Retrospective: Final Fantasy XI • Page 2

Vana'diel or no deal.

Plenty of other MMO standards are also dispensed with - like, to cite an example that got me killed plenty of times when I dived back into the game last month, the lack of recharging health.

FFXI doesn't pull its punches early on, and most encounters - despite largely involving fighting bats, rats and annoying sentient onions, will sap a good chunk of your health bar. Unlike in most modern games, that health bar won't recharge until you actually tell your character to sit down, at which point it will crawl back upwards. Forget this - as I did - and certain death awaits. Keep forgetting it after a few levels, and you'll start losing 10 per cent of your level in XP every time you make the mistake.

In other regards, the game is just a throwback. It expects you to grind your way through levels, and treats quests and missions almost as a reward for your patience, rather than the backbone of the game. It hands out candy sparsely along the path - level dings are rare enough that even now they still attract a "gratz" from passing strangers, while new weapon skills and spells are handed out with generosity worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge.

The game makes you work for absolutely everything, in other words, and it's perversely proud of it. This hasn't really changed in seven years - it just feels a little less forgivable now. Yet even now, some of what made me stick to the game remains. There are sparkling moments within the drudge, sprinkles of magic dust scattered around the game's environments and systems. Every time you think you can't face splatting another cheeky dancing onion, the game tips its hat at you - showing you tantalising depths which will open up if you can only stick to it, or flashing you a vision of one of its rolling, fantastical landscapes just as the beautiful soundtrack hits the right notes.

I recall spending most of my first 20 levels in Vana'diel, FFXI's sprawling world, watching other players zooming past me on chocobos and looking forward to the point when I'd be able to ride one. This time, things are a little different. I still desperately want to hit level 20 and make friends with the feathered mounts, but I realise that it's not getting a chocobo that I'm most looking forward to - it's the run to Jeuno.

The three starting cities of Vana'diel are, essentially, spokes on a wheel - and the hub of that wheel is Jeuno, a fantastical pillar of a city that rises out of a steep-sided gorge in the centre of the map. Walking there from one of the starting cities takes a significant amount of time, and drags you through increasingly tough zones. Walking there is the only way to win yourself the reins of a chocobo.

I dreaded the infamous Jeuno Run when I was starting out in FFXI. It ended up being one of the most exhilarating things I've done in a game - running through mysterious zones full of ancient structures whose purpose I couldn't even guess at, populated by monsters who wouldn't even break a sweat while pounding me into a fine paste. Escaping by the skin of my teeth more times than I can count. Seven years of rose-tinted coatings on my specs have turned half an hour of heart-in-mouth creeping around the detection boxes of high-level foes into a dimly remembered masterpiece of gaming.

The reality isn't quite so exciting. I don't think things have been made easier, although I do have to refuse the offer of an escort from a very friendly high-level stranger so that I can relive my near-death fantasies. It's still an exciting run, but it's been made more mundane by years of similar death races, dragging low-level characters through high-level zones.

Still, I'm in Jeuno. I've got my chocobo driving licence. For a fleeting moment, I feel some kinship with people who moan about WOW handing out mounts like candy - I've worked damned hard to get chocobo privileges in FFXI, and I'm flushed with a sense of accomplishment. It's time to strike out into the wider world.

Time for a confession - I didn't hit the level cap in my return to FFXI. It's level 80 these days, recently raised from the long-standing cap of 75, and after getting to Jeuno, I hit the game's biggest speed bump of all. This is, resolutely, a multiplayer game. Soloing, in the view of FFXI's creators, is a learning process, a tutorial mode that shows you how to play and prepares you for groups - nothing more. Once you hit a certain point, progress without a group is impossible. You first encounter this around level 10, in Valkrym Dunes, but after level 20 it becomes even more pronounced.

It's why I quit the game first time around. The friends I'd introduced to FFXI had more time - or at least, made more time - to progress in the game than I could afford. They outpaced me quickly, and I ended up begging for pick-up groups on the edges of zones, wishing I'd levelled my White Mage job a little more diligently so I could serve as one of the much-needed healers. A damage-dealing class could spend far more time looking for a decent group than you'd actually spend slaying monsters, before someone in California had to go to a lecture, or someone in Japan, typing through the game's rudimentary but wonderful auto-translation system, had to go to bed.

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