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Final Fantasy XIV Launch Week Impressions

Though the regular edition just hit stores yesterday, gamers who purchased the collector’s edition of Final Fantasy XIV have had access to Square’s new MMO for a week now. After burning as much time as possible in-game over the past week and reaching level 15, my feelings about the game border on schizophrenia. FF XIV has many unique ideas and gameplay hooks, but there are as many or more baffling frustrations.

The first word that came to mind as I fumbled through the installation, account creation, and patching processes for FF XIV last week was "archaic." Account creation in particular is full of incomprehensible terms for straightforward things. For example, instead of just setting up a subscription, you have to "add a service account." Once you’ve set up your recurring monthly fee, you also need to register for each separate character you want. But rather than a simple "add character" button, you need to click "add new options." Without the help of the manual, I’m certain I would have screwed something up while setting up my account or been lost for way too long trying to figure out what I’m supposed to click on next.

But that’s all beside the point. If you’ve purchased Final Fantasy XIV, you’ll muscle through the account setup annoyances. The question is whether or not what awaits you on the other side is worth that headache. The answer is not simple.

When FF XIV is doing things right, it does them very right. It is easily the best-looking MMO on the market, and one of the best-looking games I’ve ever played on my PC. FF XIV uses the same Crystal Tools engine seen in Final Fantasy XIII, and bringing those incredible graphics to a massively multiplayer setting couldn’t have been easy. The graphics come with a price in performance – on higher settings, the game is a resource hog that brings less powerful computers to a crawl. If you have a beastly enough rig, though, you’ll be blown away by a huge world where you can see for miles around you and ultra-detailed armor and weapons that fit and flow perfectly with the multiple shapes and sizes of the various races in FF XIV.

Unlike almost every other MMO in existence – World of Warcraft’s most recent improvements aside – Final Fantasy XIV also shines in storytelling. Each of the game’s three starting cities kicks off with an epic opening cut scene that introduces intriguing plot elements surrounding whatever region you’re starting in. My chosen area for the launch was Ul’Dah, which has a plot revolving around the aftermath of a monster rampaging through the city, as well as the imminent threat of invasion from the Garlean Empire.

My created character was implemented in cutscenes in a mostly believable way, although as the plot progressed and became more intense, I began to feel more like an observer than an active participant. Still, learning about the relationships between various city-dwellers and the political intrigue in the world is far more interesting than the tepid character drama of Final Fantasy XIII. Though voice acting is minimal, the quality of the writing and translation is very high.  The characters and events feel more comparable to FF XII than any other previous game in the series.

Unfortunately, you can’t rely on the story to propel you through the world of Eorzea. By the time I finished the introductory story quest, my gladiator had reached rank five. Skill points and level ups were coming swiftly, and I felt good about my progress. I accepted my huge gil reward for turning in the story quest, eagerly talked to the NPC again to begin my next quest, and…nothing. I had been unceremoniously cut off in the middle of a very interesting storyline, and the game gave me no clue of what I needed to do or where I needed to go to continue.

After checking on various forums outside of the game, I discovered that the storyline is broken up into specific bits that you cannot access until you reach a certain point. Because Square Enix hasn’t commented, there’s a lot of confusion as to what milestone must be reached before the plot picks up again, partially due to the fact that character levels and class levels run along separate experience tracks. Some are theorizing that you only need to reach character level 10 for the next story quest. Others are saying that you need to get a single class to rank 10. For me, I had my gladiator at rank 10 and my character level at 12 before I was offered a second story quest. There’s similar uncertainty as to when the story quests continue after that; some people say it’s rank/level 15, some say 20. Apparently new guild quests open up at level 20, though nothing in the game has indicated this.

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