seems unlikely that FF XI will be a simultaneous release as originally planned. With true details about the game still in short supply, though, it's difficult to say for sure when, where, or how we'll see Final Fantasy XI.
- GIA (www.thegia.com)
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