You may recall the 6 Billion-player advertisement that Sega ran upon the Dreamcast launch, which met with such uproar and ridicule from the press and rivals. Time to dig it out and run it again because finally (18 months too late) Sega have achieved the goal. Phantasy Star Online is an online adventure where you will meet other players from around the world and together solve the mystery of Ragol.
The story is set on the planet of Ragol that has been colonised by the crew of Pioneer 1 in preparation of refuges arriving from the dying Earth. 30,000 refuges are onboard Pioneer 2 including you, which arrives in orbit at the planet only to witness a large explosion on the surface. All contact with the crew of Pioneer 1 is lost and in the explosion the local wildlife has become rather unfriendly. The main mission either in single or online mode is to find out what happened while facing strange creatures against ever-increasing odds. Subplots with sinister organisations and individuals feature throughout the game and of course there are other quests but more of that later.
Before you start the game you will have to create your own character and choose from three distinct traits (Force, Hunter, Ranger) that each have their own abilities i.e. Hunter close fighting. The beauty of this is that each type then has three subgroups and therefore the more variety on a team the better it will be. The character design mode will provide limitless possibilities and fun. Once you go online you will be amazed at the variety of designs and very rarely will two ever be the same. Again this adds depth and if you have a unique character you will identify with it more and hence the game itself.
Keeping with its RPG predecessors your character is measured by the level that he or she is on and the health/magic points that they possess. Experience can be gained through battles, which with time will increase your level, at times it can be mundane and tiring but such is the gameplay that you rarely pay attention to how many experience points you have collected. The creatures you will encounter are unique to each level and the variety is excellent although the AI is pretty poor. Whether you play online or off – at times the screen is full of creatures coming from all directions with no slow down. The battles themselves are fairly routine with the run shoot, run shoot, method being most effective.
The levels are split into various areas i.e. Caves, Forest etc and within themselves they are the same layout and style but the creatures and goals change depending on your quest. The reasoning behind this is probably to keep loading and memory to a minimum thereby improving the online experience. Apart from the main game you also can visit the Hunters Guild on Pioneer 2 which is a bounty hunter club of sorts with various jobs on offer. The quests can range from collecting data on creatures to escorting and protecting the press. Sonic Team are also constantly working on new quests and these can be downloaded and vary between online and single player missions. This provides a welcome break from the main player game and adds to the whole Phantasy Star experience especially if you cannot defeat a particular boss. Pioneer 2 has a variety of shops (weapons, magic, armour, techniques etc) and other establishments that you can visit in either mode.
Online this game reaches another level, you don’t even need to take part in the quests, instead you can shop, trade items or talk to other players around the world. There are three different methods of communication; symbol, shortcuts or typing which is 80 characters per message. The latter is pretty straightforward although you do rely on others understanding English while the previous options do take practice but you can communicate with non-English speakers. From Pioneer 2 you can either join European, American or Japanese servers and from there select which ship and block you wish to visit. The sheer scale is impressive, as is the lack of lag with it only being occasionally noticeable on quests when you open crates. If you make friends with others you can exchange Guild Cards that allow you to send messages directly even though you may not be online or in the same game – the next time they go online the message will be waiting for them. Another advantage of the Guild Cards is that they allow you to search for a player amongst the thousands that may be onboard at that time. If you prefer you can create your own team and if you wish certain players to join protect it with a password. Apart from the phone bill the biggest single problem with the online mode is that you could easily be part of a team fighting the final boss and thus complete the game missing out on the story. If you die online you leave your money (Meseta) and the weapon that was equipped behind. This can lead to some unsavoury behaviour from team-mates who may take both before reviving you – yet for all the time I’ve been online this has only happened once. Most players give advice and items freely adding to the enjoyment of the game and bad behaviour is not encouraged.
Graphically the game is very impressive especially when the action gets going and little touches such as the lighting and water effects are wonderful. Sonic Team have their own unique visual style and Phantasy Star Online has no doubt been influenced by Burning Rangers, NiGHTS and Sonic himself. The audio is again very Sonic Team and effective. However not all is fine in Phantasy Star Online as I mentioned previously AI, similar levels and battles will no doubt annoy some but not the majority. If I was to be very critical, if you look very hard you will notice the occasional pop-up in the distance but with an RPG this is not a serious flaw unlike some levels in Sonic Adventure.
The control system is good with the ability to select and use items or weapons while still controlling your character. It does take a bit of getting used to as its very unique but worth it. You have such a wide range of weaponry, attacks and items (plus the mag) that the Dreamcast pad struggles to cope. Remember that you cannot pause the game while on a quest and more often than not you will find yourself running into another area, selecting the item and then returning. The control system could have been much worse but as the chat supports the keyboard I do find it odd that you cannot make use of the keys to select items and suchlike whilst playing the game.
Overall these are minor issues and have not stopped me from returning to the game consistent basis. The sheer thrill of the online mode and being part of something worldwide is very special and whether you’re onboard Pioneer 2 or down on the planet you feel it. It is really two games in one and I have not covered some aspects that you will enjoy, such is the multitude of options and depth on offer. It remains to be seen how long you can actually play the game online with the future of the machine now in doubt but I suggest that you pick up this game immediately and experience it for yourself before its too late.