Saturday, 29 June 2013

Scattered Musings Of A Level 10 Thaumaturge: FFXIV:ARR

Played some more of the FFXIV: A Realm Reborn beta this morning. Had a great time. Really enjoying it a lot.  Last time I mentioned the idiosyncratic dialogue, the incredibly comfortable UI, the superlative art design, the relaxing gameplay. In much the same vein...

FATE

 

It stands for something, I forget what. FATEs are FFXIV's answer to Rifts, Dynamic Events, Public Quests and all the other all-pile-on rumbles of recent years. Flash mobs of beer-crazed ratmen? Check. Some guy that stands around with a bucket while you fill it up with monster bits and do his job for him? Check. Unfeasibly robust jerk with planet-sized ego strutting about challenging all-comers to knock him down? Check. All the rides you enjoyed last year and the year before that, back for the new season with a fresh coat of paint. Brilliant!


FATEs appear bright pinky-purple on the mini-map. Mouse over the splodge to see the level and nature of the problem. Get in range and a handy cut-out-and-keep "What's Going On" guide pops up complete with timers and progress bars. It's all very clear and organized. Unlike the players.

FATEs are a scrum, a ruck, a rolling maul. Getting close you'll see Lalafell, Hyur, Miquo'te and the rest running in from all directions, heading towards what looks like a small fireworks factory on fire. Random tab targeting and collateral damage are the order of the day. If only this was PvP with friendly fire enabled. Oh how we'd laugh. 

It's probably a beta thing (and it'll be a just-after-launch thing too). Rifts were like that once. Hard to believe now, I know. It'll calm down. Presumably FATEs scale. They'll probably even work better with fewer people like most GW2 dynamic events turned out to do. For now FATEs are crazy fun. As soon as I see one pop - and they pop like corn on a skillet (as if I'd ever seen a skillet or could pick one out of a line-up at Kitchens) - I drop whatever I'm doing and charge! And so does everybody else.

Quests


Last time I observed how traditional these are and also how unusual and well-written the dialog is. That observation is borne out by further investigation. The writing is consistently top-notch and often very odd. Really very odd. So odd that I was frequently so discombobulated by the bizarre things NPCs were saying that I forgot to take screenshots. The examples I have are bland by comparison to some of the stuff I missed. Must try harder. Moreover I take back some of my ennui concerning the content. If everything ever written has to get by on seven basic plots it's a bit much to expect constant originality from quests in a video-game. Stuff novelty, let's talk quality!

There's a Main Quest line of course. Final Fantasy is famous for those, apparently. My sum experience of the franchise is about three-quarters of FFVII back in the 90s, three weeks of FFXI about eight years ago and the two iterations of FFXIV. Not enough to place the ARR main sequence in much of a context but it impressed the hell out of me. The flow is consummately arranged. Several times I found myself progressing the main arc without realizing I'd looped back into it. Everything weaves together.

I like cut scenes in quests, when they're well done, which is a good thing  because they're rife here. If The Secret World is the benchmark this stands up. Different tone, different techniques, just as impressive, with an interesting variant on the Silent Protagonist that I like a lot. Sometimes my character reacts without appearing to speak and the NPC replies to what she must have said. Really works well.

I think even at this early stage it's apparent What Is Going On with the big plot. It feels like we know where it's all heading. If so, I really want to be on that ride. If things get turned on their heads, better yet.

Then there are the myriad bread and butter quests. That underplays them. All of them are at least solid, most are more than that. A surprising number I found...affecting. An example, full of spoilers:

The Silver Bazaar



At the extreme Western tip of Western Thanalan itself lies a trading post that has seen better days. It's called The Silver Bazaar. Once it was the premier market outside the great desert city of Ul'Dah for traders heading to and from the seaports of La Noscea. Those days are over. Trade is poor, dust blows through the marketplace, even the buildings are beginning to crumble under the relentless onslaught of wind and sun.

I arrived there with a letter from someone in the city. Didn't pay it much heed. People are always giving me letters to pass on as I travel The roads are dangerous, people are busy, they have lives. I'm an adventurer. This is what we do.

Mostly the people I deliver mail to are pleased to get it. They give me tips. Kikupu's reaction was...unexpected.


Next thing I know I'm involved in an escalating conflict between the Mistress of The Silver Bazaar and some nefarious property developer determined to have her out of her home. First I'm putting doubt into the minds of the scuzzy layabouts he's sent to bring down property values, giving them good reason to think twice and find easier leaning-posts elsewhere. Then I'm tearing down his seizure notices, beating up his hired thugs and eventually confronting the bastard face to face. Kikupu stiffens my resolve with several genuinely moving speeches, effectively invoking my own memories with her own.
 
In the end we've both made a bitter enemy and a firm friendship and yes, I was genuinely moved. It's quite rare in my experience for the content of MMOs to evoke the same kind of emotional response that would be commonplace for a film or a short story. Most of the emotional resonance tends to come from interactions with other players not NPCs. That was reversed in The Secret World and I felt it again here. It's about the strength and quality of the writing, supported by the skill and feel of the artists and animators. I suspect this is the kind of thing that people play offline cRPGs for and for people familiar with those this may seem humdrum, but I don't play those games so this is newish territory for me and it's very welcome indeed.

Day/Night Cycle 




It gets really dark at night. Not just "ooh pretty lights!" dark, although that happens too. No, this is "can't see what I'm doing properly" dark. Okay, it's not Everquest c.1999 where I once had to wait the full night cycle (what was that, 20 minutes? Seemed easily that) inside a hut (which, little did I know it at the time, provided no protection at all against creatures that could stroll through walls at will) because I'd fought and killed something outside without ever seeing it or knowing what it was (turned out to be a very small black bear) and having barely escaped with my life didn't dare move until daylight.

Not sure I want anything to be quite that dark ever again. EQ itself hasn't been that dark for years. I do like a real, discernible difference between night and day, though; one that's more than just a bluish overlay. Here in the desert night comes in satisfyingly deep with a hundred million stars and day burns hard. I hear other places actually have weather.

Replayability 



 Bit early to say, what with only being level ten and all, but you get a feel for these things. This is the kind of content that's built to be repeated. The kills are quick, the mechanics are slick, nothing really niggles. Good, clean fun. Like the hinterlands of Freeport and Qeynos or The Shire, these small country settlements with their human-sized problems, their nuisance wildlife and cantankerous semi-sentient neighbors, make for amiable, enjoyable, ambling play that goes down smoothly as cool lemonade on a hot summer's day. I could do this over and over and most probably will.


Three starting areas is better than average in the world of modern MMOs and then there are the jobs. I'm not a fan of having all classes on the same character, far from it, but for some reason I can't yet define I feel sanguine about it here. FFXIV has a deep and complex class system (it's a bit like that where I live...) with a basic 18 classes: five War, two Magic, three Land and eight Hand. That's fighters, mages, gatherers and crafters to the uninitiated. It's all a bit fuzzy in my head but I think those split into further specialisms, any character can theoretically max all of them and at any given time you can use a mix-and-match patchwork cobbled together finely crafted from all the skills you've learned.

That sounds like enough complexity to be going on with and then some. And then some more on top, from my point of view. I'm a simple Class-based player; I don't hold with these new-fangled builds. Nevertheless, that lot is indubitably going to lead to some serious variety of gameplay even for those who limit themselves to a single character.

I feel more positive about the long-term possibilities of FFXIV: ARR every time I play. I am certain it's an MMO I could play long-term with consistent and persistent pleasure. Other opinions are available, as Mark Kermode would say. Whether I do end up playing FFXIV:ARR for any length of time depends more on what else is going on in the MMO world than on any shortcomings of FFXIV itself. It's a very competitive market out there for MMOs right now; there's a lot of good stuff around. I will definitely be buying it, that's for certain.

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

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