Release Date: October 24, 2006
I've already reviewed the nearly identical PlayStation 2 and PC versions of Phantasy Star Universe, so I'll get into the nitty-gritty details of this version, the one for that rumbling, overheating white box in your living room. No, not the Dreamcast; Phantasy Star is long past those days! I mean that other loud, loveable console, the Xbox 360, which has also been graced with the latest online take on the Phantasy Star concept, Phantasy Star Universe.
The first item of business is an important one when making your decision as to which version to purchase. The 360 version is barred from playing with other players, presumably due to the presence of voice chat. Despite that obvious detail, there isn't any strong case for why the game couldn't have cross-platform play, considering that Final Fantasy XI gives players just that ability on the console! But, alas, to keep indignant 360 buyers from purchasing a 10-dollar USB keyboard to go along with their $3000 HD TVs and $400 consoles and $50 controllers, etc., was paramount to releasing the best product possible on the PC. So the solution to this problem, to keep the 360 servers from having an embarrassing gap in players compared to the PS2/PC version, is to allow all regions to play together, regardless of race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. The big problem with a game limited to voice chat is, of course, the fact that voice communication happens to be very difficult when speaking to people in a language they don't understand.
This, of course, highlights how arbitrary the decision was to lop off the Japanese servers from the PS2/PC version, because it wasn't done for any logical reason besides, I don't know, xenophobia? I won't say that's it for sure, because that's a nasty accusation, but with the 360 version seen as an ultra-niche option in Japan, it does make some sense.
So, if your friends are on PS2 or PC, you'll have to leave them behind for this version, hey, they don't get to play with Japanese people, but you do! All ... six of them who aren't playing on the PS2 or PC versions in their own country.
Obviously, if all of your friends are equipped with the same console as you, by all means, get the 360 version! Voice chat is invaluable to this game, although given the slower pace compared to something like Gears of War, ample opportunity is given to annoying Xbox Live Archetypes (mostly people proselytizing the effects of some state-changing substance) to talk your ear off with whatever idiotic things people tend to talk about on Xbox Live. That's what the mute option is for, and you can continue talking to your friends in-game while ignoring the high-voiced stoner who won't stop coming up with unbalanced trades for the piece of nanosilica you just picked up.
There's also the matter of keeping abreast with the ideals of Xbox Live. The software is designed to be something of a trap, it's true, but I don't entirely resent it. I'm mostly standing by the PS2/PC servers as my main base because of friends, but it irks me that when I'm online, I can't talk to friends playing different 360 games with private chat. There's also the matter of not unlocking any of those unjustifiably addictive achievements from playing the game. So, even if your next-door neighbor is playing the PC version, I won't blame you if you pretend you aren't planning on picking up the game and go with the 360 version for one of the reasons listed in this paragraph. I might resent you a little for it, given my server of choice, but that's only jealousy talking.
Before getting into the graphical superiorities of the 360 version, I'll get something regrettable out of the way, although it isn't necessarily a knock against the 360 version itself. If you've got an HDTV, you probably have a great sound setup, but you probably won't care to take advantage of that with this game. The music does not compare to what should be expected from this series. It's generic at the very best, and most of the time is downright annoying. It's a complete turnaround from when the game first hit the Dreamcast, but this, along with the 2D design of the menus and other 2D objects, leave a lot to be desired, and show just how much difference having another development team handling those aspects really makes.
I've already had the ability to play Phantasy Star Universe on a nice, sharp, high-definition screen, while using a PS2 controller, in fact! The PC version has all of the qualities of the 360 game besides Live, and that helps me ignore my 360 sitting there, calling for me to play on it instead. Still, if an HDTV is your only route, add another check to the 360 column. True, it's obvious that the game was designed with the PlayStation 2 in mind, but it looks and, in many ways, plays better, with a 16:9 screen ratio and better hardware. The image isn't stretched, so you do see more of what's going on, which is crucial given how many enemies can appear on-screen at a time, and from how far many of them, as well as your character, can attack.
One of the major changes from the original Phantasy Star Online is that enemies all attack on individual rhythms, so if they happen to hit you at the same time, you can die within a split second, thanks to being surrounded by similar enemies who decided to play a little rougher than usual. Next up is the HUD. Phantasy Star Online was all about menus, which cluttered the screen like nobody's business and often resulted in unfair deaths. If anything, Phantasy Star Universe gives players even more reason to access menus. They aren't as pretty this time around, but they don't suffocate the screen much ... unless you're running the game on a standard television. Since each instance now counts as a guild mission (whereas the original game had plain old monster bopping without goals or rewards as the meat of the game), you'll appreciate having all of the mission information tucked away in the lower part of the screen without obscuring anything.
PS2 players also have to deal with muddy textures and jagged, ugly geometry. There is a massive increase in quality for the PC and 360 versions. While the game isn't entirely up to next-gen snuff, with full-screen anti-aliasing and extra blur effects, it does feel like this is how the game was always meant to be played. The only real issue is that some of the textures – mostly on larger objects, and not too many in-battle areas – aren't high-resolution enough to appear without awkward tearing at the seams.
The number one reason to avoid the PS2 version is the massive slowdown that version experiences. I've now spent nearly 70 hours on the game, mostly with that version (sad, I know, but at least that was spread over a time span just over a month!) because my roommate doesn't take kindly to me using his computer for hours at a time, and without exaggerating in the slightest, the slowdown is so constant that it often feels like the game is running in some strange fast-motion setting when things return to normal. If there are six players in a game, there will be near-constant slowdown. The 360 version rarely puts players through this grind while they go through their online grind (ahem!), and that alone is a good reason to stick with it over the PS2 version, if the PC version isn't an option.
Finally, the update system on the 360 is slightly different. It can take advantage of more space and better hardware, so while most major content updates will mirror the PS2/PC servers, there are small patches that tweak things, such as how many players appear in the lobbies (a crucial detail, as the PS2 version handles this so badly that it is often difficult to find specific players, even if they are in your friends list!). Updates like this have been alien to the Phantasy Star community until now, so count your lucky stars that they're happening with this version.
My personal decision for which version I would stick with – or, at least, play more than the other – had more to do with friends than hardware. That should factor in for anybody who is playing an online game; these are strange foreign lands, and it's good to have a few confidants to get you through the day-to-day. If that isn't an issue, the X360 version is the best one available. PC players might hate me for saying it, but it's the truth: Phantasy Star Universe was designed to be a console game, even more so than Blue Burst was, and doesn't relent in that position even slightly. It plays best with a controller. Keep your World of Warcraft character power-leveled on your PC with your mouse and keyboard, and grind your Phantasy Star Universe roster on your couch with a controller and a headset. Of course, for more information on content, please take a look at the PS2/PC review from last week, which covers that angle much more than this one, which is designed to be supplementary for the 360 version.
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