The first MMO I really got into was Final Fantasy XI. This was after a few previous aborted attempts including EverQuest and Ultima Online (over dial-up — not recommended, particularly EverQuest, which crashed every time I zoned) as well as slightly lesser-known titles like Dark Age of Camelot.
I never stuck with the earlier games because they never quite resonated with me for one reason or another — perhaps it was their clunky interfaces or their painfully slow progression. All I know is that Final Fantasy XI, despite also having a clunky interface and painfully slow progression, managed to capture my attention for a decent period of time before I finally moved on to something else — Final Fantasy X-2, as I recall — and never went back.
Just recently, some Final Fantasy XIV friends and I have been getting nostalgic for XI, so I thought I’d go check it out, given that it’s been a number of years and several expansion packs since I last tried it. And while the game is still recognisable as what it once was — a steadfastly traditional MMO more in the EverQuest mould than the now more fashionable WoW mould — it’s been considerably streamlined to make the experience much more friendly to new players and solo players. On top of that, players now have a hefty amount of options to choose from when they log in and want to decide what to do next. This is not something Final Fantasy XI was ever lacking in, but the additions and refinements that have been added to the formula over the years benefit both new players and grizzled veterans.
Take the Fields of Valour and Records of Eminence systems, for example.
The former sees you examining “field manuals” in each zone and taking on a training regime of your choice. Completing said regime rewards you with experience, gil and a currency called tabs that can be traded in for various benefits ranging from teleporting back to your home city — a godsend if you’ve been grinding several zones away, since fast travel isn’t anywhere near as accessible as it is in XIV — to having temporary buffs cast on yourself.
The latter, meanwhile, is accessed through your Quests menu and allows you to assign yourself up to 30 objectives at a time from an extremely comprehensive list of possible challenges that range from “defeat 100 enemies” to “deal 100,000 points of damage in total” via “loot 10 wind crystals from enemies”. Most of these objectives are repeatable, and all reward you with experience points upon completion.
Just the addition of these two systems, which support the existing style of play FFXI veterans will be used to, makes levelling a considerably less painful, time-consuming process. What once took weeks of grinding can now be done in a few hours — to put it in context, I played for about 2 or 3 hours earlier and made it to level 16. First time I played this took me several weeks to achieve; in several months of play I never got any further than level 30.
It’s a bit of an adjustment to go back to XI after the tightly structured gameplay of XIV. XI, by contrast, is much more freeform; there is a main storyline to follow, but it’s of considerable benefit to players to go out and level up a bit first before even thinking about tackling these missions. The story can even be ignored completely if you’d rather just go out hacking and slashing monsters, unlike in XIV, where it was an integral part of overall progression by gradually unlocking game features and challenges as you went through.
One of the best additions to XI in recent years is the Trust system, which allows you to recruit “alter-ego” versions of various NPCs from around the game world after meeting the requirements to unlock them. Once unlocked, these “alter-egos” can be summoned at any time in the field for you to party up with, effectively allowing you the ability to take on considerably stronger monsters than you would otherwise be able to tackle solo, and all but eliminating the need for standing in Valkurm Dunes for hours at a time shouting “RDM LFG” in the hope that someone would pick you up to go and kill lots of crabs with.
One might say that the Trust system takes away from one of the key defining aspects of FFXI as a massively multiplayer online game, but in practice it’s simply more convenient for many players. You still have the option to party up with other people, of course — and chances are they’ll play their roles much better than the relatively limited AI of the Trust companions — but for those who prefer to play solo, Trust NPCs can form a formidable party with you once you’ve unlocked a few of them.
The other interesting contrast between FFXI and FFXIV is how it handles combat. XI’s combat is relatively simple in the early levels, relying mostly on your auto-attack and occasional use of Weaponskills when your TP bar hits 1000 or greater. XIV, meanwhile, is much more active, demanding that you both dodge enemy attacks with telegraphed areas of effect and keep performing your class’s combo or rotations as efficiently as possible, preferably without stopping. Both are considerably slower paced than true real-time combat, striking a good balance between a turn-based feel and actually allowing the player to feel like they are in full control of their character, but XI is even slower than XIV, providing you with plenty of time to pick abilities in advance from its traditional FF-style menu system rather than XIV’s hotbars.
I’ve enjoyed returning to Vana’Diel so far; the experience contrasts well enough from XIV that the two games can sit quite comfortably beside one another in a gamer’s collection, and the state they’re both in in 2016 means that you can sit down for either a long or a short session with either and feel like you’ve achieved something.
Mostly I’m wanting to play through Final Fantasy XI to see its main story content, which is supposed to be good, but the sheer amount of stuff to do in the game — it’s got over ten years on A Realm Reborn, after all — is more than likely to prove a bit distracting!