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Are you going to buy an Xbox One X This Holiday Season?

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Game Profile
Sonic Team
PLAYERS:   1-4
April 10, 2003
Phantasy Star 0

Phantasy Star 2

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Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom

Phantasy Star II

More in this Series
 Written by Ryan Smotherman  on February 03, 2003

First Impressions: Xbox Live and Phantasy Star Online, it doesn't get any better than that.

There's no denying that Sonic Team's Phantasy Star Online series has been a very unique set of games. When the first ever console online RPG appeared on the Dreamcast in early 2001 it quickly drew in over 250,000 players worldwide; all of which couldn't get enough dungeon crawling, treasure hunting action. This addicting romp into the online world in many ways paled in comparison to PC MMORPGs, but the success was undeniable, and the game even received an expansion pack of sorts, in the from of Phantasy Star Online Version 2, which brought fans brand new levels, upgraded many aspects of the game, and unfortunately, brought with it a monthly fee. Since then the series moved onto the latest generation of consoles, in the recently released Gamecube title, Phantasy Star Online: Episode I & II. Even with the fact that you have to buy a network adapter, there's no keyboard for communication, and there's a monthly fee along with it, the game has been nothing short of a rousing success on Nintendo's super-console. With that now out of the way, Sonic Team set its sights on the one and only next-gen console with an online network set in stone. That's right Xbox owners, you might want to kiss your social life good-bye, cause Phantasy Star Online is just around the corner.

If you've been keeping with the times, then you should already know that the title is actually two games in one ? with Episode I being what was found in PSO Ver. 2 on the Dreamcast, and Episode II being a brand new addition to the series, with new levels, weapons, and everything else. Though, at any given time you'll be able to take your character(s) through any given episode. From what I've gathered, the original Episode is a good place for the newcomers to start, while Episode II is designed with experienced hunters in mind. For an RPG, the storyline in the game isn't much ? mysterious things have been happening on the planet of Ragol, and you go down to investigate, all the while completing missions and taking out a variety of enemies and boss creatures through the game's many theme-based levels.

For those unfamiliar with Phantasy Star Online, the concept is quite simple ? you pick and customize your own character from the 12 stock available to choose from (3 new ones added since the DC release), and then you team up with up to 3 other players and go fight through the various levels; in turn you'll find new weapons to try out and gain experience points that allow you to level up your character to God-like status (this will take you literally hundreds of hours). The game's characters come in three different classes ? hunters, rangers, and forces ? with each offering their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as different character models to choose from (these range from male and female humans to androids). If you take on the role of a hunter you'll be wielded sword-type weapons and your combat will mostly fall into the melee category. The rangers' weapon of choice is the gun, and their strategies tend to involve shooting from a distance. Likewise, the force character's main damage dealer is magic spells, which are usually used from a distance since the force's defense and hit points are usually very poor. Asides from damage dealing spells, spells that heal characters and increase their abilities for a short amount of time are there as well. The characters aren't exactly as cut and dry as that, however, since a majority of the character models have qualities of them all. The HUmar, for instance, is most efficient with melee combat, but can also use ranged weaponry, and has a decent selection of spells.

Each character in the game is also issued a mag, which is a virtual pet of sorts. These little guys are like guardian angels that increase your stats when equipped, and will even do deadly attacks once the right circumstances are met. And like you, they also have the ability to level up, which is accomplished by feeding them the right types of power-ups. Doing so allows them to morph into more interesting, and deadly forms.

The gameplay itself was purposely designed to be rather basic. Sonic Team wanted to create an online universe that just about anyone could jump into and start playing immediately. You're given two basic attacks, a standard attack and a heavy attack, and when timed correctly you'll be able to do simple, multi-hit combos. Of course, what you'll do all depends on the weapon that you have equipped, as different classes of weaponry have their own distinct styles. Using magic is as simple as equipping a spell and hitting a single button. Naturally, since the gameplay is in fact so simple, it's going to need a little something else to keep gamers interested, and it does ? the RPG elements. From personal experiences with the franchise, I can tell you that it's really one of the most addicting game's I've ever played (I think it's the last game I'd sit there and play for 5-6 hours straight). There's always that sense that you'll find a new, rare weapon just waiting to be picked up and used. Not to mention the bragging rights you get by leveling up your character to a stupid high number (I think the limit is Lv. 200). These elements in the game just can't be topped, and I don't see why we won't see the same level of addictive gameplay in this Xbox incarnation.

Gameplay aside, the social aspects of the series has always been what's made it so popular. While the Gamecube version has suffered without a keyboard peripheral available, the Dreamcast version allowed you to chat to teammates in real time. Both also came with preprogrammed phrases that were accessible from the start menu, and these not only allowed you to communicate a wide variety of things, but they also allowed you to do so to people of different nationalities and languages. This feature will no doubt make an appearance in the Xbox version, but it will probably go unused for the most part, as new grounds will be broken with full support of the Xbox voice communicator. Now you'll be able to actually talk to your fellow comrades ? setting up teams in the lobby, dictating battle strategies, negotiating trades, and so on ? without having to put down your controller to type something in on the keyboard, or search through text menus to say something, making it easily the most seamless version of Phantasy Star Online yet. All of this, however, will come with a price.

Microsoft recently rocked the Xbox community with a barrage of Phantasy Star Online details. First off, the game, complete with 60 free days of Xbox Live access, with retail for the discounted price of $39.99. Although, after the initial 2 months of play time, those who wish to continue playing online will be required to pay $8.95 per month, which is supposedly going to be used to fund Sonic Team's extras that will be implemented into the game ? these include downloadable quests, holiday decorations, etc. A monthly fee is certainly bad news, and I all I have to say is we better see a lot of freakin' downloadable quests. Moving on, in an odd twist, not only will you need to have Xbox Live to play online, you'll also need it to play off. This is something that was programmed into the Japanese version (which was a pack-in with XBL in that territory), and to prevent further delay, and security breaches; this will stick with the U.S. version of the game. It's rather unfortunate, but to be honest, you'd probably be wasting your money if you bought this solely as an offline experience anyways, so maybe it's for the best.

Speaking of the offline experience ? the game will in fact support a single player mode, as well as split screen play with up to four players at a time. Though, if you go at it alone, don't expect anything too compelling, as it is obviously threw in as an afterthought, with a weak story, and mindless gameplay. The split-screen play on the other hand does bring a lot more to the table, and will most surely be enjoyed by those with larger television sets.

Final Thoughts
I've always respected Sonic Team's Phantasy Star Online, as it's exactly what a console RPG should be ? simple, addictive, and fun. And by all accounts, this Xbox version should offer the best PSO experience by far, if just because voice communication is possible. It's regrettable that a monthly fee has been incorporated, but once you play it for 60 days and it gets its hooks in you, you probably won't think twice about paying for it each month. Then again, for only $40, you could play the game for that two-month span, quit after that, and more than likely you'll feel like you got your money's worth. Currently the game is scheduled for a release sometime in March, so look for a comprehensive review soon thereafter.

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