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Final Fantasy XIV Review
A big, beautiful, busted world.
October 11, 2010
Level 3by Charles Onyett

Signing up for an MMO encompasses more than your standard purchase. You're buying into a social network to meet other players and maybe make a few new friends. To some it's an escape, an alternative lifestyle, a toy, an ego machine, and to all it's a game. Simply providing a vast online fantasy world to run around in with others isn't enough these days. While Final Fantasy XIV features a flexible class system and interesting crafting mechanics, issues with its presentation, performance, and core questing structure turn what could be an entertaining online adventure into an arduous experience that, in its current state, isn't worth playing.

If you're familiar with Final Fantasy XI, Square Enix's previous MMO in its flagship RPG line, you'll know the game was never very easy to get into. While Final Fantasy XIV is certainly more solo-friendly for players who prefer to quest and level on their own, it's disappointingly unfriendly toward those trying figure out all the various rules and systems churning beneath the surface that govern life, advancement, and success in its setting of Eorzea. If you've never played an MMO before, this is most definitely not the place to start. Even genre veterans are going to need to spend a good deal of time scanning fan sites and databases to understand how everything works, even for basic information on necessary functions like performing item repairs.

 

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Things do start out in a directed fashion, though. At the beginning you're given a chance to create and name your character. A number of races, from the hulking Roegadyn to the cat-like Miqo'te, can be chosen and customized in a few different ways. As tends to be standard in the genre you'll also be asked to pick a class, though the choice isn't especially meaningful. In Final Fantasy XIV you're never locked into one particular class, so the one chosen at the start only defines your character for as long as it takes to get to an item shop.

Before stepping onto the game's various progression treadmills you'll be dumped into a sequence of cut-scenes filled with character dialogue, combat, and exploration around whichever city you chose to start in. These story-driven scenes are some of the best parts of the game as it stands right now, helping to tell the tale of the world, showing you around the land, and foreshadowing events to come. More story missions become available at later progression milestones and eventually unlock other extras, but are so spaced out that feel more like bandages to remedy a general lack of narrative context throughout. It's rare to ever feel as though you're questing for a reason outside of bumping up your class rank.

For braving the dangers that lie outside of the walls of each major starting city in Eorzea you'll have a number of combat options. Magic users will want to take up arms as a Conjurer or Thaumaturge, while those who prefer to hit enemies with heavy things will want to pick the axe-wielding Marauder or the Gladiator who attacks and defends with a sword and shield. The variety of combat classes means players should be able to find a mold in which they feel comfortable, but the nice part is you'll never feel too limited.

By simply purchasing and equipping a class' weapon type, you become that class. If you're tired of slogging through fight after fight as a Lancer, for instance, you can just equip a bow and all of a sudden you're an Archer. The trick to effective play is unlocking skills in various classes to customize your ideal build. For example, you could level up a Pugilist and a Conjurer to unlock heal abilities, then switch to a Marauder and equip the helpful skills to make you more durable in solo combat. That Square Enix grants this kind of freedom to players is great to see, and it's fun to experiment with all the different styles of play to see what you like best, or simply having the option to quickly swap classes should the needs of a group require a new tank, healer, or ranged damage dealer.

The overall game world is enormous.
The crafting and gathering systems built into the game also contribute to the class system. If you equip a mining pick, you can then hack at deposits for ore and other valuables. Then if you equip other specialty equipment you'll don the hat of a wide range of production classes, from those that build heavy armor to those that tinker with rings and jewelry. These crafting and gathering systems aren't merely side activities, but heavily integrated into the rhythms of life in Eorzea. Success in crafting and harvesting quests yields points that not only rank up the class, but also contribute to a universal pool of experience called physical level. So while each class is leveled on an individual basis only while the corresponding tool or weapon is equipped, you'll always be earning experience for the physical level. When increased, it frees up points to be assigned to things like attack, defense and accuracy, as well as a variety of magical properties, which gives a solid sense of a growing overall power even while you're not swinging weapons out on the battlefield.

Aside from that, crafting is especially important in the game since it's the primary method of getting better gear. The occasional item can be earned by completing quests, but in general if you want better gear you're going to have to build it, buy it directly from a crafter, or find it on the open market. Like many of the game's functions, little is explained about the actual crafting process. Once learned you'll find it's a high risk system that infuses a significant degree of chance into the creation process as you juggle a variety of percentage sliders and an abstract color-coding system. Failure is a frequent part of this process, but that makes successful production all the more satisfying.

Because of the way the class system is set up you could, theoretically, be a master of all crafts, though realistically I would assume people only have time to focus on one or two things. There's plenty of social interaction built into the creation system, as some classes can only build components that others fashion into a whole, and getting different items repaired requires assistance by specific crafters. The problem since launch has been one of dissemination. It's always possible to spam chat channels with requests for armor or advertisements for personal stock to trade with others, but the heart of Final Fantasy XIV's economy is the market system, which right now is a mess.

Square Enix has said that updates are on the way for improving the markets, but even with some aid it's only one of many examples of a system that wasn't adequately developed prior to launch. As of this review's publish time the system requires you to hire a retainer, an NPC that can be given items and set in an instanced market area. The idea is that other players will enter into this area, find your retainer, and then purchase items you put up for sale. Yet in practice it means there's a disorganized mess of NPC retainers standing around market areas with little indication of what's being sold. If you want to buy a new sword, you have to visit one by one every retainer in sight until you just happen to by chance come across one in stock. It's a grossly inefficient process, and perplexing that it ever made it into the launch version of the game. For a game with such a heavy emphasis on crafted items, it's unfortunate Square Enix felt it was acceptable to implement such a fragmented distribution framework.

Once you're through with crafting, selling and buying, it's out into the field to you to go participate in the game's quests. These are referred to as levequests of which only a limited quantity are available at a time. In the downtime until more quests unlock, the idea is to get you to interact with others to latch onto their quests, again serving as a method of strengthening the social fabric of the game. Initiating a quest requires you travel out to camps scattered around the landscapes outside of cities. In each sits a giant crystal called an Aetheryte where quests are initiated, and you're then put on a timer until the objectives are achieved and the task completed. Initially it'll be a fun adventure as you burn through tasks and quickly rank up, but with continued play the levequests lose their appeal.

 

If you start in Ul'dah, this is part of the starting story.
When it comes to MMOs, what really separates the best from the rest are the ways they keep the entertainment value high over long tracts of time. In the case of levequesting, you're given kill and collection quotas with an extremely thin veneer of story. It won't be long until each quest starts to feel exactly the same. The ways Square Enix attempts to infuse variety – targets fleeing for reinforcements, targets changing form – fall flat. For the first few levels it isn't particularly noticeable since the process of ranking up your class happens fairly quickly. However, once you reach higher levels and realize there are only a handful of quests you'll need to churn through for hours and hours before becoming powerful enough to reach the next camp and quest set, it's difficult to stay motivated. The game does far too little to mask the fact that it's tossed you on a gerbil wheel.

If you can deal with jumping through the same hoops time and time again, there's at least a difficulty system associated with quests. With a larger group it's best to set the quest for a higher degree of challenge with the notion of potentially earning more skill points for your class. A few other activities exist as well, though their overall effect isn't significant. There's an hourly behest quest that can be taken on, which is essentially a larger-scale version of the levequests. Dungeons lie all over the land, faction quests open up once enough favor is gained, and of course there's always the option to grind solo or in groups, which is as mind-meltingly dull as it's ever been.

One of the many steps to crafting.Thankfully the actual combat is fun to play around with. Since you'll be collecting skills from each class as well as focusing on whichever you prefer, group members can have a diverse range of abilities regardless of class designation. The game also limits the amount of abilities that can be active at one time, meaning you can't just equip everything at once, but must determine which skills work best together. During the slow-paced combat you'll find all the familiar roles – tanks, healers, ranged damage dealers, and those better suited for defeating single and multiple targets. How this system develops over the course of Final Fantasy XIV's life cycle will be interesting to watch, especially aspects like the battle regimen mechanic whereby group members can queue up attacks and then unload on enemies to trigger special effects. Unfortunately a variety of elements, from targeting to input precision, are affected by the game's poorly designed interface and performance issues.

Considering how frequently you need to interact with the interface in combat and while buying and selling, it's surprising Square Enix decided to build in something so inelegant. For some reason it's required that you open a main menu tab to access any of the critical menus like ability customization menus, gear layout, and quest journals, and there are way too many submenus that must be opened in order to get the simplest of tasks accomplished. In individual cases these don't seem like much but over the span of weeks and months of play it adds up to a dizzying amount of time wasted on navigating the cumbersome menus.

Other mystifying inconveniences include burying your gear's durability status, a near useless overworld map, and making selling items to vendors or exchanging with your retainer an unnecessarily painful process, making you wonder what the developers were thinking when coming up with this. It could be that it'll be the same interface that's eventually put into the PlayStation 3 version, but for PC players it's a perpetual hindrance. Hopefully in the time post-launch Square Enix will take steps to work on this and make character management less of a chore to handle.

Yet the issues don't end there. A big focus over the coming months will hopefully be with regards to performance optimization. Even on a near top of the line machine the game chugs consistently. If you've got a less powerful machine and turn down the settings, it's unfortunately still a stuttery experience. It's not unplayable, but in outdoor locations especially around Limsa Lominsa, it's something that can't be ignored and that frequently intrudes on the combat and joy of exploration.

The saddest part is that the game, performance problems aside, is one of the prettiest MMOs I've ever seen. The sandy mesa and rock formations around the dusty stretches of Ul'dah are incredibly detailed, especially as you expand the reach of your travels and discover vast valleys and stunning landscape variation. The tall trees clouding the skies around Gridania aren't quite as impressive when compared against the vast grassy terrain and outcroppings of white rock around Limsa Lominsa, but it's all consistently impressive, especially when you're able to observe the lighting during a sunset along the rim of the world over the silhouette of a sprawling fantastical city.

Armor and weapons designs are equally well detailed, making them all the more alluring beyond the obvious statistical benefits. Animations are smooth and realistic, with characters and enemy types moving about with a sense of weight that helps infuse Eorzea with a degree of realism as you hack away at dodos, marmots, wolves, and more fearsome creatures at higher levels. The soundtracks is also a standout feature, with music that sounds distinctly at home in a Final Fantasy game playing and shifting throughout, and the occasional smattering of voice acting during story missions.

 

What a tease.
It's important to note that as of right now this is a game built for player versus environment content, so steer clear if you're into competitive player versus player combat. If you're someone who likes to sprint to the highest levels as fast as possible, Square Enix has built in limits. Resources that can be drawn on to fast traveling between camps and cities and special bonuses during quests can be depleted and regenerate slowly, meaning it's best to only play for a few hours per session which, quite honestly, is reasonable.

What's odd is that these mechanisms seems to be built to cater to a more casual crowd, though the game is clearly built for a hardcore player with plenty of time to spend. Keep in mind getting anything done of significance in Final Fantasy XIV even at low levels can take an extremely long amount of time, in part because the game is designed to be played at a relaxed pace, but also because you're forced to waste so much time fidgeting with the interface and dealing with lag and performance annoyances. And if after reading all this you're still interested in the game, head over to our review journal for more detail on how everything works.

Closing Comments
With its newest MMO in its flagship franchise, Square Enix delivers a gigantic, beautiful fantasy world to explore. The flexible class system means you'll be able to mix and match abilities from many different roles so you can change your specialization at will. Much of the promise of the combat system and depth of the crafting mechanics are drowned, unfortunately, under a sea of interface and performance issues that hinder the experience at nearly every step. While there's a lot to consider when building your ideal class, there's far too little interesting structured content to chew on, resulting in an experience that quickly grows tedious and tiresome. All MMOs are designed to keep players logging in for long into the future, but at launch Final Fantasy XIV's questing mechanics feel more like a subway commute than a fun gameplay experience. Patches over the course of the next few months may address many of the technical issues, but for now this is not a world worth visiting.
IGN Ratings for Final Fantasy XIV Online (PC)Rating Description
out of 10 Click here for ratings guide
3.0 Presentation
Terrible interface, sluggish menu response times, poor overworld map, and many other issues. Interesting story, though, in the main missions.
7.0 Graphics
It's an absolutely gorgeous game, but you'll need an insanely powerful PC to see it. It still looks nice with dialed back settings, but will rarely run well.
8.5 Sound
Great overworld music that feels right at home in a Final Fantasy game, backed by solid sound effects and rare instances of voice acting.
6.0 Gameplay
A flexible class system results in a welcome freedom of customization, but combat and other activities are still victims of the poor interface and performance. Questing gets repetitive quickly.
5.0 Lasting Appeal
Despite the strength of the class system, the game's economy and questing systems need a lot of work to keep players coming back for more.
5.5
OVERALL Mediocre


 

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