Ten Level Test is the new Eurogamer feature series in which MMOs compete for our love in a knockout competition. We pair them off, play each for ten levels, and then uninstall the one we had least fun with. For a full explanation of the rules and quite why we'd attempt this madness, and for an introduction to all eight contenders in the first Ten Level Test - EverQuest II, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Lineage II, Final Fantasy XI, Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes, Guild Wars and Dungeons & Dragons Online - visit the Editor's blog.
In the first round, Vanguard scored a surprise victory over its label-mate, EverQuest II, in a meeting of the traditional American fantasy MMOs. This time, we look to Asia, at two games of similar scope but totally different culture - Square Enix's Final Fantasy XI from Japan, and NCsoft's sequel to its Korean monster hit, Lineage II.
Both games offer much more limited cosmetic customisation than the Western RPG fan has come to expect, relying instead on their strongly individual, but rather inflexible, character art. Both also have only a small selection of classes available at the start, with specialisation being delivered gradually through advancement trees or secondary roles later in the game.
Lineage II's racial menu is quintessentially Korean - that is, it sounds like standard-issue fantasy, but looks like a headlong crash between nineties American comics, Japanese manga, Louis XIV rococo religious art and a Norwegian Goth club. You can be a Human floppy-fringed fop, an Elf floppy-fringed fop, a Dark Elf dominatrix in a bustier, a strangely handsome Orc with chiselled cheekbones and cornrows, or a Kamael, which is a kind of one-winged, fallen-angel Goth-tart. Only the Dwarves look like you'd expect - apart from the females, who are pigtailed manga chicks. The character models are crisp and highly detailed, but you can hardly change them at all.
Final Fantasy XI's line-up is quite distinctive - Humes and Elvaans less so, perhaps, but the other options are the cute, rotund little Tarutaru mouse-people, the Mithra cat-women and the hulking Galka, long-armed primates with windswept hairstyles. As you'd expect from Final Fantasy, they're all drop-dead matinee idols, and although customisation is very restrained their abundant charisma, swoonsome good looks and excellent hairstyles seal an easy deal.
Lineage offers just the two classes to begin with - the Fighter and the magic-using Mystic. These are then specialised into quite a wide range of classes as you level up, with Humans offering the most choice and Dwarves and Kamael (both restricted to Fighters) the least. Dull, perhaps, but also liberating to make only the most basic selection now and leave the hard choices till later. Final Fantasy's six basic "jobs" will be familiar to all series veterans - Warriors, Monks, Thieves, White Mage healers, Black Mage offensive casters and the Red Mage jack-of-all-trades. You character can change jobs to level up in more than one, and select a more specialised secondary job at level 30.
Trying to get into the spirit of things - and in order to see the most recent starting area - I go for a female Kamael Fighter in Lineage II, all lace, heels, swords, red eyes and coldly sexy hauteur. But I don't really feel I can make any of these characters be who I want. In FFXI, I just can't resist being a gigantic light-blue amalgam of Wolverine and the Beast, so a Galka of maximum body-size it has to be. No role other than Warrior seems appropriate to this monster, really. More charm and more choice; the Square game has a confident lead.
Two new and very different Tenlevels stride onto their servers. At this point, I had no idea how different.
Lineage II: levels 1 to 4
Lineage II knows it has a reputation for unfriendliness, and it wants to make it very clear that things have changed. It is an almost forcefully welcoming host.
The game's interface and introduction were redesigned with the Kamael expansion. Everything's very clean, clear and fast, there are characters called Newbie Helpers and Newbie Guides offering advice, rewards and buffs, and a man with a deep voice and an educated American accent talks you through a tutorial as studiously non-threatening as an airline safety video. To be honest, there's not that much to explain. Click to talk. Click to move. Click to kill. Click to loot.
I'm in a temple with some little gremlins standing around. I'm told to kill one. I do. I level up instantly. I kill a couple more for the hell of it. I hit level 3.
As a reward for my heroic efforts, I'm given an item that buffs my weapon to allow me to kill enemies faster. Since each one has only taken a couple of hits so far - and since many mobs drop herbs and potions with further temporary buffs to health, or damage, or running speed - this seems surplus to requirements.
There follows a short walk to the Kamael "village", which is actually more of a giant, brooding fortress of evil than a village. The landscape is brown and barren and populated by mewling fox-like things. A handful of these die instantly under my sword and I'm level 4 before I get there. Around half an hour has passed since I logged into the game.