Final Fantasy XIV
Perhaps we've been mollycoddled by the cosy worlds of Middle-Earth and Azeroth, but MMOs are vast, intimidating and seemingly impenetrable to the uninitiated modern gamer. We need to have our hands held, at least for the first hour or so while we're fumbling with a myriad succession of menu screens, trying not to look like a massive n00b in front of the towering Wildwood Elezen who's somehow fishing with relatively spectacular success. If we wanted hardcore, we'd be immersed in the fascinating stellar politics of Eve Online or clawing our excruciatingly gradual way up the ranks in Darkfall. But Square Enix's second foray into the MMO genre with Final Fantasy XIV gets us off to a unnecessary stuttering start after teflon-coating our way through the character creation process.
This foundation of all MMORPGs is made infinitely more poignant by the classic Final Fantasy melodic scale that loops in the background. Choosing one of the five available races, from the tiny Lalafell to the giant Roegadyn or feline Miq'ote is a fairly mundane process, but one we were happy to spend time with purely for the sake of listening to the score. Once you've chosen your race and gone through the motions of picking your character's appearance from a fairly limited set of options, it's time to choose your career. Final Fantasy XIV deviates from standard here, with just four classes, two of which aren't even combat-based. Disciples of War and Magic fulfil the obvious warrior and mage roles, with all their associated sub-classes, but Disciples of the Land and Disciples of the Hand are the farmers, fishermen, cooks (or culinarians, as they're known) and smiths of Final Fantasy XIV. Which means marauders and tailors can level-up in ways that completely contrast each other.
Then you're treated to a brief introduction, in which you'll swat a few flying jellyfish (with help from an axe-wielding Roegadyn if you have no weapon) while getting a taste for Final Fantasy XIV's main story mission (concerning a giant sea serpent and its priceless hoard), before you're spawned from the comfort of your instanced bubble, mewling and practically helpless into the main hub of Limsa Lominsa. We had no idea about NPC linkshells, the map layout or guildleves at the time so getting lost was easy, especially as there a no map markers to show who to speak for the next part of any quest you have.
You're also expected to pay attention to any NPC dialogue for direction – and no self-respecting MMOer would rely on the say-so of a dumb NPC to get them where they want to go, when there clearly should be help enough from the HUD. Besides that, the words “Terns,” “Glisternins” or a “Cuda camp” meant nothing to us, so using them as a reference is totally pointless. It would have been easier if Square Enix hadn't have forced us to play the game in a tiny window on PC either. Grrr… It's not the best of first impressions but in retrospect, it won't take more than a few tweaks to make this process more accessible. We just found it odd that Final Fantasy XIV would go out of its way to place an emphasis on teaching emotes when features fundamental to all players are being overlooked.
In Final Fanatasy XIV it's the instrument that's in your hand – be it trowel or sword – that decides your trade, so your class choice only really affects your starting equipment. Depending on how points have been spent on primary attributes, a powerfully built Roegadyn marauder might be just as good at cross-stitch as a diminutive Lalafell weaver, all you need to do it put the tools in its hand and the dormant skill will be engaged. So though there's an idea of a direction for progression, you genuinely begin as a blank canvas and can change you career and play style at any point.
In fact, the Surplus system almost makes this mandatory by penalising players experience for sticking to the same profession and means of progression for too long. For the sake of the beta it's unduly harsh, and though we've been promised that this will ease off for the launch, it seems contrary to give players the option to play any way they like, only to force them out of the style they're comfortable with.
Levelling is split two ways, with a physical rank for gaining XP in combat and a trade rank, for successfully performing actions associated with whatever trade you've chosen at the time. The adventurers guild in Limsa Lominsa will offer you standard MMO quests, but you pick up “guildleves” for your trade from the guildmasters. These are activated by returning to the local Aetheryte (the bind point for a specific location) and activating the guildleve of your choice, represented by the stained-glass pate illustrating the deed you need to perform. If you've chosen a combat profession then your first few guildleves will involve squashing bugs or vicious plague rats (we're getting flashbacks of Everquest here), though the trade quests are more interesting. Scouting the best fishing spots is good for a bit of sight-seeing even if at the low level you begin with, your success rate for hooking a fish and reeling it in is nearly non-existent.
We finished our beta preview with mixed feelings: Final Fantasy XIV still needs a lot polish and we fear that some of the tweaks we hope to see won't make it for launch, if at all. A degree of intimacy with MMOs in general is assumed too, so even if you are a Final Fantasy fan, it's an uphill struggle to get to grips with. But what we will credit it with is the open class system and the new ideas it brings to the table, as well as the visuals. Artistically it's nothing special, Final Fantasy XIV is typically Asian in direction, but technically it's stunning. You can see where those prohibitive beta PC system specifications are being spent: huge draw distances and massive, massive depth of detail on every surface that you only really begin to notice once you're out in the wilds. Combined with the Final Fantasy theme it will undoubtedly prove a beguiling combination to new players.