Regular readers of Edge will remember a certain columnist who found both his life and his writing invaded by the charms of a particular MMORPG. At the time, Lupin Kojima's obsession was greeted with a certain justified scepticism. Would the words 'Final Fantasy', 'online' and - whisper it - 'PlayStation2' ever come together outside of Japan? Now, as Final Fantasy XI finally jumps the Pacific on to American PS2s, it could be time to dig out those back issues.
In May, it will be two long years since Final Fantasy XI was launched on Japanese PS2s. Since then the PC iteration has appeared, first in Japan and then, last year, in the US, allowing thousands of North American PC owners to begin mixing it with the experienced Vana'diel locals. There's no division between the groups, however. An in-game text translator function allows communication between US and Japanese players, and the game is platform agnostic - there's no way to tell a PC player from a PS2 one.
And the game has proved wildly popular with both sets of users, with Square-Enix recently announcing that the total number of active characters across North America and Japan had broken the million mark.
Visually, FF XI is rarely short of beautiful. Character designs eschew the buckles and adolescent spunk of FF X and X-2, drawing more on medieval leatherwork and muddy realism. Slabs of soft armour interlock over fitted jerkins, and female characters sport leather trousers cut at the thigh that are a recognisable evolution from the hosiery of Final Fantasy Tactics.
Your character's skills also flow from this direction. Individual abilities and statistics are decided by a job system - fans of Final Fantasy V and Tactics will instantly recognise the roles of Monk, Thief, Warrior and Red, White and Black Mages - with a choice of five races adding more character depth and development. In this way, more spiritual players can opt to play as a Tarutaru White Mage - a diminutive race that makes up for its physical weakness with a huge MP allocation, or a Galka Warrior - a hulking hermaphrodite race who use their strength well but are weaker as magic users.
Jobs can be swapped at will so long as you are in a main city, of which there are four. Each is home to a private 'Mog House' where your personal Moogle will attend to such tasks as storage and delivery of items, job and equipment changes, as well as gardening and feng-shui. In addition, the Rise of the Zilart expansion pack, now bundled with the game, brings with it six new areas to explore and opens up the more advanced roles of Samurai, Ninja and Dragoon, bringing the total to nine, for players as they reach level 30 - enough to keep most players busy for years to come.
Every area is populated with a varied and exquisitely modelled bestiary - redesigned Final Fantasy stalwarts such as goblins and orcs rub shoulders with giant giraffes, pink birds and evil, evil rabbits. The grind of random battles has no place in this online paradise - creatures are always visible, freely wandering across the landscape. These monsters, or 'mobs', are either 'aggro' or not - a player running past the line of sight of an aggro mob will be targeted by it and have their day violently ruined. Mobs also become aggro based on sound, smell and mysterious mob whims - certain types of bat, for example, will attack anyone healing in their vicinity. Many of the distinctive features of Final Fantasy XI are a result of this aggro system - once targeted, a player can only hope that their attacker is weak, or that they will be able to 'zone' - run for the exit of the area they are in.
Fleeing a pursuing mob through an area populated with enemies is of course not without its consequences, and the sight of a hapless player dragging a 'train' of five or six goblins is a common one.
The party system, however, is the real lynchpin of all the social interaction. For the first few levels a player can 'solo' quite easily, going one-on-one with the easier monsters. New players will notice that the familiar turn-based system of fighting has been abandoned in favour of a more immediate system. Players lock on to their target and select attack to initiate a fight: melee attacks proceed automatically. Magic attacks, weapon skills (think rapid turnover Limit Breaks) and other job-specific skills must all be initiated via menu systems while the fight continues.