I can't remember the last time I was actually excited for an MMO launch, but Final Fantasy XIV has me stoked. Finally, the last stage of beta is here.
Or, more accurately, the last stage of beta is here for those who participated in the Phase 3 beta test just gone -- everyone else will have to wait until tomorrow.
The Phase 4 beta is the last testing period before live service starts later this month, and it sees the game being in a form very close to what we can expect from the release version. All players are restricted to level 20 or lower, meaning there's only so far you can go in both character progression and the game's overall plot, but there's nothing stopping you levelling all the available jobs up to 20 to give you a significant head start when live service begins.
The arrival of Phase 4 sees a number of significant updates and changes to the game experience. I'd provide a link to the official patch notes, but at the time of writing, Square Enix's services are getting hammered so hard that you wouldn't be able to read them anyway. In lieu of that, I'll give you a summary of what to expect.
Perhaps most significant from a presentation aspect is the fact that voices are being added to a number of quests and cutscenes. The previous beta was entirely text-based, which made some of the more dramatic cutscenes feel a little strange when they were almost completely silent apart from music. The addition of speech will make the story-focused parts of the game feel a lot more "Final Fantasy" -- I'm interested to see what impact it has.
In game terms, big additions include the arrival of Fishing as a gathering skill, along with its accompanying logs and challenges, and the ability to request "Materia Melds" from other players if you don't have sufficient skill to do it yourself. Materia Melding allows you to make use of Final Fantasy VII-style Materia to boost your attributes and skills by plugging it into your equipment, allowing you a degree of customization over the stats of various items.
Free Companies -- FFXIV's equivalent of guilds -- are getting an overhaul, too. Now there's a bunch of Free Company Actions available that provide ongoing benefits to members and, in some cases, encourage cooperation -- the Brave New World benefit, for example, increases the attributes of all members under level 10, allowing them a slightly easier time at the outset of their adventuring careers -- or at the beginning of them learning a new class.
More minor changes include the addition of weather systems, experience gain for entering new areas for the first time, characters' lips moving when chatting and, perhaps best of all, the ability to raise or lower your helmet's visor at will using an emote. Sweet!
The Final Fantasy XIV servers are technically up and running right now, but login and character creation is being restricted in some cases to help manage the expected heavy load. It might take a few attempts to get logged in successfully.
You can find out more about Final Fantasy XIV on the official website. Watch out for the USgamer team online, too -- we'll be playing on the Ultros server.