MMO games—or Massively Multiplayer Online games for the uninitiated—aren’t like other games. New content, balancing and “nerf” passes, and even the quality of the community all have an impact on the value proposition of a game, and this constant evolution means that the game you played at launch is probably not the game you will be playing a year later.
In the case of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, this is even more dramatic, which is why this review in progress is being presented in the meantime. I’ve had some hands on time in the beta, in addition to getting pointless early access during the FUBARed launch. I’m glad though, to have a chance to talk a bit about the game now, rather than committing to writing a finished review back at launch, which would have done the game a terrible disservice.
For people who have been following, it’s pretty well documented at this point that FFXIV that is in stores now isn’t even the same game that originally launched in 2010. The first version was so badly designed the negative critical reception became an unstoppable tsunami, and the old team was removed. Square-Enix instituted a new team, headed by Naoki Yoshida (or “YoshiP” as he goes by on the Internet) who had the unenviable task of trying to rescue a game that was already deemed toxic by the MMO community and had disappointed FFXI fans leaving in droves. Fast forward to three years later, and we have a game far more playable than it has any right to be considering its troubled past. But that doesn’t mean that it’s without problems.
Because this is a review in progress, I’ll only touch on a few things here and there, so let’s get the service and technical stuff out of the way. The game had a typically catastrophic launch as most MMOs do. Server congestion was so bad that Squenix had to make new servers and disable not just character creation on existing servers, but halt sales of the digital version of the game to control the log-in chaos their infrastructure simply couldn’t handle. Fortunately, this is no longer the case, as Squenix went into panic mode and scaled up their infrastructure, so now players often don’t even have to wait in a queue to log in.
On the technical side, the platform for this review is the PS3, which, in Glorious PC Gaming Master Race terms, means the game is running on the equivalent of medium settings. So, 1080p? Nope, 720. Rock solid 60 frames per second? Nope, it’s 30, but that dips, especially in crowded cities or hectic fights with many players. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good looking game. The frame rate never drops to unplayable levels, and the art direction is still gorgeous, even with somewhat muddier textures, but it’s obvious that the PS3 is struggling with this game, and it needs either a PC or the upcoming PS4 to give it the breathing room it needs.
On the other hand, playing with a PS3 controller is surprisingly easy, comfortable, and, in most instances, preferable. Controlling characters feels both responsive and natural using a traditional left stick-move/right stick-camera configuration. You can hook up a mouse and keyboard to your PS3 to play that way if you prefer, and while I would recommend the keyboard simply for the sake of communication, the mouse actually feels largely unnecessary. There are still a few elements of the user interface that show some clunky transitioning from a mouse to controller set-up. Navigating different functions, like hopping from a map to a chat window, for example, can get tedious as players hit the “Select” button on the PS3 repeatedly to cycle through the many, many, MANY different functions. Communication is still done via the traditional chat box of MMOs and here players using only a DualShock 3 will be at a distinct disadvantage; you try navigating to the virtual keyboard in the middle of an important raid dungeon to tell the Thaumaturge on the team that she needs to be putting smaller enemies to sleep, and see how quickly and efficiently that goes. Similarly, targeting enemies relies on PS3 users to hit the “X” button and hope for the best, something that happens quite reliably in most situations. It tends to fall apart in missions with many NPCs—even allies—around as the “target AI” fails to correctly guess which enemy you meant to target, and you’ll be forced to cycle through targets manually using the D-Pad.
Those quibbles aside, the controls actually work well most of the time, something that DC Universe Online had already proven when it released on the PS3 back in 2011. There may be times when controller-only players curse the lack of a mouse, but that doesn’t happen nearly as often as you’d expect.
However, the biggest surprise when you actually sit down and start playing the game is just how much fun it is even if you’re completely new to MMOs. The Squenix team has—rightly—assumed that for a lot of people, especially console players who are just FF fans, this may be their first dip of the toe into the MMO pool. I’m not one of those people, having first cut my teeth on Star Wars Galaxies back in the day, but I can appreciate how helpful the game is with introducing basic MMO concepts like the DPS, tank, healer holy trinity as players work through optional “training dungeons,” that educate them on fundamental tactics. To balance that careful tutorial with combat is an unfortunate complete disregard for educating new players on the communication interface. It’s a baffling omission as the game takes the time to introduce people to “emotes,” but then fails to mention pre-programmed, “canned” responses players can input to the chat windows, or even how to configure chat channels. So on the one hand, I give a big thumbs up to FFXIV for gently guiding newbies through combat, but they plunge the same newbies into a trial by fire—especially console users—when it comes to trying to figure out how to communicate with fellow players. Newbies shouldn’t be sent scrambling to Google in the middle of the game when someone sends them a “/tell” (That’s a private communication sent to one player alone, kids) and they realize they have no idea how to respond, but that’s the way it is right now.
As far as my own progress, I’ve gone through the early game and am nearing the end of my time in the mid-game as high-end content looms on the horizon. I have to say at this point that I’m impressed with the amount of content the new team has given to keep players busy. For players that hate grinding, it’s not something you HAVE to do as there are always plenty of quests available to prevent that syndrome. You know the one I’m talking about; going off to one particular area where monsters are easy/fast to kill and staying there to kill the same thing repeatedly until you level up enough to get access to new content. Some will WANT to grind because abusing a system known as FATEs (Full Active Time Events) yields enormous XP gains in a very short amount of time, but that’s a player choice, not a method of last resort.
For the most part however, I’m enjoying my time in Eorzea, the fictional land within FF XIV. In many ways, I’d say that this is a game worth buying. What I’m not sure about yet is whether this is a game you’ll want to still be playing in three months. But I can certainly say that early phase of the experience is one that most RPG fans will enjoy. There’s still much to discuss, the classes, the crafting system, the intricacies of its traditional, the shared world between PC and PS3 users, and the MMO combat roots, but that’s all going to be in the full review. For now, this review-in-progress can be summed as “So far, so good, surprisingly.”