A Love-Hate Relationship
Final Fantasy XIV is one of those games that ramp up on a curve of love vs hate. One of those games that are highly hyped, not easy to learn but once you get going, you end up loving it. Some of them turn into a parabola where bugs or rotten AI send you back down the curve into hate. My FFXIV experience might yet turn into a parabola where I descend into “hate” again but I’m not there yet. This is a “First Look” at the game which really is a reviewer’s first impression of the game after a few hours of play.
Let’s start off with character creation: In the first place, Final Fantasy has never given its players and fans a whole lot of choice where it comes to customization. FFXIV promised “more” but aside from the hair and skin color, there isn’t a whole lot of “more.” Still, the combination / permutation of several different choices for height, hair, eyebrows, facial shapes, scar/facial hair/tattoos do give you diverse characters. The customization process is slow, the characters pulling up slowly and if there’s a way of rotating them, to see a hair style from the back, for example, I never found it. Which segues to the “hate” part.
The opening sequences for all three of the towns are beautiful. Simply gorgeous, and foretells the beautiful graphics and scenery you will discover in Eorzea. The first character I created was a Disciple of Magic. Square Enix decided to make the opening movie cutscene interactive. It looks really marvelous. Your character stars in the movie. Simply fabulous. I selected the town of Gridania for my starting town and was rewarded by the same opening cutscene I’d seen at PAX. I was prepared to defend myself. Um… only… How? The tutorial urged me to get into an Active stance. I stared at the screen feeling like a noob. Do what? After much clicking, trial and error, and peering at the key-map in the manual, turning on the lights and getting a page magnifier, I finally found it and moved into active and passive and back again, ran around and clicked like a fool. I began to HATE this game. I started talking to myself. “Okay… you’re the old Auntie Gamer… you’ve played MMOs for over 10 years. Think!” I pressed the number 1. Wonder of wonders! The hotkey bar popped up! I was golden. With the assistance of the other NPCs, I defeated the wolves. Yay for feeling heroic! Never mind that as a Botanist, I threw a rock at a monster as big as a house, with four rows of teeth in the city of Ul’dah.
The Awareness and Realization
Since I had a conference to attend the week after launch, my first inclination was to rush through the game, power through to get a feel for it so I could write it up. This was effectively stymied by the difficulty of just being able to play and the frustration thereof. I couldn’t draw my sword. I got double-teamed by the first critters I encountered. Lag was so bad and server response so slow that I had to wait quite a few seconds sometimes for NPCs to populate my screen when I entered a building.
As I continued to play the game, I began to compare my experience with FFXIV to EverQuest. Although EverQuest was a much simpler game, it was also not fraught with tutorials and directions beyond a “how to move” but I had run into the same sort of issues, getting so lost in the dark elf town of Neriak I deleted and created a new character, getting killed by a bat because I was a mage and kept getting interrupted trying to kill it using spells instead of a dagger. I didn’t know how to play the game, and the game wasn’t teaching me how to play it. I was also trying to play this game like I played EverQuest2 or WoW or any other MMO I had deadlines on - power through the lower levels by gathering all the quests I possibly could. I kept forgetting that this is Final Fantasy and written for Final Fantasy fans, not the mass market. Truly, it is a niche game.
Taking it easier the second time around, I took time to smell the roses, to explore and simply enjoy the experience, and found that if you follow the directions the first NPC you encounter gives you, there is actually a script, and as you follow it through, it teaches you the game and directs you to different parts of town and gets your character equipped with what you need for your starting class.
Once I discovered the harvesting professions though, I was hooked. They are all mini-games. In laggy areas, this could be incredibly difficult as, for example, the Botanist has to aim to swing his hatchet and has to do this several times to get a good cut of wood. I have always loved the crafting professions in MMOs and for a First Look at Final Fantasy XIV, despite the lag, I was now in love with the game.
Final Fantasy XIV is definitely not for every casual MMO gamer off the street. It was not created that way, and the developers make no excuses for their creation. Would I have loved for it to have a more intuitive UI? You betcha boots. But is it a worse game for having to actually learn the system? I would say not, but would appeal for a better tutorial and hot-tip system. The icons for combat, inventory and menu are small and unobtrusive – too much so, for the beginner, but perfect now that I know what they do and where they are. I didn’t manage to take but two screenshots – once I searched the web and found out how to do it – pressing Scroll Lock and Print Screen at the same time. It removed the UI then took the screenshot, resulting in a nice posed screenshot. The others I tried to take during quests and combat, did not work. Perhaps user error, perhaps something else.
I liked that the towns weren’t homogenous. Not only did they have their own character, look and layout, Trainers and Guilds aren’t found in every campsite and town across the world. If you wanted to train a specific skill, you had to travel to the town which housed the guild. In some ways, you could even call this game “old school.”
The Good – Final Fantasy XIV is a beautiful game. Lush, graphically detailed landscapes and character models, engaging mini-games for crafting, separate classes for harvesting and crafting, aside from combat classes, memorable music and movie cutscenes, and a promise of really customizable character career advancement in terms of trainable skills in their Armory system. If you actually followed the script, the tutorial (after you’ve figured out the basics) actually does get you up to speed.
The Bad – the utter lack of instructions for just playing the game. I think most players will agree that they want to play a game, not search for instructions on the web on how to play the game. The manual – if you can call it that is pretty much lacking. It gives you a description of the races, the key-map and short descriptions of everything else. There isn’t a Prima (or other brand) Guide that you could pick up when the game launched, so I went into this experience blind. A glowing icon or a hot-tip at the right time would have done wonders for my first experience.
The Ugly – the lag. The gosh-awful lag. Now I know it’s still noobie days and the starting areas are crowded, so I hope it will ease, but some evenings, I would have said the game was unplayable.