The world itself is absolutely huge. Although the game's first chapter covers the same plot beats of the Episode Duscae demo included with Final Fantasy Type-0 HD (the car breaks down, Noctis takes some requests from Cindy to help pay for repairs), it actually takes place in Leide, the province to Duscae's east. The area you can roam in these opening hours spans about two miles from one end to the other, and roughly the same distance from north to south as well. For a mere introductory area, that real estate constitutes a hefty chunk of land compared to something like Skyrim, which encompassed approximately 7x7 miles of in-game land.
However, unlike Skyrim, whose 50-odd square miles of world map were crammed with towns, dungeons, and quests (you literally couldn't walk 100 meters without a new point-of-interest icon appearing on the map), the desert that comprises FFXV's opening houds feels like, well, a desert. Leide consists of vast tracts of nothing, with only the occasional resource-gathering point popping in from time to time to keep the map from looking completely empty. The desert contains a handful of outposts at which to shop and take on hunting quests — the burger-flippers at the region's fast food grills serving double duty as bounty masters — and you'll stumble on to campgrounds in the midst of the wilds where you can set up for the night and recover health.
The day/night cycle has a much greater impact on exploration and travel within FFXV than you tend to find in other games of this type. When night falls, "daemons" emerge — more powerful monsters than the critters that roam during the day. While I haven't encountered the Magitek patrols that made night exploration in Episode Duscae so dangerous, that will presumably change: Chapter One of FFXV takes place during the final moments of peace in the world, and I have to assume that the imperial actions that transpire near the chapter's end change everything for the worse.
But camping serves other essential purposes as well. For one thing, it's the only time you can level up. FFXV is serious about embracing open-world RPG concepts, it seems, and it's adopted a mechanic that Skyrim actually removed from The Elder Scrolls: You can't reach a new experience level until you camp and tally the EXP you've earned in combat. This opens the door for some interesting mechanical wrinkles; for example, the nicer your overnight accommodations, the more they cost... but when you spend money to rest overnight, you get a bonus multiplier on experience earned proportionate to the cost of your room and board. A free campground in the wilderness yields base experience, but pay for a motel along the coast and you get a 1.2X multiplier on all experience you've earned since your last encampment.
Not only that, but the experience you tally when you rest doesn't strictly come from combat actions. Each of your four party members commands his own separate speciality skill, and these level up based on your actions in those areas. These skills can be vague, like the musclebound Gladiolus' "survival" specialty (which appears to level up based on how many actions you perform while exploring, such as gathering resources and fighting monsters), or highly specific, like Noctis' fishing skill that only levels-up when you locate a fishing pond and reel in a few catches. Encampments also allow you to check out and save the photos wiry Prompto has snapped along the way. (He does this automatically, and in fact all screenshots in this preview were taken randomly by Prompto; you can also unlock a special combat ability that enables battle photography.) Finally, they give bespectacled Ignis a chance to show off his cooking skills based on recipes you've concocted and food resources you've gathered or purchased. As with the likes of Tales and Etrian Odyssey, the food you consume (either crafted at camp or purchased from restaurants) grants your party valuable temporary buffs such enhanced strength, improved defense, or status immunity.
In addition to general and unique skill experience points, all of which are earned individually by the four team members, Noctis' party also accumulates and shares a pooled experience called AP (Ability Points). This isn't a new concept for the series by any means, dating all the way back to Final Fantasy III's job system, but FFXV hands out AP somewhat differently than past games. Rather than simply earning AP in combat, you generally acquire AP for performing specific actions. These actions can be as simple as camping, but you'll also receive AP for completing quests, sharing character development moments with Noctis' friends, or achieving combat objectives that the game randomly dispenses at the outset of fights (e.g. "perform two linked attacks within 20 seconds").
Earning AP allows you to unlock nodes on the party's ability grid. Here as well FFXV differs from classic Final Fantasy. While the grid here resembles the skill systems of Final Fantasy X or XIII, with interconnected nodes that unlock more advanced (and more expensive) abilities, they aren't bound to single characters this time. You have more than half a dozen individual grids to power through, and only one of them is character-specific (for Noctis). Because you control only Noctis in combat, the other party members are relegated to support status and have perks spread across the other grids. Generally, though, it's easy to see that AP is earned as a shared pool because that's how the skill boosts in FFXV work: They largely affect the entire party and how the team works together.
All of this, then, ties into the rules and mechanics of FFXV's combat... but this preview has already gone on long enough, I think. I have plenty to say about Final Fantasy XV, and plenty more to see beyond this first chapter of the adventure, and I'll be sharing my thoughts as I play this near-final build of the game over the next week or two. On Friday I'll have a more detailed analysis of the combat system. In the meantime, though, it's enough to say that FFXV has impressed me, even in the half-dozen hours I've played so far.
And, incidentally, I could have finished the game's first chapter in far fewer than six hours. But FFXV really sets you loose once the introduction has rolled, and I've spent most of my time wandering the wastes in search of hidden quests (there are a few!), secret fishing spots (I found a doozy tucked away in some ruins), completing monster hunts (and there are still quite a few in this region that are well beyond my team's current capabilities), and generally just seeing where I can go (basically anywhere that isn't walled off). Square Enix has a lot riding on this game, and despite all odds, FFXV just might be able to shoulder those impossible expectations.