Thursday, 11 July 2013

First Look: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Beta

I would definitely say I'm a massive Final Fantasy fanboy. MMOs on the other hand... well, I try to get into them once in a while but if the basic gameplay mechanics fail to grab my interest then I do need an awesome story to make up for it. I haven't played many but I can say in my opinion that WOW is repetitive and frustrating (but addicting at the same time), and EVE is elegant and relaxing, yet also time consuming and sometimes really complicated to follow. I never tried FFXI so I have no idea how that worked as the first FF game in this format, but part of me always hoped that it had a bit more substance to it than the content of a typical MMO: "go collect 10 tiger pelts" and "kill 20 bats". This is what I expect from a dungeon crawler - and that's just fine, I'm expecting to kill hordes of enemies and click my mouse wildly to pick up loot. I'd like to just add an exception to this format - Borderlands 1 and 2 both have this MMO/dungeon crawler mechanic but it works because the game is just a playground for non stop violence and treasure hunting that you can enjoy with a small group of friends. I have always wanted to play an MMO for much much more than this though, as I would want to be part of a community, not just part of a mass of people occupying the same bandwidth. As of yet, EVE has been the only game to draw me in, but definitely not for the social aspect of it.

I have just reached level 10 with my first character and so I thought this was a good point to put down my controller, (yes I am playing on my PS3) and write about my first impression. I won't turn this into a massive review as it is a Beta and I'm not 'rating' it in any way. This is my opinion built on my love for Final Fantasy and my disappointment for MMOs in general.

Character generation is the first stop - and I know every RPG fan loves this part. Taking the time to balance stats correctly and make your protagonist look as awesome as possible (before covering them up with in-game armour and robes). The race selection as far as I can see has no real effect on gameplay. There are 2 clans for each race which have slightly different stats normally balancing between emphasis on the war or magic disciplines, however the core of the class system allows you to swap and learn other class abilities by changing to the appropriate weapon and learning from the appropriate guild anyway. Ultimately I would say this is more cosmetic and that you shouldn't worry too much about it - you can always change classes later on down the line. In-game there are 'jobs' to level up in also and crafting abilities you can add to your belt. So character generation is pretty standard thus far and reminiscent of most other RPGs you've probably played. I will just add that the ability to 'de-robe' your characters down to their 'small-clothes' so that when you increase the models bust-size you have an uninterrupted view of the lady-parts is most likely a well received addition to a list of functions the game was obviously lacking in alpha. Having said this I didn't play the alpha so perhaps this was near the top of SquareEnix's dev priority sheet to begin with.

So my character jumps into the opening cutscene - the first part of the game which actually has a Final Fantasy stamp on it - I was already in some slight discomfort as I'm very much used to the game telling me who I am rather than deciding myself all the way down to the Braveheart styled war paint tattoos on my face. Cutscene finishes.... Everything is extremely vague thus far. Now plonked down in the middle of this city, a fresh faced adventurer - I start to make my way towards my guild, and so does everyone else. You're greeted with the familiar MMO sight of lots of people spamming emotes: dancing, laughing and waving as everyone is excitedly trying out all the non-essential features. I couldn't blame them really, so I joined in a bit. I hate myself a little. My first quests are reminiscent of my World of Warcraft days, lots of collecting and killing. I am now level 10 and I can confirm that all my quests in and around this city have involved this. If you love WOW and this game mechanic then that's fine, this could be the game for you. I don't really feel the need to go into any details at all about the gameplay as I think I've summed it up with my WOW comparisons. I will say though that I have died considerably fewer times than my WOW character did in the first 10 levels of play. Although it is very frustrating when kiting an enemy, there gets to a point where they will lose aggro, turn around, become invulnerable and when back at their spawn point, heal to maximum health - very annoying! Hopefully this will be changed.

So how does the game operate on the console... I'm not going to lie, to begin with: awkwardly! If you want to get any use out of all the features, including the chat console and window navigation then I do suggest you plug in a mouse and keyboard. You have to at least plug in a keyboard or you will be typing messages all day instead of playing the game. I quickly got used to having all 3 input devices close by and found that I used my controller for movement, battling and inventory/equipment management whilst I used my PC accessories for all journal and map navigation. It didn't take long to get used to but if you don't take this advise then it could mean life or death in some situations! Hotkeys on the controller are assigned to the d-pad and buttons on the right. To access them you hold down the L2 or R2 triggers giving you a total of 16 hotkeys. There are also 8 'sets' of these 16 hotkeys you can assign, and they can be scrolled through by hitting R1. I think this works quite well although it's most likely a slightly slower input method than a keyboard is.

So what makes this game a 'Final Fantasy'.... well there's Bahamut, crystals and Chocobos... what else do you need? I'll be honest I guess I haven't played enough of it to have seen all the FF elements in all their glory. There is a summoner class that you can't play from level 1, but that you can work towards. Limit breaks are back! I have yet to use one though! They are class-based but I think you need to be in a party to build towards the limit meter and then only one person can use the ability. I need to experiment more with this. Arguably this could be any MMO with the FF brand slapped on the box, but I'm too early in the game to have a valid opinion. I'm hoping there's a large story arc that I'm moments from getting immersed in - we shall see.

Graphically (remember I'm on the PS3) the game is beautiful, but not breathtakingly so. Zooming into your character you can see great detail and I do wonder how much it will improve when it's released on the PS4. The other character models both NPC and players however move with a reduced frame rate and enemy animations are clumsy and sometimes erratic. This could be down to my connection, server stress or perhaps it could be linked to the platform. Some textures also fail to render properly when zoomed in, however I have forgiven most of this at the moment because of the beta status. 

I'm not a major role-player in MMOs because I have never found the right one for me. I am a story-oriented gamer, and this is what I expect from an RPG. I understand that this type of MMO is what's popular and I guess I don't HATE this style of gameplay - but would I pay a subscription fee for it though when I could just boot up Diablo 3 or Torchlight and play on my own? Is it worth it? Ultimately you're paying for the servers, and the multiplayer aspect of the game. But is it really multiplayer, or is it just lots of people playing their own single-player dungeon crawlers that happen to overlap on a server. Are the 'instances' that require groups of players to team up to defeat bosses just there to give you the illusion that the entire game is multiplayer? I suppose you get out of the game whatever you want to get out of it. You can join guilds and make your experience a team-based one rather than running around as a lone wolf (but if thats your style of play then why play this game in the first place?).

I will continue to play the game in beta as I love Final Fantasy and that outweighs all my other opinions. When the subscription fees kick in though - that's another story.

If anyone has any opinions of the game so far then please share them with me and tell me what character build you're going for. Back to the grind! - oP

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