We have had a couple of weekends of Beta 3 activity and we are free to talk about and share images from the tests. Beta3 has us returning to Limsa Lominsa and Ul'Dah as well as the Gridania from earlier stages. We are, therefore, seeing much of the launch content, at least through the mid-30 levels of a 50 level game.
Overall FFXIV: ARR is a very enjoyable and pretty game. There are clear signs of a Final Fantasy-worthy central story. The music in the game is well done and adapts to the day/night cycle. Game performance is quite good, lots of people are running around throwing lots of abilities and the client remains stable and smooth.
But that is all pretty sterile stuff. There are a number of things I am really starting to like in this beta. Things that are both promising for the upcoming release and which serve to differentiate FFXIV:ARR from its competitors. In this column, I want to touch on five of these things. These are bits which I enjoy, but that is certainly subject to one's own taste, some will certainly differ on their interpretation and enjoyment.
1. The Armory System
In its initial form, MMO's tended to be one character playing one class. That single class often filled a single role. In the modern form, classes and roles are a lot more fluid and FFXIV:ARR is no exception. They have retained the armory system from 1.0, in armory you change your class simply by changing your weapon. Running Gladiator but your party needs a Conjurer? Put on a staff and, assuming you took the time to level up the conjurer class, you are now the party's conjurer.
One problem that class fluidity brings to MMO's is gear management. Each of those roles requires different types of gear. In some games, like RIFT, you get the ability to save gear loadouts, but that gear still clutters up your inventory. The more roles you play, the more your bags look like a travelling wardrobe.
FFXIV:ARR has what is currently the best in industry solution to this issue. They have given us the armory chest. This chest is a separate set of inventory, specifically for gear. It has tabs for each inventory slot and each tab can hold a good number of items. That means you have multiple weapons, multiple breastplates, multiple boots, etc. Each and every piece of gear is in its own tab and easy to find.
But it gets better. You also get the ability to save gear sets on your character panel. Choose which gear your Marauder wants to wear, go to the character panel and save that set. From that point on simply equipping the Marauder set changes your class and loads the gear. Updating gear sets takes no more than a right click menu choice on the gear set name itself.
I would love to see a bit more in this system. For example, it would be great if the tabs of inventory had color coded sections for me to keep my Disciple of War gear distinct from my Disciple of Land gear. The current system works, works well, and is a major step up from anything I have seen in MMO's. It shows an understanding of gameplay and a recognition of what competitors are doing, something FFXIV 1.0 failed to accomplish.
2. Progressive Dungeons
I like dungeons.
I could spend most of my MMO experiences on dungeons and raids and never feel like I missed anything. So, a good dungeon design is a big part of what I value in MMOs. I have now played the first three dungeons in FFXIV, all designed for level 15 to 19 characters. Not only do I like them, I like what I see across the three.
In the first dungeon, Sastasha, you get a pirate themed dungeon with very trivial difficulty. You have one trash mob with a mechanic to it. Your have four boss level encounters. Each of the encounters iterates on the same common boss mechanic. None of it is all that hard; it's a fairly forgiving dungeon.
You move on to the second dungeon, Tam Tara Deepcroft, and things get slightly more complex. The primary encounters are all multi-mob and multi-stage. The final fight is similar to the final fight of Sastasha, but the battle arena shape and location of the adds changes the complexity just slightly. All the same, teams should complete this dungeon without a major hassle.
Then you get to Copperbell Mines. The crawl itself gets a bit tougher as encounters can change on the fly. You get some surprises as you move along. The final two boss encounters each provide a unique set of mechanics to counter. Suddenly, you aren't just playing tank and spank. Rather, you find yourself splitting up your team slightly, with each pair having a different objective in the encounter.
In other words, the dungeons build complexity. There is also noticeably more complexity in the third dungeon than in the first two. Yoshi has been very vocal about his hopes to grow the MMO market. FFXIV:ARR is clearly designed for both the new and experienced player. Experienced players will find the game quite easy up front, but they will start to find things "more up to their speed" as their leveling progresses.
New players, on the other hand, won't be overwhelmed. More importantly though, they also won't be coddled all the way to max level. Rather, they will be given a few more complex tasks every few levels. By the time they reach the endgame, they should be very comfortable with what that means.
The Final Fantasy franchise has a few common themes and a very important recurring one is the notion of primals. Primals are fantastic extra-planar beings the party must fight. FFXIV:ARR has been teasing us for awhile with hints and videos of different primals. Well, in Beta-3 we got our first dose of one.
Right after you get your hands dirty in the first three dungeons, you are presented with the first primal battle. In classic FFXIV fashion, this happens after a pretty nice story moment, placing you in a position to encounter The Lord of the Inferno.
Ifrit makes an entrance worthy of a primal. It is a very cinematic way to come into the game and establishes him as a significant opponent. The fight itself is a fair boss battle by MMO standards. There are a number of player responsibility checks and stages. As the fight moves through these, the party needs to adapt or wipe out.
After the fight, I strongly encourage you to pay close attention to the subsequent story line. FFXIV:ARR is not a sugar-coated MMO. That happy ending upon defeating Ifrit is undermined by an event event happening off-stage. One which you won't become aware of until a bit farther down the storyline.
Bad things happen to good people in FFXIV:ARR. Some writer at Square Enix has clearly been taking cues from George R.R. Martin.
4. Layers of gameplay
I have already touched on this in my discussion of dungeon difficulty. This game builds upon itself in layers. You start off playing a very simple, plain vanilla MMO. You get quests, you kill things, you make progress. Then, the story starts to add some complexity and it does so in a way that teaches you while entertaining you.
First, some of the progression quests will stomp you. You need to pay attention to dialog in and out of the quest. You need to learn from failures and adjust your tactics. One example of this is the level 15 quest Duty, Honor, Country in Ul'Dah. Run into that quest willy-nilly and you will be repeating it right after a return to your bind point. However, if you remember a lesson learned on a preceding quest and pay attention to dialog in the level 15 quest itself, the encounter is a lot more manageable.
The game also rolls out new game elements after these gating quests. Completing the aforementioned quest in Ul'Dah gives you access to airship and the ability to quickly and cheaply move between cities. Completing your level 10 class quest unlocks the armory system and the ability to play other classes. Completing your level 15 class quest unlocks a unique, role-defining job ability. It goes on like this throughout the game. Finish a major story milestone, get a new game element unlocked.
5. Group-gated character progression
Character progression in FFXIV:ARR is unabashedly group oriented.
Make no mistake, soloing abounds in FFXIV. You can solo every class up to level 50 from what I can tell and you won't suffer any restrictions on leveling pace and opportunity.
However, there are a number of game systems that you won't have access to unless you occasionally get into a group. Getting a retainer to manage your banking and merchanting requires completing a specific class quest. Joining a grand company, the FFXIV equivalent of factions, requires completing a specific quest line. Getting a chocobo is part of the grand company experience.
Most of these quests are party oriented quests. Either it's moving through the starter dungeons, primals, or other group tasks. The group is a core part of the game and the game continuously nudges you into grouping... something sorely lacking in a lot of games these days.
The modern MMO era has been one of atomizing game play. At best you see parallel solo and group paths. It is rare, and refreshing, to see an MMO designed with the party as a primary goal. It is also surprising to see just how subtly this has been done. You never feel like the game is mandating grouping, you clearly have a very robust solo game, but you are being nudged and rewarded for partying up.
Yoshi has set out to put together an MMO that is accessible to new players but rewarding to experienced players. He has waxed prolific on the importance of social interaction as a core part of account retention, while building a game that is still engaging and rewarding playing alone. He wants a game with content breadth, giving you lots of choices on where and how to play each gaming session.
Has he pulled it off?
We won't really know until we see the end game, of course. We really may not know until we see what their post-launch development entails. At this point, though, there really seems to be something special coming together in FFXIV:ARR. It just might accomplish what they are setting out to do.
It won't appeal to everyone and it is not trying to be all things to all people. In particular, if you are looking for an action combat game, this won't be it. There is definitely movement in combat, but it is built around a tab-targetting, action-bar combat system. Personally, that is the system I like, but others will want TERA or Neverwinter combat. Its emphasis on partying for progression will not work for everyone, but there are dozens of MMOs built around solo gameplay. Quests have map indicators and mob indicators as do other MMOs, but if you aren't paying attention to the NPCs, you will miss key information (e.g. "hey, you could avoid a lot of that damage if you got out of the way of his lance attacks,") and you will fail. Failure isn't really a part of a lot of newer MMOs but it will rear its head, sparingly, in FFXIV. What really stands out in FFXIV is that it seems to be incorporating newer innovations while staying true to classic MMO elements. As Sony is discovering in the new round of console wars, sometimes differentiation happens by staying the same!
The real question, for the experienced MMO player involves the content roll out. The game is very simple early on, by design. New features are added in reasonably fast and old features start to become complex. Will it be fast and complex enough to keep a fickle fanbase engaged? Will an endgame with dungeons, raiding, dynamic events, and the like all come together? Right now it all seems very promising, if you haven't gotten into the beta yet I would advise trying to access the upcoming beta 4. If you are an old FFXIV customer, you really should give it a second look. But give yourself some time to get far enough to see the many layers!
Ryahl / Ryahl is a columnist for MMORPG.Com. He is also the host and primary author for Eorzea Reborn and TSWGuides. He has been playing MMO’s since 1999 and spends most of his MMO time underground in dungeons. You can follow him on Twitter @EorzeaReborn or just argue with him in comments anywhere he posts.