Final Fantasy XI Online
I Have Seen the future of press trips, my friends, and it's online. I've been to many places, seen many things and performed many 'acts' in the name of professional games journalism during my time. However, combining death sports, Japanese street festivals, a wedding and a massive 30-man ruck with a giant snow wolf in heat probably ranks as one of my more surreal afternoons out of the office.
The idea, from Square Enix's point of view, was to take handfuls of journalists from around the world and grant them access to in-game characters more powerful than you can possibly imagine. Then, the plan was to make them meet up in the virtual world of Vana'diel and show them the sights, encounter a few of the new monsters, see some of the new game features and then send us back into the real world with a new appreciation of the online iteration of the Final Fantasy series - in time for the official European launch this September. The developer hadn't counted on the British contingent though.
The tour began with each of us logging on from Square's London office, inhabiting our initial characters inside an enclosed prison space (taking no chances there). Strutting peacocks all, admiring our shiny armour, our giant weapons of messy destruction and our general impressiveness. Until one of our five-strong number realised he was playing a female character and promptly attempted to disrobe - not the wisest choice a woman can make in a prison setting. Down to his/her skimpies. Just as the rest of the world's press logged in.
Embarrassment soon gave way to mischief as we discovered the presence of fireworks in our inventory lists. These were put there originally to provide a glittering climax to the wedding service that would mark the end of the tour. However, they were soon to find an altogether less salubrious use as we spied a pair of cutesy midget-like Tarutarus trying not to attract attention at the back.
Maybe it was the prison setting. Maybe it was repressed feelings of nerdish revenge for being bullied at school. Maybe we were just bored waiting for things to get started. But before you could say "pick on someone your own size", the wee fellas had bottle rockets stuck on their heads and were set alight in a shower of colourful explosions. I've never felt so ashamed of myself.
The arrival of the official tour guides soon curtailed any horseplay and after sorting us into groups least likely to cause trouble, we were teleporting off to see some of the sights Vana'diel's new lands can offer. First stop was a nearby chocobo stable in order to show off the game's mounts. Bad move. "Chocobos!" shouted the over-excited FF lovers in the crowd, before jumping into their saddles and darting off in every possible direction like mad jockeys, leaving the hapless guide standing in a cloud of dust and feathers.
Slowly, the loose cannons were rounded up and a crash course in FFXI's elemental and crystal system followed. Crystals are the lifeblood of the world, forming a basis for the game's crafting system, as well as bestowing rank on your home nation. At heart, FFXI is a game about world conquest, with the four dominant nations - the Kingdom of San D'oria, the Republic of Bastok, the Federation of Windurst and the Grand Duchy of Jeuno - all fighting for territory. Not fighting each other, mind you. The nation whose adventurers kill the most monsters in a region then gains control of the area, bestowing extra benefits on its citizens. It's no PlanetSide. but it does provide a reason beyond level grinding for random combat.
The tour moved on in traditional packageholiday style to a boat excursion, giving us a chance to try out the fishing aspect of the game. Mini-games like fishing have always played a big part in Japanese-style RPGs (most notably in the Zelda series on Nintendo's consoles), so the inclusion here is no surprise.
There's not much to it however, other than baiting your hook, finding a spot and waiting for a bite. To compensate for the lack of interaction though, Square has made fishing a unique aspect of the game's crafting, with items required for construction sometimes only found through a spot of angling. There's even an official fishing guild to join should you want to make a (virtual) career out of it.
No Laughing Matter
The first of the big monsters, end of dungeon bosses in all but name, was up next, initially causing fits of giggles when a floating eyeball with chicken legs started taunting us. However, our smirks were soon wiped clean off our faces when a giant skeletal dragon wyrm was summoned into view and proceeded to wipe us all off the face of the Earth as though he were picking lint out from between his toes.
All except for one of the little Tarutarus, who'd got lost in the tunnel behind us. This was his big chance to get revenge for our behaviour earlier, to humiliate us all by slaying the dragon and show us that size isn't everything. The Tarutaru charged in. The dragon wyrm raised an eyebrow. The Tarutaru gave a high-pitched war cry and plunged in for the kill. The dragon wyrm used him to pick a bit of warrior boot that had got stuck between his teeth before snapping him in two. So much for heroes.
Light Up The Sky
Barely able to believe the group of imbeciles she'd been stuck with, our guide became somewhat less communicative from then on, simply showing us the sights, pointing at things and watching the clock tick ever onwards towards the end.
Another couple of bosses followed, with each of our performances rivalling the next in terms of shambolic displays of tactical awareness. Eventually, we joined forces with the other groups for the aforementioned 30-man face-off with a giant snow wolf. At least here, we had strength in numbers and eventually triumphed - although one suspects we had outside help.
What the boss battles did show was quite how much 'story' is important to the FFXI Online expenence. Each encounter is bookended by animation sequences, setting the scene and revealing a bit more of Vana'diel's history to boot. These animations also occur during most of the game's quests, big or small, designed to provide a context for the events beyond mere game devices. Hopefully, this means you should feel more involved in your world as a result.
This is also helped along by the game's live team, running regular in-game events, often mirroring those in the real world. As the tour continued, we stopped off at a nearby town to enjoy a nightly firework show that was designed to celebrate the real-life Japanese Summer Festival. Special quests and items are made available only during these times - such as the fancy Yukata clothing we were provided with - giving players further reason to stay subscribed to the world and build their characters.
Till Respawn Us Do Part
Two fairly recent additions to the game are Ballista and weddings. The former is the official sport of choice in Vana'diel, and one of the few ways players can enter a PvP environment without facing any major penalties for being on the losing end. Usually only open to experienced characters, the tour guides nonetheless gave us a chance to partake in the game that appears to have a larger and more arcane rulebook to follow than golf.
At the base level, two teams based on players' nation standings face off in a section of the world, wait for the opening ceremony to begin, then belt the living hell out of each other until the closing ceremony. In between pounding anyone not weanng the national flag, you can also try to throw 'petras' (obtained by digging about in the dirt) into randomly appearing 'gates', although you have to kill someone first to be granted 'breach status' to do so. For my part, the experience seemed to involve running away a lot as gangs of fellow tourists turned on us, no doubt incensed by our Tarutaru-baiting earlier. What goes around...
With the match finally over and a score somehow reached, everyone changed into their best bib and tucker to attend the tour finale - a wedding between two gaily-dressed volunteers. I couldn't see it lasting beyond a few weeks. Marriages of convenience you see. Never a good idea.
Still, everyone clapped on cue, said encouraging things and told the bride how lovely she looked in her flowing white, er, armour. A pose for the cameras, fireworks let off by those that hadn't wasted them on comedy opportunities earlier and the press trip came to an end. The future, my friends. Beats getting drunk in some East European strip club I suppose.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode