The job system is excellent
I've got a task for you. Design twenty different classes that all feel unique and have their own distinct gameplay elements. And I do mean distinct. At best, one class should have a vague idea of how another plays based on experience. Oh, and each and every class has to be viable at endgame in a variety of roles.
You might say that's a tall order. I'd say it's nigh-on impossible except for one simple fact: Final Fantasy XI did it. There are some loose similarities, things you can fudge, but playing a Dark Knight, Dragoon, or Samurai all lead to huge differences in playstyle and desired equipment, despite the fact that each one is a physical DPS class with a two-handed weapon. Scholars and White Mages are superficially related but each approach the game and the role of healing from alternate perspectives. And that makes them all the more entertaining.
Later class designs are even more inspired. In particular, I'm still of the mind that the Blue Mage's ability-swapping is one of the best systems in the game, one that could really be ported over to Final Fantasy XIV's system with almost no changes to take care of using different abilities regardless of your current Discipline. While I'm not entirely hopeful, it's one of the highlights in an excellent set of classes that deserve even more credit than they get.
The quests and missions involve you
At times, there have been some critiques of FFXI's cutscenes as being only peripherally concerned with the player. Those complaints have clearly not seen much of what the genre considers story-heavy. World of Warcraft's most recent expansion was their attempt at really engaging players in a storyline, and... well, the last cutscene isn't exactly a secret any longer.
Here, I'll spoil you -- the player is involved by a single offhand line mentioning "these brave adventurers." Not even a visual nod.
At worst, you find yourself in a mission where you happen to have walked in during someone's conversation. More often than not, the immediate aftereffects of everything you've done are laid out in front of you. There's no "also-ran" status to your adventures and accomplishments. What you have done is something noteworthy and unique. And all but the most rudimentary quests reward you with at least a small cutscene, several of them with a fair amount of dialogue and interaction.
To be fair, it lacks the interactive dialogue trees of a BioWare game, which is a bit like criticizing a highway because it doesn't allow you to swerve wildly without crashing. (That is, criticizing something for not doing something it neither tries nor wants to do. That is not an insult about BioWare games.)
The endgame is robust
World of Warcraft has set the standard for what's expected out of an endgame experience in most MMOs. To wit: you can raid, or you can PvP. In FFXI, you can earn merit points, finish mission arcs, take part in the specialized battles of Campaigns or Besieged, run through PvP, craft, explore, level another job, raise a chocobo... the list goes on. It goes on for an astonishingly long time, in fact.
And here's the insane part: virtually all of these things are pieces of content that you don't have to repeat constantly. There are repeated areas, like the Dynamis regions... but you don't run those at a frequent enough schedule for it to become obnoxious. The worst that things can get is seeing the same leveling spots over and over, and even that has a lot to do with where you're located and what you feel like working on at a given moment.
The old adage that the game starts at max level is never more true than here. It's also compounded and improved by the fact that the game will let you level again on the same character, carrying over a wide variety of intangible benefits. Where else can you essentially restart with all of your convenience items available from Level 1? Couple that with point 1, and you will never be out of stuff to do in the game.
The world feels lived-in
Now, this could be argued to be a function primarily of being a roleplayer. But the insane amount of little detail put into the world of Vana'diel add to one's enjoyment of the game in consistent and subtle ways. Moreso than almost any other game I've seen, there are efforts take to make parts of the game world that have no purpose beyond looking real.
Verisimilitude is a hard act to pull off. But even with gross concessions made to the incarnate deities of making the game playable, there's very little in FFXI that's going to pull you out and remind you that you're playing a game. Even little details like the ever-present zone lines are largely handled in such a way as to avoid drawing attention to the artificial nature of the game. This in a game with only limited free-roaming capabilities. The fact that the game does so with aplomb even now, after eight years to age against modern graphics, is a testament to well-orchestrated design.
Coupling that with the immersion of the cutscenes, and the overwhelming sense is that even the things which don't make sense at first glance have a reasonable explanation. Even if we're not aware of it, everything fits together like it does in the real world. How often can you say that about a game?
The community is strong
People are not always happy with the game. In fact, there are times when a quick cross-section of players would seem to imply that no one in the game actually enjoys it. There's whining and kvetching, even from such fine upstanding folks (ahem) such as myself. But suggest that one of the players walk away?
With a handful of exceptions, almost everyone in the game now is invested. Not due to requirements, due to sheer and unmitigated affection for the game. The whole world produces a strong and visceral reaction for players, due in no small part to the other four entries on the list, and as a result we're all very defensive of our adoptive home. We might be negative from time to time, but usually that has more to do with circumstances -- and those are temporary. Part of why I'm a bit more negative on the game these days is that the community I had and grew accustomed to has disintegrated, and I'm kind of stranded in nowheresville. Again, circumstances.
(That's as close as I'm getting to spineless begging.)
But Rhio continues to run around Sylph as best I can make her, and I still like the game. Every so often, it's good form to go back and remember why. What about you, dear readers? Go ahead and share some unabashed love in the comments, or mail it along to Eliot at Massively dot com. And be sure to come around for next week, when I have an idea that may or may not pan out. We'll see what develops.