"The changes thus far have not only been dramatic, they're giving us a glimpse of the game we wanted it to be."
It's been an entire year since my last review update. For a time, I felt Eorzea was unsalvageable; even with the turnover of the development team. Many noteworthy changes have occurred in the legacy of FFXIV, so I decided to revisit this realm for another look. Before we dive into the specifics, let's catch up on our current events.
2 point Ohhhhhhhhh YES!
Last fall, Square Enix dropped a bomb on everyone when they announced Final Fantasy XIV 2.0, a re-imagined version of the game that would meet and exceed the previous expectations for their failing MMO. The announcement was chock full of timelines, concept art and graphics. Square Enix wanted to do what no company had ever managed before; resurrect and revitalize a dying MMORPG. They had a plan, and they laid it out for the entire world to see.
It came as no surprise that such a grand vision would come at a price. The nearly year-long free trial period came to an end in January with the reinstatement of subscription billing. The community complained that the game was in no way worth the full subscription fee, so Square Enix agreed to a significant discount until 2.0 goes live in late 2012/early 2013. More recently, they've launched the Legacy Campaign, which locks in that discount for players who have stuck with the game for at least 3 months since billing occurred. The question I had to ask was, even with the steep reduction in price, is FFXIV in a state worth paying for?
Like Sand through the Hourglass...
There have been several major patches in the year since my last visit to Eorzea, all of which have brought sweeping changes to the game. I'll try to summarize the most significant and notorious changes and additions.
The highly controversial EXP Fatigue mechanic has been abolished, along with Physical Levels. Players can now enjoy advancing their characters without penalty for leveling too quickly. The removal of physical levels and the streamlining of attribute points simplified a needlessly confusing progression system.
The combat system was given a complete revision from the original design. The stamina bar for attacks has been completely removed and replaced with weapon skill hotkeys and a generic auto-attack. At the time it was implemented, this change shifted battle from repetitive button-mashing to a non-interactive bore. To rub salt in the wound, almost every special attack was on a needlessly long cool-down timer. Thankfully, the battle system was revisited once again to help rectify some of the initial changes. The most significant correction made was the addition of the combo system, which has revived the excitement of combat. This mechanic allows pre-determined techniques to be linked together for greater damage or special enfeebles. The beauty of this system is that once a combo chain has been started, each subsequent move does not require TP for use, which speeds up combat significantly. The trick is that many moves in a set combo require you to strike the enemy from a specific location in order to trigger the activation of the next technique. This requires some deft footwork on the part of the player and makes party play more interesting. Mage classes also benefit from the combo system due to the way that subsequent spells are boosted or transformed, but do they not benefit from any reduction in MP cost.
The EXP Chain system that was a staple of FFXI has even made an appearance. This mechanic rewards consecutive kills within the time limit with boosted EXP. These additions and changes make combat a significantly deeper and more enjoyable activity than before.
The guildleve system remains the core of solo play, but has received some notable changes. Firstly, players receive a guildleve allowance to purchase quests instead of having to utilize their 8 leve slots every 36 hours. This gives players the ability to bank guildleves for convenient use instead of being a slave to the issuance cool-down. The EXP boosting buff "Guardian's Favor" has been removed in lieu of Rested EXP which is obtained by logging out in an Inn. The rested state increases experience points gained for all combat, gathering and crafting actions by 50%. When you combine Rested EXP with EXP Chains, levels start melting away.
Side quests, which were summarily worthless when introduced, have gotten an upgrade. For starters, there are a much healthier number of them available, and they all reward the player with experience points. Their number and spoils aren't vast enough to be considered a viable leveling alternative to guildleves, but they make for an enjoyable adjunct. Even crafting and gathering have received some updates, with simplified recipes, significantly faster animations and concealment spells to aid gathering in hostile territory. I'm not a huge fan of the crafting time sink in FFXIV, but these changes are a very welcome departure to a system I found very slow and needlessly convoluted.
Almost in response to the simplification of recipes, Square Enix introduced the Materia System as a new layer of complexity to crafting. While this system isn't quite as earth-shattering as it was in FFVII, it adds a significant degree of customization for players looking to be the best that they can be. Since Materia gems are derived from breaking down seasoned gear, there is always a demand for equipment from crafters. Those looking for even more power can attempt to meld forbidden Materia, which will allow for up to seven gems to be attached to a single piece of equipment. The catch is that failing to affix these additional Materia can destroy the item and all gems previously slotted. The main problem with this system is that it relies much too heavily on luck, rather than skill. The realm of forbidden Materia is limited to the most affluent of crafters, and even then, it's a game of chance.
Something Old, Something New...
After a long hiatus, the series staples of Chocobos and Airships have finally come home to Eorzea. Thankfully, the dev. team decided to make both of these beloved forms of egress easy to obtain. From the outset, players may rent a bird and ride the airship between cities with no strings attached outside of a fee. Players who desire their own personal steeds, however, must finish the initial quest line for their preferred Grand Company (more on this in a bit) to purchase their Chocobo whistle. The beauty of this key item is that not only can you call your Chocobo anytime you want, there's no riding time limit and they are significantly faster than rental birds.
The Grand Company (GC) system is one of the major additions to the game in the last several months. Within the context of lore, the GC's are military organizations formed to protect each city-state from the encroaching threat of war with the Garlean Empire.
These entities provide storyline quests that are an adjunct to the main scenario missions. The GC chapters really set the stage for the upcoming cataclysmic events of FFXIV 2.0. The GC quests also introduce the player to endgame raid dungeons and the primal avatar battles. Players who progress their rank in their chosen GC may purchase top-flight equipment with seals obtained from various quests and sponsored activities. Fashionistas will be pleased to note that you can even pimp your ride with a variety of Chocobo barding and armor via GC seals.
For the OCD crowd, FFXIV now packs a massive list of in-game achievements that reward players with unique titles and exclusive equipment. Some of these tasks will take even the most dedicated players months to complete. The rewards aren't just cosmetic; it's the only way to obtain some of the best headgear and crafting tools in the game.
Perhaps the most significant addition to the game is the recent introduction of classic FF jobs to Eorzea. Each of the 7 jobs is designed as a specialized overlay to the pre-existing Disciples of War and Magic. In a stroke of genius, SE decided that job progression would be quest-based instead of level-based. This watershed decision meant no starting again from scratch; job level is based directly off the level of its corresponding class. Of course, each quest to obtain job-specific actions/equipment has a required minimum level.
Not only does each job come with its own trademark abilities and attacks, players can also quest to obtain job specific armor (lovingly dubbed AF after FFXI's Artifact Armor) that complements their skills. These armors are unique in that they complement the stats and abilities of the jobs themselves. Completing each job quest chain requires teamwork as some of the fights can be quite challenging.
Don't Stand in the Fire...
Endgame in FFXIV had been non-existent since launch. This has been addressed with the addition of three Primal Avatar Battles and three dungeon raids. The Primal fights pit a party of 8 players against powerful Demi-gods (Ifrit, King Moogle and Garuda) in hopes of obtaining weapons forged from their power. The instanced raids require 8 brave adventurers to fight through some of the most dangerous dungeons on Eorzea to face enormous Notorious Monsters for phat lewt.
The concept and execution of these endgame activities are wonderfully diverse. The avatar fights are multi-stage encounters where parties have to adapt to changing conditions quickly and play well to succeed. The dungeon raids all have some degree of puzzle solving and require excellent coordination and speed to reap the best rewards.
Unfortunately, the risk/reward ratio for these endgame activities is abysmal. In regards to the avatar fights, many times the party will walk away completely empty-handed. On the rare occasion a weapon drops, it does not go into party spoils. It is randomly awarded to a member of the group, irrespective of that person's ability to use it. These weapons cannot be traded, and players who already owned the weapon will have the new one automatically discarded. Square Enix attempted to fix the issue by allowing players to obtain tokens from a fallen avatar that could be redeemed for a weapon of their choice, but these items are just as rare as the weapons themselves and are randomly awarded. The only improvement is that they can be passed to another group member. Even worse is that, in many cases, the weapons NPC requires so many of these tokens that players would have more success waiting for their desired weapon to drop over purchasing it. The entire token system seems like a back-handed slap to players who dared to demand better treatment with the current system of spoils.
The instanced dungeons are also offensive. These raids reward groups with more treasure chests based on speed of completion. Some dungeons will award additional treasure based on certain combat or task conditions as well. In theory this sounds relatively harmless, but it has made the community completely ostracize characters in melee jobs who want to run these raids. Those brave souls who try to go against this practice find themselves being completely unable to finish the content successfully. To add fuel to the fire, the best dungeon equipment has a ridiculously low drop rate even with a perfect 5 chest speed run. This leads to groups zipping through content over and over with zero group flexibility until they burn out. Players don't have a chance to really experience and enjoy the dungeons, because they're too busy running past enemies to meet the speed run requirement. In its current state, the primal fights and dungeon raids are unforgiving rat races that reward mostly luck, not hard work. Not a great way to attract new players who are accustomed to being rewarded for their efforts.
One of the biggest points of contention for FFXIV was the lack of an auction house and mail system. Both are still on the drawing board for 2.0, but the Market Wards (MW) have gotten a massive overhaul. Firstly, all three MWs can be accessed in every city by talking to the appropriate NPC within the Market House instanced area. Secondly, the Item Search feature has been expanded to allow text entry. Browsing items will show all listed sales, the last several transactions and attached Materia if applicable. Finally, players can purchase directly from the item search. These changes have not only eased congestion in the more popular MW spots, but have made the existing system as functional as an auction house. Players no longer need to physically visit a MW to set up their retainer shop. Now, you can send your retainer directly to a MW of your choice from any retainer bell. These changes, while long overdue, are absolutely brilliant and have made participation in the in-game economy nearly seamless.
A Tailor's Fit
At launch, FFXIV had some of the worst GUI faux pas in the entire industry. The cascade of menus mired in long load times drove even the mildest-mannered gamers into nerd rage. Since that unhappy time, the game's GUI has received not only a facelift, but a tummy tuck and a Brazilian wax. Menu layout is much more intuitive with a mouse while still maintaining ease of navigation with the controller. There are more visual cues for data than needless text on equipment and Materia. Color-coding has made equipment status much easier to assess. Interface lag is nearly extinct outside of Retainer item exchange. The macro system and ability designation has also been streamlined. Skills are now saved by class/job which makes player flexibility much less cumbersome than before. All of these seemingly small changes make such a dramatic difference in the experience that former players will be shocked at how much better it plays.
The ongoing revitalization of FFXIV is a milestone worthy of praise. The changes thus far have not only been dramatic, they're giving us a glimpse of the game we wanted it to be. From the introduction of classic FF jobs to an entire reimagining of the combat system, the game finally feels like a nearly finished product. The Grand Companies are a fantastic new aspect of the game with storylines that ooze "Final Fantasy." Nearly every major complaint I had with the game at launch has been addressed, with even more new content on the horizon. Even with all this praise, though, there's still a great deal of work that needs to be done. Currently the game's battle system, Dungeon/Primal encounters and Materia system need to be addressed with a more modern approach. Players want fast-paced combat, accessible gear customization options and rewarding endgame. As long as Square Enix keeps their eyes on the competition and continues to incorporate popular trends in the genre, 2.0 has a bright future indeed.