I'll preface all this by saying that I enjoyed Square-Enix's first MMORPG Final Fantasy XI a lot. Of course, that game's glacially-paced levelling meant that even after a ridiculous number of hours sunk into it, I had barely gotten anywhere, but I very much enjoyed what I did play. For all that game's flaws and presentational shortcomings, it was a fun experience that did things noticeably differently from other MMORPGs. Not always for the better, no, but for some strange reason all the awkwardness its game systems created simply served to make its fans more passionate and determined to enjoy the game.
With this in mind, I was very excited about the prospect of Final Fantasy XIV when it was first announced. It looked set to be a rethink of the way XI did things, only with significantly better graphics and some interesting-sounding game systems.
Consequently, I was rather disappointed when the game eventually launched and was... not what it could be, to say the least. When the publisher of an MMORPG doesn't start charging subscription fees for its subscription-based MMORPG for a whole year after launch, you know there's a problem. And when people start talking about the game's slate effectively being wiped clean in favor of an all-new "Version 2.0" at some point in the near future, there's definitely a problem -- albeit one with some hope of being fixed.
The original incarnation of Final Fantasy XIV shut down once and for all in November of last year, and alpha testing for A Realm Reborn, as the second version was now known, had already begun by this stage. The alpha and beta testing phases for the revamped game have been proceeding apace ever since then, and we're now into the penultimate phase of closed beta -- a phase which, conveniently, lifts all restrictions on actually talking about the game online.
I spent the weekend with A Realm Reborn on PC in the hope of determining whether or not the finished product, due out in August for both PC and PS3, is actually worthy of your time, attention and money this time around.
Short answer: things are looking very promising. But let's delve into things in a bit more detail.
The Look and Feel
It's been a while since I played an MMORPG seriously, so recently I fired up the barely-played copy of Guild Wars 2 I own and only slightly regret purchasing. I was unpleasantly surprised to discover a laggy mess with a terrible frame rate when my computer should be more than up to the job of running it on high settings. I quit in disgust, as the performance issues impacted gameplay to a significant degree. (I was disappointed, because Guild Wars 2 is fun when it's running well; however, judging by the game's forums, these performance issues have been around for a while now, which doesn't fill me with confidence.)
I mention this experience because it made the beautiful, silky-smooth, 60 frames per second animation of Final Fantasy XIV all the more pleasant to encounter. The frame rate didn't drop once, even in areas populated with seemingly hundreds of players such as towns or the new FATE battles -- more on those later. The animation was slick and everything looked good, bar a few noticeable graphic glitches here and there that will hopefully be ironed out by the time the game is officially released. There was also an odd issue whereby after I'd played the game once, it would inexplicably cap the frame rate to about 25fps until I changed the resolution to something else then back to its usual settings. Again, hopefully this will be resolved before the final release.
Final Fantasy XIV perhaps isn't the most beautiful game you'll ever see, but it's certainly no slouch on the graphics front. It looks considerably better than XI, but that isn't saying much; XI looked pretty dated when it was originally released and looks even worse now. XIV at least looks like a mid-range current-generation single-player game, which is nice to see -- all too often MMORPGs sacrifice graphical fidelity in favor of being able to run on as wide a variety of machines as possible.
The city-state of Ul'dah, where my character was based, looked pretty good. There was some interesting architecture to look at, and there were plenty of NPCs to talk to as well as the players -- it certainly felt like a densely-populated city. The city itself was easy to navigate despite being rather large, and the Aetherlyte Shard system allows you to quickly teleport from place to place within the city walls without having to walk. The only real criticism I'd have of navigation is that the map window doesn't always make it particularly clear when you need to change zones to come across quest objectives, and when the city itself is split into several discrete, separately-loading zones, this is a slight problem. The map window in general needs a bit of work, but it does at least point out helpful locations when you're in the right zone, which is more than FFXI's map ever did.
Outside the city walls, the view was quite spectacular. The draw distance was impressive, and the landscape stretched off to the horizon. Zones aren't barren, relatively featureless landscapes like they were in FFXI, either; these are richly-detailed areas to explore, filled with vegetation, rocks, dwellings and, of course, monsters -- but more on those in a moment.
One non-visual thing worth noting about the presentation is the gorgeous music that plays in both the cities and field areas. Gone are the tinny synth sounds of Final Fantasy XI, to be replaced with sweeping orchestral scores that sound rather wonderful. Series veterans will also be delighted to hear that the little diminished-seventh arpeggio "flourish" that accompanied the start of combat in early Final Fantasies has made a comeback, and it's a helpful audible signal for when you're under attack as well as being fan service for long-serving Final Fantasy fans.
Here's a sample of the music from Ul'Dah and the surrounding areas:
Fetch Quests and Fighting
The basic gameplay of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played a recent MMORPG, but there are a few interesting little twists on the formula here and there that give the experience a pleasing amount of variety.
You'll be spending a lot of time doing quests. These are split into standard and Main Quest incarnations, with the latter advancing the game's overarching storyline in which your character plays an important role. Standard quests, meanwhile, are your usual MMORPG fare -- bring me this; kill me that; use this specific emote on these people. Early in the game, these quests are structured in such a manner as to give you a gentle introduction to all the game's mechanics -- how to find your way around, how to interact with people (both NPC and player) and how to engage in combat. It's a good way of doing things -- although tutorial popups are fairly frequent in your first few hours of play, they're relatively unobtrusive, and it's rare that you have to sit around while someone goes through a lengthy explanation of how to, say, equip your new Leather Leggings.
Combat varies according to your starting class. Once you reach level 10, you can start switching around and changing your class by equipping different items, but to begin with, you're stuck with the one you chose to start with. I went with the Pugilist class, who, as the name suggests, likes to get up-close and personal with enemies.
Combat as a Pugilist involves repeatedly thumping an enemy until they fall over. However, your various Pugilist special moves will often switch you from one "form" into another, and certain moves can only be triggered when you're in a specific form. As such, you'll find that there's a good "combo" of moves that you'll find yourself using frequently, and your options continue to expand as you level up.
Controlling your avatar in combat can be done using either gamepad or keyboard and mouse, with both working well. Keyboard and mouse makes use of the standard MMORPG hotbar system, while the gamepad control scheme maps a hotbar of 16 items total to various combinations of the left and right triggers and either a face button or D-pad direction. I primarily played with a gamepad (specifically, an Xbox 360 controller, which the game recognized as such and displayed the appropriate button prompts accordingly) and found it to be a good experience -- the controls were responsive, and the combination of triggers and buttons isn't as cumbersome as it sounds; this isn't an action game, after all. Navigating menus is a bit clunky with the gamepad, however, requiring cycling through windows using the Back button, then the D-pad to press specific buttons. It's a shame the PC version doesn't (currently) incorporate the PS3's more elegant menu system when using a gamepad.
One notable difference between FFXIV's combat and XI's is the necessity for movement and positioning. In XI, you could generally stand toe-to-toe with an enemy and keep fighting until one or the other of you fell over, though when playing in a party, mages often benefited from standing back somewhat. In XIV, meanwhile, movement is an important part of combat. Not only do enemies inflict area-effect attacks (which are marked on the ground prior to them being set off, allowing you to dodge out of the way), but some classes and moves also inflict additional damage from specific angles. For example, one of the Pugilist's moves inflicts additional damage from behind, making ideal for use in a party -- get a friend to distract the monster, then sneak in behind and punch them in the kidneys for massive damage.
To help with situations like this, the screen gives you plenty of feedback -- a circle around the monster's feet shows the direction they are facing, for example, allowing you to easily determine where their "back" is -- and it's easy to tell your own status, that of your party where applicable, and that of the thing you're fighting. The only real issue I found was that on a 1080p display, some of the status effect icons were a little small to be easily legible.
Doing Things Differently
FFXIV isn't just about questing, though, nor is grinding monsters the only way in which you can gain experience. No, unlike in FFXI, where combat was the only means through which you could level up, in FFXIV you gain experience for all sorts of things, including crafting.
One of the most fun additions to the usual MMORPG formula is the Personal Logs system, which is subdivided into Hunting, Crafting and Gathering Logs. Each of these is further split into various difficulty tiers, and each of these has a number of individual objectives to accomplish, each of which is worth a healthy amount of experience. The Hunting Log, for example, which is the first you obtain, challenges you to kill a certain number of specific enemies, while the Crafting and Gathering Logs require you to create specific items or collect specific raw materials. Completing an individual objective nets you a decent experience bonus; completing an entire difficulty tier gives you a much larger experience point award, so if you want to play that way you can level up almost entirely through these mechanics instead of questing.
Out in the world, you'll come across various special events, known as FATE, or Full Active Time Events -- you know how the Final Fantasy teams love their unnecessary acronyms. What these essentially are are public quests -- enter the FATE area and the objective will appear on the side of the screen, along with the time limit and how close it is to completion. Get stuck in and you'll receive rewards at the conclusion of the event, although these rewards will be adjusted significantly if you're not quite in the right level range to participate, so no swooping in to a level 6 FATE as a level 50 character in the hope of stealing some poor noobs' rewards.
Certain quests -- particularly those in the game's main storyline -- also involve instanced boss battles, in which you (and your party, if present) will enter a private battleground to take on a tough enemy, sometimes with the help of an NPC. The one I had the opportunity to try involved battling a flying undead dragon... thing and its smaller spawn. An NPC who looks like he will be of considerable relevance to the overarching plot assisted me by maintaining the attention of the main boss while I cleaned up the smaller enemies; sticking close to him also allowed him to heal me when I got low on HP. It was nice to be able to have this experience as a solo player; FFXI had boss fights, but they required a full party of players to successfully complete due to their high level of difficulty and enforced level cap.
This weekend's beta test was the first of four discrete "phase 3" testing periods planned for the run-up to open beta, which is coming soon. Subsequent testing periods will introduce new game functionality, most notably the "Duty Finder" system that allows you to easily find similarly-levelled players looking to take on instanced content such as dungeons.
Subsequent tests in this phase will also ensure that the ability to import characters from the original "version 1.0" of Final Fantasy XIV is working correctly, allowing veteran players to pick up where they left off with the new content and gameplay.
Once this phase of testing is over and done with, all characters will be wiped and the open beta will begin, at which point you'll be able to try the game for yourself. Open beta characters will carry across to the game's final release in August, too, so it's a good opportunity to get a head-start on the crowd.
All in all, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is looking immensely promising so far. While it probably won't do a great deal to convert MMORPG cynics to the fold -- particularly if it goes the subscription-based route, which is highly likely -- the new version is certainly a highly-polished, satisfying experience that will particularly please fans of Final Fantasy XI -- and the "single player MMO" style of XII, too, for that matter.
You can find out more about Final Fantasy XIV at the official site. Watch this space for further reports from the front lines of Eorzea.