"Rose-tinted glasses," I told myself and my friends. "The game is so slow and punishing. It takes forever to do anything or get anywhere. Monumental advances have been made to the genre since its release. You will unsubscribe the minute you log on."
And yet, about a week ago, I resubscribed to Final Fantasy XI: Online. There was a very illuminating post over at MMORPG.com: Why people thinking about coming back to this game definitely should.
FFXI is from a generation of MMORPGs where grouping to gain experience was highly advised. The game only had 1 real "solo" job when I played, and that was Beastmaster. But SE has taken a look at the market and implemented a few nice systems to help the solo player.
The first are these really nice experience boosting rings. You equip and use the item to gain a +X% Experience Boost for up to Y XP or Z hours, whichever comes first. There is the annual Adventurer Appreciation event going on right now, and you can acquire an Anniversary ring which gives a whopping 30,000 bonus xp over its lifetime. (Some points of reference: you need 2000 xp from level 7 to 8, and 5700 xp from level 29 to 30.)
When you kill mobs, there is now a chance that they will drop Treasure Chests. Inside, there are temporary items which you can use until you zone or log off. These items are usually Potions or Ethers, status curing consumables, or some HP/MP regeneration food. This significantly reduces down time (there is no natural HP/MP regeneration in FFXI).
Another really great system is called Fields of Valor. In a nutshell they are just kill quests which reward experience and money. There are Field Manuals scattered about the zone, and you may elect to do 1 "training page" per game day (56 minutes). They are typically in the form: kill X of this, and Y of that. One nice part is that you don't need to turn them in. As soon as you kill the last mob, you are instantly rewarded with the experience and gil. Upon completing pages, you also get "tabs", which is a currency used to purchase buffs at the Field Manuals. HP and MP regen is available, as well as a Reraise (self-rez) buff.
It is completely possible to solo to 20 without a problem.
The second problem that the MMORPG.com post addresses is the length of time waiting around for a party. Personally, I have spent upwards of 3 hours looking for a party when I used to play back in 2005. But Square-Enix has implemented a Level Sync system. The party leader may synchronize the level of everyone in the party to the level of another member. As long as you are at least the level of the sync, you are reduced to that level and all your gear automatically scales.
The problem underlying mismatched party levels may not be apparent to you. The experience gained per kill is based on the level of the highest party member. Typically, parties opt to fight "Incredibly Tough" mobs, which are 6+ levels above the party. IT mobs give ~200 xp. If someone were to level and make those mobs "Very Tough" (5 levels above), the experience drops to about 120. That is a 40% reduction in experience.
Level Sync means those problems are no more! Parties can be composed of a level 46 White Mage, a level 58 Ninja, and a bunch of other players in the 20s. Everyone will gain the same amount of XP, and veterans can help out their friends and newbies. I honestly wonder why SE took 7 years to make this system.
Unfortunately, SE did not make it easy to install this game. I originally installed off my CDs, only later to purchase the Ultimate Collection off of Steam ($15 for a couple of expansions I was missing), and I had to do a complete reinstall. PlayOnline is perhaps the worst Launcher in existence. And since this game is also playable on PS2 and XBox360 (all on the same servers), there is no need for a mouse. Movement and targeting is all on the keypad (you can change it to WASD if you want).
If you are interested in trying this out, I can help you through the inevitable installation issues. I am on the Fenrir realm and having a pretty good time leveling one of the new jobs in the latest expansion. FFXI may be the last of its breed--I don't even think FF14 will be as difficult a PvE MMORPG as 11. I'll make a more personal post later, but I'll leave you with this screenshot gallery.