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The Digital Continuum: Week three of vacationing in Vana'diel

Kyle Horner

Sometimes you're reminded of things that you once cherished and in these moments of recollection it feels as though you need to embrace those long forgotten loves once more. I've found this to be particularly true of Final Fantasy XI. What I haven't decided yet is whether I truly do need to embrace what it was I once loved about the game -- challenge.

All of this stems from my ongoing vacation in Vana'diel and specifically my static group experience this last week, which was unequivocally a failure of chance and circumstance. We began playing without one person, and that turned into a permanent situation after the fact. Then our group faced several non-starter situations where we'd defeat two or three monsters before something disastrous would occur.

One particularly funny (and eventually deadly) situation was with an exceedingly creepy goblin, who traced the outer edges of our party's safety zone for several battles. Eventually, he snuck his way within that zone, but only once we'd engaged a hill lizard. At this point the entire party proceeded to lose their collective minds and run in every direction. Valkurm Dunes goblins, as you may imagine, are quite fearsome at level 10.

I also couldn't forget about the case of the linked hill lizards, who tore through our party like a pothead through a pepperoni pizza. It wasn't until this event -- which took place several hours after we began playing -- that it was decided we should call it for the evening. Generally speaking, I'm not one to give up. However, even I had to admit Final Fantasy XI had pretty much kicked our collective hides this go 'round. And yet, I still found myself wanting more. Our group even entertained the idea of getting together a second day in the week.

Which brings me to what I'd like to talk about this week. Challenge is a curious, tempting beast for many of us who play games and especially those who partake in massively multiplayer games. It's fair to say that the popular choice is for newer titles to allow an easier play style. Their goal is to frustrate the newcomer as little as possible, to streamline the experience for maximum appeal. I can't say I disagree with that concept, but something seems to have been lost in the transition from butt-whompingly hard to nipple-teasingly easy. And just like the masochists who enjoy getting thomped on their rear, many a FFXI player find a rare type of enjoyment in the world of Vana'diel. Just take a look at any of the advanced job quests and you'll see what I mean.

It's not that I enjoy being constantly beaten around. Before this static group disaster I'd had several highly successful groups. The key is that when you do triumph in a game where these things are possible, your victory is ever the sweeter. Although, I can't help but wonder if there's a less time consuming way to achieve this sort of experience. Call it what you will but there's one thing you cannot deny about FFXI, which is that the game takes far too long to sign up for, install, patch and then level to the point where you can do some cool and exciting things.

Ever since the success that World of Warcraft has seen, developers have applied a general streamlining of all these aspects of the experience -- particularly to leveling and general quality of life features. Now, I can agree with making sign up, installation and patching as easy and simple as possible.

What needs a second look is the leveling and playing experience. I don't think easy and challenging are mutually exclusive. For instance, a person in FFXI can reach a substantially high level primarily through solo play through Fields of Valor, although that requires free time and or patience on the scale that some people don't possess. If you manage to find a capable group who're all in it to play, it's possible to rocket through levels at a rate that many would deem acceptable. Level Sync -- the function of capping the party's level to that of one person, but getting XP all the same, mostly -- does a lot to make finding a party all the easier. No longer do you need to worry about someone's level in FFXI. In fact, most people care only about your primary job and potentially your rank, which shows how much of the storyline missions you've completed.

Still, with all these enhancements, hill lizards still link and wipe your party, goblins pop up from behind your party's Mithra (which scares the fur balls out of her) and sometimes a ghost wanders into the fray, making everyone explode on sight. These situations are avoidable through attentiveness while playing and knowing the lay of the land a little bit. There's really no big secret, but it would certainly help if Square Enix facilitated their players a little better. And maybe that's all Final Fantasy XIV really needs to be: a better implementation of the same ideas in FFXI. I like my challenge, thank you very much -- just make sure it's a fair challenge. No wonky controls, lengthy installations, frustratingly complex sign-in processes (I'm so happy that PlayOnline is out of the picture after FFXI) and I'm sure countless Final Fantasy fans will be a whole lot happier to play the game for quite some time after release day.

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