After the beta: Phantasy Star Universe

By Nicholas Fricke . October 17, 2006 . 2:22pm

With only one week left until its North American release, Phantasy Star Universe made its debut as a free downloadable beta on the Xbox 360’s Live Marketplace this past Friday. Xbox Live Gold subscribers were able to download the demo for two days only before it was removed from the marketplace, and are allowed to enjoy the online multiplayer portion of the game completely free until October 18 at midnight, when the beta will officially end and the demo will cease to log onto the PSU servers. I was up in the wee hours of the morning this past Friday and downloaded the demo to find out how the 360 version of the game compares to the PS2 and PC versions, how the added functionality of Xbox Live improves communication between players, and to ultimately find out if PSU can live up to or surpass the experience me and many other players had playing Sega’s previous installment in the series, Phantasy Star Online.

Naturally, the first thing that caught my attention after starting the beta was the improvement in graphics made since Phantasy Star Online. PSO continues to be a popular game almost six years after its original release, with Blue Burst being the latest episode available on the PC, but the game never saw a real graphics upgrade since the original Dreamcast version. With PSU being developed with the PlayStation 2 in mind, it means that there are sharper-looking textures, more detailed characters and enemies, and much larger and better designed cities (lobbies) and worlds compared to PSO. But before any graphics snobs sneer at the idea of a “lowly” PS2 game being ported to the all-powerful Xbox 360, they should know that it is a very good-looking PS2 game that looks great at standard definition, and looks even better running in high definition. There are a few low-res textures that stand out, and the lack of any advanced lighting, shading, bump mapping or any other graphics tricks do remind you that you are playing a game that was designed for a less-advanced system. Once you get past all that and start to appreciate the visual design of the worlds established by Sonic Team, then stuff like HDR lighting and other graphical terms really won’t seem to matter much once you start playing.

 

So then, what does the 360 version of PSU do that’s graphically superior to the PS2 and PC versions of the game? Well, the 360 version runs at a mostly-consistent 60 frames per second, while the PS2 version is locked at 30 FPS and the PC version varies depending on your setup. Like the PS2 version of the game, the frame rate will dip in situations where you have many players situated in one area of the lobby, or when lots of players and enemies are engaged in battle in the same area on the screen. The dips in frame rate never get so bad as to ruin the gameplay. I estimate the frame rate can dip to about 20-30 FPS in the heaviest combat situations, and rarely goes below that. The game does run at both standard resolution and 720p high resolution, and the game has one graphical trick that the PS2 and PC versions of the game don’t have, and that is the depth of field blur that is used for far away objects. This is the blur that some journalists complained about several weeks ago when they were given a preview of the 360 version. As an added graphical effect, it’s a mixed bag. It does add a little flair to the game to distinguish it from the other versions of PSU, and it’s set at a far enough distance that it doesn’t negatively affect the recognition of far away players and enemies. I personally think it looks rather neat. On the negative side, those without high-def televisions could mistake the depth of field blur for the game having terrible graphics or their TV getting a poor video signal. Some may not like the blur effect at all, and it is definitely not as advanced or as cool looking as the blur effect used in the 360 version of Lego Star Wars II. Finally, the game has no anti-aliasing enabled, which can be annoying to those who are adverse to jaggies in their games. As far as I know the PC version does not allow anti-aliasing to be enabled either. Overall, if you are someone who wants the best looking version of PSU then you will want to skip the PS2 version, and if you are uncertain about the ability of your PC to run the game at an acceptable visual quality, then the 360 version is probably your best bet. Also, based on the short trailer included with the 360 demo, it looks like all of the CG movies for the single player portion of the game will be in high-res for the 360 version, which is another bonus for that version.

 

Besides obsessing over the graphics, I did take some time to pay attention to the audio. The 360 version does use Dolby Digital for surround sound, but it doesn’t really come into play until you’re out on the field killing enemies, and even then you would have to allow yourself to be surrounded by players and enemies from all sides to really appreciate the effect. As someone who tries to stay on the outside of a large gathering of enemies rather than be attacked en masse while in the center, it means that the front speakers get most of the work. The sound effects are serviceable sci-fi fare, and are on par with the quality of the effects in PSO. Most of the sounds made by the creatures are odd, like one that screams like a mini-Godzilla when you attack it, and another makes a weird whistling noise when killed, but if the grunts and cries of the enemies in PSO eventually grew on you then the same will happen with PSU. The music is excellent, by the way, and it’s good enough to make me consider buying the complete soundtrack. Some of the instruments sound very similar to the ones used in PSO, which does bring a lot of nostalgia back and reminds me of the first time I played PSU many years ago.

 

Those are my impressions of the technical aspects of PSU, but how does the game play? Very well, I must say, and will feel like a second home for experienced PSO players. Like in PSO, the core of the game involves meeting players out in the cities (lobbies) and forming a team, going to shops to buy and sell new weapons, armors and abilities, and accepting missions which usually involves killing every monster out on the field, sometimes including an end-level boss, or recovering a lost or rare item. Combat is done in real time, and it feels like playing a 3D version of Blizzard’s Diablo. You go out, kill some monsters, level up and get some money, buy new items and do the same thing again. It sounds simple and repetitive, which it is, but it’s also insanely fun. PSU takes that formula which made PSO so addictive and adds many features which greatly improve the game. For one, the lobbies are no longer these small, boring circular areas where people just stand around waiting to form teams. The lobbies have evolved into entire cities, some with multiple levels and sections for players to meet up in. For example, in Clyez City in the Guardians’ Colony, the first level is intended for socializing with other players. The second and third levels are full of shops where you can buy items, whereas in the original PSO the shops were separate from the lobbies. The Fourth level holds the transportation system to travel to other planets or to accept missions on the colony. The fifth level is where you go to change your characters’ class and take care of other official missions. Other cities in the game are structured differently and have different themes, but feature the same components including shopping areas and mission counters. While Clyez is your typical space colony city, Ohtoku City in Neudaiz is very Japanese-themed, and Holtes City in Parum is structured like a large metropolis.

 

New to PSU is a room for your own personal character. In your room you can entertain guests to whom you’ve given your player card, decorate with items you’ve bought from the shops, store items to give to your other characters or put in your personal robot, and create your own shop. Speaking of the robot, while it at first serves as a storage box and a tool for synthesizing new items, by giving it various items to eat you can level up your robot which increases your abilities, and eventually your robot will be able to join you out on the field for battle. While I was at first overwhelmed with the amount of new content added to the old PSO formula, I understand that these features have become standard in other MMORPGs and it was necessary for PSU to integrate these new gameplay mechanisms to stay current and to flesh out the game. Otherwise, it would have just been another online hack-and-slash game that would have been too similar to the old PSO.

 

Finally, the last thing I wanted to focus on is how the integration of Xbox Live would affect the online experience of PSU. Unlike the PS2 and PC versions which officially only feature keyboard support for chat, the 360 version uses voice chat when in a party. This feature is possibly the main cause for the separation of the 360 servers from the PS2 and PC servers. That’s right, 360 players are separated from the other versions of PSU. For some, this may be reason enough to buy either the PS2 or PC version, especially if they have friends who don’t own a 360 or if they want to use the argument that the 360 version won’t have as many players due to different user installed bases. Otherwise, the 360 version does have distinct advantages. While the Japanese and Western servers for the PS2 and PC versions of PSU are separated, all 360 users across the world are connected. If you don’t understand Japanese, that feature may not mean much, but some people claim that they like to play with Japanese players because they tend to be “nicer.”

 

Getting back to the main point, the 360 version features voice chat, which is a tremendous addition to the online experience. No one wants to type out “please heal me” or “give me trimates” in the middle of a heated battle. If you can just say it, it makes playing the game a whole lot easier. While playing with my friends, I never had to put my game pad down for a single second just to type a simple message. For Xbox Live users this is nothing new, but for any MMORPG it’s definitely an ideal method of communication. And when my friends were on different universes in different parties, I could still use private chat to stay in contact with them until we met up and formed a real party. By the way, voice chat is only available while in a party and not while running around in the cities. I don’t know if Sonic Team will keep it this way, but I could imagine that if they did allow free voice chat in the cities, the conversations would get very congested.

 

If you don’t want to use the voice chat function, you can still use the onscreen keyboard or plug in a USB keyboard. My very expensive PSU USB Wireless keyboard did the trick, and is very useful when in the cities. The keyboard also works well when you want to trigger a character motion in the cities with ease and you don’t feel like using the game pad, although for some reason it doesn’t seem to work correctly in the 360 version. Hopefully this is only a problem with the beta version. Using the keyboard is also great when you want to type keyboard commands that link together character motions, face expressions and messages to use in the lobbies. For several hours, a friend and I just ran around the cities trying out the sometimes-perverted expressions we created just to gauge the reactions we would get. Juvenile, yes, but still very fun.

 

Between my work schedule and the short amount of time this beta has been available, I’ve only got about 15 hours of gameplay in. But from what I’ve played I’ve definitely liked, and I haven’t felt this addicted to an online game since I bought the original Phantasy Star Online almost six years ago. I don’t know if I’ll be able to reach the 500 hours I played in the original, what with a full time job, new consoles being released and the full slate of excellent titles worth buying this holiday season, but I do know that one week from now I’ll be in a store with credit card in hand ready to pick up the Xbox 360 version of Phantasy Star Universe when it’s released.


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