That time has come when I address the one game still up and running (and isn't plagued by old age) that I can say has made it into my top "2", those two games that you kinda linger around knowing that you really like both of them, but absolutely can't put your finger on which you like more.
I'm pining to return, but can't bring myself to resubscribe just yet (still waiting to see what happens with the WoW situation, even though its an inevitable reverse-snowball effect) - so instead I'm going to take the opportunity to bitch, moan, and somehow still find the room to praise this enigma of a game that is Final Fantasy XI (or as I like to think of it: Squenix's Last Decent Unmilked Product).
For those who are unfamiliar with FFXI, it is an MMORPG based on the popular franchise of Final Fantasy, with all the expected components. Well, not -all- of them, but certainly some major staples - job types are consistant with most everything you've seen in past FF games (White Mage, Black Mage, Summoner, Dragoon, Thief, etc.), monsters are completely recognizable (Malboros, Mandragoras, Sahagin, Tonberries), and the major recurring "bosses" or otherwise "famous story characters" are there - Cid, Bahamut, Ifrit, Shiva, etc.
The only thing that really changes, much like the rest of the franchise, is the storyline, the world and it's denizens.
Well, that and the combat system. No random battles here, its much like any other game you play where you see monsters in the field, engage them, and yadda yadda. Some people dislike this - personally, I think its a necessity of an MMORPG.
-Anyway-, the game is very appealing. It starts out with some fancypants cutscene that introduces you to your starting city and leaves you to learn exactly what the hell you're doing, however anyone familiar with MMOs shouldn't have a difficult time (unless they're stuck on keyboard controls, which can be confusing). You go out, you level up, you get some crystals to sell. The game is -very- similar to the original EverQuest in many ways. Exp loss on death, quests aren't obvious (nor do they reward massive experience points), and the world is big and dangerous. All things that, in my opinion, are very nice to have.
The game also features something called "Missions". Now, if you've played a Final Fantasy game before, you know how you get told something is going on, and then run around pursuing that something with awesome cutscenes, blood-pumping boss battles, and more. The online counterpart is no different - however the story is a bit difficult to pick up on from the start, and in truth it moves rather slowly until the higher levels (and because it is so top-heavy, its very difficult to view the game as truly 'Final Fantasy' before about level 20, something I do criticize the game for). Once you discover the story however, you'll find that it's as rich and exciting as some of the better games in the series (in my personal opinion, I believe its the best one - it just requires that much more effort to play through.)
The combat is fun, if slow - however the speed allows you to make much more tactical decisions. I find often that while playing my summoner, I may choose to use leviathan's Spring Water instead of a Curaga spell, in order to save myself the aggro. Yes, thats right. I now have situational choices again, something that I haven't had since the games of the early decade.
There is but one, singular complaint I have with the game - something that causes me to drift in and out of loving and hating it...and that one thing is...
Soloing is Nearly IMPOSSIBLE
If you didn't catch that, I'll type it out once more: You cannot, by any means, solo -efficiently- and -effectively- to gain experience.
Note that I specifically said that this is only true for gaining experience. You can, in fact, solo easily for some world bosses, trade materials, and other such things. You can also solo from 1-10 with ease (albeit slowly for some jobs), and you can solo enemies with certain jobs at higher levels for some miniscule experience (100xp every 3-5 minutes versus 250-300xp every 2 in an efficient party.) - and a single job, BeastMaster, is capable of soloing from 1-75, but suffers from being completely useless in many party situations.
To be honest, I dont see it as that big of a problem. Rather, the larger problem is that you can't simply group up with one other person and do a healer/tank combo, or even go triple and throw in a good damage dealer. You actually have to up and grab the full six person party, the appropriate symbiotic jobs, and then run out to claim a camp spot and pull enemies there. Its very much like the old EQ system, but thats just it - of all the things that made EQ good, this was not one of them. Sure, I love being able to take the time to socialize with my party instead of running around on a wild goose chase, but theres plenty of time to do that at other points in the game. Instead, I'm stuck waiting some nights literally upwards of 2-4 hours before I'll get a party invite - and I play a summoner, the only other class that can heal decently next to a white mage. That means I have only one class in front of me on the "party priority" list, and yet it doesnt seem to be my luck that I get many opportunities.
There are some other complaints I would have about the game - imbalanced pvp (but the pve is great enough to make up for this), long downtime (imagine classic EQ sort of regen rates, and only while sitting), and difficult process of obtaining currency.
There are also some great things about the game, they are constantly adding unique content and mechanics and innovative ideas that you won't find anywhere else. The game has enough depth that I could play it for two years and still not have seen or done a majority of the content. The story is wonderful and the people who do play it are often very nice, as you can't expect to survive in a difficult, party-based environment if you aren't polite and dont know how to play your class.
Overall, its just a matter of whether or not you can tolerate the downsides. Personally, I can, but only in small doses. I'm sure I'll flesh out those last 9 levels sooner or later - when that happens, I'm not going to have to worry about that party system any longer...but until then, its like this big dark cloud looming over my head, scaring me away from returning to the game that, in all honesty, at the end of the day, I love and think is an awesome piece of MMORPG ass.
Vayde out, gonna go ogle me some FF screenshots.