Gaming at the End of the Universe

The recent installation of a home wireless network (motivated by my wife’s acquisition of a spiffy new netbook) put an end to two years of hotswapping our DSL modem between our PC and our Xbox 360. Prior to the upgrade, my online console gaming time was limited to specified, pre-arranged times so as not to deprive my better half of internet access. Now, however, I am free to game online to my heart’s content…providing the bandwidth isn’t being choked by a certain person streaming last week’s episode of High School Reunion upstairs.

The upgrade to wireless has given me a much better opportunity to explore the online components of many titles in my gaming library, both for the better (Ghostbusters) and the worse (Modern Warfare 2).  There was one game, though, with predominantly online components that I held back on fiddling around with, Sega’s 2006 MMORPG Phantasy Star Universe.

I bought a cheap used copy of PSU not long after I purchased my 360 console back in the spring of 2008.  I owned–and played the hell out of–both the PS2 version and its expansion back in the day.  As limited as the offline elements were, they did offer a colorful, anime-themed spin of Diablo’s loot-and-grind formula.  At the very least, having a copy of PSU for the 360 meant that I could indulge in periodic dungeon crawls whenever the mood struck me.  I ended up making it through half the story mode missions and unlocking the create-a-character free mode before realizing that the downloadable expansion was online (and paid subscription) only, losing interest and tucking the game on the far back end of the shelf.

My interest in Phantasy Star Universe was rekindled after it was announced that Sega was planning to shut down the PC and PS2 versions’ servers in a few weeks.  While the company restated their support for the 360 version, it seemed like a logical assumption that it was only a matter of time before that, too, closed up shop.  If I had any lingering morbid curiosity about what the MMO aspects of the game were like, I’d better cough up the ten-buck monthly fee and check them out now.

Thus was born Gideon…

…a human “fighgunner” (a subclass specializing in melee weapons and small arms) and my in-game avatar.

Having finalized his name and appearance slider options, the aspiring adventurer stepped forth into the Gurhal System to discover a once-thriving community fallen into terminal decline.  Having never played PSU online before, I can’t tell you how successful it may have been at its peak.  What I do know, however, is that of the twenty servers Sega maintains for the game, only two are actively populated at the present time–the one everyone tries to log into and the one players have to settle for on the rare occasions the popular one is at max capacity.

Finding a party in any of the regular mission lobbies is next to impossible, with the exception of the low-level intro missions where newbies cut their grinding teeth.  The majority of the players flock to the bonus-yield “event” missions for ad infinitum speedruns or simply hang out in the spaceport or Guardians’ HQ lobbies like so many chat-spamming day laborers.

Think of it as The Matrix, only with catgirls and set in a sci-fi iteration of Flint, Michigan.

Sega’s efforts to channel the players’ creativity have been in vain.  The tropical beach lobby intended to complement the introduction of swimwear costumes has been utterly desolate whenever I’ve passed though the area, as Speedo-wearing space elves find it much easier to public chat “UR SO GAY” to chicken-suited furries–excuse me, “beasts”–from the comfort of the spaceport stairwell.

I had a hard time figuring out how the in-game economy works, apart from the strange situation where legions of lobby hustlers either spend their gaming time hawking high-end items for insane prices or begging for handouts instead of actually embarking on missions.  Players are allowed to set up stores in their characters’ “rooms,” which in practice amounts to price cutting wars between absentee vendors operating with nothing even closely resembling a baseline.  (For example, one might be selling a rare weapon for 100k meseta, while another has it listed for 1.5m.)

If one has the patience to navigate Phantasy Star Universe‘s caption clouds of chat spam, there is a pretty solid and entertaining game underneath the entropic muck.  Solo play is a viable option for most regular missions, and it’s pretty easy finding a decent level-scaled party on the event mission boards.  As tempting and as tactically sound as it might be, though, I’d advise you to leave your headset unplugged (which is a sound protocol for playing any online console game).

I made the mistake of being drawn into player voicechat on two occasions.  The first time was by a pair of rather loud tweeners who were extremely fond of the f-bomb and casual homophobia.  The second time was by a feral pack of “doodz” whose preferred topics of conversation were:

1. Hot Pockets
2. The NBA
3. The hygiene of Mexicans, Russians, and Italians
4. Each other’s sex lives

Of course, going in with you headset unplugged is no guarantee against uncomfortable moments, as I discovered when I leveled up and the party leader’s congratulatory chat macro included an ASCII fist and the message “WHITE POWER!”  (I considered reporting the player for a TOS violation, but then decided every minute he spends pretending to be a magic-using wolf-person is a minute not spent burning down synagogues.)

This is the way a virtual world ends;  not with a bang, but with a neo-Nazi discussing knives with a ten year old ADD case as their Harajuku reject avatars team up to bring down a giant two headed dragon.

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