First, the good news: Final Fantasy XI is an astonishing achievement. Not only have Square created an immense game world that's as convincing and successful as anything seen in other online RPGs, they've created the first truly compelling reason to connect your PS2 to the internet and in the process turned the network adapter and hard disk drive into more than mere novelties.
The bad news is that, to truly enjoy it, you're going to have to effectively give up your life as you know it, lock yourself in a broadband-equipped cave and play the game until you're old and grey and eventually dead.
It requires a massive time investment, and the early stages of the game are a trial; getting your character through his or her first few levels is as much about tedious legwork and killing loads of puny woodland beasts as it is discovering an exciting new world.
But put the time in and you'll find an astonishing amount of things to do. Aside from accepting missions - the main method of progressing, which generally results in fetching items or monster-disposal - and quests, the choice available here is immense, and you really can go your own way. You can grow plants, if you fancy, or learn to craft new items, even building your own furniture to decorate your Mog House with. There's a staggering amount of choice and it's all utterly bewildering at first.
As you progress, though, you'll come to find one overriding constant; you absolutely need to make some friends and join a party, as the game is all about co-operation. There's no player-vs-player action here, so you can't, for instance, leap in to a fight at the last minute and kill a monster, thus stealing the experience from whoever was fighting it first. Apparently Square will introduce a patch later in the year to allow you to fight friends, but for now it's companionship all the way. The result is an inordinately friendly game.
But as good as FFXI is, the fact that the game requires a lot of effort to get you on the road to success can't be ignored. It's also expensive, because as well as requiring the hard disk drive - the game comes bundled with it for a hefty amount of cash - you'll need to pay a monthly subscription fee to play. At the time of writing this hasn't yet been decided for the UK version of the game but, at the end of the day, FFXI isn't a cheap game at all.
On the one hand, the expense will compel you to play and get the most out of the game, but on the other it's a huge barrier to even considering whether you want to play or not.
But ultimately, this is a triumph. A flawed triumph, perhaps, but immense time-consuming fun nonetheless. There's so much to see and do that there's no chance to get bored; there's a mind-mashing array of professions to tackle and skills to learn, and the economy of the game is totally decided by what players buy and sell. Even the over-arching storyline that sees all of your actions affecting how much land your kingdom owns (there are four) becomes simply fascinating. FFXI is brilliant. But understanding that brilliance takes time and money.