Saturday, 7 September 2013

FFXIV : A Realm Reviewed

Probably to the surprise of most people playing or more accurately trying to play, FFXIV's Big Fix earlier in the week did in fact fix things as promised. From the moment the servers came back up I've been able to log in without difficulty just as if I was playing a normal MMO. It's also been possible once again to make new characters on most NA/EU servers. Only a handful remain closed.

As far as I can tell, Digital Download sales are still on hold although there are conflicting reports on that. Once Square are convinced the fix has worked the tap will no doubt be turned back on because when it comes right down to it getting your money is why they made this thing in the first place.

It seems like a fair enough point to stop and take stock of what we've got, so here from the extremely limited perspective of a Level 24 Arcanist are my thoughts so far.



Graphics : Fantastic, running to breathtaking. Without a doubt the most visually gorgeous MMO I have ever played. GW2 is more painterly and certainly passes FFXIV on the Baroque scale but FFXIV has considerably greater geological heft, which counts more for me. There are times when I look at the monitor and feel like Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. You could just step through the frame and be there.  

Aesthetic and Milieu : Absolutely top-notch. Everywhere looks and feels like a proper place. The farmland looks like it's being worked, every outpost feels like somewhere people live, each Inn has an authentic ambiance. NPC placement and idling activity is the best I've seen. Although inevitably if you hang around in one place for long you'll hear the same conversations again and again, a huge amount of care has been taken to set things up to avoid stageiness. The set design is exemplary, never over-done nor fussy, always convincing. There's a naturalistic approach in the way the world has been built that works wonderfully as an anchor against whimsy and boy, do you need that anchor: there's a lot of whimsy.



Weather and Lighting:  I love weather. I find it endlessly fascinating in our world and I love to see it simulated in the imaginary places where I spend so much time. Weather in Eorzea is a real pleasure. The dark nights might be a little too much of a good thing but rather that than the  blue-tinted daylight of other MMOs. When it rains it varies from a light shower to a pounding downpour with wind whipping the tails of your robe and standing water splashing back from your running feet. When the sun shines everything glows and beneath the trees the shadows of the leaves make moving patterns.

Light doesn't just change once from day to night, it changes throughout the twenty-four hour cycle. Sunrise, early morning, late morning, noon, afternoon, evening, sunset... I haven't counted the changes but there are many. I've even sat and waited to see the light change, and not just the one time, either.

Wildlife : Wonderful, whimsical, weird. Almost everything looks like it failed the audition for Where The Wild Things Are for being too unrealistic. If you hear the word "Pelican" and your mind's eye sees a twelve-foot long gunmetal blue dinosaur with orange wattles the size of a tablecloth and a snout like a shovel then you should send your portfolio to Square because you'll fit right in. It's an approach I absolutely love but I can see that it might be a bit much for someone with a lower tolerance for flights of fancy than mine.

















As for the real big, bad monsters they're probably more scary than cute but I haven't really seen enough of them to tell yet. 

The World, The Map and Travel : Eorzea is big. Much bigger than I thought from beta. There are three large cities, more than a dozen outdoor zones and I believe there are at least as many dungeons as well. The zones are detailed, multi-layered and complex and richly repay exploring. There are invisible walls so you can't get to everything you can see, but it rarely feels restrictive.

The map is rubbish. Really. I can't even say it looks nice. It looks mediocre and it barely works at all. It is better than it was in beta, when it was fit to make you scream, but it needs work. A lot of work.

The upside is that you need to learn landmarks to navigate and there are lots of them. This is not a cut-and-paste world where every farm looks like the last one and every boulder splits down the same fault. It's a hand-built land of wonder and an observant traveler can soon enough learn its paths. And you'll need to be a traveler because every node in the Aethernet, every chocobo porter, every Ferry and Airship dock must be visited in person and opened up. I absolutely love that system, always have. Once you learn the connections, memorize the pathways, register your name with the relevant authorities you'll  begin to feel you've earned the right to call yourself a resident of Eorzea. That's a feeling worth more than any number of convenient instant map clicks.

UI : I've seen a few complaints about inflexibility, particularly over not being able to move the chat box, but it works for me. It seems like a fairly traditional MMO set-up with hotbars and information windows about as you'd expect. As someone who almost always plays MMOs with the default UI left pretty much intact I found it comfortable and easy to use from minute one. Someone who likes to mod UIs to within a pixel of their life probably isn't going to be quite as sanguine.


HUD : This I'm not so pleased with. Most MMOs seem to insist on opening with every possible form of visual pollution on by default and FFXIV is no exception. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that my first few minutes in any MMO is spent switching things off: in FFXIV that was my first hour. Most of the clutter does have a toggle in options and  I strongly recommend toggling player names off right away because if you don't...all that beautiful scenery I was raving about? You won't be seeing any of it.

My particular bugbear is the massive, bulbous targeting arrow that hangs over anything you fight like a sword of damocles that's swallowed a watermelon. That's where my first hour went - trying to switch that abomination off. Couldn't find a way. I've trained myself to ignore it now but there's no excuse for it, none at all.

FFXIV uses an awful lot of visual tells for combat. Too many. If a mob has its heart set on tearing your lungs out a looping arrow arcs from it to you to make it clear you're the current target. If you pass by two creatures close together you may see a little yellow arrow dart between them; it doesn't mean they're in love, it means if you attack one you'll get both. And of course almost everything you fight lays down some kind of red circle, square or triangle to warn you it's about to do something you probably want to avoid.

I could do without all of that. By the time you've added in spell effects (very good, those are) the center of the screen is a mess in a big fight. If you target with the mouse pointer as I prefer to do it can get tiring.

Sound and Music :  The music's great. The sounds aren't. Oh, the ambient sounds are fine. It's the combat sounds. Harsh, ugly, jarring. Nasty, artificial, synthetic. Fortunately you can turn them down. 



Storyline : I should have put that first because that's where the game puts it: front and center of your FFXIV experience. It's not bolted on like an iron appendix the way the Personal Story was in GW2, nor does it rumble away deep in the background where it can safely be ignored like it would in Everquest. This is Final Fantasy. The story is paramount.

Technically it's probably optional but if you don't do it you won't be getting on an airship, which means you'll either never leave (or never visit) La Noscea; you won't be joining a Grand Company or getting access to their gear; you won't be hiring a Retainer and without one of those you won't be selling anything on the Market; you won't be riding your own Chocobo or having him fight alongside you. These and no doubt many more key aspects of character progression are gated behind specific segments of the Main Storyline. There may be nothing to stop you leveling up without following the story but if you do you'll be half the Lalafel you could have been and that will make you very small indeed.

Fortunate, then, that the Main Storyline is a gem. It's well-paced, intriguing and well-written. There are some really good fights and set pieces, lots of endearing or infuriating characters and a truly huge amount of cut-scenes, to the point where sometimes it can start to feel like watching a movie with a lot of interruptions rather than playing a game.















I'm not a fan of front-end story in MMOs but there's always room for an exception or two. The Secret World was one and this is another. The problem of replayability looms large - I'm thoroughly enjoying the story first time round but I think I'd want a long break between repeats. Also, the voice acting is at best mediocre, often poor and sometimes entirely absent as though there wasn't time to finish it before launch.

I'm about as far from being a fan of Content or Progression Gating as it's possible to be, and yet I can't deny that getting each of these milestones has been immensely satisfying. Sometimes having to work for things does make you value them more. Who knew?

Combat, Classes and Jobs : What do I know? I play a Level 24 Arcanist who's done a bit of Fishing now and again. Mrs Bhagpuss and our Linkshellie (that's like a Guildie only even more twee) should be writing this bit. They've both raised plenty of classes, combat, crafting and gathering all. I'm the slacker who's stuck with just one.

I know the theory; you play up one class to 30, another to 15 and that gets you a Job, which suits for your role, be that DPS, Healer, Tank, Support or whatever else we have to look forward to (I've not done any real research about it because I'm still at the stage of enjoying not knowing what comes next). Meanwhile you also play several other classes high enough to open the key cross-class spells/skills you want and mix and match those into a build.



Theory remains theory. I play my Arcanist as she came out of the can because it's fun just like that. Combat at this basic level is no more than a few key-presses. Sic the bunny-squirrel on the funny-looking monster, Debuff, Dot, Nuke. First fifteen levels my blue Carbuncle (that's the bunny-squirrel) Nukes alongside me and whoever annoys the mob most also tanks. At fifteenth I get the yellow Carbuncle, who tanks like a block of concrete smeared in superglue and AEs so we get adds because he's like that.

It's all so familiar. It's an Everquest Mage, give or take. Mrs Bhagpuss added some Thaumaturge to the mix and says she's made an EQ Shaman. I'm really looking forward to working on cross-class skills and making some builds.

Let me say that again: I am looking forward to making some builds. I think it's safe to say that's the first time those words in that order have ever come out of this keyboard.

Roles : Joni Mitchell was half right. You may not know what you've got 'til it's gone but you really know when you get it back. A year of free-forming in GW2 and I'd about convinced myself that running around doing any old thing whenever I felt like it was the bees knees. Well it's not. Having a defined role, a function that gives authority and requires responsibility is. For a while, at least. No doubt in due time, as Syl observed recently, the wheel will turn again, but for now I'm reveling in the chance to Heal, Tank, and Control those Crowds.



Dedicated free-formers shouldn't automatically write FFXIV off as Dat Trinity, though. This is much more like the good old days where being in a group required several roles to be taken but didn't dictate who took them. The most satisfying instanced group I've done (I've only done four so don't read too much into it...) was the Afrit fight in which I somehow ended up in a PUG with no proper healer, something the Duty Finder should not have allowed. Having no healer effectively meant having no Tank either so we had to get creative. It took about an hour and we wiped half a dozen times but in the end we flattened Afrit using two Carbuncles to tank, with two Arcanists chain-healing like maniacs with our single heal spell and the Tank on DPS, along with the Thaumaturge who was the only one out of the four of us playing his designated role.

I hope to do more dungeons over the weekend. In PUGs. Another form of words that isn't often seen here. I'm harboring fantasies of main healing if I can build for it and develop enough confidence with the UI. It's been a long time but I'm sure this rust will scrape off, eventually.

Quests :  Controversial. I have a lot to say on the topic but this has run far too long already. I'd like to cover questing in FFXIV in detail separately some time but suffice to say I like it a lot. Best-written quests since TSW, funny, involving, absorbing and full of local color. Other people see them as insufferably dull and repetitive filler. Suck it and see.

I also very much enjoy the drop and drag and turn-the-page mechanics that others have roundly slated as archaic and unforgiveable. They suit me to a tee but I recognize they drive others to distraction. What can I say? I like a little grit in my oyster. That's how you get the pearl.



Loot and Storage : Odd, both of them. There don't seem to be any dropped useable items outside of dungeons and even inside of dungeons they only turn up in Chests. Mobs drop crafting mats and that seems to be it. I may have this wrong or it may change later on but that's how it appears to work. The loot goes straight into your packs, which seem to provide ample storage, just as well because I haven't yet seen any way to expand them. I'm informed that if you craft you run out of space fast but your Retainers (you can have two as standard and probably more later) can hold things for you. I think there's some form of banking because you can see the Vaults on the map and in the cities but so far I haven't been able to access it. Probably not far enough along in the storyline yet...

Enough! No More! I can't speak to the Crafting experience because I haven't even started yet and my Gathering knowledge is limited to a few casts of the rod. There's more, so much more, but that will have to do for now. It's early days yet and all MMOs have New Game Shine despite their equally inevitable Launch Issues, but so far FFXIV is becoming more appealing each time I log in. It's going to be a long, slow burner, this one, not a quick sugar rush. The issue isn't whether it has sufficient depth but whether I have sufficient patience. I think I might. I'll be subscribing, for a while at least. That's no longer in any kind of doubt.


18 comments:

  1. I can't comment on all the other aspects of the game (don't know anything about the FF games and don't plan to :P), but I see so many people raving about the visuals. The landscape and buildings do look good (but I have to say, really enjoy the more arty, painterly look to games now, ala GW2 or Bioshock Infinite as in many ways they look more natural than a game trying to be very realistic.. games have made great progress but they still look like games.) What I find really jarring is the cartoon characters plopped on this mostly realistic landscape. Also the UI seems to not fit the style either. It looks like different aesthetics mashed together to me.. maybe it's a manga/Japanese thing. Dunno as I really dislike manga (which also probably turns me off regarding the visuals :P)

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    1. The visual aesthetic is unusual in that it takes a very "realistic" approach to the geology and, within each zone at least, to the geography and the built environment but the opposite to the flora and fauna. It can have something of the feel of a live-action film with animated characters.

      You're spot-on about the UI. It does like it's been dropped in from an entirely different game. I like the way it works but not so much the way it looks. The sound suffers from exactly the same problem.

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  2. Someone is in honeymoon phase...

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    1. This is true, but not all that true. A real honeymoon phase would be playing non-stop, thinking about it at work and begrudging any time spent doing things like blogging, even blogging about the Honeymoon Game.

      Instead I'm spending a lot of time tabbed out commenting or writing about the game. I spent over four hours writing the above review, on a Saturday when I could have been playing but I wanted to write about FFXIV more than I wanted to play it. It's having something substantial and fresh to write about that's the real draw here. Playing is secondary, but I'm increasingly coming to think that's the case with my involvement in the hobby in general.

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    2. Hmmm...
      So what you saying is that if a GW2 expansion was announced tomorrow with some juice meats you would probably spend time talking about it than playing FF14?

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    3. A GW2 expansion, almost certainly. That would be a very big deal. During the week when the EQNext info was coming out I certainly spent a lot of time reading/watching video/posting/commenting about it instead of playing GW2 or any MMO. Of course, if a GW2 expansion/EQNext was actually available to play, not just speculate about, the balance might tip!

      FFXIV is nowhere near that level of holding my attention, though. At the moment, when I have a full day off I'm starting to play FFXIV around 3-4pm. If I was really invested I'd be starting at 8am and playing all day, like I did with GW2 at the start, or Vanguard, just to give two examples.

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  3. Also why don't I find surprising that players that come from background MMORPGs do like traditional MMORPG elements?

    While someone like me that comes from a background of strategy games (both RTS and TBS) and FPS, with only a couple of RPGs and ARPGs don't?

    GW2 is probably more like a ARPG in a MMO setting.

    And I did like ARPGs 10 years ago but they didn't seem to have evolved gameplay wise at all.

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  4. An excellent review. right now, nobody makes this game sound more appealing than you do! :) and I keep hearing the quest text and narrative in FFXIV is really quite outstanding - nice to hear they're doing best what they should be doing best, after all.

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    1. Thanks! I'm getting accused of fanboyism in my own home right now, which does make me wonder how negative I'd need to be before the balance would tip. I guess my criticisms are mostly on some of the technical aspects, especially the HUD and the sound, which I really dislike in many ways, not on the substance of the game or the world.

      I'll be playing for a while but I can already see that this is an MMO that might require more commitment than I'm prepared to give to any single game at the moment. It's probably not the right fit for me long-term but we will see.

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    3. If that was about my comment, I wasn't accusing of fanboyism.

      I replied after reading some other post of yours in another blog - probably the blog post about comparing FF14 to GW2 instead of older games like WoW and so considering FF14 quest system (and even the trinity) refreshing.

      You said something about events not being that great after the once the novelty wears out (but lets face it, how many level 80 alts do you have? even the best dish will become dull eventually) since you like story and come from a reading background (something about you working on a book store or some such).

      I like reading a lot, but I've never liked games that had too much reading.

      Although I like nice stories but I'm a videogame player first not a MMORPG hobbyist, so in my background I have games like No one lives forever or Giants:Citizen Kabuto, where there was good (or fun) story but it was in dialogue form.

      So for me, events delivering the context in a visual and audio manner beat text quests, no matter how well written they are.

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    4. Nah, it was aimed at Mrs Bhagpuss :P

      Really, video games *should* be visual and cinematic. And sonic for that matter. More than that, they are their own medium. They don't need to bend to the expectations of other genres.

      MMORPGs are a hybrid form, though. They seem to me to be an unholy hybrid of Tabletop RPGs, MUDs and Text Adventures with a graphic front end slapped on. In recent times ARPGs have exerted a big influence over the genre and there's always the influence of make-it-yourself creative games lurking under the surface as well.

      MMO developers generally seem to take a Big Tent approach and invite in anyone who might be remotely interested, which is probably why so many MMOs seem to attract a big crowd to begin with then fail to hold the attention of most of them.

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    5. If it is Mrs Bhagpuss, maybe she is into something...

      I remember my GF being so put off by my own incessant rambling of GW2 (I only started looking at it around summer 2011 when I sniffed that release would be next year)that she wasn't in the mood to play the beta weekends.

      In my opinion so many MMORPGs are the hybrid form you describe due to tradition and technical limitations - multiplayer FPS games with "full physics" are generally a map with 32 players, with some brave ones going to 64 players.

      Once the technical limitations start to be resolved I foresee (not really hard since the precursors are out now)with a genre split, where you have AMMORPGs taking advantage of physics engines for real time combat and the traditional dice role based MMORPGs for a speudo turn based combat.

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  5. hey mate.

    Did you change some coding for your blog?

    I always used chrome to view your blog but now it seems like it is placed half a cm right of where it should be. There are some words missing or cut and increasing/decreasing font sizes doesn't fix the problem. I checked old posts that I read without problem and now everything is like this.

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    1. Hmm... thanks for letting me know. I haven't touched anything at all. The settings are the same as the day I created the blog. I use Firefox mostly and it looks the same as it always did but I just opened it in Chrome and it is cut off exactly as you describe. Must be some change to Chrome, I guess, or possibly to Blogger. I'll have a google around and see if there's anything I can or should do to fix it but I would bet it's some background thing that will disappear as mysteriously as it arrived.

      [Edit] Oh wait a minute - it's like it in Firefox too...hmm. Looking into it.

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  6. I don't know if you have figured it out yet, but in case you haven't, you can move the chat box, just drag it by the 'General' tab.

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    1. Ah thanks! I always have my main chat down in the left-hand corner anyway but I have heard several people in chat asking how to move it and no-one gave that (or any useful) reply. I'll know what to tell them now if anyone asks again.

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  7. Changing Classes and Getting New Equipment

    Now that you earned some money, it is time for you to purchase some new items for your character and on your coming soon adventures. In Limsa Lominsa City, shops are mostly found on the first level. You can simply take the elevator to go down to the 1st level and then just go left. Just walk straight until you will see multiple shops like the East Hawker's Alley or the West Hawker's alley. You will be able to buy weapons for any type of class here. One of the main features in FFXIV is the ability for you to change your jobs with just one click. All you need to do is just equip your character with the right kind of weapon for the right type of job you want. It is simple as that. If your character is a Conjurer and then you want it to be a Gladiator, then just buy a sword and you are now a Gladiator.

    Always keep this in mind that it does not mean that you necessarily need to change your job just because you are able to. For example, your character is a magic user and then you want to have your character deal damage directly to your opponents. You must remember that most of your attributes are in other stats, and not on strength. Not unless, you have not used your attributes points and you want to put them on your strength. For changes like this, you might just want to create a new character that will be using pure strength.



    A Realm Reborn

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