Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn early impressions
Open beta for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn wrapped up last weekend, and given that the full release is but a week away, this build would seem to be an accurate indication of what to expect from the game's opening set of challenges. Yes, that includes connection issues. Server congestion and log-in errors were an ongoing occurrence this weekend for many players, so if you're jumping in with pre-access or on opening day, you should prepare for the usual headaches that come with being the early crowd. Nothing really out of the ordinary, especially since the buzz around A Realm Reborn has been huge (as it should be for any project still bold enough to take on a traditional, subscription based MMO model). Packed starting areas and frequent server maintenance are all just part of the fun.
Fortunately, I never encountered any hiccups in my beta experience, and instead was able to get a lot done. I leveled a Marauder -- the offensive, great axe wielding tank role -- through the opening areas and dungeons, and eventually hit the beta cap of 20 (in the full release, the cap will be 50). Then, in spirit of the game's primary pull, I ran over to another guild and became a Gladiator, starting back at level 1, and working once more up to 20. In FFXIV:ARR, your single character can become any number of professions, which you can then, at any point outside of combat, change between instantly. Crafting and gathering professions are also treated in this manner as their own individual roles, and I was content in also becoming a level 20 Fisher, and 10 Culinarian.
Expanding a resume for a character like this has the addictive qualities you'd guess, though the theme of interchangeability does give rise to some concern. Skill kits for each class were, conceptually, elementary in scope and essentially copies of each other; probably to accommodate the game's ambitious jack of all trades philosophy in a way that makes it less intimidating. Still, with the generic 1-2 ability combo, occasional damage-over-time and self buff spells, and generous health regeneration, the 1-20 experience was a rather speedy, and relaxing grind. Sprawling capital cities and outlying quest hubs to jog, sprint, and ride flightless birds between, recreated the familiar and popularized MMO structure most have come to expect. And with the always expensive, Square Enix touch, A Realm Reborn definitely feels like a top-shelf contender in the genre.
Of course, name any post World of Warcraft MMO that launched with similar production value, and you'll agree that such optimism is naive. A Realm Reborn seems to have as much going for it as any other of its failed siblings, and the only reason I'm being gracious in my covering of its first 20 levels is because it's just that -- 20 levels. Later introduction (at level 30) to advanced classes called Jobs (combining my Marauder and Gladiator to create a Warrior role) will hopefully add more interesting layers to the skill sets, and until then I'll withhold judgment on the previously mentioned issue of watered down kits.
But most of the ideas seen here are ones that are proven to work, and so far, graciously implemented by Square. Early signs of disaster or lack of polish are few and far between. Character models are beautiful (if conformed to an anime aesthetic)and armor designs are smart, the game's fashion designers also showing a good deal of humor in their arsenal, as does the localization team in their quest writing. Cities sit amidst an impressive night/day cycle, especially the ones featuring ports and harbors, which have a way of popping off the screen like a piece of concept art when the morning sun glints off all the cobbled roads, water, and character platemail.
And though quest zones are strewn with a haphazard variety of monsters and plagued by a huge influx of starting area players, they avoid the look of a typical Korean grind festival. Square has done their part in adding the traditional elements -- hideouts of pirates and kobolds to clear, crates to fetch, oranges to pick, and mini boss segments complete with their own cutscenes -- but also alternative ways to level that give each environment the needed spread of activity, so as not create clutter and an MMO defined by its spawn camps. FATEs are randomly appearing missions, for example, where nearby players can battle a flood of monsters together in return for a sizable EXP reward. There's really no reason not to partake, in fact, it's such a viable way to level that I found myself abandoning the quest structure at one point, throwing up my fishing lines at a river, and swapping classes whenever a FATE popped up.
Throw in reappearing daily quests to knock out, a painless dungeon group finder, and the opportunity to switch to some surprisingly entertaining, mini-game esque crafting and gathering professions, and you've got a fairly reliable and varied time sink ahead of you. And yet, again, it is just 20 levels, and with 30 more, much more telling ones to follow, it's hard to say if A Realm Reborn will be an epic, or turn into nothing more than an achievement hunter's past time. It's so easy for me to see it go either way at this point. However inoffensive its current state may be, the important questions ahead are ones of the overlapping Job system, and whether this will be a game of achievement hunting and list checking, or one of real adventure and accomplishment.