More than a year after its release, Final Fantasy XIV is worth paying for. Or at least, Square Enix thinks it is; as of January 6, the company will charge a $10 monthly fee to play. Is the new and improved FFXIV worth it? I fired up my old account one last time to find out.
Even before logging in, I was a little annoyed. While there have been some major patches already (1.20 dropped just last Thursday), there is a huge patch, Version 2.0, that won't debut until late 2012. It will include revised maps and a new graphics engine, and the subscription fee will rise when it comes out. So, after collecting people's money for ten months or so, Square Enix is going to overhaul the entire game and hike the price.
It would be better for the company to either wait until Version 2.0 is in effect to start charging, or roll out the Version 2.0 changes gradually, so that the community can have a say in how they're implemented. To start charging now and then rework the game in one fell swoop feels like a bait-and-switch. It might also be bad business: If Version 2.0 is really a substantial improvement, charging fees now will drive some customers away before they experience it and get hooked.
That said, I was unimpressed at first. Pronounced screen tearing—much worse than I remember from last year—sent me on a wild goose chase for the Vsync option. (Where most games let you turn it on from a menu, FFXIV makes you force it on through your graphics card's control panel.) For some insane reason, the Escape button doesn't bring up the main menu. Your minimap still doesn't display all the important information, forcing you to open the separate map in your journal. The same cheesy metal song still plays whenever you get into a fight. When I hit Control-Escape to minimize the window so I could look up some basics online, the game crashed and sputtered something about a DirectX error. And this was after I spent hours downloading the not one, not two, but ten patches that have been released since I logged in last. So yeah, this game still has a few issues for Version 2.0 to clear up.
But once I managed to get going, I noticed a lot of improvements as well—improvements that make the game a lot less frustrating.
One of my biggest complaints with FFXIV, as originally released, was that it was incredibly stingy with its content. The story missions were the most interesting part of the game, but they unlocked at a slow rate. Further, the brief in-between quests—the local and regional "levequests"—were limited to eight every thirty-six hours. And if that wasn't enough to make you feel unwelcome, there was a "fatigue" system that made you earn less EXP if you played more than eight hours in a week. Now, the fatigue system is gone and the levequest restrictions have been relaxed to the point that you can quest to your heart's content. Also, there's just a lot more to do—plenty of new content has been added, including Grand Companies, which are organizations you can work your way up in, and beast strongholds that require whole groups of players to conquer. In other words, the game no longer gives you the sense that Square Enix is doling out the goods as slowly as possible to keep you paying fees.
And FFXIV still brings some great new ideas to the MMO genre. If you want to switch classes, all you have to do is buy a new item (a saw for a carpenter, for example) and equip it to your main hand. Everything you do builds both a class level and your overall level. Crafting has been turned into a simple minigame rather than a dull process. The graphics remain some of the best available in the MMO genre, and the sprawling land of Eorzea is a joy to explore. And of course, lovers of Final Fantasy lore will find an entire world full of new stories. From the beginning, all of these things should have made FFXIV a serious competitor to World of Warcraft, but a horrible launch intervened.
It's impressive that instead of cutting its losses, Square Enix ran an MMO for free for a year and made a serious effort to fix the game's problems. They deserve credit for standing behind their product at great expense. But can Square Enix actually save Final Fantasy XIV? Here's my bottom line: If you own the game and haven't logged in for a while, you should download the patches and play for free while you still can. You might find that, come January 6, this is a game that's worth your money. But if you haven't bought it yet, wait until Version 2.0 or the forthcoming PlayStation 3 version, and read the reviews before investing. Even today, Final Fantasy XIV is a game with so much potential—and yet so many problems.
By Robert VerBruggen
CCC Contributing Writer