Final Fantasy XIV, the latest installment in Square Enix's long-running Final Fantasy series, is a massively multiplayer role-playing follow-up to the powerhouse developer/publisher's last entry into the genre, 2003's Final Fantasy XI. Our first impressions were favourable, but while we found some definite potential, we also found a game that could've greatly benefited from further incubation time.
Square Enix's first attempt at an MMO, Final Fantasy XI, was released in North America a year after its Japanese release date and had some very redeeming qualities. It was also generally considered by most to be too difficult by MMO standards. The same team is now back with Final Fantasy XIV, and it's obvious after playing the game for 15 hours that they've learned from their mistakes while also falling back on some bad habits.
Final Fantasy XIV: The good
The first thing to know about Final Fantasy XIV is that it borrows very little from Final Fantasy XI. Sure, the playable races look very similar, your chosen class isn't set in stone, and Chocobos are still a part of the world. However, aside from these elements the remainder of the game has been significantly rethought.
One such change is the game's quest system. In Final Fantasy XIV they're called Guildleves, and each one is given by NPCs within city-states where all adventurers start their journeys. After an NPC gives you one the next step is to open your map and find the location of a floating crystal (this is a Final Fantasy game, after all). These crystals, which are found all over the world, operate as a kind of social gathering point for players on the same rank of Guildleves. It's a system that forces players to gather and sometimes translates into spontaneous parties working together on the same Guildleves.
Final Fantasy XIV is the first Final Fantasy game in 10 years to feature a soundtrack fully composed by series veteran Nobuo Uematsu. It's possible that Uematsu took his return to the series as a personal challenge, because everything I've heard so far has been nothing short of masterful.
For players that love exploring huge worlds, Final Fantasy XIV will resemble a big joyride. In fact, certain design choices - like the inability to directly manipulate the in-game map - appear to be aimed at forcing players to hoof it around the world rather than find everything via maps and simply auto-run without paying too much attention.
The in-game cutscenes for Final Fantasy XIV's main story quests feature amazing production values - especially the animation work. Actually, the entire game is masterfully animated. Assuming your computer can handle the demanding hardware requirements, this makes watching combat a delight.
Switching classes requires only that you equip a different implement on your character's main hand. Want to mine? Switch to a pick-axe. A bow and arrow will make you into an Archer. You get the idea. The only problem with this is finding the starting equipment for each class, which requires the player to scour an entire city-state. And sometimes traveling to another starting city-state altogether ends up being required in Final Fantasy XIV.
I'm a fan of the combat system, because it feels like the kind of system you'd find in any other marquee Final Fantasy game. When you initiate combat you're locked onto your target. Attacks are mapped to a hot bar along the 1-0 keys atop your keyboard, and can be customised through the game's menu system. Final Fantasy XIV's combat pacing is actually quicker than most would expect for an MMO, but the stamina bar prevents ability spam. Each attack absorbs a certain amount of stamina (or Mana, with spells). Of course, the bar refills fairly quickly, but not so much that I could simply mash several buttons without any thought.
Crafting has been rolled into Final Fantasy XIV's class system, which gives an emphasis on the importance of gathering materials and crafting them into useful items. The actual act of crafting revolves around an interesting system. Players must juggle between a progress bar indicating the level of crafting completion and a durability indicator that steadily drops from 100 percent. This juggling is done via selection of either standard, rapid or bold crafting techniques. The idea is that no single approach is always the right one, making crafting more than opening a window, selecting a quantity and hitting an Ok button.
Final Fantasy XIV: The bad
The subscription registration process for Final Fantasy XIV is actually worse than Final Fantasy XI, which held the crown for 'most confusing subscription system' until now. To play this game you must first activate a Service Account as well as Optional (not really) ongoing service, which amount to your character slots. Yes, the game 'service' only costs £8.99 a month, but each additional character, or 'Optional Ongoing Servuce' - including your first one - tacks on another £2.10 per month.
By the way, each character slot is just that: one slot. It doesn't apply to multiple servers, so if you're considering making a character on two different servers you'll have to pay twice. The whole thing is unnecessarily obtuse, involves far too many steps and feels a bit too expensive. Sure, one character can play any amount of classes - but they also have to pay extra if some of their friends play on another server and they want to keep their original Final Fantasy XIV character.
Making Final Fantasy XIV's account setup process even worse is the third-party credit card handling service Click and Buy. It requires its own separate account, which you will have to setup as well. Click and Buy also worries me as being potentially nefarious. I don't understand why Square Enix refuses to hire a proper internal team to handle sensitive information such as people's credit-card information for this game, especially when the practice is pretty much a standard.
Final Fantasy XIV suffers from a severely lacking in-game tutorial; a cardinal sin in light of the many odd systems designed into the game. While some very barebones tutorials are in place, none of them do a sufficient job explaining clearly how, say, gathering or crafting exactly works - or even exactly what NPC to talk to next. Sure, you get general directions, but it feels like Square Enix wants players to wander around aimlessly for a while because it stretches out the lifespan of the game's already-thin content.
So yes, early-game quest content is unacceptably light. Beyond the initial story quest, everything turns into kill and gather quests, and even those don't amount to much. Most Final Fantasy XIV players end up grinding mindlessly on monster spawns. I've heard grumblings from players that around level 20 it gets even worse, which is by no means a confirmation but doesn't bode very well.
The tutorial and content issues are parts of a generally larger problem with Final Fantasy XIV. My next statement will involve beating a dead horse metaphorically speaking, but in the case of Final Fantasy XIV its 100 percent true: this game needed more time to cook. So many of the game's current issues could be fixed with a bit more incubation and development time.
There are five melee classes in Final Fantasy XIV, which is good. However, there are only two magic classes: Thaumaturge and Conjurer. What's worse is the complete lack of series classics such as the Summoner, Thief and Red Mage. It would be fair to argue that perhaps these classes have no place in Final Fantasy XIV - except that Final Fantasy XIV is very much a traditional Final Fantasy setting.
Also a disappointment is Final Fantasy XIV's current and mostly uninteresting melee class selection. Gladiators specialise in weapons, but their big draw is the ability to use a shield and one-handed weapons. Okay, so why is it that a player starting the game as a Gladiator doesn't even get a shield? Then you have the Marauder, who specialises specifically in two-handed axes. The Lancer specialises in, uh, lances. Pugilists specialise in... you guessed it, fist weapons. Where's my Dark Knight? Where's my Paladin? How about a pet class or a Samurai? Why have a Gladiator specialise in melee weapons and then three other classes that do that as well, but with specific named melee weapons? Boring.
While Final Fantasy XIV touts an unmatched visual bang, that oomph is currently so demanding that I have to wonder if this is the poorest optimised engine to release since the Age of Conan launch.