Whenever you load Final Fantasy XIV, the game warns you about the perils of MMO addiction. Enjoy the game, a popup cautions, but don’t get so engrossed that you forget your real-world responsibilities.
That’s a little presumptuous. FFXIV has the potential to become a phenomenally successful game, but it will need a lot of improvement before people start ignoring their families over it.
Put simply, for a game that’s supposed to be more accessible than other MMOs, FFXIV is pretty tough to get the hang of. Even setting it up is a pain; you have to fill out numerous forms and enter numerous codes, and then “Add a Service Account” to create a character. Those with codes for bonus items have to create another “Service Account” for the items, and must enter their codes before creating a character. (As we learned the hard way, the bonus items are given only to new characters.) Then there are updates to download, which took us several hours, though hopefully the servers are less clogged by now. Also, once your free 30-day pass expires, playing costs $9.99 plus $3 per character each month. To pay, you can either have your credit card charged by a company in England, or purchase some of Square Enix’s inconvenient “Crysta” currency.
Things don’t get much smoother during the game itself. The lack of direction is astounding. There are tutorials, but they’re not particularly informative, and they may not be available when you need them. It will take some time (and a few trips to Google) before you learn to handle even the most basic tasks, such as starting a quest, crafting an item, and equipping a weapon. Sometimes you’ll have to look at an online guide to figure out where you’re supposed to go next, and even when a location is marked on your map, the mark shows up only when you access the map through your journal, rather than through the normal map function. Also, the menu system is frustrating to navigate, the keyboard controls are clunky, and it’s remarkably difficult to trade with other players (this game absolutely needs a search function so you can find the items you want). This is all made slightly more bearable by the well-done and soothing music, though the hard rock tune that blasts during the fight scenes is cheesy and synthetic.
So why do we think that FFXIV might someday create victims of MMO addiction? Because the developers, while they botched some of the basics, have created a remarkably deep and innovative experience here. If they can ease the transition for new and skeptical players — and that’s a big if — they could give the World of Warcraft juggernaut a serious competitor.
The graphics, for example, are a marvel; they’re almost certainly the best ever seen in an MMO. From the wide-open spaces of Eorzea to the marketplaces to the water, everything is rendered with the perfect mix of realism and art. The cutscenes look especially good, though we experienced some screen tearing in them. There’s a fair amount of lag as of now, but hopefully the developers can iron out the kinks as time goes by.
FFXIV also provides a huge world full of diverse characters. There are five different races (with two sub-races each) and three starter cities to choose from, and each city features a different storyline. The character-creation system is simple, but also broad enough that you can make your avatar look however you’d like. (Well, almost however you’d like: emo hair is not optional.)
This game introduces a new character-leveling system that works quite well. While you choose a character class at the beginning of the game, changing classes is as simple as buying a different weapon or tool and equipping it to your character’s main hand. Each character has a “physical level” that stays the same when he changes classes, but also a separate level (or “rank”) for each class. This way, a single character can conjure spells, craft items, and slaughter creatures, and the more time he spends on each skill, the better he gets at it. You also receive skill points you can distribute with each level. The new system makes each player somewhat self-sufficient, though of course different players have to specialize in different things and help each other if they really want to get ahead.
The quest system is innovative as well, but we have some gripes with the way Square Enix implemented it. Basically, there are different forms of “levequests.” The main story quests are the most substantive, but also the rarest, because when you finish one, you typically have to level up quite a bit before you unlock another. There are also “regional” and “local” levequests, which are meant to fill the time between the story quests with killing and crafting.
The basic system works well enough. For regional quests, which tend to focus on killing, you stop by the NPC who dispenses them, pick one up, head to the start point, and activate it. You then have a limited time, usually thirty minutes, to carry out your mission. Also, the developers had the great idea of letting you set a difficulty level that corresponds to the size of your team before each quest, so you always face a reasonable challenge, whether you fight alone or in a huge, linkshell-organized army.
For local quests, which tend to focus on crafting, you pick one up, and then simply switch to the relevant class (say, carpenter for woodworking missions), obtain the materials, and start hammering away. The quests increase with difficulty as you go along, and they provide a great way to explore the game, trade with other players, and basically just enjoy yourself.
What’s irritating is that the game limits you to eight local and eight regional quests every thirty-six hours. Considering that some of the quests can be completed in as little as five minutes, this puts a serious limit on how much time you can spend making progress in the game. Once your quests run out, there’s not much to do except make random items and kill random beasts — actions that build your level, but feel completely aimless. It’s as if Square Enix were spreading out its content to cover more time, for the purpose of forcing people to more months’ worth of service before reaching endgame.
Another artificial cap the developers placed on character growth is a weekly limit on the EXP you can gain. Once you’ve played in a given class for eight hours, you gradually start earning less EXP, and when you hit fifteen hours, the game stops awarding EXP entirely. You can get around the cutoff by switching classes; each class has a separate fifteen-hour limit, and while you’re playing in a new class, your old class’s ability to earn EXP regenerates. Nonetheless, it’s frustrating that you can’t invest as much time as you want in whatever class you want, and earn full EXP while doing so. The developers say they’re just trying to give casual players a chance to compete by holding obsessive players back, but that’s really no excuse for a game company to kneecap its biggest fans.
The crafting system is new to the world of MMOs, too. It’s essentially a minigame. Your character hunches over a bench, and an orb on the bench glows in constantly changing colors. You choose from a menu of crafting styles (one crafts quickly, another carefully, and the third a balance of the two), and depending on what color the orb is when you click your selection, the process will have a higher or lower chance of failing. You have to repeat this until a progress meter fills. This is another aspect of the game that will send you scrambling around the online Final Fantasy forums trying to make heads or tails of it (no one in the game tells you which color you’re aiming for, and even the forums contradict each other), but it’s a way to make digital crafting interesting.
FFXIV certainly has its share of flaws, and as with any MMO, the investment it requires (both money and time) is significant. But there’s a lot to love about what Square Enix has presented here, and the company has always shown a willingness to stand behind its products. With some tweaks to ease new players into the process and a great plot, this could one day be the best MMO the world has ever seen.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.8 Graphics
These are hands-down the best visuals we’ve seen in an MMO. 3.2 Control
They’re a bit clunky, especially if you use the keyboard instead of a controller. 4.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Classic Final Fantasy-style music and great sound effects. 4.0 Play Value
It’s hard to get the hang of the game, but there’s a lot to do here, and we can’t wait to see how FFXIV evolves. 4.2 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.