Yes, it’s finally out and no, the servers can’t cope with the outrageously high volume of traffic, but after a weekend of persistence and patience (for both these words read bloody-mindedness and churlishness) I have managed to get a good long look behind the fluttering banners that hang over the exquisitely beautiful world of Square Enix’s new MMO.
The server issues that have plagued the game since launch have done nothing for Square Enix’s image, given that this game, which spent years in production, was nothing short of an honest and open apology for the game’s previous iteration, which was an unbridled disaster and possibly one of the worst titles in modern video gaming history.
So, we get the server issue out the way first. Square Enix apparently vastly underestimated the number of people who would be logging in on day one and as a result everything went sideways. Hours of being told that your world was full and that you would have to try again later left thousands of Final Fantasy fans furious and SE have been apparently working through the small hours to increase capacity and twiddle all those server controlling knobs and what-nots that make the magic happen. By all accounts they reckon they will have things back to normal by Wednesday and will be extending the free trial period by seven days for everyone who signed up early enough to warrant the extension.
All that having been said, and it being a royal pain in the ass, when you’re in, you are in.
FFXIV ARR (I’m not typing the whole name again, it’s ridiculous) is beautiful. I’m playing it on the PS3 and the rendering goes beyond high-end. I spent most of my first hour wandering around the seaside city of Limsa Lominsa gawping like a rube on a day trip to New York. It is, of course, fairly obvious that they have managed to ramp up the fidelity by reducing the size of each map, but each area is still big enough and bustling enough to get lost in. Add a deliciously lit day and night cycle and various weather effects like rain and fog and you have a gaming environment that is fun just to explore.
It’s not all sightseeing, though. Eorzea, the world that FFXIV ARR inhabits, is packed with MMORPG action that has bridged the console/pc gap with bold and stylish aplomb. Everything you need for a fully fledged MMO is there and SE have arranged the interface so that you are never more than a couple of button or trigger clicks away from just the action you need to smite, forge or chat.
The class system offers much of the usual fare, coloured as they are with familiar Final Fantasy lore and SE have added a delightfully forgiving system that, once you reach the requisite level, allows you to flip between classes just by changing your primary weapon. You start your path by signing up with the requisite class guild and complete quests for that guild up to level 10 (that’s level 10 quests, not your character level), at which point you are able to visit another guild and choose a second class.
Being an MMO means that you aren’t restricted to combat classes and you can quite happily follow the path of a blacksmith, tailor or chef, should you wish to (so, you could very easily be an axe wielding Marauder who makes nice clothes on the side).
Early quests have you nipping back and forth across the city, which I have to say was very easy to get lost in, with upper and lower decks that had multiple points of entry adding to the confusion, but it is a short lived problem as you soon discover the crystal shards (FF loves a good crystal) that allow you to travel rapidly between key locations. There is also one big crystal at the centre of every town/city that acts as your central hub of reincarnation/teleportation.
As you amble through these early quests there will come a time when someone asks you to step outside the city gates and that, my friends, is when the wonder truly begins.
The maps outside the city are bigger. Sprawling wild landscapes open up in front of you, populated to a respectable draw distance with creatures, NPC’s and other players. Once you have taken the view in it is easy to find your current quests and identify new ones that take you off in all sorts of unexpected directions, but rarely into frustrating difficulty, leaving you sufficiently challenged without ever feeling out of your depth.
The map/minimap functions are a joy to use and make getting around very easy and you quickly find yourself navigating the environment with uncommon ease, which is good because it gives you time to take in the eye-candy, of which there is plenty.
Everything from the grass in the fields to the pumpkins in the patch, the NPC’s and the creatures that populate Eorzea are realised with achingly refined detail. Everything is beautiful, everything.
Combat is great fun, although it can become something of a messy experience when larger battles ensue, but only because it becomes difficult to target the nearest enemy before they have been downed by one of your compatriots, otherwise it really is as simple as point and click. I think my only real gripe at this point would be that there is sometimes so much going on that my eyes just can’t take it all in, even though they want to.
Being an RPG at its heart, of course, you get your requisite loot with every kill and every mission completed and much of it can be used for crafting, but I haven’t gotten into that side of things yet so I can’t comment, but the weapons and outfit elements are sufficiently varied to have you scouring the countryside for useful upgrades.
Beyond their functionality, again, everything you pick up and equip is just a delight to look at. If you’re a Final Fantasy fan then you won’t be disappointed as the diversity of outfits and combinations that result have created a world of variety that is so much fun to take in that you might find yourself people watching for a time. Nothing ever seems to clash and SE’s artistic team have managed yet again to make the bell-bottom cool. My guy has a particularly fetching green chainmail top that flares out rather elegantly at the bottom, an eyepatch and big ears and he still looks hard.
I can’t offer much more at this early stage as there is just too much to take in. The dialogue is amusing and compelling (even their stabs at piratical parlance are suitably self-aware with enough humour to pass off even the worst of the dialect with a knowing wink) and the characters and storylines are varied and engaging. I will admit that I am nervous of how people will behave as it can often be the subscribers that bury an MMO long before the game itself has the chance to shine, but so far everyone has been perfectly civilised.
It’s early days and FFXIV ARR still has a massive issue to overcome whereby a large number of paying patrons can’t even play the game due to SE’s inability to anticipate how many people would buy this title, but when you are online there are no latency issues that I could detect (and I was logged into a Japan server from the UK) and everything within the game seemed to work fine. So, I’m hopeful that this title has a future ahead of it that is going to be free of the many problems that have plagued other recent multi-platform efforts.
As a closing point it’s worth noting that SE did mention that they would be making regular and substantial updates to keep the content fresh, going some way to justify the monthly fee. Here’s hoping they make good on their promise.
If anyone’s interested in exploring Eorzea with me then I’m on the Typhon world/server and my tag is Virgil Tibbs. Hopefully I’ll see you riding past on a chocobo soon.