At least, that was the case before the June Version Update. Three of the biggest additions to the game were designed to take that notion and throw it out the window, not only encouraging players to jump into violence but outright pushing you toward faster and more active combat. We had a chance to take a walk through the game's additions, and they were everything that was promised and more, enough to make any Final Fantasy XI player very happy indeed with the changing face of the endgame.
Visions of Abyssea
We started our tour with a look at the add-on that came along with the version update, Visions of Abyssea, a trip to a parallel dimension in which the world and Vana'diel's inhabitants have been ravaged. (So a bit like Dynamis, without the bonus inclusion of it turning out to have been a dream world. Yet.) After the opening cutscene, which was of Square-Enix's usual high quality, we talked to the (current) big storyline NPC Joachim, who offers players a Traverser Stone and merrily sends you on your way to one of the Abyssea portals in La Theine Plateau, Konstacht Highlands, or Tahrongi Canyon.
It's probably still sounding pretty similar to Dynamis, but the actual mechanics are significantly different. For starters, while there is a time limit in Abyssea, it's partly set by the players -- each Traverser Stone turned in at the start of the zone gets you 30 minutes, with a maximum of three stones at the start. (Later quests allow players to store up to four stones.) Time extensions also drop with some regularity as you slaughter your way though the monsters in the region, with the monsters of Abyssea reacting dynamically to party movement. The faster you kill things, the faster and stronger they respawn, giving you more chances at higher experience totals and more time extensions.
Killing things in Abyssea nets experience as well as a new currency system known as cruor. Aside from having an odd name, cruor is used to purchase items from the small lobby area where you first arrive. You can acquire more cruor via quests, also dispensed in the lobby area, and exchange the points for consumables, armor, and other benefits. Cruor is also used to unlock conflux teleporters across the zones, which are the method for players to move about the rather expansive areas quickly.
The actual experience of running through was quite different from the usual camping style of FFXI's combat -- our party moved through reasonably quickly, helped by the fact that it's now far easier for mages to keep their mana up without resting. We only briefly touched upon the new level 80 abilities, but the few that we played with showed an immense change taking place over five levels. Classes become more mobile, more self-reliant, and far more flexible than before. The preview that was posted shortly prior to the update's release only scratches the surface of what's been added.
Walk of Echoes
Our next stop was Xarcabard, where we headed off to try the new Walk of Echoes system. The system honestly reminds me a great deal of Warhammer Online's Public Quests crossed with a traditional FFXI battleground. Each battleground automatically logs everyone as a participant, with the overall pace of the battle not requiring a party so much as a coordinated effort between multiple people. All enemies can be targeted by anyone, with no claiming mechanics in place to prevent assistance, and rewards shared equally.
Well, mostly equally. The system tracks who's doing the most damage and healing, and the top participants get extra treasure when the battlefield is cleared. However, even if you didn't manage to accomplish much in the battlefield, you still get some rewards for taking part.
In a nutshell, the battlefield you enter is filled with little enemies, which are best dispatched en route to the major boss toward the end. We took part in a battle against several crabs, with the little crabs proving decent but not overwhelming enemies, and the boss far more devastating. The boss in particular is clearly designed for large-scale battles -- with our small group at work, running him down was a very difficult process, but he didn't seem overwhelming for a full group of 36 participants. (Each battlefield is capped at 36, although players may join at any time.) Once we finally downed him, being one of the few people there put me in the top tier, and rewarded me with... a beech log.
That being said, the little enemies also drop coins for Trial of the Magians, as well as experience and synthesis materials, so you get something out of the process other than just a log no matter what. And hey, it wouldn't really be FFXI without the occasional "what the heck" drop.
The last stop on the tour was the Revitalization Team addition to Moblin Maze Mongers, which was itself a whole other ball game. Where the other two major additions are all about fast, mobile battles, Revitalization Team gives you a straight-up slugfest against a single opponent. The monster in question is powerful, has no visible HP bar, and you have 15 minutes on the clock to deal as much damage as you possibly can.
That's all there is to it. I was a bit leery at first, but getting to go into the fight made it clear that it was essentially the game's World of Cardboard speech. You always have some reason to hold back in battles, the need to move or to conserve resources or what-not. This is your chance to just unload with every trick in your book for as long as you possibly can, and whether or not you can kill the target, you get something out of it. In that light, the map is an absolute joy.
We took on Gumdrop, one of the first-tier monsters you can face. Successful runs net rank-up points that allow you to take on more challenging monsters, with concurrently better rewards. Even as a first-tier monster, however, Gumdrop was no pushover. It was a flan with several nasty physical abilities and the usual hard defense of the gelatinous family. We did manage to kill it, which netted some excellent caster shoes as well as assorted crafting materials.
If there's one downside to the Revitalization Team, it's that compared to the surrealistic and alien environments from Walk of Echoes and Abyssea it seems somewhat lackluster. It's the same cave as we've always been in. But the fight itself is fun, and that's what really matters.
We didn't get to hit everything in the update, sadly. For those looking for a more traditional battle style, for instance, several of the old camps from Chains of Promathia have had their levels adjusted upward for leveling to 80. The camps hadn't been active since the advent of Treasures of Aht Urghan, so it's a nice repurposing of existing assets. Still, what we did go through were three big changes to the way the game plays and the options available to characters at max level.
If you have an old character at or near max level just collecting dust, my advice to you is to go back for a little while. Try out the new additions and see. Because while the game is still recognizable, a lot of the changes here are the sort that would have made the game a whole different animal had they come in a little earlier. Log in and give them a fair shot.