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.
Final Fantasy XI: levels 1 to 4
Half an hour into Final Fantasy XI, and I'm not even playing Final Fantasy XI yet.
Everything about this game is idiosyncratic. Perhaps that's to be expected for an MMO developed with the PS2 in mind, in a country not known for its affinity for online gaming. The painfully slow and entirely quixotic Play Online Viewer must be negotiated, and things called Content IDs must be registered, and baffled tinkering undertaken to get the game to display in some kind of respectable resolution, and at the correct aspect ratio, and to find a workable keyboard layout (the game supports mouse control in name only, really), and get my head around a completely foreign interface designed for a gamepad.
Compensation comes in the form of great, breaking waves of nostalgic Final Fantasia - an epic intro movie, urgent yet lyrical MIDI music, hints at an interesting socio-political set-up to the steampunk world, spell-casting effects that sound like an angel levelling up in bliss, and items and spells I instantly know the uses of.
But - as I'm directed to a guard who talks me through the basics, and sends me out of the town gate to kill my first monsters and thus raise my weapon skill - there's another shock coming. This is absolutely Final Fantasy, and to play it is to be one of the characters in a Final Fantasy party - that is, you have no health regeneration at all, and you mostly have nothing to do but auto-attack until one of your few spells becomes available. Attacking monsters is a case of selecting, watching and waiting... and waiting. If I'm lucky and have built up enough weapon skill and tactical points, I might use a skill. Just the one.
After a tussle with a worm or a swarm of Ding Bats has near-exhausted my giant warrior, I have to let him rest for minutes before I can take on another. I'm beginning to wish I'd chosen a class with some form of heal spell. A nearby player heals me after one nail-biting encounter with a Rock Lizard and I'm pathetically grateful, so grateful I'm delighted to be able to step in and help when she's attacked while resting. We don't speak, and don't have to. It's implicit - we need each other.
Still, the guard takes pity on me and offers a temporary experience boost and a series of goals that offer just enough motivation to get through this slow-motion grind. Get your weapon skill to 5. Get to level 4. Go to somewhere called Konschtat Highlands to kill a single beast there.
I research the route and set off. It's an epic trek, and in amongst the pink vultures and animated plant-bulbs are some dangerous turtle-men who'll attack me, unprovoked. Dying means going all the way back to town and losing 10 per cent of my precious experience, so I'm not keen, but it can be hard to avoid.
After an arduous journey I'm almost at Konschtat - but the line on the map turns out to be an impassable ravine. I've come the wrong way, and have another 20 minutes' walk to make up for the detour. Dispirited, I log out.
Lineage II: levels 4 to 7
A quest-giver's challenge: to collect supply manifests from the warehouse and the store. Oh well, a chance to turn on the standard WASD control scheme - but it doesn't feel right, somehow, with sticky turning and strafing. In time, I'll revert to using the mouse. I see another player, the first time this has happened.
I run the errand, hand in - and suddenly I'm level 6 and have been given a whole new armour set. A Newbie Guide smothers me in buffs and drowns me in weapon tokens, one of which I exchange for a fancy new sword. Visiting the trainer, I discover that I can buy improvements to my weapon and defence skills, but actual combat abilities require something called a battle manual to learn, and I have no idea how to get one of those.
I receive a couple of quests, which in Lineage II scale to how much time you put into them. You're instructed to collect drops from monsters but any amount will do, with a certain target being set for a useful item, and other amounts paying cash. I get one to kill Keltir - the fox things - and wolves, and one to collect the teeth of goblins and wolf-men in the hills.
Stepping outside the "village", I find literally hundreds of Keltir and wolves standing around, waiting to die. They are feeble, and I have seven buffs, a weapon buff, a new sword and new armour. I smite every one with a single blow. Five minutes of senseless clicking later, I'm level 7.
Someone else has been grinding here recently. The ground is littered with little piles of money dropped from the animals, that they haven't even bothered to pick up.
Final Fantasy XI: levels 4 to 5 to 4 to 5
I'm playing carelessly, not selecting Check on monsters before I attack them to see how tough they'll be. I keep dying and losing experience - and more importantly, progress on foot.
I work my way up to level 5, then die and get knocked back to level 4. I claw my way back up to 5 again and push through towards Konschtat, but the enemies are getting tough. I have a strong feeling I'm not supposed to be there yet.
This, they say, is how it used to be in the Good Old Bad Old Days of MMOs. Directionless level grind, soloing like pulling teeth, glacial pace, death penalties, vast but barren worlds populated only by unassumingly deadly spawns crawling across the empty landscape. It's horrible - but it's also compelling. I'm acutely aware of Tenlevels' vulnerability, and I know it's a grim climb ahead, but I also know there'll be a sense of reward - probably only a sense, but still - at the end of it.
I want to kill a monster in the Konschtat Highlands quite badly. More than want - I aspire to it.
Lineage II: levels 7 to 10
I leave the Keltir killing fields behind in search of more worthy opponents for Tenlevels, the miserably overpowered, Regency-Emo avenging angel. I don't find any.
After a walk through the wilderness - dark brown to FFXI's washed-out grey, and no more appealing for it, although it does at least boast some trees - I find an encampment of goblins and wolf-men. I need 50 of their teeth for a "useful item", so I commence clicking.
They die. Straight away. All of them. The very first inkling of danger comes with the revelation that they will aggro if, and only if, you attack another that's standing next to them, but I could easily take five or ten of these guys on at once in any case.
If you're being charitable, you could say that there's a Diablo feel to the fast-paced, click-powered slaughter. There's definitely a base, gluttonous satisfaction to be had from each stinging one-shot kill, the fast-accumulating piles of buffs and loot, the scene of decimation in your wake; it's every MMO players' secret wish-fulfilment. But, without any need to think for a second, it's ultimately pointless, and devoid of interest.
It takes about fifteen minutes to get to level 10. I've killed dozens upon dozens of enemies, but only collected 18 of the 50 gold teeth.
Was the beginning of Lineage II always like this? Surely not. Was it better before? You'd have to assume that it wasn't; everything about the boosts I receive suggests that all they do is make a completely blank and featureless grind a lot shorter. After the long slow struggles of Final Fantasy, this deep, gushing draught of XP is briefly refreshing - but flavourless.
Final Fantasy XI: levels 5 to 10
In search of something, anything to give me an advantage for the long road ahead, I go shopping for food buffs and potions. The vendors don't have any, and those on the auction house are more than I can afford. I try exchanging crystals with guards but I don't have a high enough standing with Bastok, my industrial capital city.
In order to gain standing, I try out some missions. The first takes me into a mine, a proper, old-school Final Fantasy dungeon-crawl. I get killed when I have the audacity to attack a couple of Leeches, but otherwise, success - and a bit of determined grinding gets me to level 7. "7 down, 3 to go," says a little Tarutaru player jogging alongside me as I go to hand the mission in. We both know how much that means in this game.
After another mission ends in death, I decide to give the Fields of Valor system a go. This is a recent addition to FFXI that was introduced in December last year, which gives much-needed bonus XP and buffs for killing certain numbers of certain creatures - something like a traditional MMO quest, although you can only complete one every hour or so. Much has been made of how it eases the solo grind in the early levels before FFXI's famous group game kicks off, but to be honest, it only speeds things up a tiny amount, and the important goals in this game will always be the ones you set yourself.
Once level 8, I decide to give Konschtat another try. The immense journey passes without incident this time. I arrive in the narrow ravines of the highlands at night, and don't see any monsters for a while. Finally I spy one; the moment has arrived, but I've learned my lesson, so I select Check, and read the dreaded words.
"The Strolling Sapling seems tough."
I try a few times, but I know in my heart that the dream is over. I can't beat this tiny sentient tuber. It's still too soon.
I'll draw a veil over the rest of the last two levels, a determined but dull churn through Fields of Valor training regimes to make the magic two digits. It's a Pyrrhic victory: Strolling Sapling is still out there, laughing at the big blue failure.
In a way it's a similar pairing to the last test; one rough and demanding game that only allows soloing under sufferance (that was Vanguard, last time), versus another that's so eager to speed you through the early levels that it has bled all the colour out of them (EverQuest II). But compared to the yawning gulf between these two games, the Americans are so close you can barely see a crack of light. The only similarity between FFXI and Lineage II is in the primacy of grind, the fact that the only thing that really matters is the next level.
But where the winner of the last round was an easy - if unexpected - decision, this is a very hard one. It's tempting to consider continuing with Lineage II for an easy life, and the thought of an even longer slog through Final Fantasy XI - with the joy of waiting for groups to make any kind of progress one I still have to look forward to - is not one to relish.
But I have to admit that, while it's given me so little on the surface, Final Fantasy XI has ultimately given me far more. There are the hints of community spirit, or at least a communal bond between players, hidden by the lack of a general chat channel, but evidently there, and nowhere to be found in Lineage II. There are the finely-drawn characters and grand design of the Final Fantasy world, even if it's lacking in detail. There's big old lovable Tenlevels himself, already far more of a friend that the pouting, posing, imperious slayer of small mammals over in Lineage II.
And more importantly, there's the Strolling Sapling. If I commit to another ten levels, I can kill it.
Lineage II - you are uninstalled.