Graphics - 8
Final Fantasy XI has some spectacular graphics, given its age and its consumer base. Unlike most MMORPG's, FFXI can be played on the PC, the PS2, and the Xbox360 with all the players play on the same servers. This has both a positive, and a negative effect on the graphical quality. I applaud SE for making a game that is so highly detailed and beautiful for three different systems. Character models look smooth on all resolution settings, and armor sets and weapon animations are very crisp. You can see the rain coming down from the sky, and look up at night and see a full moon and numerous stars. However, it disappoints me that there is not an option to improve the graphical performance for the PC users. While I understand that the consoles may not have the hardware capabilities of a gaming rig, it is a mystery to me why SE has chosen not to make improved graphics for the people who do possess the capability of running the game at higher settings.
There are some truly wonderful graphic moments in FFXI. Performing weapon-skills, doing advanced skill chains, or certain festival events tend to look really amazing. Other things, such as looking at the lifeless, dreary water or the lack of a "lively" looking environment can tend to remove some of the immersion from the game. Little things like that can detract from the rating of FFXI's graphics, but overall, the game is prettier than the average MMP.
Sound - 5
To rate FFXI's sound quality can be somewhat difficult. On one hand, it is my opinion that even the best MMORPG score will grow tiresome after playing the game for so long, no matter the quality. On the other hand, some tracks are just so damned amazing, that you'll find yourself humming them to yourself at work.
For the sound effects, I honestly can't say anything positive about. The noise of your character swinging their weapon at the enemy is, at best, dull and uninspired. I find it amusing that stabbing a plant with a dagger makes nearly the same sound as attacking a golem with a great axe, an empty hollow "thud" style sound. Spells do make numerous different sounds, and seem to have a nice variety. Fire spells make a wonderful scorching sound, Ice spells make a clinking, shattering sound, and so on and so forth. Other things are also ignored. For example, Bards have numerous different songs and instruments, but all of them sound the same.
The music in FFXI isn't much better. Some zones lack music altogether, and all you can hear is the blowing of the invisible wind and the distant tumble-weed in the background. Some zones have some very interesting music however. Any Final Fantasy fan will recognize the notorious chocobo music while riding the giant chicken across the landscapes of Vana'diel. The problem within the sound effects and the music in FFXI is the consistency. There are specific moments where the music is intense, and really fits in well with the setting, and other times where the melody is downright annoying, or even absent. For this reason, I cannot possibly pass them in this category.
Role-Playing - 3
Role-playing is present in FFXI and the world of Vana'diel, even though it's very, very rare. There are presently not any designated role-playing servers, and it's a rarity to observe much present in-game. If role-playing is your hobby, I'd have to advise against FFXI. Other mainstream games provide many more opportunities for genuine role-playing.
Community - 8
The community is both FFXI's strongest and weakest point overall. Having played through more than a dozen MMORPGs, I've had a taste of both the good and the bad of the communities in the genre.
FFXI is a very group-oriented game. Almost three hours into the game, you'll be partying for the rest of your experience in Vana'diel. As a result, good social networking, and a healthy amount of friends is essential for you to be successful. You'll want to be friends with that Goldsmith so that they can make you a ring when you hit that certain level. You'll want to be friends with the White Mage and the Ninja so that you can work together with them on completing that next mission. Solo opportunities are very minimal in FFXI, and while Square Enix has slowly modified their game to be a bit friendlier to the lone wolf style of play, for the most of the game, you'll be playing with numerous other players.
Most players are generally willing to help you out with advice, and possibly a quest/mission if you're intelligent and ask politely. Be warned though, beggars and imbeciles will be given no quarter in the world of Vana'diel. One of the fastest ways to make someone's blacklist is to beg them for money, gear, or items. The FFXI community is a very closely knit one, so you'll be playing with the same people you did at level one when you hit level 75. For this reason, it's important to create and maintain close relationships with the players you encounter, because you never know when you'll run into them again, and possibly even need their help.
"Raid" events, also known as "Alliance" events in FFXI, will require the gathering of numerous parties of adventurers. These types of events will require several (countless) hours, lots of teamwork, and a good amount of dedication for everyone. Specific events, such as Dynamis or Limbus, can be frustrating, because if you don't know the right people, or have enough money, you will not be able to participate.
At one point, there was a serious issue regarding the presence of Real-market-trade, or RMT, in the game. Companies like IGE and others had allegedly hired so many Chinamen farmers, that the economy in-game was literally ruined. Items that once cost 10,000 Gil shot up to 3,000,000 Gil, and money essentially lost all value. Other items were completely monopolized by the gilsellers, and as a result, many players lost the opportunity to farm certain areas or acquire certain pieces of gear. However, the good news is that SE took measures against RMTers, and banned nearly 800 accounts suspected of engaging in RMT practices. Since then, the economies have stabilized, and the gilsellers have disappeared. Unfortunately, it appears they are rapidly re-emerging, however, they now sell accounts instead of in-game currency. Yep...that party of six Galka Black Mages that's been leveling non-stop for four days...those might well be your local sweat-shop grinders. That said, you cannot dock them too much for this, as this is an issue with every MMORPG and SE has taken measures to fend it off.
The end-game community will make or break many players interest in the game. It is one of cut-throat competition, and there's really no room for people who aren't there to win. Third party programs, such as claim-bots, are prevalent, and hacking is not only condoned, but practiced frequently. It can be very frustrating to try and kill that one Notorious Monster, also called an NM, when you see an infamous botter sitting there, waiting to hack the claim on the mob. Also, backstabbing, deceit, and treachery become prevalent in the end-game, and a player who isn't careful is likely to get burned.
Another issue that many have with the community is the presence of server icons. Certain linkshells tend to dominate all aspects of the end-game on each server, and if you're not a part of that linkshell, you won't be reaping in any rewards for all your hard work. This is a large detriment in my experience, because many social linkshells tend to dissolve so that players can enlist with the dreaded Hyper-Notorious-Monster linkshells, also known as the HNM shells. As a result, many players will be forced to choose between enjoying a socially-friendly community, or a labor-driven reward-based community.
A final concern for many players is more than likely the roll of PvP in FFXI. PvP is completely optional, and takes place in a mode called "Ballista". Players will pay to rent a small area of land, and will fight out members of opposing nations. Other options include renting small, private battlefields, in which you may freely brawl one another, or play a game similar to capture-the-flag. It can be fun, but there are glaring imbalances in PvP, and since it is such a minute part of the game, it's unlikely these imbalances will ever be addressed.
Overall, community is a mixed bag. It has major, major problems, but the opening early game make it like a family of pirates (the ship kind, not the internet kind!). Sure, there is a lot of bad stuff going on, but if you stick around, you'll love them anyway.