This weekend just gone saw the second weekend of Final Fantasy XIV's "phase 3" beta program. There are two more weekends to go before the beta opens up for everyone, but in the meantime I've spent some more time in the mysterious lands of Eorzea to bring you this report on some of A Realm Reborn's coolest additions to the MMO formula.
I've been really enjoying my time with Final Fantasy XIV to date, but in the last beta weekend I didn't quite get far enough to encounter some of the game's more interesting features. While the basic game up to level 10 is very good and highly polished -- a few graphical glitches here and there aside -- it's largely business as usual for the MMO space.
Once you hit level 10 in your starting class, however, things start to open up a great deal, and it's here that Final Fantasy XIV really starts to shine. Today I'm going to talk a little bit about these gameplay elements that open up at this stage in the game, and how they impact your experience as a whole.
Career Changing: The Armory System and Jobs
Final Fantasy XIV's class system differs somewhat from its predecessor Final Fantasy XI, but has one important thing in common: a huge amount of flexibility within a single character. FFXI allowed you to change jobs any time you returned to your personal "Mog House" and later combine two jobs together to make a hybrid class. Final Fantasy XIV makes it even quicker to switch classes: thanks to the game's "Armory" mechanic, changing classes is a simple matter of picking an appropriate implement for your main hand.
It's very simple: each class has a specialist weapon, and equipping that weapon causes you to immediately switch to that class. Each class has its own level, though, so you can't level up to 50 in, say, Gladiator and then suddenly become the most powerful Conjuror in the world immediately. You can, however, start levelling your other classes at your own pace, allowing you to effectively build a character that can fulfil multiple roles in a party at a moment's notice simply by changing equipment.
It takes a little work to gain access to this ability: first of all, you have to reach level 10 in your starting class, then complete the level 5 and 10 quests for your starting class' guild master. These quests are an excellent means of teaching you how to play as each particular class; Gladiators, for example, learn about how to tank properly, while Pugilists learn how to use their various moves in combos and deal the greatest amount of damage in the shortest amount of time.
Once you've beaten the level 10 quest for your starting class, your guild master gives you leave to join any of the other guilds around the world, and in doing so you gain access to all the other basic classes in the game.
Classes are split into four main types: Disciples of War, who are primarily melee fighters; Disciples of Magic, who are, unsurprisingly, rather magical in nature; Disciples of the Hand, who focus on crafting; and Disciples of the Land, who focus on gathering raw materials. Certain items of equipment are only available for use by one of these specific families, and others still are locked to specific classes. Besides equipment, each class has its own unique content, too; each class' guild has its own questline that helps teach you how best to play your role, and each class also has its own Hunting Log for you to fill out as you wander the world. There's a large amount of variety on offer, and it's interesting to see crafting represented by its own dedicated character classes -- more on that a little later.
Progress far enough in the game and master the basic classes and you'll be able to go on quests to unlock access to the iconic Final Fantasy jobs such as Warrior, Black Mage, White Mage and the like. Don't expect this to be an easy ride, though; earning access to these jobs is intended to be a mark of prestige and dedication, so there's a long road ahead.
Crafty Beggar: Being a Stay-at-Home Adventurer
As noted above, the ability to change class post-level 10 isn't limited purely to combat-focused classes. No; there's a whole family of classes -- the Disciples of the Hand -- devoted purely to crafting. These classes allow you to take up the mantle of a particular profession and make a start on creating items for either personal use or profit.
Crafting in Final Fantasy XI was an excruciatingly long-winded process that required you to gather materials from random drops (or purchase them from the auction house), then collect crystals which were used for synthesis. It also depended on you having learned the various combinations of items that resulted in particular items, and consequently wasn't the most intuitive thing in the world -- and this isn't even getting into how long it took to raise your skill levels in the various crafting disciplines.
In Final Fantasy XIV, meanwhile, learning a trade is done with the same amount of fast pace and interactivity that performing a combat role involves. There's no sitting back and waiting while you craft a hundred bolts of cloth here; crafting is an active process that requires your participation, and even the use of skills.
Opening up your Crafting Log -- companion to the Hunting Log in the interface -- causes your character to get out their crafting implement and adopt a pose ready to do their thing. You're then shown the various items that you can create at each level of the crafting discipline, and must then pick one to work on. Assuming you have the appropriate materials and crystals on hand -- both of which are considerably easier to gather than in FFXI -- you then begin actually making the items, one at a time.
Crafting is represented almost like a battle -- you against the thing you're trying to make. Your materials begin the crafting process with a particular durability value, and every action you perform reduces this figure. If an item runs out of durability before you complete it, your efforts are wasted and your materials are lost. In order to avoid this happening, you must use the various actions on your hotbar that gradually unlock as you level up in order to fill the item's progress bar before the durability runs out.
The basic action you start with -- the "attack," if you will -- is a simple crafting action. This fills the item's progress bar by a particular amount, with the amount of "damage" you do increasing as you level up and use better equipment. As you increase in level, you'll gain access to various actions that cost you "crafting points" to make use of; these allow you to do things like increase the item's quality and thus increase the amount of experience points it is worth, along with its sale value at the end of the process. You'll also unlock access to higher tiers of items to produce, and be able to take on crafting quests, just like your combat-centric counterparts.
Gathering classes, meanwhile -- otherwise known as Disciples of the Land -- require you to venture out into the world and seek out resource harvesting spots. This process becomes easier as you level up and gain access to various special abilities that help you to find the best places to acquire materials, and again, it's not just a simple case of clicking on something and picking up its loot. Instead, you "attack" the gathering spots with the appropriate implement and then choose which type of available raw material you want to harvest from it, with more valuable and/or useful materials having a lower chance of successfully being acquired until you've got some practice in.
Both the crafting and gathering professions remain surprisingly fun, and can easily be levelled alongside your "main" combat class. The fact that they have their own experience levels, equipment and even questlines means that crafting doesn't feel like an optional oversight; it feels like an integral part of the game, and in theory means that players who prefer a more peaceful life can devote their attentions to becoming the best crafters in the land, perhaps sending out friends to go and gather their materials for them. This is a massively-multiplayer world, remember; you don't have to do everything yourself!
Odd Jobs: Levequests and Guildhests
These two oddly-named mechanics also open up when you reach level 10, and provide a nice complement to the standard quest system you'll already be well familiar with by that point.
Levequests fall into several main categories, but I only had the chance to try out the Battlecraft variety over the weekend. These quests require you to go to a specific location marked on the map, trigger the quest and then complete its objectives -- usually killing monsters, but occasionally with other objectives thrown in -- before the time limit expires. You can do this either solo or with a party, and you can adjust the difficulty level of the quest before you start tackling it -- completing it at a harder difficulty level nets you larger rewards, as does completing it quickly.
The few Levequests I tried had a decent amount of variety, despite all being Battlecraft leves. One simply required me to kill one specific monster; another required me to cull a certain number of monsters without allowing any to escape and bring in reinforcements; another still required me to weaken monsters and then use the "/soothe" emote on them to pacify them for capture. They were a lot of fun, and the ability to make them more challenging means that there's an entertaining, addictive "push your luck" feeling to them, too -- can you handle monsters that are three levels higher than you?
You're limited on how many Levequests you can take on in a set period; you begin with an initial allocation of three, and earn more as time passes. There doesn't appear to be a means of bypassing this restriction -- an odd decision perhaps, but it does encourage you to keep moving and pursuing the story quests rather than getting bogged down in trying to complete every single Levequest before moving on.
Guildhests, meanwhile, are instanced challenges that require a party. I didn't get the chance to try these out over the weekend, but the new "Duty Finder" matchmaking system is launching as part of the next test weekend, which should make finding a party for these cooperative challenges considerably easier than just shouting "PUG 12 LFG" into the void.
The Guildhests you encounter early in the game are designed to encourage you to work together and deal with specific challenges that parties are better at handling, such as taking on groups of enemies. This fits the pattern of the rest of the early game -- while there are occasional tutorial popups when a new mechanic shows its face, for the most part, the game instead encourages you to "learn by doing" rather than reading endless reams of text. This is a great way of doing things, and encourages players to try out everything the game has to offer rather than sticking with just the mechanics they're comfortable with.
The next phase of beta testing will introduce the Duty Finder system, which will enable players to more easily find parties for content that can't be completed solo -- things like instanced dungeons, Guildhests and other cooperative content.
Following that, all current characters in the beta test will be completely wiped and open beta will start some time in July. Characters created during open beta will not be wiped and can subsequently be brought into the full game when it launches at the end of August.
Final Fantasy XIV is looking immensely promising so far. It's combining the best bits of well-regarded MMOs like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 with some of Final Fantasy XI's cool features, then wrapping it all in an ongoing, interesting story that has a rather pleasing Final Fantasy VI-like feel to it.
It may not end up being the game that dethrones the established giants of the genre, but if Final Fantasy XI's passionate, enthusiastic fanbase is anything to go by, it'll be a game that continues to enjoy a lively, active community for many years after release. It's an astonishing reversal of fortune after the disaster that was FFXIV version 1.0, and proof that there might just be some hope for the Square-Enix of 2013 after all.