The comment thread to that news showed that this divide was not unique to the two of us. Comments were sharply divided between those who would happily blacklist Chains of Promathia and forget it existed, and those who were heartbroken at something so wonderful being toned down. So I decided to go ahead and take another look at the expansion as an aggregate, both the good and the bad. Out of all the Final Fantasy XI expansions, this one was the most unique. Was it a good experiment, or was it a failure?
If there's one mechanic that gets associated with the second expansion, it has to be the level caps. Which is a little odd, as it was hardly something that the expansion introduced. Still, Chains of Promathia took the idea of level caps and ran with it until there was no further to go -- and then went even further. If you were counting on being able to rush through everything as a Level 75, think again.
It is very important to note that at the time CoP launched, the level sync feature that is currently in the game did not exist. That means that you couldn't just keep wearing your equipment for a main job. You needed a new set, or you needed to put up with going in missing a piece or two of equipment.
And when the new areas in question were specifically tuned to be challenging, you can't put up with a missing piece of equipment or two. It's hard to justify just going in with merely level-appropriate armor compared to stat-boosting pieces or high-quality pieces.
On the one hand, calling this tremendously inconvenient is an insult to inconvenience itself. It creates a bizarre game where you either have to carry a full set of equipment for your job of choice at several level intervals, or you have to keep a full set of equipment in storage for several jobs that sit right around the proper level. (Should you be someone not familiar with the game, this would be like trying to carry multiple sets of tailored evening wear and accessories in a Smart car.) The sheer audacity of requiring this from players is almost mind-numbing.
And yet... here's the thing. Level caps work wonderfully at two goals. First, they ensure that even lower-leveled players have something interesting to do. While there are some differences between the player at 75 who's capped at 30 and the one actually at 30, for the most part they can both contribute equally to a Promathia mission at that level. In a game where leveling has never been a trivial process, keeping players of different levels on a roughly even playing field makes a huge difference. Second, they prevent people from farming lower-level content without a care in the world. No matter how high-level you are outside of Promyvion, it's going to be just as challenging each time.
Here we hit on one of the core elements of CoP: it's clearly meant to be hard. It is hard in its unfettered form, and it requires attention and thought from players. Letting people just rush through at 75, wielding a relic weapon and dancing a merry jig on the corpses of your foes... not only does it send the wrong message to players, but it also trivializes the importance of the expansion. After all, don't you need to be in some peril for a story to have meaning? CoP has a story so overarching and so important that it deserves an entire column dedicated only to said storyline -- and you had better believe it's going to be in this series before we're done.
I will confess to being really upset about this one at the time. Now, as an older and wiser man with a more calm demeanor, I am still equally upset about it. This is one of the things I came to the dance for, darn it! It's like having a Mega Man game in which you do not fight eight bosses and take their weapons.
Yes, I know they did that. I wasn't happy about that, either.
Ranting aside, this is one of those missteps that speaks to an uncomfortable problem with the game's steep and unforgiving level curve. For some players, level 75 just isn't happening. Having new jobs to unlock and play with both gives these players something to do and rekindles the hope that they'll make it to the end this time around. It also gives a marvelous incentive to level a different job, since the new jobs will be leveling up in droves and they'll need someone to fill in the gaps.
CoP didn't have this, and the result was a big gap in any need to level jobs through the hellish low-level areas. That didn't bode well for anyone coming into the game fresh, either. But that's venturing far into the brackish waters of anecdotal evidence, so we're just going to stay well clear of all that. Suffice to say that the absence of new jobs from the expansion was felt, and keenly so. It was not the best choice that could have been made, nor was it the only choice that could have been made.
On the plus side? All the time that would have gone into developing new jobs went into the rest of the game, I suppose. I have to admit that I don't see much of an upside to this one. The comments field, I am certain, will provide me with several reasons.
So, after hitting two of the major points of the expansion, we still haven't reached a conclusion. We can certainly agree that there are drawbacks to the level caps, but there are benefits as well. And while the absence of new jobs is bad, it's not exactly devastating.
Clearly, this trial is not going to be over in just a day. So we're going to call for a one-week recess, and we'll be back here next week to continue our deliberations. If you have arguments you'd like to make for the prosecution or the defense -- or just general comments -- feel free to mail them off to Eliot at Massively dot com. (But if you want to rage at me for saying bad things or nice things about the expansion, please, wait until we're done.)