Getting online with the Dreamcast just became a necessity. Sure, it could be argued that games like ChuChu Rocket and Quake III Arena were as good an excuse as any, but with ChuChu, the lag was quite silly (and ultimately it was more fun offline with friends), and as for Quake III Arena, well, the only reason it's fun these days is because of Rocket Arena, and you can't get that on the Dreamcast. Phantasy Star Online though, offers hope. Its offline game is dull and drab but it's pretty much lagless, and it invites gamers from literally all over the world to join together against a common foe -and who better- pure evil. PSO is not only the first online RPG on a console, it's the best online RPG for a long time. As an individual, the game can get tiresome, because the storyline itself isn't that terrific, but online, especially when pal'd up with a few friends, it goes beyond the old "one more go" adage - stuff outside the game stops mattering. I didn't play the original Phantasy Star games, but it doesn't really matter, because the sense of story in PSO is virtually non-existent once you progress beyond the first hour or so. The idea is that your homeworld is dying, and "Project Pioneer" has been conceived in its death throws to continue life offworld. The first ship, Pioneer 1, was sent out quickly to find a new home to colinize, Ragol. Pioneer 2 has now arrived, packed with refugees, and contact has been made with the settlers. Everything's looking good. But then there's an explosion, and contact is lost. In classic RPG style, you are one of a scant few on the ship in a position to help, and are sent down to discover just what the heck is going on.
That, however, is about as gripping as it gets. One had hoped for an Event Horizon-esque multi-dimensional thriller, perhaps combining elements of Resident Evil and Final Fantasy, but it's just a trek through dungeons looking for the bad guys, really. The game has more in common with Diablo and its sequel than with Grandia II. The game also differs to other MMORPGs (you only get that once, kids) because it is actually a finite tale. You can "complete" it. The ending is a severe letdown, but then it was always going to be with such an epic game (in terms of scale and longevity anyway). The thing is, and this is the crucial part: even when finished, you continue to play. It's almost as if Sonic Team engineered the tale to end on a low note. It doesn't really matter that you know what happens - you just go back and continue on with your mates. The reason being, obviously, that PSO is more about gameplay, character development and interaction with friends than it is about uncovering this galactic threat. The most important part about Phantasy Star Online, gameplay wise, is the scope for individuality. When I first envisaged PSO, I thought of hundreds upon thousands of little identical Lockes from Final Fantasy, running around thieving and killing off bad guys in packs. Not so. There are nine different characters and classes to select yours from (so there is plenty of scope for replay anyway), but each can actually be edited to make them look unique based on your own preferences. The game uses a clever universal translator system that allows people all over the world to play using common phrase translation and "emoticons" for simple communications. You can customize your own emoticons to reflect your individuality, and these will be the most obvious way of getting communication across, and marking your contribution. Granted, the system as it stands is hardly a Babelfish, but it's a start, and it's functional enough to get you by amongst a world of foreigners. The sort of thing one would kill for in the real world, then. You can bind specific phrases to the Dreamcast's gamepad buttons if needs be (you'll quickly learn which phrases and icons are most important), or you can just buy a keyboard and use that. I found the latter was the best way to avoid trouble in the long run.
One of PSO's other big coups is the "MAGs" system. MAGs are basically little creatures that twin up with your character, and are essential to your progress. They are not unlike the legendary Tamagotchi, in that you do feed them (with cure items, abilities and the like), as much or as little as you want, but they also reciprocate your kindness by increasing your abilities. MAGs actually "evolve", into different shapes and sizes depending on what you feed them and the frequency of doing so. MAGs are all different from character to character, depending on your customisations, and at the end of the day (and certainly beyond about level 15), you should have quite a unique duo at your disposal. And yes, you do get attached to the MAG, just like the Tamagotchi. I still remember when someone decided to dunk my Tamagotchi in the local river. It never really got over that - I'd feel similarly hacked off if someone killed my beloved MAG. So the game is mostly about building your character and fighting evil, but it's also about collecting stuff. A staple requirement of most RPGs, collecting stuff extends the life of PSO way beyond where it should be. There's always some item you don't yet have in your inventory, and there's also some reason to keep on playing. Hell, even if you find a new and interesting item, you aren't satisfied until you're experienced with it. Turning off the Dreamcast at the end of the evening becomes painful. That's what makes Phantasy Star Online so brilliant though. It's complex through its simplicity, and addictive like Diablo was. You know the game isn't technically speaking that great, but there is always something to do, some goal to achieve and you are almost always just having plain ol' fun. It's the purest form of entertainment - it's not really addictive per se, it's just so good that you feel withdrawn when you stop doing it for a while. Okay, so maybe it is addictive. Sue me. No wait, sue Sega!
In my haste to extol PSO's many virtues, I seem to have left out some other important parts, so lets go over them. Forget ye not the technical aspects, as they say. The visuals, for starters. Trading off visuals against constant frame rate (and of course in PSO's case stability of Internet conditions) is a difficult task, but PSO does look stunning nonetheless. The intro sequence is the best part, and again, it's a shame that it hasn't been matched by a similarly spectacular exit movie, but the bits in between make up for it. The level of detail on your characters (particularly after customisation) means you never really get tired of looking at them. The shear vibrancy and sense of life that dominates the game makes it hard to detach yourself from, too. You do feel as though you're moving through and exploring a world, with friends, and not just walking through blocky pre-designated tunnels in groups with pretty pictures splashed up and down the walls. That would be quite a harsh appraisal of any game, but with an online RPG on a 33.6Kbps modem you could have been forgiven for suspecting the worst. Oh, and since I'm trying not to miss out important details, how about the bosses. They are just utterly huge. Skyscraping, so to speak. The first boss you meet is at least ten times your size, and by the end you give up looking for the top, and just step back with your party members and hope to hell that you can overcome them. If you thought Sephiroth in FF7 was a git, you try topping some of this lot. As I've said, the online aspect is really the only side of PSO worth bothering with. There are four UK servers or thereabouts, split into different arenas and you can usually track down mates easily when you jump on for another game. Lag, as I've said, isn't an issue that you should be bothered with, and as for cheaters - don't worry about them either, Sega is warning and banning people who try to fiddle the game using an Action Replay or similar device. The unique key system for each copy of PSO makes it easy to pinpoint and block troublemakers.
Ultimately, PSO is a masterpiece. There's just so much to it. I haven't even had a chance to get stuck into the game's sprawling locations, control system and all the fun you can get up to with fellow players. Needless to say, it's all just pretty much perfect. Get some mates involved and you will need no fixative to help keep you glued to the seat. Growing MAGs and building up your character becomes religion, and although you can play offline, you really won't want to. The only thing that one can really take issue with is the Dreamcast's inability to support external Internet connections. Ideally, I would like to plug PSO into my ADSL line, or at the very least a modem or ISDN using an unmetered connection. Paying by the minute is going to get very expensive. If you can stomach the costs though, do it. This game deserves the investment.