Sunday, 9 December 2012

Final Fantasy XI, Part 1 - Introduction

Back in 2005 when I was a student and had copious amounts of spare time, I decided that it would be a good idea to play an online role playing game. «World of Warcraft» had just been released and it was tempting, but «Final Fantasy XI» had been on my list for a long time and was the one that I ended up playing.

It was originally announced simultaneously with «Final Fantasy X» (the greatest «Final Fantasy» EVER), at the Japanese Square Millennium Event in 2000, and it reached my attention in the form of blurry page-scans from the Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu. It came out in Japan on May 16 2002 for the Playstation 2, for PC in the United States in 2003 and in Europe the year after. It was also ported to the Xbox 360 in 2006. It was the first MMORPG that allowed players on all three platforms to play together on the same servers, as well as across geographical regions.

«Final Fantasy XI» was quite hard to get into. I remember spending the whole first day just downloading the updates and completing the registration procedure. Initially I had trouble figuring out how to use the mouse and keyboard to walk around (a game-pad made it much better) and after that, I couldn't find the way out of the starter city. After I did, I was summarily executed by a killer bunny-rabbit. Under normal circumstances, this would probably be the point where I would discard the game as unworthy of my time. But I really wanted to like it... Because it was «Final Fantasy», and it was online. So I stuck with it.

«Final Fantasy XI» is an old-school MMORPG inspired by the likes of «Everquest», and many of its quirks may not be considered good game design these days. It was for instance built around the concept of mandatory socializing. Not the kind of socializing where you spam your friends' social networks continuously, but the kind where it was just too hard to accomplish anything of significance without teaming up with other players.

There were also penalties for failure that could be quite irritating. Death would come with substantial loss of accumulated experience, possibly resulting in your character leveling down and becoming unable to use vital equipment and abilities. Also, some mandatory encounters required key-items for access that could take hours to acquire. If you failed at the encounter (often after just seconds) you would have to redo all the work to reacquire the item in question.

Also, it had some graphical issues. For one thing, it suffered from two of my least favorite pet peeves: Soft-capped frame rate limitations at 30 FPS, and lack of VSYNC. It had an issue where you could not change the screen resolution properly from within the game itself or the config tool, but had to manually tweak stuff in the Windows registry. It also had driver related performance problems on practically all graphics adapters except the Nvidia Geforce 4 series.

Now, based on what I have said about the game so far, it would appear that I hated it. Which is partly true... But I also loved it, for many reasons.

First of all, it was one of the few online games with a story worth following. The plot from the «Chains of Promathia» chapter in particular, is to this day one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in any game. Graphically, despite its technical shortcomings, it had a beautifully designed world with excellent art direction. Also, the mandatory teamwork combined with game-mechanics that had both depth and allowed for quite a bit of individuality, resulted in some very memorable gaming sessions with both friends and strangers, as well as hours of fun outside the game researching and coming up with strategies.

It was one of those games that can only be described as a diamond in the rough. Beneath all of the crummy implementation and lack of polish, there was an epic game with some truly amazing parts. It was too harsh and unfriendly to ever reach the comercial heights of a game like «World of Warcraft», but the good parts were still visible and enduring enough to make it the most profitable «Final Fantasy» to date.

PS: Below is the footage that sold me on the game. It had airships, dragons and a samurai with a flaming katana, so I figured it had to be pretty awesome :P

Chapters (more to follow):

Final Fantasy XI, Part 1 - Introduction
Final Fantasy XI, Part 2 - Adventurers of Vana'diel
Final Fantasy XI, Part 3 - The magical world of Vana'diel

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