You say you've never ventured into a colorful, persistent online world to hunt monsters and gather treasure with other like-minded adventurers? You've never ridden in a carriage drawn by giant Chocobo birds or met the mystical flying Moogles? Never watched a spectacular in-game cinematic cutscene that culminates in a conversation with a prancing, cat-eared girl who happens to be wearing frilly lace panties (and not much else)? Then it's safe to say that you've probably never played Final Fantasy XIV Online. Then again, since the game hasn't even launched yet, it's safe to say that most people have never played Final Fantasy XIV Online. Only a handful of lucky writers have played it, including GameSpot staff members, who were recently summoned to a press event to try it out. FFXIV is intended to take everything that was good about Square Enix's PC and PlayStation 2 online game Final Fantasy XI and modernize it for the PlayStation 3 and modern PCs, and from what we've seen, the new game seems to stay true to its predecessor while looking a lot more like a modern game for modern platforms. [Editor's Note: We played only the PC version in our hands-on time with the game, but presumably, most of the content in our report, aside from the PC interface, applies to the PS3 version as well.]
At the outset, we had the opportunity to create two new characters from scratch to explore two never-before-seen starting areas: the forest encampment of Gridania and the desert metropolis of Ul'dah. This gave us the chance to play with the game's character creation system, which currently lets you create a new character from one of five new races: the Hyur (who resemble the human-like Humes of FFXI); the Elezen (who resemble the elf-like Elvaan of FFXI); the diminutive Lalafell (who resemble the tarutaru of FFXI minus the black noses); the lithe Miqo'te (who resemble the Mithra catgirl race of FFXI); and the Roegadyn (who resemble the bulky Galka of FFXI). And each of the game's races has two separate subraces; Hyur can be highlanders or midlanders; Elezen can be golden-haired Wildwood or pale, dark-haired Dusknight; Lalafell can be Plainsfolk or Dunesfolk; Miqo'te can be Seekers of the Sun or Keepers of the Moon; and Roegadyn can be Seawolf or Hellsguard.
Final Fantasy XIV features four base character categories: disciple of war (which includes weapon combat classes); disciple of magic (which includes magic spell-using classes); and the disciples of the land and the disciples of the hand (which both include numerous crafting classes). For the purpose of our play session, we were encouraged to create characters belonging either to the disciple of war or disciple of magic group, so we created one of each, a burly and brand-new Roegadyn Hellsguard of the lancer subclass (a warrior profession that specializes in using polearms and hurled javelins) and an Elezen Wildwood of the conjurer subclass (a wizard profession that uses canes and wands to summon powerful magic). We then later had a chance to try a pre-created character at level 40, a Miquo'te lancer, in a high-level hunting ground. We'll start with the earlier experiences first.
The current version of FFXIV Online's character creation is a simple, streamlined process that lets you jump from race to appearance to profession in a few easy steps. After choosing your character's race, and, where appropriate, gender (all races have both genders available, except for the Miqo'te, who are only female, and the Roegadyn, who are only male), you then choose your profession and can customize your character's appearance by selecting different preset values for several customization points. Among other things, you can choose your character's height, skin tone, hairstyle, facial features, voice, and facial "characteristics," which include facial scarring and cosmetics. You then choose your profession and your character's "nameday" and "guardian," the former being your character's birthday; the latter being the deity your character worships. While the role of birthday and religion haven't been completely finalized yet, it's likely that your choice of guardian will grant your character certain specific powers at some point. Interestingly, Final Fantasy XIV will let you save the appearance of any character you create as a template, so that if, at a later date, you wish to create an identical character, you can simply reload the template of your last character.
After creating our first character, the bulky Roegadyn lancer, we were ready to start a new life in the Gridania playfield. Our session began with a lengthy cinematic sequence with a flythrough of the surrounding forest, followed by footage of our character tentatively exploring the forest path before hearing a mysterious voice cryptically whispered to us. Suddenly, there was a fire in the sky--what appeared to be an aircraft of some sort was flaming out and dropped something that exploded to the ground. Our character rushed through the forest, passing by an ominous wolflike shadow before arriving at a clearing where two characters, the Hyur pugilist (Final Fantasy XIV's version of the bare-fisted fighting monk) Yda and the Lalafell conjurer Papalyma, had apparently taken a nasty fall. The two characters lay flat on their backs, and we interacted with them by targeting them, then pressing the enter key on our PC keyboards a few times to wake them. It seems the two were passengers on an airship that had been about to crash, but they had bailed out at the last second. Further introductions were scuttled once the three of us were attacked by a pack of black wolves, which gave us a chance to get acquainted with the game's combat system.
FFXIV's battle system isn't all that different from that of FFXI. In the new game, like in the previous one, you must first target your enemy and ensure your character is within combat range and directly facing your foe before engaging. However, unlike FFXI, which buries all its combat actions into a set of nested menus, FFXIV has a more traditional, Western-style hotkey bank that, at least in the PC version of the game, assigns various attacks to the number keys on your keyboard. Because our lancer character was only level 1, he had only one weapon ability, a light thrust attack with his spear, which didn't do all that much damage.
We engaged in battle with the wolves one by one as part of FFXIV's pseudo turn-based system, which uses a constantly charging stamina meter--a system that doesn't seem dissimilar to that of earlier Square role-playing games such as Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Trigger. Different combat actions require different amounts of stamina to perform; as soon as your meter fills to a sufficient amount to pull off that ability, you can hammer on the appropriate hotkey to expend that amount of stamina to perform the ability. Light thrust is a relatively cheap ability to use in terms of stamina, so our early-game combat was just a matter of mashing the 1 key to repeatedly use that attack, though we also observed that you can deal bonus damage when you attack your foes from behind with a melee weapon and will, on occasion, randomly perform a critical hit that deals extra damage and shows your character performing extra attack animations.
As it turns out, each swing of your melee weapon earns you skill points with that weapon, and those skill points contribute to your character's weapon rank--an advancement system that is kept separate from your character's overall experience level. Higher weapon ranks unlock new weapon skills with that particular weapon that you can then hotkey to your various keyboard number keys. Later on in your character's life, you'll actually attain so many weapon abilities that you won't have enough number keys to house them all, so like in other Western games, you'll be best served mapping those to additional pages of hotkeys that you can swap to on the fly.
After we killed off a few of the wolves, the game switched to another cutscene that showed a tree tearing itself out of the ground, stretching out its branches like arms and forming an angry face along its trunk. The tree then snatched up the remaining wolves in its branches and crammed the critters down its gullet. Our companions looked on in awe until the tree uprooted itself and began lurching toward us, at which point all three of us started running for our lives. It seemed like we were about to become plant food when time stopped and our paralyzed character looked around him in wonder as magical Moogles floated past us, leaving behind sparkly trails. As it happens, the Moogles were accompanying the Wood Wailers, a small band of forest warriors led by a child savant attuned to the magic of the forest. The magical influence of the forest warriors was able to calm the homicidal tree, after which they explained that the sudden arrival of our companions had somehow pierced the Hedge, a network of arboreal ley lines that protects the forest. As a result, we were marked with greenwrath--an indicator to the denizens of the woods that we were the newest item on the forest's snack menu.
Fortunately, the kindly woodland warriors offered to escort us to Gridania's adventurer's guild, and when we accepted, we were automatically transported outside of it. On entering, we watched another cutscene that showed our character strolling past friendly, smiling faces of adventurers sitting by the fire and generally enjoying each other's company before we met the innkeeper, the Elezen female Mother Miounne. She informed us that Yda and Papalyma had been magically summoned by the woods to seek their help and that their flying machine was in pieces on the ground. Presumably, we'd be called upon later to help them recover what was left of their ship, but for the time being, Miounne gave us a linkpearl item, which let her telepathically communicate with us--essentially giving us a built-in hint system for the early part of the game. The kindly innkeeper then directed us to Camp Benchbright, another encampment deep in the forest, to be stripped of our curse.
While our destination was a ways off by foot, FFXIV has a handy overlay map that covers the entire screen, but is partially translucent, so it lets you see your character in motion underneath. We hustled our way to the location, running past minor enemies like marmots and swarms of honeybees until we found a giant, floating aetheryte crystal (not unlike those in FFXI's most recent updates). It offered us the chance to explore some of the game's lore or take on a "levequest" of varying levels. These quests can be taken at any time and different crystals will have different varieties of quests. Ours required us to kill three walking fungi in a nearby clearing, and after doing so, we increased our polearm rank to two, at which point, we learned the skewer skill, our first to require tactical points (TP). Yes, they're back from FFXI, and just like in that game, they slowly build in battle as you perform normal attacks and let you perform more damaging ones.
We then switched over to our second character, the Elezen conjurer, who started her life in the desert city of Ul'dah on the same day as the settlement's most decadent carnival. In the opening cinematic sequence, our character arrived in town lounging on a carriage drawn by two of Final Fantasy's iconic yellow chocobo birds. Our character also overheard from excited townspeople that we had arrived on the very last caravan into town and that transport back out would be impossible because the streets were being closed for a massive parade. And soon enough, the parade was underway, with the main attraction in the parade being a gigantic Goobbue monster--a towering blue blob with spindly arms and legs, beady yellow eyes, and a circular mouth full of row after row of teeth. Shockingly, this was about the time when something went horribly wrong and the monster managed to get loose, sending the parade attendees running in fear. With the help of a dashing young man from the crowd (who, in a potential first for a hero in a Square Enix game, was sharply dressed and had a slender build and spiky hair), we took on the monster in battle using our conjurer's suite of first-level abilities.
Using the crooked wooden cane she was equipped with, our conjurer had access to three different magic spells hotkeyed to our keyboard's 1, 2, and 3 keys: spirit dart, a single-target attack that dealt minor damage; and fire and blizzard, which dealt fire and cold damage, respectively. Fire and blizzard were also labeled as area effect spells, though because we were fighting only a single enemy, we didn't get a chance to test how wide the range would be. After putting down the monster in a relatively easy fight, we were shocked (again, shocked we say) to see it get back up and go after even more townsfolk but foil itself by lunging at a cornered child who was heroically rescued at the last moment, leaving the charging monster with nothing but a face full of wall. Soon after, we found ourselves making our way to the local adventurer's guild, where the spunky Lalafell innkeeper Momodi also gave us a linkpearl and saucily bade us to share any juicy stories we might later have of relations with handsome menfolk (wink, wink). As it turns out, in the English version of the game, pretty much all audio voice acting is provided with actors affecting a British accent and all written dialogue is written to sound like Old English--so Square Enix appears to be pushing the "Fantasy" part of Final Fantasy XIV.
Unfortunately, the streets of Ul'Dah were so vast that we weren't able to do much more hunting with our character, though we did run past several townsfolk who had pre-scripted responses to say. We also ran past a few item shops that sold items far too expensive for our humble first-level character, such as new types of armor and rideable chocobos for rental. Our time with this character drew to a close, and we switched over to our 40-th level character.
Unfortunately, our high-level character session didn't run as smoothly as our previous time with the game due to some network stability problems that seemed to come out of nowhere. The game isn't done yet, so it's natural to expect a few technical issues at this stage in the game. Regardless, we did the best we could with our level-40 Miqo'te lancer at Camp Broken Water, a desert mesa region reminiscent of Arizona's Grand Canyon.
We tried several times to form a cohesive hunting party with other writers invited to the event so that we could run through some higher level levequests offered by the camp's aetheryte crystal, but the network problems prevented us from getting very far (in the current version of the game, disconnecting causes you to automatically leave your hunting party). Eventually, we ended up splitting off into smaller groups and simply focused on hunting nearby monsters, like giant mountain goats and cockatrices (which looked like a cross between a penguin and a giant, puffed-up turkey). High-level lancers seem like fairly flexible characters that can play a few different roles in a group. For starters, they have a throw ability that lets them toss a javelin at a foe from a short distance away, meaning that the character can pull individual monsters to come running to your group to fight. In addition, the class has a few different TP abilities that can alter an enemy's state, such as a pierce attack that temporarily pins an enemy to the spot so that it can still attack but can't move; a leg sweep attack, which temporarily incapacitates a foe; and a trammel attack that produces a cripple effect on a foe that greatly weakens it.
In addition, the lancer has a handful of self-buff abilities that enhances the character's own speed or steals health away from enemies, as well as abilities that temporarily enhance the character's own accuracy or land a guaranteed hit when triggered after a missed attack. The lancer also has an ability that switches an angry monster's attention to another member of the party and a handful of abilities that affect more than one foe. This includes a skewering attack that pierces all enemies directly in front of the character, as well as a sweeping attack that hits all enemies in a certain radius. The lancer even has an ability that generates bonus TP for all members of the party. Even though the class tends to favor light armor and seems to play more of a damage-dealer (or damage-per-second, or DPS in online game parlance) role, this well-rounded character can also apparently work crowd control with its incapacitating abilities on enemies and seems to have the ability to manage the wrath of charging monsters (or aggro in online game jargon).
Unfortunately, our play session was cut short after a few hunting expeditions, but we got a fairly good sense of much of what FFXIV will attempt to offer. The new game brings everything you love about Final Fantasy, and FFXI, into modern times with detailed, colorful graphics and a much better interface. The PC version of the game will launch in September while the PS3 version is scheduled to launch next year.