Final Fantasy XIV Beta Impressions

Final Fantasy 14
Final Fantasy 14 Cover
Platforms Windows, Playstation 3
Keep Playing? Doubtful

Without question, Final Fantasy XI deviated strongly from MMO traditions and norms.  In doing so, it managed to greatly polarize the community.  By moving at a slow, calculated pace throughout (even for an MMO) and requiring players to rely on others to accomplish the most simple goals, many players were forever turned off, including Greg and myself.  Past level 15, players required a party to do any sort of leveling.  Many damage-dealing classes were simply not wanted and sat in the main city for hours until they could find a group, while tanks, healer and support classes were welcomed into parties within seconds.  The economy was absolutely broken, with incredible inflation stemming from gil selling and the gap between rich and poor players.  Farming for money (outside of instanced colliseum-style fights) consisted of sitting at rare spawn locations for hours along with the other farmers and bots, just hoping that you manage to attack the monster before anyone else and then praying that it would drop what you wanted.  Simply put, the game had a lot of glaring problems that pushed people away.

Years after its original Japanese and subsequent North American release, FFXI began changing significantly, modifying nearly everything and adding features to appear more tempting to the average gamer, especially once under the shadow of MMORPG behemoth World of Warcraft.  FFXI has always enjoyed a degree of success, as a profitable long-running MMO with a stable user base.  However, it has not gained significant market share either.  By hearing customer feedback for the past few years as well as observing current MMO trends, Square-Enix is surely hoping that they'll be able to grab more of that growing market with Final Fantasy XIV.  But how much have things really changed?  Have they fixed the basic and more complicated issues that people had with XI?  I was genuinely curious and tried out the beta for just this reason.  Here's what I've found...

To start, Final Fantasy XIV just doesn't exude the feeling of a PC game.  Everything feels muddy, laggy, and requires too many steps to accomplish basic things.  In a way, this can't be too surprising, as FFXI felt the same way and after all, FFXIV is also being developed for console.  But it still is quite oftputting and can easily turn off PC gamers, especially ones accustomed to the extremely responsive actions of say, WoW. 

(Off-topic aside): Of course, any of these complaints can be partially mitigated by the fact that I was testing a beta.  But it's also more than fair as it's a public beta with no nondisclosure agreement.  People can and will be making purchasing decisions on these things.  Current games have to be able to match up with current, well-seated games with six years of constant development.  New releases naturally have some advantages and disadvantages against a current norm.

For example, most of the game aside from combat is HEAVILY menu-driven.  Buying or selling an item requires drudging through several layers of menu, which were exacerbated by extremely slow npc response times in beta.  For one item transaction I needed to: Initiate conversation, select buy/sell/cancel, select an item to buy or sell, confirm the buy or sell, head back to the store/self inventory, escape to buy/sell/cancel then escape to regain control of my character.  Each step had its own amount of significant lag associated with it, most notably in the selling menus.  At no point could I hard-escape from the store inventory.  Obtaining and initiating the standard repeatable/"daily quests" was equally frustrating.  Obtaining them at town takes around six menu steps (quest type>level/area>quest selection>exchanging>confirming>cancel cancel cancel cancel).  Once obtained, quests are initiated at a field camp, which takes another good six menu-based steps before the quest can finally begin.

Final Fantasy 14 Title

This just all felt so very unnecessary.  I understand that the developers are aiming for an immersive game of ambience and community, but it feels like they either don't care about simple UI improvements or are merely unable to properly create a game for both PC and console with good anti-cheat mechanisms (FFXI had the same problems).  Every movement and every action takes an order of milliseconds longer than it should, even considering beta (which is also essentially the game's gold/release state, in this case).  Every tiny action pages back to the server which then pages back to lets you react rather than having a crisp, smooth client-side-heavy experience.  Square-Enix claims improvements will be arriving to the software mouse lag and overall responsiveness in future retail clients, but it is yet to be determined how much these will help.  I've learned to be cynical about such promises until they're applied in action.

In terms of learning the game and pushing community aspects, I fear that the mistakes of FFXI are repeating once again.  After pretty intro sequences and a very basic fight introduction, players are more or less thrown onto their own, with very little in terms of a guide or any sort of help to begin learning the game.  Many players simply will not have the patience to wander around aimlessly for hours just to figure out what's going on.  I also fell victim to this void of information.  During the initial quest chain, I was told to head to the Carline Canopy.  Opening the map, I found that it was around [8,9] or so, thus I started trekking through the forest to head there.  Along the very long walk, I encountered a camp (a level 10 camp), discovered a new zone and further up, was relentlessly slaughtered by random high-level monsters as I had no other path towards my objective.  I eventually gave up, came back, found the level 1 camp and started some quests.  Now, I figured out that the Carline Canopy was simply a building in the major town nearby and my npc was waiting in there.  However, the game didn't help much at all to help me discover this.  Quest text is often very vague (even poorly translated), and certainly not at all clear to tell you where to go or who to talk to.  I ended up hitting level five before I completed that quest, which granted me more basic combat abilities which would have been greatly appreciated earlier.  While I certainly don't think extremely trivial tasks are fun (as ended up happening in WoW, where questhelper and other addons basically played the game for you), FFXIV aims too far in the other direction, giving the player very little clue on what to do or where to go.  Players will generally rely on a great linkshell or FFXIV forums to learn the game, and many who don't have those available won't last past the 30 day trial period.

Final Fantasy 14 Forest Intro

Technically, the game is a mixed bag.  On one hand, things can be quite pretty and even stunning at times.  The music is fantastic, despite being susceptible to curious stuttering issues at high processor utilization, reminiscent of internet streaming problems.  However, the optimization is disappointing overall and even downright odd at times.  For whatever reasons, the game only essentially uses two processor threads/cores, despite being a processor-intensive game and even going so far as to include a quad-core/eight-threaded i7 in the recommended hardware to play the game.  With ambient occlusion turned off, my graphics card only worked at 40-60% utilization most of the time, which is plainly quite odd.  So strangely enough, turning up all the standard options (including full anti-aliasing) had no significant effect on framerate most of the time.  At large, outside areas, however, utilization was a more proper 100%.  The two main culprits of performance loss in the game are depth of field and ambient occlusion, which are thankfully defaulted off.  Now, these two features are generally associated with DirectX 10/11 and were large parts of those upgrades, along with tesselation.  But... FFXIV is not a DirectX 11 game and thus does not have the associated acceleration associated for these features.  Needless to say, both DoF and AO absolutely destroy performance, with AO grinding the most powerful systems to a halt.  It's a shame because the game looks even better with AO, but the fact that the game is so oddly optimized prevents people from playing it at its best.  Some MMOs may be fairly playable at lower framerates, but FFXIV is certainly not with its massive menu, mouse and server lag issues combined together.  The game really needed to be created for true multi-core and DX11 from the start, especially by looking the decisions they made, but somehow this is not the case.  Perhaps development switched paths along the way or perhaps they're planning massively improved clients on the horizon.  Time will only tell, but the current technical state of FFXIV is somewhat unfortunate.

As far as the actual gameplay, some of it feels like further advancement on the MMO concept and some again feels like a regression.  Easily the most interesting and noteworthy aspect of the game is its job and leveling system.  Each character has an "overall" level along with individual "job" levels.  Killing enemies and completing repeatable/daily quests gift overall experience as well as job experience.  The "overall" level grants you basic stat points (stam, int, etc) and elemental increases whereas the "job" level unlocks abilities and basic proficiency.  Essentially, the system in FFXIV encourages players to switch jobs often, and subsequent job leveling is made easier by the introduction of higher stats and previously learned abilities from playing other jobs.  A light experience cap of sorts is in play, limiting how fast players can level any one given job (and their overall level), while allowing them to continue leveling different jobs with no experience decay.  Also at any given time, players are limited to a certain amount of "action points," which essentially limits the amount of abilities they have access to.  This limits players power while still allowing a great deal of customization from exploring different jobs.  And did I mention that jobs can be switched any time outside of battle just by switching weapons?  Honestly, it's a pretty unique concept with lots of potential.

Final Fantasy 14 Marmot Battle

Fighting itself can be fun at times but still has a bit of work to do to really feel solid.  Unlike most MMOs, FFXIV has no auto-attack, so players must continually press their basic abilities to score any damage.  Basic abilities build TP, which is used to release special attacks.  Any attacks drain stamina, which is a constantly refilling bar in place to limit your abililty to attack nonstop.  Magic and MP is largely reserved for casters (who have abilities to regen) or massive attacks for other classes.  The physical classes don't receive MP regen abilities, so they need to return to camp to regain.  Really though, it seems like an autoattack would have worked out much better in this game, but perhaps high-level play will feel different with fully interactive system.  Unfortunately, the combat system also suffers from many of the delay and timing issues present in the rest of the game, and really nothing felt precise or works as the player would wish in a crisp battle setting.  It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, especially as may you die to these issues related to attacks being slow or not coming out when you want them.

Crafting in FFXIV feels very unique and builds on the system in FFXI while still being a headache at times (as well as suffering from the lag issues).  The good part is that you play an interesting little minigame for each craft, and how you do in this minigame determines your result, both for quest rewards and actual item yields.  As crafting offers significant "overall" experience as well as its own job level gains, the time spent in this game is easily justified.  The bad part is that it takes forever to trudge through several menus and various hassles just to get to this game.  And as in FFXI, the game does not offer any sort of in-game recipe list, which I still absolutely do not understand.

By the time beta ended, I accomplished most of what I wished to do but ultimately left unsatisfied.  Unfortunately it also ended a bit earlier than I hoped as I wished to capture more footage.  However, that's a bit beside the point.  But I finished with a level ~12 Gladiator with a Physical level around 15.  My other jobs were Mining, Armorsmithing, Blacksmithing, Weaving, and Pugilist.  In the end, I felt that far too much time was spent doing basic things that could have been easily explained in-game rather than taking part in activities I wanted to do and enjoyed, such as exploring or leveling to unlock new quest chains.  For another example of frustration, I did not receive a shield (a basic part of the Gladiator class) until I searched online and ran across half the world to purchase from the only available shield merchant in a different starting town.  I do feel that this game has some potential, as it has a stunning presentation, an intriguing leveling system and nice features such as instant solo/group teleportation between major nodes as well as auto-loot.  But the final package felt only semi-playable and was simply extremely frustrating at times.  As another example, the game crashed (and still crashes!) when you alt-tab from fullscreen.  Guess what happens if you disconnect or crash during a repeatable quest?  Yes, you automatically fail and can't try it again until the quest reset.  As these limited quests are a huge part of your job/crafting/equipment progression and quest experience is vastly boosted from normal, every success is extremely important and to automatically fail them due to a ridiculous game bug is pretty much inexcusable.  While I am not particularly tempted by the game, I am willing to try the retail at some point (through a guest pass or demo), but FFXIV could have undoubtedly used a few extra months of polish and it's a shame and ultimately disappointing that such potential is partly ruined by being released before it's truly ready.  I couldn't recommend the game to anyone for a few months, at least.