Phantasy Star Universe, First Impressions

There's a demo of  Sega's new MMO, Phantasy Star Universe, on XBox Live Marketplace.  It's a beta, but the game is scheduled to be in stores in about two weeks, so I doubt much is going to happen between now and final release.

There were some glitches with the game, mainly frequent server disconnects, but those are the sorts of things that they'll fix.

The bigger problem for me is that PSU is a space based cartoony game, instead of something more fantasy oriented (that's my own preference), and it doesn't really do anything to advance the state of the art in MMO gaming.

The control scheme is pretty good - it takes a little getting used to, but I don't see myself having a problem with it.

The world is primitive, and doesn't show off the XBox 360 hardware at all.  Lighting in the cities is static (there's almost no shading), and much of the game world consists of simply textured flat surfaces - grass done as a big flat green textured polygon should have gone the way of the dodo by now. 

The world doesn't seem as advanced or as rich as World of Warcraft, a game that's been out for years now.

Here are some things I want from a truly next generation MMO:

  • Interactivity with the world.  I want to be able to walk into a room that has a table and chairs, and move the chairs around.
  • Talking NPC's.  EverQuest II did this, and it was one of my favourite things about the game.  It's expensive, and hard or impossible to localize, but it really gives each NPC a personality.
  • Physics.  If I drop something on a hill, it should roll down the hill.  Why not?  Yet no MMO has done physics - probably because of the difficulty of mirroring the physics onto all the servers.  What happens if someone runs in front of the thing that's rolling down the hill?  Every system will probably see that collision slightly differently, yet the item has to end up in the same place on all of them.  Still, it's a problem that someone needs to solve.
  • Enemy AI.  A real learning artificial intelligence system that has the monsters learning from you.  The idea of finding a single best tactic and using it forever doesn't work against real enemies and shouldn't work against virtual ones.
  • No Zoning.  PSU zones (loads a new world area, pausing the game to do so) when you take an elevator or scalator or just walk down the hall.  It does it all the time.  It's fast, but it's distracting.  Every MMO does it at some point, but come on, lets get away from that.
  • A Real Economy.  Does it make sense that I can sell a nifty sword to a player for 10,000 gold but a vendor will only offer me 12 for it?  No.  The vendors should be a part of the same economy the players are.

Of course this is a huge endeavour; but if the reward for the effort is 5 million subscribers at $15/month, isn't that worth it?

I will give PSU kudos for a few things though:

  • It integrates well with XBox Live, unlike Final Fantasy XI which seems to fight it tooth and nail.
  • Voice chat works seamlessly among your group when you're in a party.
  • It's easy to get around.  There are elevators and transport systems all over the place - even in missions.  If you join a mission late, or die and need to return to your party, there are points that you can use to teleport to other spots within the mission (up to where your party has been).

In the end, I don't think this is a game I can get into, but some people will enjoy it.  It's really unfortunate that there aren't any other MMO's on the horizon for the 360 (or any of the consoles, that I've heard of).  The PS3 will probably get an EverQuest; they're both owned by Sony after all, and Sony also bought Vanguard: Saga of Heroes off of Microsoft, a move that seriously puzzles me since it looked promising as well.