There are some who have been cynical about the concept of a massively-multiplayer Final Fantasy ever since Final Fantasy XI was first announced, but I've always liked the idea. Some of Final Fantasy's core concepts - particularly the Job system - make it particularly well-suited to a multiplayer cooperative environment, and despite looking incredibly dated even when it first came out, Final Fantasy XI was actually a surprisingly solid game, albeit one with the slowest pace of levelling I've ever experienced.
Having spent some time with Final Fantasy XI over the years, I was very excited to hear that Final Fantasy XIV was going to be another attempt at making an MMO, this time with vastly-improved visuals. Early impressions of the game were good - I vividly recall colleagues in the press at the time of its first reveal being very excited to go hands-on with it, and many predicting that FFXIV would be their first foray into MMOs.
Unfortunately, FFXIV turned out to be a bit of a mess. The game that saw release was riddled with bugs, performance issues and quite simply didn't really look as if it was ready for release. Such was the negative reception to the game - not to mention Square-Enix's apparent embarrassment with the state of it - that it wasn't until a whole year after release that players actually started being charged for subscriptions. The proposed PlayStation 3 version of the game never materialized at all, with director/producer Naoki Yoshida stating that he wasn't willing to release the PS3 edition until the game was in a good state.
The original version of the game limped along until November of last year before finally shutting down in order for the "A Realm Reborn" changes to be put in place.
A Realm Reborn had been under discussion for some time, and it was set to be a complete revamp of nearly everything about Final Fantasy XIV. Everything from the server system to the graphics engine and the structure of the game's zones was to be changed, and a bunch of new features were set to be added, including "FATE" (Full Active Time Event - because what would a Final Fantasy game be without a grand-sounding acronym?) battles that appeared spontaneously in the game world and required the cooperation of nearby players.
Alpha and beta testing for the new game has been going on for some time, but today marks a huge milestone ahead of the game's proposed August release date: it's the third phase of beta testing, which means it's the first time PlayStation 3 players will be able to get in on the action. The new phase also adds a bunch of extra content for testers to explore, and also marks the expiration of non-disclosure agreements regarding the beta, which means those involved are actually allowed to talk about it now, too. Once the four Phase 3 tests have been carried out, the game will enter into open beta ahead of the August release date, and hopefully by then it will be ready to go.
The first test runs over this weekend and I'm going to be spending some time playing - watch this space for some first impressions. Are you playing? Be sure to share your thoughts.