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Its been five long years of waiting, but finally the epic online world of Phantasy Star has arrived on the next generation consoles in the form of Phantasy Star Universe. Eschewing the traditional RPG territory of wizards and elves, PSU instead places you in a futuristic world dominated by cyborgs and robots; in this realm you take on the role of a Guardian (an intergalactic peace officer), roaming planets attempting to rid the galaxy of the invading SEED forces.
In this incarnation, you have three different modes of play. In Story Mode you are able to take on the role of Ethan Weber and guide him through twelve gaming chapters as he ascends the ranks of the Guardian forces.
Extra Mode provides a tempting look at the online play mode, demonstrating the delights of character customization and free-roaming environments, and finally, Network Mode will grant you the option to battle against strangers and friends alike in a pervasive online world; this ever expanding environment will allow you to enjoy battling beasties for months and years to come.
In terms of the look of PSU on the 360, things arent all that bad. Developed in tandem with less powerful machines in mind, the high definition graphics are suitably bright and luminescent. The large levels of transparency and neon look just as good here as they do in other Xbox 360 titles. Background areas are both bright and airy, and yet arent too directionless or empty; a good overall balance was called for and it seems that Sega have got it right on the money!
However, the increase in resolution and low polygon count does make Phantasy Star Universe seem slightly dated and angular. Nonetheless, this doesnt make a huge impact on the game as a whole and is certainly acceptable for a cross-platform title.
FMV sequences (of which there are many in the Story Mode) are smooth and detailed, however the poor lip-syncing is rather off-putting looking like a poorly dubbed Japanese marshal arts movie, which Im guessing isnt too far off the truth of the matter. As far as rough edges go, this is a rather major one and certainly goes toward losing marks for presentation.
Its wonderful to hear Phantasy Star with a Dolby Digital surround sound mix. Im glad to report that a suitably wide range of tunes do the job of creating an immersive gaming environment. I doubt youll have to resort to your own tunes too quickly, as none of the tracks is particularly nauseating; that said, youll probably tire of the music after investing a number of days in the online mode, so its best to get a few well-loved playlists sorted out for when things inevitably turn sour.
To ensure a broad sonic consistency, many of the series spot effects have made their way into this latest incarnation. These are suitably artificial and futuristic without being too metallic or hard. Its a shame that more variety wasnt employed to liven up the mix a little, however this is sheer wish fulfilment on my part and isnt to the detriment of the game as a whole.
The offline single player Story Mode is where most people will begin their Phantasy Star adventure. Unlike the previous game, Segas Sonic Team has taken time to create an intricate, episodic game experience. Each chapter takes on the style of an animated TV show, beginning with a title sequence and ending with a coming up next time teaser. The format seems fresh and original, although it may seem quite off-putting to role playing game veterans, who might find the oversimplification and streamlining of the narrative to be unnecessary and to the detriment of the game as a whole.
Story Mode starts off slowly, tentatively introducing you to the play system. This offers newcomers to the world a gentle tutorial and provides a quick refresher for long-time fans. It wont take long for you to learn the basics and soon youll be well on your way to earning your first level up.
Most of your time thereafter will be spent killing alien life-forces and shooting your way through multiple dungeons. This constant battling can unfortunately become quite a mind-numbing task, and after several chapters you may find your interest in this mode beginning to wane. Having said that, later levels do provide a little more variety, offering a diverse range of play styles to break up the hack n slash marathons; several vehicle and pod neutralization missions attempt to fragment this monotony, but are ultimately over far too soon and youre quickly returned to the tedium of monster mashing and box smashing.
To compound matters, theres no real incentive to explore the open missions once youve completed them; youll find you become more than strong (and rich) enough to finish the entire game mode without the need to play them. Levelling becomes a linear affair which requires nothing more than simply playing a chapter to its logical conclusion; this means that the forty plus hours of gameplay promised in the marketing blurb actually translates to twenty five hours at most. With Gamerpoints offered for arbitrarily completing mission after mission, theres nothing to draw you back to this mode once youre done; thankfully, this is actually a blessing, as by the end of the final chapter youll probably be begging for this linear, unexciting mode to be over anyway.
Add on top of that the work-shy (nay glitchy) A.I characters, the tacky voice-overs and a cliché-infested storyline, and youll find that this game-on-rails mode is one you could happily have done without.
After successfully completing mission four in Story Mode, youre free to access Extra Mode; here youll be able to create a new customized character and roam the off-line realm without restraint. As you complete the storyline chapters, youll simultaneously unlock the relative missions here, expanding the range for off-line exploration further and further.
This mode is a nice treat, allowing you to explore the world without the restrictions imposed by the episodic storyline; but again, its a fairly hollow experience from which youll have to start from scratch. Theres nothing here that you cant entertain in either of the other game modes, which makes its inclusion, ultimately, a rather pointless endeavour.
That said, should you wish to get a feel for the online mode without having to go through the process of subscription first, then Extra Mode is probably going to be the closest thing to emulating the event itself albeit playing with slightly dumb bots rather than human beings.
Although the off-line modes fail to inspire, they really hold little significance in the world of Phantasy Star, as its the online play that holds the true weight of the title. Its here that youll be meeting up with your buddies to go huntin and killin over Xbox Live.
As far as the MMORPG guide book goes, Phantasy Star Universe follows a Guild Wars style of play where you meet in lobbies, join a party and then siphon off into smaller groups consisting of up to six players. This system keeps the game play smooth, and provides a more even distribution of tasks and rewards than the more typical free-for-all MMORPGs such as Final Fantasy XI. Whilst the inevitable human factor still leads to misaligned play in the early stages (where only half the party do the lions share of the work) eventually things begin to die down as your in-game list of friends allows you to weed out the typical jumble of miscreants and item hoarders.
In the plus column, fans of the saga and those new to the world of online RPGs will find comfort in Phantasy Star Universe. Its unique style is easier to learn than most, and the off-line modes allow ample tutorial time for the uninitiated. Things are certainly more complex than back in the days of Phantasy Star Online, but not to the stat-heavy degree of some MMOs. This strikes a wonderful balance between action, adventure and statistical elements.
In this latest incarnation, Sega have finally decided to go fully Client/Server so all character information is stored online. Needless to say, this has meant an end to the diabolical level of cheating that used to occur (the original Xbox incarnation was hacked within a day of release). Similarly, regular updates are now instantly available, creating a more engaging and omnipresent online experience, regularly filled with new items, missions and weapons.
However, this new found centralised system has lead to several new negatives. Firstly, due to compatibility issues, Xbox 360 users cannot interact with those on the PC and PS2 servers; this is somewhat isolating and disappointing in equal measure. Secondly, the evolving game world means that players now have to pay an extra £6.99 per month to play on top of their Live subscription. This isnt prohibitively expensive considering the cost of other MMORPGs, but its still a far cry from the free online play delivered from the Dreamcasts Phantasy Star Online.
Phantasy Star Online will remain one of my favourite games of all-time, being the innovative, luscious-looking, groundbreaking title that it was. However, without those factors going for it, Universe looks rather anaemic when placed up against the modern competition from the ever growing wave of MMORPGs entering the market.
Those with a nostalgic passion for Phantasy Star Online will no doubt embrace this new incarnation without question; however, those with no ties to the series may find their online gaming lust barely satiated by this latest incarnation. Fans of the Phantasy Star series feel free to add another star to the final score, but a solid three is more than fair for the rest.
The long awaited new title in the beloved Phantasy Star series is here. Phantasy Star Universe delivers a rich, ever evolving world and will provide hours of entertainment to both online and offline RPG enthusiasts. Single-player fans will embark on an offline quest as Ethan Waber, a 17-year old cadet intent on saving his sister from an invasion of mysterious life forces called THE SEED. While online players will create their own characters from a range of races, and then set off to explore all three planets in the Gurhal solar system. Fans will travel with a squad of other adventurers, enter urban sprawls teeming with hundreds of other players, and build their avatars into powerful warriors.