While the world has been watching and waiting for the news that’s coming out of E3, there’s been another event that’s been grabbing attention. FFXIV’s newest Ultimate-series raid, The Weapon’s Refrain, is here, and the game’s top raid groups have been vying to be the first to clear. It’s been an absolutely crazy week on XIV Twitch watching this unfold, with people discovering what worked — and, indeed, what didn’t work — with each passing hour. (Warning: Some spoilers for the fight lie ahead if you want to go in blind.)
The fight is not, as was predicted many months ago, Alexander ultimate. Instead, it’s a whistle-stop tour of the three early primals from A Realm Reborn, Titan, Garuda and Ifrit, followed by a clash with the Ultima Weapon itself. It’s incredibly impressive just to watch — the Unending Coil of Bahamut wasn’t all that flashy, but it was still interesting to see on streams from a mechanical perspective. Ultima, though, is a real visual spectacle, with fantastic audio to match.
It’s good, too, because these are heights most of us will never reach — you need to have beaten Kefka Savage to even get in, which only a small minority of players have achieved, and even then, what’s on offer here is far beyond whatever the killer clown throws at you. You can watch a full run of the fight here:
To put it in the simplest possible terms, imagine the hardest parts of the primals you’ve faced early in ARR’s story — now imagine that with no item level advantage, or indeed any advantage at all. Then crank the difficulty up by several factors, mix everything together, and throw in scores of new mechanics. To say it’s hard is a gross understatement; this is easily some of the hardest content in any MMORPG.
To put it in perspective, it took less than a day for the world first clear of Sigmascape Savage. This took just under a week, with the big guy going down at around 13:00 UTC on Sunday to Entropy. Note that it wasn’t easy: One of those in the clear group wrote on Reddit that they spent an absolutely unfathomable 21 hours in their last raid when they finally got the kill. It goes without saying, then, that normal groups who spend a few hours a week and aren’t world-standard can expect to spend at least a few months on this.
What really makes this raid really unique is that the earlier phases have an impact on what comes later. My friends who are progging this fight — at a much more relaxed pace than the world first groups — were pleased to be able to say they beat Garuda after the first few hours they spent in there… Only to discover that the way they killed her was not the correct method at all. You see, there’s a buff the party can gain through ‘waking’ the primal, in this case by taking extra damage from Garuda. It makes the phase more difficult, but without that buff, you’ll hit a wall later on making further progress impossible.
It feeds into a wider feeling that I get which is that Ultimate is where the devs are doing their finest work. That comes from someone who’s currently taking a break from raiding. It’s a melting pot of ideas where everything is thrown at the wall and tested without regard for how many people will be able to clear it. But it’s clear that this fight has been designed with the best — and worst — parts of Unending Coil in mind, with a lot of key lessons learned.
The reason the world-first clear came sooner is not that it’s easier — if anything, the latter phases are said to be even harder. It’s that the difficulty curve hits players much more naturally. Nael, the second phase of UCoB, wasn’t all that complex mechanically, but it was so fast that most groups were tied up in knots by it.
With the earlier phases being easier, seeing what comes towards the end and actually practising the mechanics is a much more manageable process. This makes it less of a slugfest for groups that can’t prog for 12 hours straight, and means that progress will come at a consistent pace for those who persevere. That’s much healthier for raid groups and the content itself — I and many others stalled at Nael, which was a brutally unforgiving hurdle.
I suppose ‘brutally unforgiving’ is the point of Ultimate, but Producer Naoki Yoshida and his team seem to have hit a sweet spot, creating an epic, brutal fight that scales up at a brilliant pace without losing any of its bite. By all accounts, it’s an excellent fight — and a stellar demonstration of what PvE in an MMO can look like at its best.
One final thing: Back in the land of casual play, the greed-only 24-man raids I wrote about last week are now a thing of the past. Following substantial backlash and criticism of the decision to make it so need-rolls were off-limits in alliance raids, Yoshi-P has posted on the official forums to say that the change would be reverted and they’ve since hotfixed it into history. Rejoice!