Preview: Phantasy Star Online
PSO's story begins when a dying planet sends the colony ship Pioneer 1 to a new planet, called Ragol. After Pioneer 1's successful settlement on the planet surface, Pioneer 2 arrives in time to witness a huge explosion from the planet surface. The ship loses all contact with the surface, and Pioneer 2 immediately restricts all access to the planet due to the danger. That's where you come in.
Many of PSO's elements are familiar to veterans of the Phantasy Star series. All characters, whether android or human, belong to the Hunter's Guild, which dispenses quests that advance the plot along while netting experience and meseta for the characters. Swords, staves, knives and guns are the main weapons available, each class with a different specialty. The techniques and items are straight out of Phantasy Star IV, but the similarities end there. In a change from RPG canon, there is a great deal of variation within a single item type. One saber will be stronger than another but will be less effective against robots, while another will deal added damage to native creatures, and so on.
Unlike standard RPGs, PSO's combat and menu systems take place in real time. Due to the online constraints, there is no pausing, nor are there breaks in between rounds of combat to plot strategy. Though the combat is not turn-based, it is not a Gauntlet-style mashfest, either. Two types of basic attacks are available, one a fast, weak strike and the other a powered-up attack that shows off the Dreamcast's lighting effects before unleashing a mighty blow. With the right timing, these two can be strung into a three-hit combo before your character goes into recovery time. Monster attacks can interrupt your attacks, either knocking you down or forcing your character into a parry animation, so getting surrounded is bad.
To assist some players with the hurried pace of combat, PSO allows a host of hotkeys. The digital pad can be used to hotkey certain chat options, like 'Help me!' or 'This way!'. The X, A, and B buttons can be assigned to different combat commands, allowing quick access to items and techniques in combat instead of having to wade through the menus while getting beaten up. Three hotkeys aren't enough, though, and the R trigger acts like a shift button, allowing three more commands.
Meanwhile, the maps are reminiscent of classic Zelda. Switches open doors, de-activate laser fences, and extend bridges, while killing everything in the room can also unlock some doors. Boxes litter the map, and can be broken open to reveal treasure.
One of the more interesting elements of the game was the MAG, a kind of personal assistant to Hunters that takes the form of an orb floating over your character's shoulder. The MAG is linked to its owner, and as its owner takes damage, it stores up energy until it can unleash a powerful Photon Blast on the area. Every once in a while, the MAG becomes hungry, and you have the option of feeding it some of your items. Depending on what item the MAG is fed, its stats increase and it becomes more attuned to its Hunter, leading to different techniques becoming available. Some truly awe-inspiring spell effects came from the MAG, rivaling Final Fantasy's famous summons without being excessively long.
PSO's technical quality is top-notch. The hundreds of different character models look great and animate smoothly, and even during a pitched melee involving dozens of insects, a nest, and a couple of players there were no signs of slowdown, lag, or polygon breakup. Combat is a feast for the eyes, with photon sabers and laser scythes slashing accompanied by handgun fire, spell effects and even the occasional flash bulb.