"I scored really low on the benchmark, but my system beats the living hell out of the min specs. Does that make any sense to anyone else?"
Yes. The benchmark isn't totally accurate, as many people were screaming as soon as it was released, and it features several odd points. Points such as being sponsored by one of two major GPU manufacturers, and highlighting the most congested areas of gameplay with no options to turn settings down, only up -- the sort of things that have resulted in people being fully capable of running the benchmark and having scores telling them they could not.
The benchmark is a good vague measurement of whether or not you'll be able to get Final Fantasy XIV to load and run at some clip on your computer, but it's not the sole determinant of whether the game will run well or not. If you exceed the specs, you will probably be able to load and run the game at some standard of playability. In the event that you're a bit nervous, I'd recommend you pick up a new video card, as that should boost you up quite substantially.
"Is there any possibility of a trial with Final Fantasy XI?"
It comes and goes. Sometimes it's available and sometimes it isn't. Generally, there's an option available to try the game for free for 14 days, but that's not a permanent feature by any stretch of the imagination. I know a friend was moved to start up the trial as recently as a few days ago, but a quick search as of this writing reveals the trial has once again vanished into the ether.
On the flip side, at this point purchasing the Ultimate Collection is not a strain on anyone's wallet. For $20 you get the full game save the most recent add-on, and the requisite 30 days of free time in the game. It's not quite as good as a free trial, being neither free nor a trial, but at least you don't have to feel like you're investing new-game prices to see if you'll like the game.
Of course, it's also possible that this was a typo and the question was meant to be about FFXIV. In which case the answer is "probably," with the known caveat that purchasers get a buddy pass for their friends. (Before anyone asks, mine is taken.)
Thain asked (rhetorically):
"And another person comes on and BRAGS that it only takes half an hour to form a party to start playing?"
Yep. And with good cause.
I can be critical about FFXI on several occasions, especially when it comes to the hurdles that it asks new players to jump through. I'm not fond of the fact that you're limited to one character from start until finish, a trait which is carrying over into FFXIV, and I don't like several of the mechanics of grouping. I remember with bitterness the day I finally gave up on leveling Dragoon, having sat in Jeuno for two days straight looking for a mid-30s party and getting nothing but chat time.
With all this in mind? There is nothing wrong with the way that the game works. It's slow, and it's not always to my personal tastes, but the feeling when a good party gets rolling is well worth it. For all the game's flaws, including ones I will rail against, I applaud the designers for staying true to what they want the game to be. I think there are areas that can be tightened up without sacrificing that vision, but I'll defend the existence of the game and its model with vigor.
The fact that EverQuest has had its grouping mechanics changed in several ways means that FFXI is one of the last games out there with this sort of group mentality. I don't want it to return, but I'm glad it exists.
"[...] why would anyone with a choice, play any MMO on the console over a PC?"
The same reason why people would rather watch CSI than Law & Order, eat at McDonald's instead of Burger King, or drink Pepsi instead of Coke. Because not everyone likes the same thing. The fact that I personally don't get the appeal is immaterial in the larger scheme of things, as it is for anyone else who doesn't understand why the console compatibility is a big deal. It is, and if it's not the sort of thing you care about, it's not for you.
Some people may not wish to bother with PC upgrades when a PS3 is a viable alternative. Not everyone likes gaming on a PC (and considering what a hassle upgrading and troubleshooting can be, I hardly blame anyone avoiding that route). Others just like having a controller in their hands when they play, and they don't want to deal with getting the Dualshock 3 to work on the computer. And you might just have a nice TV and a nice comfortable chair to play in. It's not my sort of thing, but I don't begrudge the folks who prefer it.
Well, I do tease console-bound players in FFXI, but I promise it's strictly in good humor.
"What is it about this game that is special... other than the graphics?"
A lot of things, really. Most fundamental is the fact that the game is from a company with a long track record of producing polished games. Much they do about like BioWare, players are predisposed to think good things about FFXIV because it's got history behind it.
Beyond that? It promises both lateral and vertical character development. It promises a fair exercise in treating the world as an actual world rather than simply a collection of monsters to kill on the way to max level. It offers storytelling that exceeds what we see in most other games on the market. More than anything, it promises the same sense of verisimilitude that was omnipresent in FFXI -- that collection of carefully tuned elements that turns a video game into a convincing world of people and places.
And, yes, pretty graphics. Very, very pretty graphics. I don't believe I can stress this point enough.
Those are our questions for this week, and we can only hope that this experience has been as enlightening for you as it was for me. Hideous flames, rage-filled diatribes, or old-fashioned comments and questions can be left in the comment field, or mailed along to email@example.com. (Beta keys are also accepted as a form of bribery. Hey, I'm honest.)