In 2001, Dreamcast owners were treated to a console MMO experience that broke barriers for online console titles. Phantasy Star Online was once quoted by an EGM staffer as being "More addictive than heroin laced peanut butter cookies." Hours were logged in exploring the areas, bosses, and missions in the 4 main areas of PSO's world. The missions were goofy, the world was beautifully rendered (for a Dreamcast game), and the rare weapons were what everyone was after. Over various re-releases SEGA added more and more weaponry, character classes, areas, and missions which gave PSO it's unique flavor. It was no everquest or WoW in terms of sales, but it was still a very popular title.
In 2006, it's brother was born. Phantasy Star Universe promised to be PSO2, with loads more depth, a new combat system and the addictive rare-hunting. The game was released to a lukewarm reception, and while it was new and fun for the first week, some grinding problems killed a majority of the population of the game. SEGA locked away months worth of updates on the DVD the game was on, much to the outrage of the more hardcore players who constantly found themselves stuck at level caps and wanting new missions and weaponry. SEGA's ignorance of their pleas scared off new customers as even players were dissing the game on the official forums and the fansite pso-world.com. Things were looking grim, and over a year after the original game's release the expansion, Ambition of the Illuminus, came out.
But who was paying attention?
Certainly not the gaming press, which seems to have neglected the silent release. Wikipedia's page for the expansion is bare, and even a portion of the game population seems to not even know there's an expansion out. What is SEGA doing? I guess the immidiate questions that come to mind is "Did they fix anything? Is it any better? Does anyone care?"
Let's answer those three questions.
Did they fix anything?
Yes. There were some netcode problems that seemed to put enemies in different locations for each player. This seems to have been fixed up a little bit, though I will still see someone whacking at air and a creature across the room taking damage. Combat is about the same, but now they have things like "Just Attack" where you can perform an attack at a specific moment to get a critical hit. Drop rates have been increased, and so has Meseta drops. It's also easier to get from level 1-100 now. The latter few improvements were also patched in to the original game, so you needn't worry about slapping down all that money for the expansion yet. Despite the less frequent use of HaXxetta (money hacked from the early stages of the game) the user-run economy is still not quite where it needs to be. A shame, really. But I don't know a lot of honest players who are going to lay down 2,000,000 for a piece of clothing. Another disappointment is how the missions still don't amount to anything more than just killing a room full of enemies to get to the next room or the next key. No "Get through the caves and get a cake from the baker sisters" missions here.
Is it any better?
Yes! New weapons abound, new costumes, new areas, new missions, new enemies, new bosses, new Photon Arts, new rooms, new room decorations, better store search functionality, the list goes on and on. It seems like they really listened to the content mongers, because there is a plethora of new stuff to get. And with the increased meseta drops, you can now afford most of the shit! Whips and Slicers are fun new weapons, as are the mag-like RCSM and TCSM weapons. There are new areas to explore, some of which have become favorite hang-outs for groups. One of the best examples is the Casino area, which features slot machines and a roulette wheel that continues 24/7. Some weapons and items can be received in exchange for winning big at the slots/roulette. New rooms allow you to have more advanced room customization with new items to place around your room and shops can now feature welcome messages for people who come in. Oh, and remember how you used to have to play through 3 different missions just to get to the mission you wanted in the first place? Well no more! For a fee, you can teleport to any midpoint/goal lobbies you have been to (or if someone on your team is there) and get straight to grinding your favorite mission! Which is good, because there are a good batch of new missions with absurd payoffs for such little work. Just bring a group, it really helps things go by so much faster.
Does Anyone Care?
The short answer: No.
The long answer: Only current PSU diehards, or those who are willing to give PSU a second chance through this expansion. $39.99 is a hefty price to pay to see if you want to re-enter the world of PSU, and for some may be just too much after the pure heartbreak that was the original PSU. For those that are looking for that PSO magic, it's sort of almost back in PSU. SEGA is still holding onto boatloads of new content such as costumes, weapons, areas, ect... so that much they haven't learned from. And if you're a PC/PS2 user you're in for some bad news. Finding a party is HARD these days, as no universe goes over 4 stars these days. It's a sad state of affairs since the original had at least 2-3 universes full for the first few months. But when SEGA failed to respond to it's players, they left and haven't looked back. The Xbox 360 users have a bit more players to play with, but let's be honest with ourselves. 360 owners just have so many more quality single/multiplayer titles to be playing right now. Mass Effect, anyone?
To be honest, I forgot about PSU after I quit oh so long ago. I was busy with college, and a little ditty known as Team Fortress 2. I bumped into this game by accident, trying to hide the PC copies of Kane & Lynch at a local Gamestop. I decided to give it a try because I had a rather incurable addiction to PSO back in the day and was hoping that PSU's expansion would fix the problems that made PSU so despicable. For me, it's a bittersweet victory, as I am enjoying the game a lot more now but I can't help but feel that this was what PSU should have been from the very beginning. Apparently SEGA has no hope in the title either, as advertising for the game has been non-existent both online and offline. Without something to call players back and tell them that the expansion is out, I'm afraid this may be one of the last Phantasy Star titles.