[14 August 2013]
Before we begin: I’m a member of a fairly common group of gamers for whom the very idea of an MMORPG is intimidating.
It’s not so much the scale of the games in the genre; I was a PC gamer in the age that introduced the Massive Singleplayer Offline Role Playing Game (Hello, Planescape: Torment. Hello, Elder Scrolls.), so I’m used to the idea that I could be immersed in a world for years, if that’s truly what I want. What’s intimidating is other people. I’ve been involved in too many Halo experiences with kids less than half my age laughing at my lack of skill. I’ve been a part of too many randomly-assembled NHL teams on which I’m constantly berated for not pulling my weight. I’m not a fan of conflict, and bringing a random assortment of other players into my game pretty much ensures that some of those players will be the punchers, and I’ll be the bag.
Mercifully, interaction is something that is introduced relatively slowly in Square Enix’s latest attempt at making Final Fantasy XIV something that people will actually play. Carrying with it the double meaning of the subtitle of A Realm Reborn, this truly is Square Enix’s chance to win back an audience that had turned Final Fantasy XIV into a punchline.
(This is where I should note that I was playing a beta, and as close as we are to the game’s release, it should be understood that some of the features, problems, and other notable aspects that I mention here may or may not be present in the final retail game. Also, I was playing on a PS3, and I’m honestly not sure how much of a difference that makes.)
Character creation is adequate, if somewhat limited. Say what you will about the psychology of character creation, in hindsight it seems appropriate that I would pick a diminutive but scarred Lalafell hero, a conjurer whose primary purpose in a group setting is to support more than it is to fight. I suspect my intentions were to run around healing people, doing everything I could to put smiles on the faces of those I’d be fighting with, rather than running into battles trying to be a hero, failing miserably, and being mercilessly mocked for it.
To my surprise and delight, however, I found it easy to play little Johnny Winterbalm (my Lalafell hero) as a loner in this strange land.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn does a brilliant job of easing a newcomer—whether to the game, or to MMORPGs as a whole—into the world of Hydaelyn. Say what you will about a game that devotes its first five to seven hours to essentially existing as an oversized tutorial, it’s the perfect way to ease players into the mechanics. “Here’s where you buy things. Here’s how you do quests. Here’s how you look at your map. Here’s how you interact with things. Here’s how you fight.” There are so many concurrent systems at play here that it would be easy to become overwhelmed with the sheer number of menu options and configuration parameters, but they are introduced so gradually and explained so thoroughly as to simply become part of a growing knowledge base as they are introduced. The scaffolding of options is brilliantly achieved. Maybe this makes for a slow start to veterans of the genre (to say nothing of veterans of Final Fantasy XIV who have somehow decided to come back for more), but for a developer trying to appeal to a new audience, it’s perfect.
That said, there are some quirks that get in the way. The maps and navigation can be terribly confusing, and it is largely up to the player to keep track of the various place names and how to get to them. If you manage to make your way to the general vicinity of a goal, a marker shows up on your map to help you the rest of the way, but there’s no way (as of the beta) to figure out how to get to any specific area, which makes for a lot of aimless exploration.
Again, maybe you like the idea of actually having to familiarize yourself with the land in order to succeed. It seems like it could be an intentional design choice, and it does bring you closer to your environment (even if you’re gritting your teeth as you do so). It can certainly make for some awfully long slogs through some very similar looking landscapes, though.
As for the multiplayer, it first manifests as competition. Many players have the same goals to start with, and when you’re told to kill a certain number of a given enemy, other players who are trying to complete the same tasks can start to get in the way. More than once, I ended up camping near an enemy spawn point just so I could be have the first crack at a given baddie to up my kill count. In the cooperative sense, wandering into the game’s “FATEs”, which are essentially large-ish scale group battles, happens more often than you’d think, and there’s a wonderful feeling to being saved by a higher-level cohort when losing what had to that point been a solo battle. Once you manage the basics and open up some of the story, of course, group battles become more common and much more necessary, but it was never difficult to find a group to join up with (which might have something to do with the fact that there are plenty of groups of thugs looking for a healer).
I don’t know that Final Fantasy XIV does anything particularly new, save for a few minor features that don’t have a lot to do with the gameplay. Still, it slowly stripped away my trepidation and made me feel welcome in its world. Given the preconceptions I went into it with, that alone is something of a remarkable feat.