There's still nothing much happening in Final Fantasy XI or Final Fantasy XIV at the moment. Well, OK, there's plenty happening, just not a great deal of news to discuss. I imagine that won't last very long, especially with the Final Fantasy XIV poll having ended on Friday, but right now seems like the perfect time to reflect on the past. And that inevitably leads me back to Final Fantasy XI, to my favorite expansion and the one that feels most vibrant to a North American player.

Treasures of Aht Urhgan wasn't the only expansion that was released here, naturally, but it was unique in the game's lifespan. Rise of the Zilaart came with the game from the initial NA launch, Chains of Promathia produced very divided opinions (which several columns covered, if you missed it), and Wings of the Goddess is really just a slight funhouse reflection of Vana'diel proper. But Aht Urghan was new, vibrant, and the sort of expansion you could really sink your teeth into. It was, I'd say, the best one the series had.

A foundation of lore

The introduction of Aht Urhgan was a real deviation from previous parts of FFXI. When you think about it, every other part of the game links back to the core story, the three nations. That's a good thing and a bad thing -- it meant that the stories had time to branch and explore the full depth of each plot without being rushed, but it also meant that Aht Urghan had to feel just as deep and vibrant as everything else despite having fewer connections to the outside world.

And it works. You can argue that you feel like more of an outsider, that more of the Empire's depth is hinted at offscreen, but that works precisely because you are an outsider. You're welcomed with open arms, but you're not a part of the area, and you're essentially meddling in another nation's affairs. The fact that you get in there by virtue of a mercenary company is similarly brilliant in that it explains why a foreigner would get involved and allows you ample opportunity to interact with the setting as a whole.

Another element of the setting that keeps things tied together, however, is the fact that there are no throwaway elements among the additions. Even though you have to do quests to unlock the advanced jobs, most of the pre-ToAU jobs aren't really tied to a specific place or nation. Paladins, for instance, are loosely tied to San d'Oria, but more because of San d'Oria's traditions as a pious and chivalric place than because of some innate attribute. (Dragoons are explicitly tied to San d'Oria, but it's in a bottle -- you don't really see any prior mentions of Dragon Knights, nor many subsequent nods.)

However, the Puppetmaster and the Blue Mage are both products of Aht Urhgan. They don't exist without the empire, and the quests and flavor reinforce the idea that these jobs are not native to Quon or Mindartia. Even the Corsairs are distinct and local, tied to a place and a group of people from acquisition to mastery. The result is that you can get more involved in the setting even though it doesn't necessarily tie back to Zilaart ruins and Tavnazia.

It's also worth noting that I do adore settings with an Arabic theme to them. And that's here in spades, from the court intrigues to the architecture to the climate. It feels fresh after legions and legions of settings that are clearly modeled after Europe in the middle ages with a dash of feudal Japan to season.

A canopy of mechanics

Of course, lore can make a good game excellent, but it won't make a bad game any good. Fortunately, ToAU delivered on this front as well, with the exception of certain hiccups in difficulty here and there. Amnesia might be about as fun as being hit in the face with a bag of doorknobs, for instance, but even minor irritations like that pales when compared to the sheer variety that the expansion introduced.

Let's be honest -- while it might have been a stretch in lore terms, it would have been very easy for the passive national control system to just carry over to the Empire, rather than creating an entirely new system. Instead, the interplay was shifted over to Imperial Standing and the ongoing siege of the city. Besieged had issues -- it's difficult to coordinate, can result in the loss of almost mandatory services if something goes wrong, and is pretty blessedly chaotic. But it's also dynamic, and it made players really care about the state of the city. It kept things active and engaging, and in a game where combat is usually a much calmer and more tactical affair, the dynamic scale was a welcome change.

The new jobs were a disappointment, in one sense. What the game really needed was more tanks and healers, and none of the three could perform those roles very well. (Blue Mages can do OK tanking at lower levels, but that only lasts so long.) To call them disappointing, though, is ignoring how much fun each one is in play and how many options they all bring to the table. Corsairs fill the support niche nicely as well as do decent ranged damage with guns, giving players a more aggressive support option than a Bard. Puppetmasters can essentially build a second party member and provide a whole toolbox of options, albeit one that's not terribly useful in a fully party. And Blue Mages can do a little bit of everything, along with having a flexible ability setup that I'm still quite enamored of.

And, of course, there's Assault, which I can't say a whole lot about simply because it's Abyssea's father. Yes, Assault is a far more primitive form, but the principles at work in Abyssea are still at work in Assault, up to and including the feel of it as an on-demand slice of content for players to enjoy. The add-ons of the past year speak to how successful Assault really was.

That's hardly all there was in the expansion -- the story was interesting and made good use of humor and drama alike, the zones were beautiful, and there were version updates that brought even more excellent systems -- but there comes a point where it's just gilding the lily. I'm still hoping we're due for another boxed expansion, and if it can approach the level of quality set by this one, I would be thrilled. Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments as always or via mail at eliot@massively.com.

From Eorzea to Vana'diel, there is a constant: the moogles. And for analysis and opinions about the online portions of the Final Fantasy series, there is also a constant: The Mog Log. Longtime series fan Eliot Lefebvre serves up a new installment of the log every Saturday, covering almost anything related to Square-Enix's vibrant online worlds.

This article was originally published on Massively.
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