Final Fantasy XIV: Online
Every New Mmo seems to be laced with the DNA of World of Warcraft. The assumption is that everyone with a latent interest in looting, crafting or exchanging suggestive emotes now understands how WOW works, and so its keymaps, controls and occasional idiosyncrasies have spread through the realm of the massively multiplayer like chicken pox through a nursery.
The Old Republic will have its differences in content, but it'll still be WOW 'm space boots. Sure, Blizzard's systems are inherited from earlier games, but WOW's universal spread and popularity is still the tie that binds MMO development together.
Yet Azeroth never took Japan. Square Enix, developers of the almighty Final Fantasy series, are the British arrows in Dad's Army, delivering punchy jabs across the sea in righteous indignation as Blizzard's arrows swirl menacingly through China. Just who do you think you are kidding Mister Arthas? No-one thinks that the Final Fantasy franchise is on the run, but if it was, it certainly wouldn't introduce a silly Warcraft 'jump' button.
While other MMOs have thundered into gaming loud and proud before watching their player numbers plummet, 2002's (well, 2004's on PC) Final Fantasy XI has retained a constant audience. "Although the marketplace appears to be crowded, FF11s player numbers haven't really changed in eight years," explains Hiromichi Tanaka, Square Enix's Senior Vice President of Software Development and Corporate Executive of Online Business Management (a man whose job title brings joy to the heart of a freelance journalist writing to a word count).
"The only MMO with an increase in subscribers is World of Warcraft. All the other titles are appearing but disappearing at the same time. But a lot of people have joined the MMO market, so it does have a lot of potential."
The target audience for FF14, though, is really the people who've stuck with FF11, and any other Final Fantasy fans who've never partaken of grind. As such, apart from being more cartoonish, FF14's new land of Eorzea doesn't present much of a stylistic change from the Vana'diel of FF11. The game's five playable races are entirely similar to those of FF11 to boot. From the human-esque Hyur, the elf-y Elezen, the cute short-arse Lalafell and the rugged Roegadyn, all the way to the Miqo'te, who look a bit like cats. Yet there are big changes afoot. For one, FF11's traditional XP harvest and prolonged levelling frenzy has been ditched. In its place instead is what Square Enix call an Armoury system: player's items level up through use.
This means that you're not tied to one build and could warhammer in the morning before switching to waving a magical stick in the afternoon and early evening.
Each character will get an overall physical level that increases as you play improving your character's baseline stats, but there isn't a need to commit to a single character mould. Avatars can be a Disciple of War, Magic, Land, or Hand, and can join any number of skill-specific guilds in one of the game's three starting cities. But there's freedom in the equipment sets you use and the directions in which one character can specialise. There's a real taste of Capcom's Monster Hunter about the way it works, and even Ultima Online.
On top of this the game, which once demanded considerably long play sessions, can now be sampled in bite-sized chunks. And the need to play with a tight all-encompassing party of fellow adventurers has been excised making solo play is now far more of an option.
This is enabled through the introduction of side quests known as guildleves (named after the quasireligious icon the quest giver hands you when you take a job). These missions are short, simple stat boost n' loot affairs. Columns of a crystalline substance called Aetheryte initiate these quests and end them by handing over the loot reward, as teleporting you there and taking you in and out. During a guildleve mission when I was hands-on with FF14's current build, I took on some giant crabs in a cave - megalocrabs, even. I hacked and I slashed, building up tactical points to unleash greater powers as I did so, and retreating megalocrabs persisted in leading me into areas of ever-denser megalocrab populace. Having attacked all of their weak points for massive damage, I emerged the victor.
Later, in another guildleve, I wandered over a hillside collecting pages of a torn manuscript, killing angry salamander-things the pages occasionally spat out.
Let's make no bones about it as I'm, in what is common parlance, "a WOW-a-like carebear", FF14 at first seems fiddly, alien and confusing. FF14 is its own game, and while it'd love to welcome in an extra swathe of Western audience, it's not changing to fit more snugly into their rigid tastes. For one, the game's interface is a cascade of windows and menu options designed for use on the PlayStation 3.
Aside from user-enabled graphical fiddles FF14 is identical on consoles and the PC. In an era of ever-smoothed UI's and unobtrusive pull-out menus in PC gaming, the way FF14 works is something of a culture shock.
Then again, perhaps this isn't such a clear opportunity to pull out the old PC gaming righteous indignation routine. Final Fantasy XIV's servers allow console and PC players to play together, with the PC Oseen as a companion platform to the PS3 version, not a separate online contingent and community.
"Most people, if they're playing from home they might use the PlayStation," explains Tanaka-san, when asked whether console and PC players habitually play together. "But if they log in from work, they will probably use the work PC. It's the same people, just using different platforms." (Tanaka-san being Square Enix's Senior Vice President of Software Development and Corporate Executive of Online Business Management, I'm not sure if I mentioned that before.)
So is there appeal here for existing PC-types looking for a fresh MMO fix? Well, if you've got a taste for all things JRPG then yes, probably. But, in that case, I'd be surprised if you were idly flicking through rather than sitting on fan pages discussing which Final Fantasy had the best swishy haircuts. (Watch, when this article appears on the internet, that last sentence will inspire an entire comment thread of pain).
The truth for me is that when compared to upcoming MMOs like The Old Republic and The Secret World, FFM's fugly UI and generic beast-chases don't arouse my want glands.
In terms of second-to-second game mechanics and combat, what's hugely impressive and forward-looking on a console is humdrum on the PC. On the surface, at least, there's little he.re that could be labelled as an entirely new experience for those who've dabbled in PC MMOs in times past. It doesn't help that FF14 appears to be pretty daunting either. Western MMOs have become more skilled at hiding their stat machinations behind a Wizard of Oz curtain. FF14 is content to stand on stage curtain free, with its buffed-balls out and on display, saying "Hi, I'm Final Fantasy XIV. Grind me and I'll give you a chocobo!"
Clearly, none of this stops the constituent parts of FF14 from being an absorbing experience for those with the mind-set to get deep inside it. There's an existing, rabid audience for Final Fantasy online games. Through being constant, different, and constantly different it's an MMO fortress that has not been breached either within Japan or by the wider world.
While other games turning up wearing a map that looks a bit like Azeroth and carrying a lunch box shaped like a goblin are in free-fall a few years later, Final Fantasy XI has found a profitable, sustainable, and rather large, niche for itself. Final Fantasy XIV will continue the same pattern, and with the added freedom in character development and gameplay that'll satisfy everyone who has a pleasant history with FF11 and the series as a whole.
This game isn't for me, but that doesn't mean to say I'm bitter and resentful about the fact that a lot of cross-platform gamers will in all likelihood get kicks from it.
Download Final Fantasy XIV: Online
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP