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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Game Review - Returning to a Classic - Final Fantasy XI

Many of you know I'm an Old Pro of World of Warcraft and with Cataclysm out and pretty much conquered...I'm going back and looking at some classic MMO's that helped start the push in the MMORPG Genre of titles. Final Fantasy XI was not the first, or the beginning, but it helped push a movement into the next generation of MMO gaming that was followed by a multitude of titles that either tried to emulate it without FFXI's flaws.  Games like Everquest, Asherons Call, Dark Age of Camelot & Ultima Online all provided the framework for future titles. Oddly enough, most of the fantasy MMO titles we play today will pull from a few existing scenarios. Scenarios like JRR Tolkiens "The Lord of the Rings", which has currently been adapted as a modern MMO or the rule sets (and bestiary) of Gary Gygax and his 1974 Dungeon's and Dragons which to a degree derives from the fantasy storytelling of JRR Tolkien as well...

While this is all good and simple in an oversimplified set of statements. We can stem our necessity to play in a fantasy world from these two originators. Enter Squaresoft, with its amazing Dungeon's & Dragon's fantasy style Role Playing Game for the Nintendo in 1987, "Final Fantasy". Which was created to prevent Squaresoft, at the time, from going bankrupt...So much for nailbiting!

Final Fantasy was not what you would call a blowout title, but it did define the future of the genre and while it had its basic fantasy lines arguably from a Tolkien style of storytelling it had a large amount of background of its own that created a mythos and world that spawned over a dozen titles beloved by its players and lending itself to creating Final Fantasy XI.  This statement was made: 

"Final Fantasy XI is the most representative title of the Final Fantasy series", according to producer Hiromichi Tanaka.

Quite possibly for similar reasons to what I stated above.  When FFXI released it sold 90,000 units in its 1st week while the PS2 versions hindered its own sales due to the higher pricepoint from the Harddrive necessity. The sales were steady and allowed for a large portion of play to come from the US and mixed US and Japanese Player pools together regardless whether you were playing on the PC or the console. The later addition to the Xbox 360 added a different set of player pool from the Xbox Live groups.  

Let me go further to state. I was a pretty hard core player of FFXI when it first released. I achieved, the then level cap of 75 in under 1 month and followed it up with 4 other advanced level jobs from Dark Knight, Paladin and Summoner, to Beast Master and Ninja.  Not to mention the Base Classes of Thief, Red Mage and Black Mage to level 60 a piece.

While at the time the game was one of the best looking graphically for a title of this kind in comparison to Everquest, Asherons Call and Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC).  It was light years ahead of these other titles which looked horrible by comparison. By today's standards the game still holds up with its charm but does have signs of its age in comparison to the newer FFXIV and other graphically extensive titles like guild Wars and EverQuest II which at release most PC's strained to render the game in full fidelity.

Back in 2004-2005 The highest complexity a player would attain in FFXI required the mass coordination of 64 players in alliances to undergo semi-war skirmishes in one of the principle cities called 'Dynamis', These alternate versions of said capital cities where the mass of players would need to overcome invasions of extremely difficult and massively powerful mobs referred to as 'HNM', Hyper Notorious Monsters, were exceptionally difficult to complete, let alone gain individual items that were being farmed by the competing 63 other players with you.  

The low end game consisted of regimented sections of play that had very specific milestones that would allow you to gauge your ability to continue. Going back and replaying this title over the last 2 or so days I find myself easily remembering what I did over 5 years ago and slowly re-acclimating to the game. 

The game in its infancy had a learning curve which did hinder players in the long term to abandon the title after their free month of play (considering that most gamers may beat a video game the first week they own it and it sits on shelves, this didn't affect game sales, only continued game play).  

The first Arc of this game really is learning how to function in its game space, it will take players that are used to other titles or the massive game pool of say World of Warcraft which has considerably easier controls to get used to FFXI and its set of controls which are more streamlined in FFXIV.

This is easily overcome the first few minutes of the game as you explore your surroundings.  The one thing that is considerably more difficult in FFXI that most other titles don't do - but in my opinion is what separates Hardcore from Casual MMO's is the fact that Final Fantasy with the exception of FFX (which pretty much steered you where you need to go) was open worlded and you had to think and write down notes and put to use some brain power to figure out what you needed to do next.  Most titles like WoW will have markers on characters, the ever present "!" and "?" point things out on maps so you don't have to search for it and pretty much spoon feed you the game.  FFXI did no such thing, it would mark the quest giver for you in terms of a Map grid location (i.e., H-7) and list the current quest or mission.  

Other slight quests, or foreshadowings of quests and areas, you get from talking to characters and there are no markers.  So exploration is key in this title.  Maps have permanent fogs of war unless you purchase them from locations usually on the other side of said fog of war (However, the Grid is still present).  So unless you have experienced the game before you will learn from careful exploration, or from bad exploration and dying a lot where you need to go and how to level yourself with patience as you move on.

You originally would level only to your early teens before needing to group for everything from killing 1 mob to doing a quest.  Most Americans not used to this hardcore mentality would grind out (level by killing mobs, a slower process) solo by working on weaker and lower experience yielding mobs, then coming back to the lower level quests they could not do solo and do it at that point.

Now the game has had more of a balancing with all the most recent updates and expansions where leveling is more pleasurable and you won't be killed at level 75 by an Easy Prey Rabbit...I can elaborate on that in comments...^_~

So lets rewind a moment.  Your first set of levels 1-5 is best to get a grip of the control system and basic understanding of speaking to other players and how you interact with the search tools of the game.  Also learning that the hub of your learning and focus can be speaking with the guards at each of the gates in your city.

by level 6 you should have decent understanding of the mouse, keyboard or gamepad for the PS2 or Xbox 360 players. You will now also have questions concerning the various scenarios you have in the game.

Level Grinding - Experience gaining from killing mobs and how can this be gained faster (which you learn in your first parties around level 12 and up with EXP Chains)
Quests - which grant you any number of rewards within your city or the various reputations throughout the game
Missions - which change your rank from 1-10 and exist separately from each expansion.

you can grind through the entire game and level with no real problems and be limited to not having a whole lot of perks from quests or missions (like a chocobo mount, quest gained.  Or an Airship pass, gained from missions).

I find that the earliest players of the game will need to go from level 1-30 and get an advanced job to understand if they will like the gameplay or not.  

Which takes me to the 2nd phase of your gameplay.  You are now lvl 6 and should start doing quests and grab your first set of missions.  Quests can come from anyone in the game, and at this point starting fresh and installing the entire title ($10 with all expansions sans Abyssea) you will get quests from each of the new expansions, so it can be a little daunting and confusing.

Missions are pretty much an easy scenario to focus on.  You have 3 to take before moving to a new rank.  when you hit a new rank you need to turn in a few crystal items to be allowed to get new missions and so on.  Guards at the City gates give you a buff called "Signet" this allows you to gain Conquest points and mobs will drop crystals.  The crystals can be sold (lucratively) or you can use them to craft items in the game and level different jobs or you can use them to turn in for missions (you don't need a whole lot, usually a stack of 12 per rank opening).  

you can reach Rank 2 roughly by Level 6-10.  It is possible to do it earlier, but the final quest in Rank 1 requires you either group with players to kill the mobs you need for the drops or you can buy them.   Depending on the economy on the server your playing 1 stack of c rystals, which you should have at least 4-6 by level 6, can pay for the items on the auction house.

Rank 3 you should be able to get roughly around level 30.  The Conquest points you earn as you kill mobs can be used to buy gear from the same Guards at the gates.  This helps you save your Gil (currency used in most FF titles) so you can use it on other items.

at Level 18 you are granted to ability of a Sub Job.  This is one of those wonderful scenarios that FFXI setup which allows for a huge amount of character customization and individual play design and now with the additions of Aht Urgan and Wings of the Goddess the new job additions allow for a greater depth of play that available back in 2003-2004.  

At level 18 you are only able to work on the base jobs of Warrior, Black Mage, White Mage, Red Mage, Monk, Thief - the Iconic FF archetypes.  So once you hit level 18 you can go back to your city and change the current job you have to the subjob and begin leveling another job.  Whatever your current job level is your subjob is half of it.  So if you level a Warrior to start and hit lvl 18 then go back and decide you want to continue your warrior but want a little extra healing so you can solo better you might level a White Mage, so set your Warrior to Subleve and start again as a White Mage - when your White mage hits Level 18 (as an example) your War abilities will be that of a level 10 Warrior.  

Now you can go back to leveling your level 18 warrior and Sub White Magic (which will be level 9, half of 18), you can now continue leveling your warrior to 36 before you need to continue leveling your White Mage.  With the Level cap at 90 at the moment you can see where you need to go.

The next milestone is level 20.  At level 20 you should venture out to the central hub of this game - which is Jeuno.  and is conveniently at a midway point between the 3 major cities.  Level 20 allows for you to gain the Chocobo mount, which makes life a lot easier when it comes to traveling the game.  A few tricks for this.

by the time you are level 12-15 you will encounter roughly 2 areas outside of your city is a large white structure, when you check this structure you end of getting a crystel for that structure this is a portal point where you can be teleported for easier travel.  There are multiple Teleport points or "Crags" What I find to be the easiet scenario is to get these gems as early as possible reason being Chocobo's will kick you off after a certain point of riding, Each Crag has a chocobo rental npc near them so this makes it easier to port and ride in the game.  

Next Milestone, Level 30...

By now you will have ventured into the basic leveling areas of the game

for levels 1-10 outside your city and these three zones

East / West Ronfaure 
North / South Gustaberg
East / West Sarutabaruta

Level 10-14
Konschtat Highlands
La Theine Plateau
Tahrongi Canyon

Level 15-20
The Valkurm Dunes

Level 20-24

Level 24-30
Delkfutt Tower

Those were some of the best areas to level in the early days of the game, and they still hold true today.

While the expansions have provided a lot of new zones to work with for each of these levels, and since the bulk of players use the newers zones, it is easier to farm your quests and levels int he older locations without them being overcamped.

So with the level 30 milestone you can now venture into a quest usually soloable, but some are more intensive, that allows you to open an advanced job class.  This is the easier path to take for leveling - go straight to level 30 then add the sub class - by using the one you just leveled to 30 and start working on your new advanced class.  

I have found reexperiencing this game literally took me through the highs and lows of what most gamers will experience as they go milestone to milestone.  

Those first steps into the game may be daunting and boring, but once you hit 18-30 and are experiencing some of the more complex content, you have your controls down, made some friends, perhaps even joined a guild (here called Linkshells) and have given some though as to the first steps you want to take into the advanced classes (which the beauty is you can do them all) you may find that if you are a hardcore end game player like myself - you will enjoy the new changes and balancing that FFXI has put back into the game.  

I may get my old account back (whcih had all the classes I spoke of above in the 60-75 ranges) or not, it doesnt matter, a 5 year hiatus granted me the ability to relearn the game.

But after you hit that level 30 and start working on the rest of the game and start learning about skillchains (Renkai) and have even created macros for your controls come back and let me know how you are starting to enjoy the title.

I think I will hit level 90 on my Dark Knight and Sub in either a Thief or a Ninja, Maybe even make myself highly viable by creating a Palading for Tanking.  

So to all those out there that love their MMO's and want a break from the day to day or even if you play World of Warcraft and love it as much as I do, and I play as a Professional - but need a break - try FFXI - whether its your first time or your coming back like me - $10 bucks for the entire title and all the expansions is almost impossible to beat - just realize it can take about 10-12 hours for full installation as it will download updates and patches as it installs each title individually.  

GPX's FFXI Game Score Rating 6.5 out of 10 Overall
8 out of 10 for Hardcore Gameplay 
6 out of 10 for Graphics (title is from 2003)
8 out of 10 Music and Sound (Uematsu is a God among men)
6 out of 10 Gameplay (it has been rebalanced, the Exp grind is a more enjoyable experience where it can take days not months to achieve high levels without sacrificing complexity or making the gameplay to simple)
4 out of 10 game controls (the controls are unorthodox, but you can correct a lot of the weird mechanics with solidly planned and keybound macros)

Note: I will edit this whole review at a later date for grammar and punctuation...its an informal review.

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