Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Final Fantasy XIV - Are You sure you wish to read this review? Yes/No

I haven't been a big MMO player. I spent a long period of time without a worthwhile internet connection, and so remained largely within the realm of the single player. Coupled with this, I haven't really played an MMO since Ultima Online, and didn't have a particular interest in becoming part of another one. I'd given WoW a go, but the phrase 'late to the party' didn't even begin to cover what I felt when I logged into that – WotLK was already in full flow, and the sheer depth of content and the commitment necessary was too much of a barrier.

With this experience firmly in mind, I began to look ahead to the online titles still in production, reasoning that getting on-board right from the start would be a much more satisfying experience. The inescapable feeling of inferiority wouldn't set in for a while, when the truly dedicated would inevitably race ahead with reckless disregard for quest plots or storyline. I looked to the big names in the industry; BioWare, NCSoft, THQ and Square Enix, the first of these studios to release their MMO, a little under a month ago.

Step in Final Fantasy XIV. As the above background can attest, I haven't played XI before, so I wasn't sure what to expect. In fact, I'm not even a particularly big Final Fantasy fan, and I haven't enjoyed much outside of XII and the Tactics series. It was my vast enjoyment of XII that led to me towards deciding to try out XIV; me and my girlfriend would often play side by side on separate TV's, and joke about how we'd 'meet up' in Rabanastre. There were even the briefest of moments where we actually forgot, and meant it.

So with the desire for an online title in the Final Fantasy mould evidently within me, and the Collectors Edition in my hands, I set about embarking on my first MMO launch. Visually, FFXIV is undoubtedly a treat. The opening cinematic is suitably epic, and the introductions to each of the 3 starting cities are also well produced and a nice entry point to an MMO. Characters are highly detailed, and the typical flare in fashion style and aesthetics associated with the series is present – thankfully veering more towards a renaissance, open-chest lace-up shirt than the nipple-length waistcoats of past titles.

Options during character creation are fairly robust, and the choice of 2 regional variations for each of the 5 races, coupled with different starting apparel for each class, ensures you won't be dropped into a sea of clones. The detail shown on in-game characters is extremely pleasing; I'm not aware of many other games that will actually display the various rings, necklaces and other items on your avatar, for example. The same attention to detail is present in the landscapes, with high quality textures used to create a very realistic, natural landscape. Repetition occurs across the map, but it's generally blended in well enough that it shouldn't ever stick out during a relaxing stroll. The draw distance is also impressive, with far off locations tantalisingly visible over the horizon. Numerous are the occasions I've emerged from a canyon to be greeted by an impressive view of a city or landmark.

The strength of the visuals may prove a barrier to some players; you won't be playing this on your 'away from home' laptop, or even a desktop that hasn't seen an upgrade for a while. That being said, it's running smoothly on a machine put together a year ago for under £400, so it's fair to say that whilst the specs are high now, a year or 2 will render them much more common. A fairly robust config tool is present to tune the settings to your own setup, although it's vaguely annoying that more of these options aren't available in the game. As with any ongoing MMO, client stability and performance is only expected to improve in the coming months.

Whilst on a positive note, FFXIV's approach to classes is something that generally makes an attempt at improving the typical MMO formula. Whereas you'd expect to be locked into a profession at the very start, FFXIV builds upon the old Ultima Online ethos of 'any skill, any character', and lets you swap to any of the available classes at any time simply by equipping the item associated with it. The freedom this affords is pleasant for several reasons, not least of all that forming a party is much simpler when a number of your friends can fulfil multiple roles at the drop of a hat. As each class is levelled up and different abilities are unlocked, some of these can then be used across the different professions, meaning that a persons 'Class' is entirely defined by the extent to which they've levelled different professions and combined the abilities, creating an assortment that suits them.

This even applies to the crafting professions, which themselves are incredibly involving and demanding processes. There's a degree of complexity not quite seen in other games, and recipes tend to involve a long chain of crafting, often involving other professions, to reach the final ingredients necessary. This makes good use of the multi-profession mindset, but does often leave you feeling useless and incapable of crafting the exact frilly coat you were after. There's also currently no in-game means of storing these recipes, so you'll either be using a pad and pen or keeping a web page or 2 open in the background.

The real divisive element of the game is in response to the manner in which Square Enix have handled the questing aspect of the game. As well as the intermittent 'main' story progression every 5 ranks, Leves are available at the local Adventurer's Guild. Petitions from 3rd parties are offered to the player in much the same way Marks were hunted in XII, and offer tasks for hunters, gatherers and crafters alike. Serving as the main income of gil and the occasional item, leves are limited every 36 hours to 8 Battlecraft or Fieldcraft leves(Hunting and gathering), and 8 Local leves (Crafters). This intriguing design decision has caused somewhat of of an outcry; people aren't happy to be told how much they can do in a given time.

In fitting with the reminder every time I load the game to not let myself or my family waste away and die whilst I sit and play, it's my understanding that SE have done this to satisfy a more casual audience. Reinforcing this is the 'Surplus' XP system, which essentially means that after 8 hours within one week, XP rewards begin to diminish for a specific profession. Switching professions will start you off on a new 8hr timer, and also begin to wear down the timer on the levelled profession, meaning that you are more than encouraged to swap between a few professions and not stick to one.

Internet rage has boiled these concepts down to the misconception that you can only level your character up for 8 hours a week, before you stop gaining XP. Whilst limitations in an MMO are odd, in practice this system is working towards achieving the aim of having people adapt to a multi-skilled character. I also can't help but be reminded of this wonderful comic; it's not a feasible scenario for you to be away for a weekend, only to find that your friend has left you in the dust. They're likely to have another profession at a similar rank to you, and since hit points scale to rank, they'll be looking to join you on the relevant ranked leves.

Content is undeniably a concern, whichever way you cut it. Whatever the advantages of limiting the available leves are, they still often leave you short of definable activities, especially at lower levels where the leves are very straightforward affairs. The story only chimes in every 5 levels, and whilst often engaging, doesn't soak up much of your time. Whether or not this is a negative point for you will likely be down to the type of MMO gamer you see yourself as – there's no 24 hour binge of non-stop quests and rewards to be had here, but if you're looking for something to be played in accessible chunks, you could be happy in Eorzea. The key here, is that aspects like the timer on leves and the number of them available is something that can always be altered, depending on community feedback. It remains to be seen what nature of dungeons and other content is available outside of structured leves, and only time will reveal these.

Whilst the game has made such initially controversial design decisions, others are just mystifying. Vendors, or Retainers, are currently nothing but vessels for your unwanted items, which can be placed in a designated market area for others to browse. They stand around in these chambers, eerily silent and unmoving, meaning that finding an item for sale is down to pure luck and determination. Whilst an impending update will structure the areas into categories, a basic search function is badly needed here.

The process of sifting through your own possessions is not much less annoying, as the inventory offers you no assistance in sorting the myriad items you'll reap on your travels – it does organise the crystals you receive into a separate tab, so why on earth does it stop there? You'd have better luck finding things in an actual sack of matching objects, as not even rudimentary organisation such as alphabetical, or items that are currently equipped is available, and this is genuinely baffling for an RPG in 2010, especially one with so many different materials and items.

To further confound your attempts at navigating these menus, there's a degree of lag when using the UI that makes you feel as if you're sat behind someone who's playing, and instructing them on what to click on and open. Unnecessary prompts drag out simple processes that should take seconds – Do you Wish to do this? Are you sure? Please confirm this process. Designing the game for use on both PC and PS3 is no excuse, no other RPGs, console or PC, are as handicapped in this division. I honestly can't imagine the conversations and processes that resulted in the team being satisfied with this, one can only hope these issues are easily resolvable.

FFXIV is a strange and curious entity. Even if you sweep aside the ignorant variety of derisive comments and learn to appreciate the concept behind the limitations and caps on levelling, there's a lot to be unhappy about. If they plan to add a mail system and a more organised platform for the selling of goods, and all the evidence points to them doing so, why haven't they done so before launch? The painful thing is that there's an enjoyable game here, and the addition of several basic features that should undeniably be present, regardless of your stance on other MMOs, would go a long way to making it all the more entertaining for a wider audience. It's like somebody releasing a brand new phone handset that doesn't support text messaging, and cryptically hinting that it will arrive in a future update. These are not features that people want because they liked them so much in other games, they are basic, long-standing elements of games, including those in SE's own back catalogue.

In my mind, getting involved in an online title meant that I'd be able to go to all my friends, and be like 'You should really come play with this me' – but at this stage, I don't necessarily want that responsibility, of showing them something with such obvious stuff missing. With that in mind, I could only recommend the FFXIV experience as it currently exists to those who are intrigued or dedicated enough to be happy paying for a game in a very raw state. Stability-wise, the launch has been a big success, and with some graphical optimisation your actual playing experience should be pretty smooth. I'm part of a large, active and helpful community, and this is going a long way to sustaining my enjoyment. The fate of the title rests purely on Square Enix's ability and willingness to sit up and take notice of the glaring omissions from their feature list, and bring the title up to scratch in a timely fashion. The 30 free days that most will have set themselves as a deadline is fast approaching, and I can only see a large percentage of people deciding against a subscription, even if just for the time being.

With multiple behemoths whom I shouldn't need to name on the horizon, FFXIV had an opportunity to surprise people, and divert their attention from these future releases. As it stands, they've missed that opportunity by some margin, and the coming months will determine if the game is even a voice in the crowd come 7th December, a date spoken of with near-religious reverence, never mind Spring/Summer next year.

I award Final Fantasy XIV 3.6 Wood smoked Hams out of 7.

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