The headstart for the people that bought the collectors' edition of Final Fantasy XIV is drawing to a close tomorrow, with the regular edition being released to retail.
Thus the week that the people who couldn't resist the shinies offered in the box, or keep themselves from playing earlier, is over and the game will have officially launched for everyone.
While I've personally haven't had as much time to play the game as I would have wanted to, it's a good time to take a look at the first impressions the game left me with. This is in no way a review, it will not receive a grade and everything here is based on the few hours of play that I've managed so far. Everything is subject to change as we all dig deeper into Final Fantasy XIV and the world of Eorzea.
Of all MMOs currently available on the market, Final Fantasy XIV is one of the prettiest ones - if not the prettiest, period. The character design is wonderful and the environments look great. I always liked how Vana'diel, the world of Final Fantasy XI, looked - but that game is getting old by now, and its graphics with it. A large part of Eorzea might be built up by long corridors, which might get in the way of your immersion, but personally I haven't suffered from that yet.
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The idea that you change job, i.e. classes, by just changing your main weapon is cool as well and you don't have to worry about picking an initial class that you end up not liking. Final Fantasy XI had a similar system, where everyone could do everything, but you still had to level your character up to level 20 and finish a tricky questline before that option became available. Here you can do it from the start, which is nice. While this open-ended gameplay might not suit everyone, I personally enjoy how much you can tailor your character to how you prefer to play - abilities you learn from one job can then be applied to the next one you pick.
I am not a big fan of strong storylines in MMOs, as I believe it takes away a lot of the personality of the character you play since everyone is at a basic level the same (we're all Chosen Ones in Age of Conan, for example). But Final Fantasy XIV's storyline cutscenes are so good and well-directed that I have a hard time dismissing them. The story itself is also quite...odd, which I think is at it should be. Your mileage might very much vary.
As a big bonus for old Final Fantasy XI-players, Square have done away with the awful PlayOnline that was such a pain to navigate and use. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.
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That said, all is not well in the state of Eorzea. Final Fantasy XIV can be terribly unapproachable and it doesn't really give you many clues or tutorials about how stuff actually works. That might be great for some people, absolutely, who love to feel lost and explore the game mechanics without any prior knowledge. For me, it felt mostly confusing and made the initial hours in the game less fun and smooth. I have this notion that a MMO should present itself from its best angle straight away, to grab the player and immerse him or her in the world as quick as possible. which might have gotten in the way.
What's currently even worse is the lag. A room that is empty one minute can suddenly become filled with players and NPCs the next, which makes shopping for weapons or armor a pain. A spell that has an advertised casting speed of three seconds can take over ten seconds for me, while the enemies don't seem to have a care in the world and happily beat me to death. This might come down to everything from where I'm located versus the server or that my server is over-populated, but in the end it's all the same for me right now. The client chugs away at a terribly slow pace, from menus (and there's a lot of them) to fighting.
I'm also not a very big fan of the "Guildleve"-system, the quests that are supposed to help you level between story-missons. The system in itself is not a bad idea - quests available from a counter or a giant floaty crystal that send you to kill things or craft items - that resets from time to time. The problem is how cumbersome they are to activate, which might either be by design or because of lag. Without any real form of fast-travel available right now (give me my Chocobo!), there's a lot of running back and forth to do as well. Luckily you do get a teleport whenever you've finished a "leve", though.
Final Fantasy XIV is obviously designed to be a console game, with the Playstation 3 version coming out next year. The whole UI, and the way the game is controlled, is clearly adapted to this. The people that hoped for a better UI compared to the UI in the PC-version of Final Fantasy XI will be disappointed. The menus aren't smooth, chatting is way too cumbersome for a MMO and in general the game lacks a lot of options you might be used to in your PC-games. You might find it a lot easier to play with a gamepad.
The biggest "ugly" factor of Final Fantasy XIV right now doesn't come down to anything actually in the game - it's how the matter of payment is handled. You can either sign up for a third-party service and pay that way, or buy the virtual currency "Crysta" straight from Square Enix and use that to pay your subscription fees. Of course you can't buy the exact amount of Crysta needed to pay for one month, so if you don't go for multi-month plans you will pay more and sit with extra Crysta on your hands when all is said and done. It's far from user-friendly, in other words.
You also have to pay more for each extra character you want to play as. While every character can do everything you don't really need more than one, but some people might want to try out several different races or roll new characters for roleplaying purposes (some people do still roleplay in MMOs, believe it or not). It's not unheard of in other games to add these kind of limitations to the amount of characters you can have on one account though, so as a part of the bigger MMO-picture this is hardly something that Final Fantasy XIV is alone in.
While some players would probably want me to bring up the Fatigue-system that has caused so much controversy here, I won't - I have yet to see it in action, or have it get in the way of my enjoyment of Final Fantasy XIV. If it is such a big deal, or just an odd design-choice, remains to be seen.
Final Fantasy XIV beckons to me, Eorzea looks like a world I would want to explore. I don't mind certain oddities found in the game mechanics, and the lack of proper tutorials will probably fade into memory as we all get a deeper understanding of how it works. That said, the game doesn't care at all about how MMOs have developed over the last 10 years, and instead of taking inspiration from the way the genre looks like right now it blindly stares at its predecessor and its upcoming console version. Final Fantasy XIV is a Playstation 3-game on the PC and will need a lot of work before it will be more accessible to the larger Western PC-crowd.
With the lag fixed, a better chat system (something that is not impossible to improve after launch - Mythic did so with Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning for example) and some streamlining of controls and menus this could actually be a keeper. As I continue to delve deeper into the game, it's not without a certain big warning sign hanging over my head telling me that "this will only be a waste of time."