|Release:|| 09/22/2010 L.E.
With a little more than a month to go until retail, Square Enix has been hard at work with Final Fantasy XIV, the spiritual successor to Final Fantasy XI, the company's first foray into the MMORPG market. To say that FFXIV is an eagerly anticipated release is an understatement; FFXI was a watershed title that is as long lived as it was polarizing for fans. Having been in active service for over eight years, a surprise to both the developers and players, Square Enix felt it was time for the next generation. We've had the distinct pleasure of spending a great deal of time with Final Fantasy XIV throughout its alpha infancy onward into its current beta adolescence.
A Brave New World, part deux
When FFXIV was first shown to the public at E3 2009, aside from the shock that this would be an online title instead of a stand-alone adventure, we were introduced to the world of Eorzea – a lush, vibrant world watched over by a pantheon of gods referred to as The Twelve. We were also shown a great conflict between nations, in particular a highly advanced civilization known as the Garlean Empire bent on domination. At the center of it all is Aetheryte- the lifeblood of the world in crystalline form.
The setting seemed pure Final Fantasy, but what of the character races that seemed all too familiar to players of FFXI? In further interviews and at Gamescom in Germany, we were shown that indeed, the former races of Hume, Galka, Tarutaru and Mithra would be re-imagined for this brave new world. When asked the reasoning behind this choice, Square Enix clarified that they wanted players who had formed special bonds with their characters in XI to be able to recreate them for the new world. In fact, in order to ensure players could hold onto their character names, FFXIV would allow surnames as well. They also took it a step further, renaming all of the revised races and splitting them into two very aesthetically different tribes. The Humes became the Hyur: split into the commonplace Midlanders and rugged Highland tribes. The feline Mithra became the Miqo'te and were divided into the diurnal Seekers of the Sun and nocturnal Seekers of the Moon. The haughty Elvaan became the Elezen with their forest-dwelling Wildwood and the cave-dwelling Duskwight. The burly Galka influenced the Roegadyn and their seafaring Sea Wolves and infernal Hellsguard. Last, but certainly not least, the adorable Taru have been distilled into the delightful Lalafell with their enterprising Plainsfolk and mystical Dunesfolk.
With the cast assembled, the artists chose a powerful tool to craft this new world. Square Enix developed their own customized graphics toolset to be used for their newest generation of titles. Originally dubbed "The White Engine" and renamed "Crystal Tools," this impressive software is what powered the jaw dropping visuals in Final Fantasy XIII and was put to the test in creating Eorzea and her inhabitants. With this bit of history behind us, lets take a look at the experience so far...
The Birth of an Adventurer
There are very few choices that have such immediate and overarching consequences as character creation in MMORPGs and XIV gives you a great deal to consider. Characters begin by choosing their beginning race and then the tribe of their choice. They are then presented with various body-type models before the real customization begins. While not as overwhelmingly detailed as some of the more recent MMORPGs like Aion or Age of Conan, the current customization is XIV is robust with a plethora of choices in a seamless and elegant UI. While hairstyle and color choices are diverse, it doesn't end there. Would you like some highlights? Done. Can't decide on the color of your avatar's eyes? Try a different color for each eye. Do you want to show how battle hardened your Sea Wolf is? Choose from a plethora of scars. If tattoos are your thing, some clans have you covered.
After choosing the aesthetics, you must then choose your Discipline. What is Final Fantasy without jobs? When XIV goes live, it will have a whopping 18 to choose from, though there's a bit of a catch. The class system in XIV is divided into four Disciplines: War, Magic, Hand and Land and then refined into the actual classes themselves. The Disciples of War include Gladiator, Lancer, Marauder, Pugilist and Archer. The Disciples of Magic is an exclusive lot that includes Thaumaturge and Conjurer. The Discipline of the Land brings together the gathering roles that include Miner, Botanist and Fisher. Finally we have the largest Disciple of them all, the Discipline of the Hand. These classes are the artisans of Eorzea: Goldsmith, Blacksmith, Armorer, Weaver, Carpenter, Leatherworker, Alchemist and Culinarian.
Tying the classes together is the Armory system that allows players to switch between any and all classes by simply changing their primary weapon or tool. The trick is that while your abilities are gained by specifically leveling a particular class, they aren't necessarily exclusive. Most, though not all, abilities and traits can be equipped regardless of current class by allocating them with action points. The system is very similar to how Blue Mages equip spells in FFXI. There are some important caveats also, as Disciples of War and Magic abilities are interchangeable to a degree, but they are entirely incompatible with Disciples of the Hand and Land and vice versa. Unfortunately, in this current state of the beta testing, Disciples of the Hand and Land have no combat viability. Though they are confirmed to eventually have some contribution to battle, we have no way yet of knowing how and in what capacity.
Next, players must choose the nameday (birthday) for their character as well as their Guardian Deity from the Twelve. Currently, we have very little knowledge of how this will affect gameplay. Finally, the player must choose their desired nation to ally with and begin their adventure in. For the alpha and beta tests, we were limited to the maritime nation of Limsa Lominsa, but the retail release will also contain the forest nation of Gridania and the desert fortress of Ul'dah.
Aside from the various combat-oriented classes I played, I spent a great deal of time with the Disciplines of the Hand and Land in order to determine why they would be considered jobs in the classical sense. In only a handful of MMORPGs has the art of gathering and crafting been deemed important enough to be considered a mainstay of gameplay, much less an actual class. One might think that playing a Fisher would be counter-intuitive to being a hero in a Final Fantasy, and once upon a time I might have agreed with you. To my surprise, these professions aren't just window-dressing but are the lifeblood of Eorzea and are pretty entertaining to boot.
In XI, crafting was limited to throwing materials together with the requisite crystal and hoping nothing exploded. In XIV, each step of the gathering and crafting process has its own gameplay component. Disciplines of the Land engage in various forms of the game "Hot & Cold" to maximize their yields. They even have specific abilities and job traits that enhance that experience. Miners who use the ability "Prospect" to find ore far and away are given a speed buff that allow them to run these distances at great speed. Disciplines of the Hand engage in a delicate balancing act between an item's quality, the durability of the object and the completion of the actual synthesis with a variety of abilities to influence their actions. Critical synthing in XIV requires precision, not just a random number generator to determine the outcome. This is also on top of the fashionable collection of tools and equipment available to do these tasks. If Square Enix manages to give them the promised combat viability, mobs may run away in fear from a posse of Weavers instead of rolling on the floor laughing.
This is your Story
Since we were limited to Limsa Lominsa, our game introduction began with us on a ship on rough waters heading toward the fabled port city. This serves as something of a tutorial for the game as players can interact with NPCs, learn the basics of combat and move the storyline forward with some amazing in-game cutscenes before finally disembarking. It bears mentioning that the starting scenarios for the two other cities are still shrouded in secrecy but are probably equally engaging. One aspect of XIV's gameplay that becomes readily apparent is the use of instancing. From the introduction to the beginning storyline, the player is placed in private areas within the context of their quests, allowing the developers to customize scenarios without the clutter of the "real" in-game world. This is even used in the game's repeatable quests called "Guildleves" that creates instanced creatures for you and your party alone.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
Central to the gameplay of FFXIV are Guildleves that allow players to take on tasks for various factions within their nation for profit. This system allows players who don't have a lot of play time to embark on short adventures solo or with friends for fun and profit. There are some great aspects of this system, but also some shortcomings that may yet be addressed before retail. Guildleves are seperated into two categories: regional and local tasks. Regional guildleves are geared toward combat or gathering while local guildleves are crafting requests from specific NPC's around the world. Unfortunately, guildleves are only issued every 48 hours and players are limited to sixteen slots during testing, eight regional and eight local. While an average player can complete their allotment of guildleves solo within a short timeframe, that leaves a long wait until they can procure more. Thankfully, players can assist others with their own guildleves and reap some of the rewards as well. Guildleves can also be customized for party-size/difficulty which also modifies the reward. In this current phase of beta testing, completing these tasks as a group yields a significantly higher amount of experience than simply grinding on mobs. In fact, when you complete your first batch of Guildleves, you may trade the completed cards back to enhance the rewards of subsequent quests.
While the enhancements for groups sharing guildleves has been a significant improvement to their usefulness and longevity, there are still some problems. Occasionally these tasks may also reward a player with a piece of random equipment. Unfortunately they may not serve a purpose to the player's chosen Discipline. I spent an inordinate amount of time sorting through potential guildleve rewards for plate equipment only to find an overwhelming supply of cloth rewards. Since equipment vendors are liable to be inadequate because of an abundance of crafting classes, allowing multiple reward selections for completed quests would be preferable. Also if the player is disconnected from the server at any time, they automatically fail their guildleve, even though they many not have expended the quest timer. With such a long wait between refreshing quests, this problem is infuriating. Hopefully some of these issues will be addressed before the service begins in September, but there is no denying the flexibility and potential for these customizable quests.
Combat has seen a drastic overhaul, from the game's debut at Gamescom to this most recent round of beta testing. As weapons are central to the game's Armory system, players must toggle between an active and passive mode in order to use them. Active mode draws your currently selected tool of destruction and enables you to attack a target, while passive mode sheathes your weapon and allows you to converse with the local populace, gather or craft. When in active mode, players may choose to lock-on to targets to keep them centered at all times, but there are some problems with the camera panning overhead when the target gets too close. Thankfully the lock-on feature is optional. One of the major changes between of FFXIV's combat and the rest of the pack is the lack of an auto-attack. Instead, players must actively engage in battle with their opponent, so AFK'ers consider yourselves warned. In Alpha, we had the classic Active Time Battle (ATB) bar as well as an Effect gauge for every action, but everyone felt that the battle tempo was far too slow and cumbersome because of the time needed to charge them, so that was discarded entirely. We now have the greatly improved Stamina system. During combat, the Stamina gauge will fill and each of your moves will consume a portion of this bar. Simple attacks use very little stamina but have a slight cool down between successive attacks. Special techniques use a significantly larger percentage of a filled stamina bar and usually require technique points (TP) and/or mana/magic points (MP) to use. These abilities usually have longer cool downs between uses as well. Though stamina is a constantly replenishing resource, players have to be judicious in its use. Being overly aggressive can deplete the entire gauge very quickly leaving players unable to do much of anything but get hit, or run until the gauge has had sufficient time to refill; so there is a great deal of strategy in how your manage your stamina in battle.
Although we have not had any hands-on experience or examples in the beta with this, we have been told that positioning will be very important in combat for a variety of encounters. Aside from range recommendations for the various classes, some enemies may have weak points on their bodies, or specific limbs that can be disabled by focusing on these areas. We can see in the combat log that the game does keep track of where you strike an enemy, so we are very excited to see how this is incorporated when the game goes live in September.
Stepping in something GUI
If there was something to be concerned about for FFXIV on PC it would have to be the user interface. While it has come a long way from the initial stages of the alpha, there is still much to do. Players who have enjoyed FFXI on a gamepad will feel comfortable with how XIV is mapped. Unfortunately, the mouse and keyboard option had almost completely unplayable. It seems odd that the control mainstay of every major PC MMORPG seems to have been completely overlooked. Is it a holdover from developing FFXI on the PS2? Or is it a focus on trying to make the game console friendly for the eventual PS3 release? Nobody knows. Thankfully, after a tremendous amount of feedback from testers, I' m happy to report that the mouse and keyboard option has been drastically improved as of the start of Beta Phase 3 and is no longer an issue. Unfortunately, the rest of the UI still needs more fine tuning. Currently, there is significant delay between opening windows to trade, managing inventory or even changing equipment. Attempting to craft forces players to endure up to ten seconds of loading between many parts of the interface. There are also too many layers of window navigation for even some of the simplest tasks; coupled with animations between menus, and some actions a complete chore. This should come as no surprise to FFXI veterans, and will probably go unnoticed by that population entirely. While they have been successful in allowing us to move around almost all the elements of the UI freely, the significant loading times bogging down an already cumbersome menu tree is infuriatingly unnecessary in a modern MMORPG. Thankfully these are known issues and have been promised to be addressed before retail.
Outside of those complaints, the combat UI is elegantly utilitarian and does not overwhelm the screen like some other MMORPGs. If anything, the option of turning off ability tool-tips would be a plus, but it doesn't impact your visual real estate very much. There is a window specifically for combat data and a fairly comprehensive chat filter that helps clear a lot of the clutter from your line of sight. A new and welcome addition to the experience is the tastefully designed NPC dialogue box placed unobtrusively in the middle bottom of the screen. Unfortunately, not all NPC dialogue is displayed in this new window; in fact, all relevant dialogue is still displayed in the chat window. Thankfully this unfortunate case of chat double vision can easily be fixed with an addition of an NPC dialogue filter and ensuring all of the pertinent text is captured in the new window appropriately. Hopefully this will be remedied in time for retail.
While strolling through the bridges and stairways of the multi-tiered city of Limsa Lominsa, the one thing that stood out for me was the scope of the world I had stepped into. This feeling of grandeur was only magnified as I took my first steps out into the countryside and began exploring. At first glance, there wasn't much variety among the hills of La Noscea outside of the jaw-dropping attention to detail, but upon further traveling I was surprised to find numerous small caves and a network of tunnels that connected the steppe to the beaches below. There's even an extensive underground cavern called Cassiopeia's Hollow that was filled with phosphorescent fungi and underground lakes. The fact that the world is also seamless only adds to the feeling of size. The weather effects are of special note as well. I've played a great deal of MMORPGs over the last decade and I can say that XIV has perfected the presentation of weather. From the frequent downpours of rain to the blustery windstorm shaking leaves from their branches, I was awestruck by the atmosphere. Watching Limsa Lominsa light up as the sun set over the water, cascading over the waves was a sight seldom forgotten. Watching the moon come out from a sea of clouds over the lighthouse of Pharos Polaris was equally breathtaking.
It goes without saying that Final Fantasy XIV was expected to be pretty; with the years of development behind Crystal Tools we would expect nothing less. That expectation has been met and completely shattered. Final Fantasy XIV is without question the most visually astounding MMORPG ever created on the PC platform. Unfortunately, this bliss comes at a price as the recommended systems specs for the game are steep for an online game. Thankfully certain graphical caveats that are resource hogs (ambient occlusion, multi-sampled anti-aliasing and high quality shadows) are optional so players with respectable PCs shouldn't be too hard pressed to run the game well, though there's nothing quite like experiencing Eorzea in all her glory. Each new iteration of the beta client brings more performance enhancements and additions such as uncapping and improving the animation frame rate, so the retail build seems promising. We still don't know if the game will support video cards in SLI, but there have been requests made. Currently the game runs under DirectX 9.0c but it would not be surprising if Square Enix decided to up the ante and dive into DirectX 10 at some point in the future.
A Promising New Beginning
I will freely admit it's tough to get a complete grasp on what Final Fantasy XIV has in store for us when it debuts on the PC in September. It's even tougher to imagine what the game will be like on the PS3 in March. The visuals are top-notch, the gameplay thus far has been engaging and the list of features and adjustments keep growing. The beta testing has been enlightening, but because of ongoing development and the limits placed on what we are able to experience, much of this may still yet change. However, even from this limited view, the future of Eorzea looks brighter than the moon over Pharos Polaris.