Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Here’s a look at some hardware and software that’s available:

Final Fantasy XI with hard disk drive, from Square Enix and Sony Computer Entertainment, for PlayStation 2, rated T: Content suitable for ages 13 and older, $99.99. For those who can afford it, the online gaming world can be an addictive form of entertainment in which meeting other players via cyberspace is not just about chatting, but is a way to interact as fantastical characters.

A popular 16-year-old role-playing video game has evolved into a massive multiplayer online experience for PC owners and, with the help of some new technology and a slick controller, can be enjoyed by PlayStation 2 (PS2) devotees.

The introduction of Final Fantasy XI to the PS2 also heralds the arrival of Sony’s internal hard disk drive (HDD), which connects to the console through a back slot and offers 40 gigabytes of additional storage space.

The HDD eventually will allow gamers to download additional episodes, characters, environments and communities created by developers for their favorite games. In the case of Final Fantasy XI, the title already has been installed onto the drive, which should speed up load times significantly.

HDD owners will need to connect the unit with the PS2’s network adapter (sold separately for $49.99), insert the creation into the console and then go online via a broadband or dial-up Internet connection. For those using broadband, NYKO technologies has come up with a clever way to make the connection between console and modem as painless as possible.

Its Wireless Net Extender System ($99.99) contains a pair of units the size of a Rubik’s Cube, one used for the PS2 and one for the modem, that create a 1.5 Mbps wireless bridge between the two. The system efficiently eliminates the use of long cords, has an RF signal that travels up to 100 feet (even through walls), and after a player has enjoyed Final Fantasy, the system can be used to go online with any gaming console, computer or peripheral — e.g., a printer.

Users must plug in each unit using the included Ethernet cords, and each comes with a power adapter requiring an electric socket, which is the only hassle in enjoying the system.

Once the online connection has been established, players can register, update software and begin the process of entering the world of Vana’diel.

Registering also requires the player to become part of the PlayOnline service, which for $12.95 a month (the first 30 days are free) allows him to enjoy the game with pals around the United States and in Japan. It also makes available more communication tools, including e-mail, messaging, setting up a “friends” list to quickly return to the game, and even e-mailing a screen shot of some of Final Fantasy’s intense action.

Much of this setup, account creation and chatting involves using letters and numbers. So, in the entrepreneurial spirt, peripheral companies have integrated minikeyboards into standard PS2 controllers to make this process much simpler.

For example, NYKO’s iType2 device ($39.99) will work well for those who routinely send e-mail messages via a cellular phone. It offers 37 compact keys on a silver board positioned at the top of the controller with four programmable text macros.

Finally, after the player has drained the bank account to the tune of about $300 and worked through configuration purgatory, the worlds of Final Fantasy can come to life. First, the player creates a personalized character from among the races of Hume (looks like a human), Elvaan (think elf from “Lord of the Rings”), Tarutaru (think of an Ewok from “Star Wars”), Mithra (looks like a performer in “Cats”) or Galka (like a furry “Star Trek” Klingon).

Next, the player can wander alone or, preferably, hook up with a team of heroes to explore 100 acres of gorgeous landscapes, including mountains, castles, deserts and oceans, while running into goblins, orcs and demons, and battling armies, acquiring weaponry and honing skills.

Final Fantasy XI is the virtual Dungeons and Dragons adventure I dreamed about in the early days, when tabletop role-playing games simply involved using dice and imagination.

Overall, this online experience will entrance the savvy gamer who plays for endless hours while downing doughnuts and Mountain Dew to stay sharp and survive in the wondrous lands.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washington

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