Sunday, June 23, 2013

FFXIV: Early Impressions

Another FFXIV beta weekend crept up on the blindside but I caught it out of the corner of my eye and managed to get a few hours in on Saturday evening. As Keen points out any MMO can be fun early on so it's far too soon to make any meaningful noises about how FFXIV might stack up as a long-term prospect. All I can really say with conviction is that so far I've enjoyed it enormously.

I'm actually doing a FATE here not a quest but let's not quibble
Down in the dirt of the early levels FFXIV is a very traditional MMO indeed. Plenty of quests and very familiar they all are too. You'll be asked to kill exact numbers of specific creatures, sometimes to cull the herd or reduce an imminent threat, other times to collect precise quantities of particular body-parts and bring them back to whoever gave you the job. Occasionally these will need to be carried forward to a confederate at a new location, where the delivery will act as an introduction to another bunch of Gil-rich, time-poor employers of casual labor. Kill Ten Rats and FedEx quests out of quest hubs, in other words.
Oh I don't know, don't you sometimes feel we're all just fish on the end of a line?

Now and again the dialog dabbles with the post-modern, undercutting these well-worn tropes with self-referential irony, a trope that's becoming somewhat worn itself these days. I've been round the block on this and come back to meet myself where I started. I'm over being bored with traditional MMO questing. I embrace the Kill Ten Rats quest. I'll don the FedEx cap with pride. No need to apologize for offering them. A classic is a classic. Although a bit of post-modern irony always slips down smoothly with me as well so I'm winning either way.

Hold on, isn't this Scarlet Desert?
Inbetween sundry deliveries of late orders, returns of mislaid items and miscellaneous fetch-and-carries, you make your way through the most gorgeous of landscapes, exploring a charming, evocative and, let's admit it, peculiar world in grain-deep detail. All my deliveries take twice as long as they should because of the time I spend gawping at the scenery and taking screenshots. It's a wonder I get any word-of-mouth recommendations at all.

The quests themselves may be from stock but the dialog that accompanies them is fresh. Well, let me re-phrase that. It appears fresh. There's probably little about the dialog that isn't stock either if you take a step back and consider it critically but it's written with such elan and verve that any familiarity passes unnoticed in the flurry of conversation.

Aye, 'appen as 'ow 'e will an' all.
In part this is tonal. In both Gridania and Ul'Dah there seems to be a perpetual undertone of irony, even cynicism. For nations rebuilding only a few years after a major cataclysm (yes, another one) the populaces seem remarkably chipper (and the landscape remarkably undevastated, come to think of it). At times it feels a little like living inside an arch and brittle 1930s comedy. Except it's hard to imagine Katherine Hepburn saying "arse".

And that's another thing. No matter how familiar the content, quest dialog does tend to feel different when spattered with authentic, if archaic, regional British vernacular. Whoever wrote this stuff must have watched a lot of Coronation Street, that's all I'm saying. And it's really quite sweary too, in a broad, end-of-the-pier inoffensive style.

The last piece of the puzzle, the trick that's turning old rope into silk ribbon, is the quest UI itself. Again, there's nothing mold-breaking about it, just the opposite. A plain dialog panel along the bottom waits for you to click before turning. I just love that. Being left to take things at my own pace. Perfect. The quest summary, clear and often amusingly phrased, appears in a separate window at the end of the conversation, requirements and rewards clearly displayed.

Did he really say that out loud?
Quest items are auto-collected at the kill but when the time comes to hand them over a neat little box appears on-screen from which you select the relevant icon and mouse it over to its match in a waiting box popped up by the person waiting to receive it. I find it all both elegant and satisfying, a real pleasure to use.

Less of a pleasure is the visual pollution common to all MMOs. Square have really gone to town on the overhead iconography for FFXIV and when you first log in and wander through one of the stunning cities the experience is spoiled by a forest canopy of hanging names and quest markers. Fortunately you can turn any and all of this off to tune things to your particular tastes. I left the unfeasibly large quest markers on for now but turned off all names, which lets me both know where I am going and see what I'm looking at at the same time.

First Tony Warren, then Becket.
We often read that it's shallow to care too much about graphics in MMOs, that it's gameplay that matters. I might even have expressed that opinion myself on occasion. I'd argue it differently now. Great graphics are great gameplay. This really struck home to me last night as I was toddling through my baby quests (the terminology's almost unavoidable when you play a Lalafell).

One FedEx quest required me to deliver something for a merchant who'd just arrived from a long journey and was too exhausted to take a package across town. His well-written dialog did some of the persuading but the real emotional blackmail came from the way he was leaning against a railing, pretending to be too tired but clearly sizing me up for gullibility.

Excuse me, is this 17th Century Holland?
FFXIV NPCs lounge, sprawl, perch and squat while they opportune you. In the background others move crates around or take packages from shelves. These postures, caught in peripheral vision, work almost subliminally on whatever part of the brain it is that decides what's real and what's not. Good graphics, and these are very good graphics indeed, enhance gameplay by making the meniscus that separates the real from the imagined just that little bit more permeable.

So far it's looking good. I have some concerns over the potential size of the world. It doesn't look very big. I went exploring last night and hit the furthest reaches of Northern Ul'Dah, where everything was in the mid-40s, in, well, not very long at all. Whether a smallish world is a problem depends on pacing, though and my feeling is that FFXIV: ARR will be relatively slow-paced, something akin to mid-period EQ2. I hope so.
Thus far and no further

Assuming next week is a beta weekend as well maybe I'll get back up to the giddy heights of double-figures that I reached in the last phase. If so I might have something to say about the relative pleasures or pains of playing a caster compared to an archer. Oh wait, no I can't. The first rule of Phase 2 is you don't talk about Phase 2. Never mind, I'm sure I'll think of something.

The bit I have to put in so I don't get in trouble

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  1. I also enjoyed my time in FFXIV so far. I'd really like to see how housing shapes up, as they tends to be my endgame in games that have a nice system for it.

    And having a chocobo minion that fights with you is a neat idea. Yoshi-P said that eventually they will allow them in dungeons, so you could have a party of 2 players with their minions run them.

    1. Housing is supposed to be a big deal but it's not coming at launch unfortunately. Supposed to be the first major update. J3w3l at Healing The Masses has a diametrically opposite take on FFXIV that I would have referenced had I read it before I wrote this post. I understand her dislikes of it completely and I think they will be widely shared, but I also think there is room for a very good, old-fashioned MMO that ticks all the boxes that we used to think an MMO had to tick. I haven't played one of those in a long while and I think I'm about ready for one.

      If we end up with chocobos acting as mercenaries and dungeons being duo/choco friendly I'll be very happy indeed. Mrs Bhagpuss has already expressed an interest and if the housing is up to par I can see us having an extended run. Other MMOs permitting, of course.

    2. Niche is a better route to go for a game than 'attempt to appeal to everyone'; I think post-WoW history has shown us that fact. I think FFXIV can grab it's own niche, if it can survive off it is something I'm not sure of myself, as much as it suits my tastes.

  2. Katherine Hepburn was actually notably foul-mouthed. I read an account the other day of a conversation with Orson Welles in which Orson said:

    "Hoo boy! I sat in makeup during Kane, and she was next to me, being made up for A Bill of Divorcement. And she was describing how she was fucked by Howard Hughes, using all the four-letter words. Most people didn’t talk like that then... "


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