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Final Fantasy XIV Launch Week Impressions

by Phil Kollar on Oct 01, 2010 at 11:10 AM

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.

The grind between story quests is annoying, but I can live with that. The biggest problem here is that it’s so difficult to figure out when and how I’m going to be able to keep going with the fascinating plot. As far as I’ve been able to discern, nothing tells players that they can continue the story quest. When I hit rank 10 finally, I had to dig around on forums once again and ask around my linkshell to discover that I needed to go back to the innkeeper at the Adventurer’s Guild in Ul’Dah to start the next story quest.

I don’t think Final Fantasy XIV needs to go in the direction of so many other MMOs and put giant exclamation points or arrows above an NPC’s head when a quest is ready, but for a game that Square has said over and over is supposed to be accessible, you think it would have an easier means of helping players enjoy the storyline. This accessibility problem continues in a much more dramatic fashion with the retainer system.

Unlike Final Fantasy XI, which had a fairly traditional auction house, FF XIV introduces the concept of retainers. Essentially, NPCs that you hire to stand in a market ward and sell loot that you’ve crafted or discovered. As it currently works, retainers can be summoned to one of up to 20 instanced areas in each of the three starting cities. With no auction house, there’s no way to search for a specific item that you want. Instead you need enter one of the market wards and interact with each retainer individually. You could click through hundreds of these vendors before finding what you’re looking for, a dull activity that’s made worse by the incredibly slow speed at which menus load.

In an MMO that focuses on crafting and gathering as much as FF XIV and basically requires that you work with other players to get certain materials, this blow to the economy is nearly unforgivable. As it’s currently implemented, the retainer system is one of the worst design decisions I have ever seen in an MMO. Square has already announced plans to improve it by naming the various market wards after what should be sold there (i.e. a food ward, an armor ward, a carpentry materials ward, etc.). This is a step in the right direction, but until there’s a way to search for specific items without wasting my time, I’m going to avoid this side of the game altogether.

So what can I do if I’m not doing the crafting and can’t keep going in the story? Final Fantasy XIV’s primary early game content comes in the form of guildleves, which are similar to daily quests in other MMOs. Local leves provide a quick and easy way to skill up the various crafting classes, putting players in a better position to make higher-quality items. Battle leves, on the other hand, task you with hunting down creatures in the wild. These short, mostly story-less quests can be very fun, especially if you crank up the difficulty and team up.

The inevitable downside? Right now, you’re limited to a total of eight battle leves and eight crafting leves per 36 hours. Since these are the fastest and most interesting means of leveling up, once you’ve wiped out your eight for the next day and a half, you’re left to grind out levels on random enemies. Hardcore forum-dwellers who’ve already hit level 20 are beginning to complain about a distinct slow-down and lack of content – the eight guildleves are apparently providing only a small percentage of a rank, and enemies are either too easy to give worthwhile experience or too hard to bring down.

To hear Square tell it, all these time sinks and roadblocks to progress are meant to make the game more approachable to casual players. However, if it takes hardcore players six-plus hours of grinding to gain a single level, casual players are going to be even more affected and just as unhappy to hit a wall where they suddenly stop leveling at an enjoyable pace. They’ll be closed out of new story quest content for weeks while slowly chipping away at levels via guildleves, whereas those hardcore grinders will be able to move on. It’s a lose-lose situation that hints toward Square attempting to hide a possible lack of mid- or end-game content.

Until I reach those upper levels, I can’t be certain that the content isn’t there. Despite my frustrations and concerns, I want to get that far. I want to explore the end-game zones. I want to see how the compelling plot progresses, how it eventually joins together with the other starting zone stories, and if they resolve in a satisfying way. Right now, that means working through a lot of broken junk to get to the glimpses of beauty within. I can justify that because it’s my job, but it’s difficult to recommend Final Fantasy XIV to people who’d be spending their free time on it. Maybe by the time it arrives for PlayStation 3 in March 2011, Square will have worked out some of these problems. But for the time being, most gamers are better off waiting to see where FF XIV goes.