Right from the start, PSU impresses with the most detailed and user-friendly character creation system ever seen in a console game. After choosing your race, you can go right into the fine details of their faces and overall body structure, selecting skin tone, eye color, and the shade of their hade with minute attention to detail that should shame Oblivion for its awkward interface. This also cures one of the bigger problems I had with the original, where I kept running into identical twins. Currently, the clothes selection is a bit sparse, but Sega has promised to add to this extensively before release, with various in-game clothes shops to cater to every form of futuristic fashion sense.
Then you finally get into the game and realize just how much the world of the original has been expanded. "Worlds" I should say, since the finished game will feature a number of worlds to jet off to, which brought back nostalgic memories for me of the first Phantasy Star. For the demo, the choices were a bit more limited, but I was free to wander around one of the detailed cities with each of its several zones far larger than the lobbies of PSO. Shop around for a new blaster, exchange emotes with passing players, meet a few friends by the fountain. The atmosphere reminded me of a bright and cheerful amusement park, though instead of waiting in long lines for short thrill rides you get to fight monsters. And fighting is the meat of the PSU experience.
I played the original PSO for over a hundred hours with a small but dedicated community of players from all over the US and beyond. The thing that stopped me wasn't the ultra rareness of good swag, the inability to make fair trades, or the duping and NOLing that corrupted the community. It was the "weak-weak-strong" attack combo that I had done over a million and one times by now. PSO was a visual masterpiece, and an easy to get into online experience, but a deep fighter it was not. I stayed away from the various revisions that appeared on Gamecube and Xbox because while they added much, the underlining fighting system remained the same.
Phantasy Star Universe is a true action game in the way PSO never was. Forget about those measured pauses, because now it's all about slashing and shooting up your opponent with five of your friends (or AI allies in one of the two offline modes). Enemies no longer slowly crawl towards you. Some are quick and some have lunging or ranged attacks that will keep you on your toes. One of the areas I played had a big daddy monster twice the size of my character, accompanied by smaller versions that didn't have the reach of their parent, but could rush you down if you weren't ready for them. That battle alone was more exciting and dynamic than all the normal fights in PSO put together, especially when I could switch out my long sword for two smaller energy sabers for quick cutting, and then choose a blaster and sword combo to mix up ranged and melee attacks. Ranged weapons can also be fired in first person this time around, but you have to stand still and hope your friends keep you covered. There's also the return of the Photon Arts from the original with plenty of new powers to mix into your fighting style.
Especially after a weak showing at last year's E3, I was doubting PSU would be the true sequel of Phantasy Star Online that I've been hoping for, but what a difference a year makes. The world is larger, the visuals are sharper, and the gameplay now surpasses most offline action RPGs. If Sega can keep away the hackers this time, they may rule the online console universe a second time.
··· Aaron Drewniak