Sunday, June 16, 2013

FFXIV ARR Review (beta)

Like many of you, I was up and ready to play FFXIV ARR at 2am PDT. However, I was left completely hanging by Square Enix and the lack of a beta key. This condition persisted for so long I had to cancel my PS3 beta event and I began to despair. I was touched to see that many of you, in fact a dozen of you, were willing to pass me your spare beta keys. This gesture was immensely appreciated and ultimately I got my FFXIV 1.0 beta key. I played a total of about 36 hours of the 48 hour beta window. There are many of you still waiting for a beta key. My heart goes out to you and I hope you are able to play some time soon.

Square Enix had some wires crossed when it came to distributing the North American beta keys. There was a huge delay, there were many PS3 players who got European beta keys, etc. What a complete mess right? Well, in the end, it all worked out for the best. I got my email on Saturday morning long, LONG after I had given up all hope. It came way too late to salvage my PS3 event and I had my own disappointing run in with Square Enix customer service. If any of you are planning to call, email, or live chat with them, I wish you luck. If there is anything I have learned from this experience, it's the fact that the last thing you will ever want to do with Square Enix is interface with their customer "service" team. I give them an abysmal 1 out of 10 score for their handling of the beta key debacle.

With that little obstacle out of the way I was able to download the beta to my 8 year old PC and my PS3! The download was quick and painless for both machines! I can't say enough good things about the beta download. The email was clear and precise, if you can't understand that email, then my suspicion is you can't read this blog and thus you won't get to see me call you "morons." I have read countless threads about where to download the beta client and where to go to register your beta keys. Until this weekend, I had no way of knowing just how stupid those people were... Now that all doubts are removed, Square Enix made a download and client patcher that is second to none, for both the PC and the PS3.

With the client downloaded I was able to enter the game seamlessly. No queues whatsoever, no lags, no problems. The game loaded on both machines quickly and, in no time, I was able to create a character and start the opening cutscenes. I won't detail that experience in the hopes that some of you are "look[ing] forward to it..." However, I will say that the story of FFXIV ARR is without reservation, the best yet! I'm raving about it and letting everyone know that it's by far the best storyline of the series. That's arguable, but it's also my opinion. Yoshida-san has rebooted the FFXIV storyline in a way that few, if any, game developers could have ever accomplished! I would dare to call his storyline a masterpiece.

In the game, I was swiftly carried away into the world of Eorzea. The transition from noob to veteran player is going to be swift and painless for millions of players. The tutorials and guides provided in the game are spot on and answer literally every question you could possibly have. However, these guides must be read, and that seems to be a tall order for many players. There is a large proportion of players who can't be bothered with something so simple as reading an in-game tutorial. They are taking to the internets and spamming everything from Reddit to FFXIVRealm with questions that are answered very well in the game. Check your menus people! Square Enix has literally provided you with everything. If you find yourself at a loss, there are countless Free Companies forming that would happily answer your questions in exchange for your membership. If that's still not enough, contact me and we'll have a chat.

Tonight, I am going to be recording an episode of RealmTalk. In that episode you will hear my impressions of the beta, as well as those of the other hosts. I can't possibly put it all into words here. However, I will certainly try to please my readers with some key points. It's easy to say one thing; my overall impression of beta is extremely positive! The game is already good enough to launch. It just needs a little more awesome sauce and a couple of tweaks. If those don't happen, it's still a very enjoyable game nonetheless.

Level and Difficulty Progression:
If you hear people crying and whining about how "casual friendly" and "easy" the game is, you will have to assume that those people have barely played the first 10 levels of the game and nothing more.

1. The game really starts at level 15. That is when you get your first truly challenging fights and quests. They are challenging, but not so much so that you turn the game off or flip your table over. The solo quests for the main storyline and your class are almost perfectly balanced. I died completing those at least a few times, however the learning curve was very comfortable and after a couple of deaths I mastered the content with relative ease.

     A. If you are playing as a Conjurer, I would suggest that you level to the maximum level requirements of the fights/quests. I have had several friends who couldn't complete the content at the minimum level requirement. However, those same players said that, at the max level requirement, the content was almost too easy. So, it really comes down to how experienced you are at playing a healing class. If you are new to MMO play, I would suggest making Gladiator or Lancer your first class in order to make the climb easier on yourself.

     B. Do yourself a favor and get a solid Free Company by level 20. After you complete the storyline quests to level 15 you will be stuck waiting for a group in order to clear the dungeons quests. These require groups of four players and until they implement the Contents Finder or Group Finder, you will be shouting or seeking for a party for a good little while. I saw dozens of players at the dungeon entrances just waiting and waiting. I felt bad for them because the same old rules applied. Tanks and healers found groups almost instantly while support and damage roles were left to wait for so long many gave up. UPDATED: Duty Finder or Dungeon Finder, has eliminated the waiting game altogether. No more waiting for groups!

           i.  Another common and extremely stupid problem people have is the lack of a traditional party. Or as some call it, the "Holy Trinity." Me and a friend went to the dungeon zone ready to rock 'n roll, only to find dozens of "dummies" who wouldn't group up without your prototypical Tank, Healer, Support party composition. We only had a Lancer, and a Thaumaturge (Black Mage). Our Thaumaturge had a heal spell and mana, so we were blown away by the unwillingness people had to trying out our unorthodox party composition. Over the course of 2 hours we got another Lancer and an Archer who were willing to give it a try. I suppose they were sick of waiting... Well, with a Thaumaturge, Lancer x2 and Archer group we cleared all three dungeons! DON'T wait for the "perfect" party in order to clear content. Square Enix has made the first three dungeons challenging, without requiring the "Holy Trinity" party in order to secure a victory. It wasn't exactly pretty, but it was TONS of fun!!

Overall Leveling/Difficulty Progression:
Amazing work Square Enix!!! The curve is already tuned almost perfectly. It was super easy for 10 levels, and yes there are a lot of fetch quests and Mickey Mouse fights, but soon you will find yourself immersed in the typical challenge of Final Fantasy games.

PC gamers are in for a pleasant treat! Out of literally hundreds of friends and followers, I heard nothing, literally nothing, negative about the PC graphics. It's all positive for PC players. Now for us PS3 players... It's not perfect, but it's also not terrible either.

1. Think back to the difference between PS2 and PC for Final Fantasy XI. The same proportion of difference exists between the PS3 and PC for Final Fantasy XIV ARR. It should come as no surprise to any of us that the PS3 graphics are limiting, but at the same time, I did NOT struggle with lag at any point whatsoever during my gameplay experience.

     A. Textures are relatively impressive. The way things look is on par with any other PS3 game, perhaps not as nice as Final Fantasy XIII, but I don't have any complaints about the textures. It is very pleasing to look at in terms of scenery. The only improvements I would request are to the water, which is notoriously difficult to do well on a console.

     B. Now let's address frame rates. In the PS3 videos I saw released on the official Square Enix YouTube Channel, I saw low frame rates and pointed these out to my followers and friends. This was largely poo poo'd because many of you thought it would only apply to animations in the distance. I didn't want to fight with y'all about this until after giving beta a shot. However, I was right, and as much as I hate to say it, you guys were wrong. The frame rate issue is NOT limited to animations in the distance. Everything from mobs to players are rendered in 10-15 fps animations, even up close and personal.

       i.  The exceptions being your ability animations and your personal character animations. So you are moving smoothly at all times, even on a chocobo, you are always rendered at 30 fps or there abouts. In addition, the animations of mobs you engage and players in your party are also 30 fps nearly all the time, however I saw them dip frequently. If Square Enix has made it so you and your party are always 30 fps+ then we have no real problem.

           ii.  The jury is out as to how this will effect PvP. Will it get worse in large battles? Will it make 4v4 or 8v8 battles unplayable? We don't really no yet. The only thing I can confirm right now is that the frame rate issue is NOT limited to background and distant renders.

Overall Graphics Impression:
Amazing! All things considered, Square Enix is doing a great job given their limitations. The advent of PS4 will probably clear up any of my complaints about the PS3 graphics. For PC players, all I can say is "I'm jealous!" Enjoy it and please stop complaining. From what I've seen and heard, PC players are literally playing the best looking MMO on the market today!

User Interface (PS3):
The PC players again have little to nothing to complain about. Of all my many contacts, I have not heard a single complaint from the PC crowd. I wish the same could be said of the PS3 crowd.

1. The overall PS3 interface is seamless and a joy to use. The cross bar is a stroke of genius! I had no problems whatsoever mastering content on a gamepad. In fact, I would venture to say, this is a new standard in console MMO gamepad interfacing. However, there are some glaring problems with the PS3 interface.

     A. You can move virtually everything on the screen to a different location, but you can't change the scale. Unfortunately, another one of my concerns about the PS3 footage that was released has come true. The clutter of the PS3 interface is, in fact, a large hindrance to the overall PS3 experience. Between the chat window, the cross bar, the cross bar highlights when you pull the triggers, the quest list, and the party list, you are left with about 1/4 to 1/3 of the viewing area for your character and what's happening in the game.

           i.  I incorrectly assumed that Square Enix would scale the UI based on the resolution of your screen, or at least allow for us to select Large, Medium, or Small UI settings. Instead, they gave us no options to reduce the clutter. At times I wanted to scream at my screen because I couldn't see around the UI to see add's which were eating my healer alive. I kept literally leaning from one side to another trying, in vain, to see around the UI. It's a beautiful game and up to 3/4 of it is covered up by the UI.

                     a.  I would expect changes on this. I can see past this problem for the time that I am overwhelmed with fun and blind excitement. As I become more and more accustomed to the game I will become increasingly frustrated by this problem and I fear it will eventually limit my ability to enjoy the overall experience. UPDATE: After some investigating and discussion I have confirmed that the beta manual indicates we can change the size of the UI. However, when I tried (for 10 min.) I was not smart enough to achieve it. A friend mentioned that there is a "mouse mode" for PS3 and that may be how to achieve the sizing changes. We shall see. UPDATED AGAIN: After the fourth week of phase 3, I can confirm two things: This problem has been widely reported to Square Enix and there is no way to size the UI, not even in "mouse mode."

     B. The cross bar and button configuration is a dream! In terms of timing and ability to keep up with the mouse and keyboard crowd, I would say I prefer the gamepad. I've used both over the years and this is the first time I can say this without seeming less than genuine. If you are on a PC, I would recommend trying the gamepad configuration, you may be pleasantly surprise or even converted.

    C. PS3 players will either have to play in silence or invest in a PS3 compatible keyboard. I tried, mightily, to do battle with the text interface of the PS3 and found it to be horrifyingly difficult. Simply replying to /tells took entire minutes to accomplish. While this is a well-known difficulty for all console games, it is even more exposed and frustrating in an MMO like FFXIV ARR. If you're playing on a PS3 and want to get the full experience of FFXIV ARR, you will have to get a keyboard at some point down the road. There really is no surprise here and Square Enix really did the best they could, but in the age of the "text message" this is simply too much to tolerate.

Overall User Interface Impression:
Needs work. While the PC users have little to complain about, I did hear some frustrations about the maps from both crowds. I confirm that they are confusing and don't really line up. However, that shouldn't be very surprising given the fact that they are not intended to be dummy proof. Part of the game is learning where things are by exploration and experience. Beyond that, the PS3 UI is in desperate need of scaling options so we can see the beautiful world Square Enix has provided us.

Well folks, that's it for now! I could go on and on. What I can say for sure is that this game is on the road to legendary status! It's flaws are manageable and unlike FFXIV 1.0, this game is going to be played by millions for years to come. If you don't believe it, you have to play it. It's not simply my opinion, Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn is a gaming milestone. For a failed launch and now a reboot, Square Enix has turned FFXIV into a fairy tale story like Beauty and the Beast! The future is very bright for Final Fantasy and MMO fans around the world!

FFXIV ARR Beta Review Part 2

FFXIV ARR Beta Review Part 3