It's fair to say that Square Enix has a lot riding on Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.
Not only is it positioned as a mainline installment in the long-running RPG series, it's also a good opportunity for the company to make amends for the disaster that was version 1.0's original launch. Not many struggling massively multiplayer titles get the luxury of a complete rebuild at great expense -- these days a failed or failing MMO is more commonly just put out to pasture as a free-to-play title, to be quietly forgotten about by all but a dedicated few.
Not so for Final Fantasy XIV. As we've already seen in previous explorations, A Realm Reborn is a very different beast to its troubled predecessor, and is looking like it'll actually end up being really good -- though naturally we'll reserve final judgement until the full game is with us.
There are risks, though, chief among which is Square Enix steadfastly sticking to the "boxed product and subscription" model where you have to buy the game and then continue to pay for it each month thereafter. As we've already heard, though, players who subscribe for long periods will receive regular "veteran rewards" to encourage them to stay in the game -- or at least to keep paying for it.
Does Final Fantasy XIV offer enough value to keep people playing after they have to start paying? Honestly it's far too early to say right now, but the heaving populations of the open beta servers over the weekend were certainly a good sign for the game's short-term future; it remains to be seen how many of those freeloaders will stick around once subscription fees kick in.
But enough about business models! Have at you! I mean, let's talk about the open beta!
Fire Go Boom
Open beta weekend was always going to be a different experience to the Phase 3 beta I've previously written about on these pages for one key reason: I'd be able to keep my character after it was over. I knew from the outset that my Phase 3 character was "disposable" and as such I didn't develop a significant amount of attachment to her; it felt like a "rehearsal." Open beta, meanwhile, has felt a lot more like "my" character, and consequently I found myself compelled to spend a lot more time in the game than I did over the Phase 3 weekends.
Last time around, I played a Pugilist (aka "PUG"); a hand-to-hand combat specialist that deals in quick, snappy attacks and combos. This time, I chose Thaumaturgist (aka "THM") as my starting class. As I stepped out into the wilds of Thanalan for the first time, I was wondering quite how different the experience would really be; would THM feel noticeably different from PUG, or would I just be pressing the same hotbar buttons as before over and over and seeing different visual effects?
As it happens, the experience of playing THM is very distinct from that of PUG. While a PUG gets in close to -- and preferably behind -- their enemies, a THM is all about keeping your distance, and preferably doing as much damage as possible before the enemy gets to you. Early spells allow you to slow enemies' movement speed, apply damage over time effects and put them to sleep, allowing you to get yourself into an advantageous position -- but this isn't the most interesting thing about THM.
Nope, the most interesting thing about THM is its peculiar "aetherial balance" mechanic, whereby you're in one of three states at any one time according to what spells you've been casting. Casting fire-based spells puts you in Astral Fire mode, which increases your damage output but cripples mana regeneration; conversely, casting ice spells puts you in Umbral Ice mode, which decreases your damage output but makes your mana regenerates incredibly quickly. If you're not in either of these two states, you're simply in a normal mode in which your mana regenerates a bit and your damage output is average. The key in playing THM, then, is balancing these two states effectively to ensure your damage per second (DPS) value is kept high while simultaneously keeping your MP topped up. It's a really interesting, fun and fast-paced mechanic that keeps battles constantly interesting; as you level up and your MP stock increases, you'll also become able to stack more instances of either Astral Fire or Umbral Ice and enjoy even more powerful effects.
One of the really nice things about Final Fantasy XIV's class system -- besides the ability to switch class any time you like after you hit level 10 in your starter class -- is that each one has its own unique storyline to follow. Far from being throwaway quests, these serve two functions: firstly, they introduce you to characters in the game world who relate to your chosen class' discipline, and secondly -- most importantly -- they teach you how to play your class.
Here's an example: at level 15, you receive your third THM class quest. It's an instanced challenge, so you're not interrupted by other players while it's in progress, and it is, surprisingly, a stealth mission. You're tasked with making your way to an urn that contains some evil thing, and breaking said urn to ensure aforementioned evil thing doesn't get to go about being evil. In order to reach the urn, you need to make your way past a series of guards who are all far too tough for you to take on by yourself. What to do?
Enter the Sleep spell, which puts individual enemies out of commission for 30 seconds at a time -- more than enough to sneak past and deal with their peers further down the path. Of course, once you reach the urn, things don't quite go according to plan, but I'll leave the details for any aspiring THMs among you to discover for yourselves.
Being a Better Battler
Final Fantasy XIV's willingness to teach people how to play their role effectively continues outside the individual class quests and into the instanced group challenges known as Guildhests. These missions, which you can queue up for at any time while continuing to play other content, are short, simple tasks that require you to work together with a party of other players. Each one is focused around teaching you a specific battlefield discipline -- one emphasizes the importance of dealing with low HP minion enemies before focusing your attention on a more powerful boss; another encourages you to be aware of the situation all around you, because enemies don't just come from the front.
Guildhests generally take around 5-10 minutes to complete -- at least, the early ones do -- and are unlocked in a linear progression so as not to overwhelm new players with hundreds of opportunities. They're also probably going to be most players' first encounter with the Duty Finder matchmaking system.
The Duty Finder wasn't accessible for a lot of Phase 3, so this was my first encounter with it. Here's how it works: you pick one or more "Duties" that you'd like to take on -- these include dungeons and Guildhests you've unlocked -- and then register yourself as waiting. The game will then attempt to match you with other players from all servers in order to make up a balanced party -- one tank, one healer, two damage dealers. Playing as a damage dealer class such as THM often results in a wait time of 15-20 minutes (or more) because they're by far the most numerous classes, but people in public chat that I spoke to noted that tanks and healers can normally get parties almost immediately. Fortunately, as previously noted, you can continue playing other content while queueing for group duties, meaning there's minimal downtime. Considering a new character or changing class? TANK AND HEAL PLZ.
I'm interested to see how Guildhests are used later in the game, because the open beta only went up to level 20 out of 50. There will presumably come a point where the Guildhests are less about teaching you new skills and more about testing your abilities to put these tactics into play as part of a group, but that remains to be seen for now -- at least with the game's emphasis on levelling multiple classes, there should theoretically always be someone to play the lower-level challenges with as you learn your way around your new abilities.
You Are The Hero
The compulsion to keep playing Final Fantasy XIV doesn't just come from the well-paced progression -- it also comes from the unfolding narrative. This is something I'm surprised more MMOs haven't experimented with -- though with more recent games like The Secret World and Guild Wars 2, it is something that's growing.
To take a step back for a moment, this is one of the things that consistently frustrated me about World of Warcraft. Blizzard's world has an incredible amount of well-written, interesting lore, and yet much of it was utterly squandered throughout World of Warcraft in tedious quests delivered to you as dull text prompts. There was very little feeling of the characters involved in the plot being, well, characters, and this -- for me, anyway -- made the world feel a bit lifeless at times. I understand this is something that has improved in the more recent expansions -- I haven't played seriously since Wrath of the Lich King -- but this feeling you were just "going through the motions" was enough to put me off going back to check out Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria.
In Final Fantasy XIV, meanwhile, you feel like you matter, and it's all because of one very simple addition to the formula: a "main quest." Yes, aside from all the random odd jobs people around the various towns want you to do, there's a linear storyline to follow -- one with cutscenes, characters, heroes and villains. And one in which you're the star, albeit one of the "silent protagonist" variety.
How good it felt to be the "lead" character -- even though everyone else is also doing the same "main quest" independently of you -- only really sank in when I started the quest called "The Ul'Dahn Envoy." Not to spoil specifics, but this particular quest comes at a point where you've been acknowledged as a hero rather than just another adventurer, and are tasked with visiting the other capital cities to deliver a message to their respective leaders. You're given a pass to the airship network to travel to these places, and as you step on board to begin your grand journey, something marvellous happens.
It's the Final Fantasy prologue theme. As the airship lifts off, taking you with it, the music builds to a triumphant fanfare, and the scene cuts to all the non-player characters you've interacted with so far, waving you off and cheering; then to shots from around the city, as people watch the airship departing. There's a strong sense of you being an important character rather than just someone grinding through all the content -- and it's a clear indication that Final Fantasy XIV has been designed to make the journey to the level cap as enjoyable and dramatic as possible, rather than placing its focus purely, as many MMOs do, on endgame content. That's not to say endgame content has been neglected, of course -- as we heard a few weeks back, it's something that Yoshida and the team is keen to get right.
This "main quest" business is not only important to the game itself, though -- it's also important to the series as a whole. Why? Because it makes Final Fantasy XIV feel like a Final Fantasy game, rather than just another grindy MMO. While Final Fantasy XI did something similar with its "missions" system, its high level of difficulty and slow pace of progression put a lot of people off before they got to the interesting stuff; with Final Fantasy XIV, meanwhile, you're constantly doing interesting things, and at a good pace.
Early Access for the game starts on August 24, with live service beginning for everyone on August 27. In the time between now and then, Square Enix have a few things to work on.
The most notable things that need to be fixed are two recurring errors that a number of beta players have complained of. The now-notorious "Error 3102" caused a number of beta players to disconnect from the servers and be unable to log back in, while the similarly loathed "Error 90000" caused players to be incorrectly marked as "bound by duty" and unable to join other groups when attempting to perform certain actions.
Error 3102 appears to have been addressed with some emergency maintenance -- the open beta was extended by 6 hours to make up for the downtime -- but Error 90000 seemingly remains at large, as the official FFXIV Twitter account hasn't mentioned anything else about it since acknowledging that there was a problem. With any luck, it'll be resolved in time for launch.
The other important thing Square Enix needs to be careful with is the heavy load that the servers will undoubtedly suffer once the game launches. The open beta reportedly smashed through records with 150,000 concurrent users at its peak and managed to -- for many players, at least -- stay both online and stable, so that bodes well, though this did come at a cost: not only did Square Enix have to add several extra servers, but they also closed character creation on a number of heavily populated servers, meaning some players were unable to meet up with friends they were planning to play with.
Still, it was a beta, after all, and it's better that these issues arise now rather than later -- so long as they're fixed in time for launch. For what it's worth, I had a flawless experience for the whole weekend, and only had to queue to log in on one occasion. With any luck, most players will be able to enjoy experiences like mine rather than wasting time staring miserably at an error message for hours.
Once the game launches, several other members of the USgamer team will be checking the game out alongside me, so feel free to say hello if you see us -- we'll be calling the Ultros server home, assuming character creation restrictions have been lifted. See you in Eorzea!