Welcome to the first installment in what I hope will become a recurring feature here at GameCritics. Exploring Eorzea is my attempt to shed some light into the experience of playing Square Enix's much maligned MMO, Final Fantasy XIV, without requiring you to grab a PC that can run it and a copy of the game. As with my reviews, there's no agenda here—just a series of off the cuff remarks and observations that chronicle my time in the game's world. Enjoy.
As someone who spent many thousands of hours (and no, I'll not state the exact number here—it's been repeated enough times on the podcast already) with Final Fantasy XI, few folks were more excited than I when Square Enix surprised everyone at E3 a few years back with a trailer for Final Fantasy XIV. Longtime fans knew SE had been working on a new MMO for some time, but when the trailer debuted with Galkans, Tarus, and Elves, it was extra cool—if only because we were basically getting a high def sequel to FFXI.
For those who didn't play Square's first MMO, a bit of backtracking is probably in order. Final Fantasy XI is about to celebrate its nine year anniversary. As someone who played an awful lot during those years, I can tell you it was the most fantastically addicting/infuriating game I've ever played. Square took the MMO philosophy of the "time sink" (an MMO game design philosophy that makes completing even simple tasks take longer than they probably should in order to keep gamers playing—and paying their monthly subscription fee) to new heights. With a game set-up that essentially required playing in six person groups after level 14 through to endgame at 75, most players put hundreds of hours on their clock just sitting around with their looking-for-group flag up (because, while the game had a variety of jobs, not all of them were liked or viable. Pick the wrong job and you were likely to spend lots of time sitting on your ass. Ask any Dragoon circa 2005). Everything in FFXI took forever. Even airship travel, which was designed to speed things up, required a several minute flight and as long as a fifteen minute wait for your ship to re-dock at port if you missed it.
Despite the numerous flaws (including optimizing the game for the PlayStation 2—which meant Xbox 360 owners and PC players were stuck with some hideously ugly graphics—something that at least the PC players could get around, in spite of SE's disapproval), when FFXI did something right, it really did it right. Unlike the exponentially more popular World of Warcraft, FFXI was better at telling stories. The Chains of Promathia expansion (another huge time sink—just getting your final reward for beating it required running around Vana'diel for several hours…) had a story so good that it literally negated almost all of the other flaws of the expansion (which were many—level capped fights that required buying and storing new pieces of low level equipment, millions of dollars worth of food/medicines for the fights, incredibly difficult bosses before they nerfed it all to Hell, and so on…). WoW certainly has its charms (I played a few thousand hours of that game as well…) but for me, FFXI was always the better overall experience despite the problems. I realize that puts me in the minority.
Anyway, FFXI had issues, and SE was typically deaf to the complaints of players (particularly players who weren't Japanese…). That has changed now apparently, as FFXI is overflowing with new content that players love according to a friend who still has an account—too bad it took them nine years to figure out how to make the game more fun than frustrating.
The optimist in me, who is often completely buried by my cynical and sarcastic side, hoped that maybe SE would take the knowledge gleaned from FFXI's many missteps and make Final Fantasy XIV the awesome game I always wanted. If you know anything about how FFXIV's launch went down, you now also know why I'm not an optimist more often.
In their bizarre rush to beat WoW: Cataclysm to market, SE essentially released an unfinished game into the wild. Paying players basically became the company's beta testers and were asked to endure a terrible game filled with bad ideas that should have been caught and corrected before they were coded into the game in the first place. No auction house? No way to search for items being sold by thousands of players? Really SE?
Naturally, the launch went poorly, and just as quickly as thousands of players signed up, the majority of them bolted right back to FFXI, WoW, or their other MMO of choice. Final Fantasy XIV joined games like Daikatana in the annals of gaming history as the punchline to an unpleasant joke.
This is the point where we have to give SE some credit, though. In the old days, SE's attitude would have been to put on their best Eric Cartman voice and say "screw you, guys—we do what we want." SE would have steadfastly refused to acknowledge that the game sucked more than a porn star and blackhole combined and simply expected you to deal with it. Times have changed.
Square realized that FFXIV was a giant stinking turd of epic proportions and actually decided to fix it. They brought in a new producer and new team members and these guys have set about trying to rebuild a game that is live from scratch. It's an ambitious (and on some levels, completely foolish) undertaking, but you have to tip your hat to Square for at least trying. New bossman Yoshi-P keeps players up to date on what they're working on, what he's thinking as far as game direction, and listens to feedback (as much as you can, anyway—as anyone who's frequented an MMO message board knows, there's no making everyone happy in these games…). Will these changes work out in the long run? Will players put aside their bad feelings and negative impressions from the launch and give the game a chance? I don't know.
I do know that the game has improved from launch (which I wasn't part of, but many friends were) and the new teams seem determined to make this thing better. I can't even venture to guess if FFXIV will ever make money for Square, but I can say that as a worst case scenario, I suspect it will survive as a free-to-play MMO with some micro-transactions offsetting costs—like Lord of the Rings Online. I think most of us would prefer the game get fixed to the point where it's viable as a subscription title (because I think many agree those MMOs are better overall—no offense to the F2P games), but at the very least I suspect the game will survive for the foreseeable future. Maybe that's just my optimist side crawling out again, though.
Okay, so with all of that out of the way, let's actually talk about the FFXIV experience.
First off, signing up is a giant pain in the ass. SE clearly learned nothing from the whole stupid PlayOnline thing from FFXI. They've dropped that this time out, but to pay for the game, you have to sign up for a third party service. In the wake of the recent PSN disaster, I'm wary of giving anyone online my CC info—let alone some third party company I've never even heard of. Navigating their site is far more difficult than it should be, and I shudder to think of the hoops I'll have to jump through when I eventually decide to cancel. Boo on that, SE. The game is currently free to play for the indefinite future, but of course they still want your CC info anyway.
Once that's done, players can select their character's race, sex, and job. The races are the same as they were in FFXI for the most part, only they've renamed them all. Tarutaru are now known as Lalafell, for example. Adding to the diversity is that each race has two groups based on geography. There are appearance differences but that seemed to be it. Of course, I refuse to call any race by their new name—that's just how I roll.
In FFXI choosing a race was complicated by the fact that certain races were better at certain jobs. For example, if you wanted to be a mage of some sort, selecting a Galkan made the early levels much harder than if you chose Taru. Race limitations could be overcome through equipment, but most people looked at Taru paladins or Galkan white mages and immediately thought "noob." FFXIV basically eliminates this issue completely because, well, at the current time, stats are meaningless. I can hear the cries of "blasphemy!" already. I suppose saying stats are "meaningless" isn't entirely fair or accurate. They do matter to some degree, and adding points to them at level up will improve your character in small ways. As a whole, though, stats aren't really that big a deal at the current time. I'm not sure they ever will be.
Once you get past the disappointment, a cool thing is likely to occur to you: freed from the number crunching that has come to dominate MMOs (where theorists like to cite complicated mathematical formulas to prove that using a Rod of Undisputable Geekery +1 will give you .03642 more damage per second than the Wand of Never Getting Laid +2), you're now free to be anything. SE listened to player complaints that the FFXI race system was a little too confining and worked to fix it. As you'll come to see as we delve deeper into FFXIV, they fixed it by going overboard in the opposite direction, but hey—at least they tried.
With your race selected, it's time to pick your sex (which should hopefully be self explanatory…). The Galkans are still male only, and the Mithra are still all cat girls (which should please every pervy otaku out there). All the other races have the standard male/female option. Once done with that, you can customize your appearance, select your god and zodiac sign (this, so far, apparently does absolutely nothing in the game…) and name your character. Naming your character is interesting, if only because you get a first and last name this time out. I love the idea of this because it's one more level of personalization, but since the average toolbag online can't be bothered to even think up a single original name, the odds of them coming up with two are astronomical. Prepare to see lots of shit like Ham Burger. This will only get worse once the masses of American players invade the game. If there's one thing I've learned during my time spent playing MMOs, it's that Americans are the absolute worst at naming characters. I've no idea why this is, but xXxSefiroth420xXx is something you'd see pretty regularly in FFXI.
After that, you can choose your starting city. There are three in total, and selecting one over the other two seems largely inconsequential. You may want to choose one that houses your job's guild or the guild of a craft you'd like to level, but honestly it doesn't matter. Traveling around in FFXIV is a lot easier and less dangerous than it was in FFXI, so if you need something in one of the other cities, you should be able to hike there without much trouble. Picking your server is basically the same deal. If you have friends who play, go to their server. If you don't have friends who play, godspeed. Servers seem largely underpopulated right now which means making friends as a new player can be a challenge given the inherent clique nature of MMOs in the first place. Add in that at least half of your server population will be Japanese (I can't tell yet if the Japanese FFXIV players hate Americans as much as the FFXI players did, but I suspect they will in time. I have played with some very nice Japanese folks in this game though—which is a pleasant change from the old game where they'd ask you to join them, find out you were American, and reply with <English>? <Do you speak it>? <no thanks> in the autotranslator) and it becomes that much more challenging.
Somewhere in that character creation process, you get to pick your job. I forget where that step is exactly (I did this a few weeks ago…sue me), but like the old Prego sauce commercials used to say, "it's in there." Interestingly enough, players have a ton of options right off the bat. The game breaks things down into four groups: Disciples of War, Disciples of Magic, Disciples of the Land, and Disciples of the Hand. War and magic are self explanatory. War gets a lot of jobs—Archer, Lancer, Gladiator, Marauder, and Pugilist. Archer is the equivalent of a ranger in FFXI and is a DPS class. Lancer is like a dragoon, Marauder is sort of like a warrior from my understanding, Puglist is like a monk, and Gladiator is your Paladin tanking equivalent. Magic only gets two jobs: Thaumaturge and Conjurer. Thaumaturge is sort of like a Red Mage/Black Mage hybrid. Conjurer, which sounds like a Summoner, is more of a White Mage/Black Mage.
You're not forced to pick one of those jobs, though—if the idea of combat is boring to you (why are you playing an MMO again?) you can instead select to be Disciple of Land or Hand. Land guys get to be botanists, miners, or fishermen. They scour the land collecting raw materials, which give them skill points and allow them to level up like anyone else. Disciples of the Hand are the game's craftsmen—Weavers, Armorsmith, Blacksmiths, Goldsmiths, Alchemists, Culinarians, Carpenters, and leatherworkers. They level up by making crafts.
The beauty of Final Fantasy XIV is that no matter what you select, you can change in an instant. Job class is switched simply by equipping a weapon for that job. Carrying around a variety of weapons means you can switch and level any job at any given moment. Spiffy, even if it leads to a server filled with a population of jack of all trades characters. Not sure who Square will deal with that at endgame, but I suspect it might be a problem.
So, with the character creation system explained, here's what I did: I made a female Dunesfolk Lalafell named Suspiria. This is a pretty much exact recreation of my FFXI character, who was a 75 White Mage and Red Mage when I quit. The new Suspiria is a Thaumaturge, because apparently THMs do some wild damage (I like big numbers…) and can solo monsters that normally require a group at high levels. I'd post pics, but I'll be damned if I can figure out how to take a screenshot in-game yet. Maybe next installment.
Speaking of next installment, come back next time when I'll explain what playing the actual game is like as a low level noob. And you thought only the games were a time sink…