Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Preview

A whole new world?

I've played quite a few MMOs in my time, but most of them only in passing. Of the many I've sampled, only a scarce few have managed to hold my attention for more than a month or two. World of Warcraft wasn't one of them. Final Fantasy XI, however, was. I come from a background of Everquest, the first MMO to truly garner wildfire success and one that had a very different philosophy than the games of today. They were rough, open worlds, offering little in the way of guidance or respite. WoW more or less turned the entire genre into a guided tour at a theme park, but FFXI made some concessions to accessibility without neutering the experience, which is why I came to love it.

So it was with a heavy heart that I read all the nasty feedback on FFXIV when it launched in 2010. From all that I've heard, it was more or less a broken game: Slow, criminally boring, and at times, simply uncontrollable. Unwilling to give up on a numbered entry in what is still, according to Square Enix's Naoki Yoshida, the publisher's most important global franchise, an entirely new team was brought on to completely reforge the FFXIV experience. The result is Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and so far, it look quite promising.

It would almost be easier to name the parts of FFXIV that haven't been redone from the ground up for A Realm Reborn (ARR). The graphics engine, battle system, server structure, map system, and user interface are all new for starters, meaning that in a very real way, ARR is an entirely new game. Combat is much faster than before, as evidenced by multiple side-by-side videos shown to me at my recent preview. Looking at how long it took to down a single mob before, I can only imagine how painful the grind in the original FFXIV must have gotten. Cooldown timers have also been added to the ability bar, in line with current MMO standards.

In general, that's what most of this top-to-bottom rework seems to be about: retaining the unique flavor of  a Final Fantasy MMO, while getting the baseline experience to the caliber that fans of the genre have come to expect. An easier-to-read map, the ability to jump, a more helpful quest-tracking interface, a tool to find parties seamlessly, public quests, raidsall of that is here, along with a complete re-imagining of nearly every zone in the game. Granted, none of this breaks the MMO mold, but it represents a massive effort on Sqeenix's part to make FFXIV a viable title.

And I'm really excited about that, because from what I played of the early game, it really does nail the elements I enjoyed about XI. It feels like a world you can get lost in, as opposed to a digital playground, and while it bears clear fantasy influence, it has a mythology and aesthetic that keep it from being just another universe about elves, orcs, and goblins. It's a game where you can't solo to max level in a week or a couple of days if you know where to go. You have to quest, you have to form a group, and you have to experience the content and allow yourself to be immersed. At least, that's how it felt from the first few hours. From adorable mail moogles to visually lavish, familiar-looking spells, it feels like an MMO made for people who grew up playing Final Fantasy IV and VI instead of X and X-2.

It's also worth noting that plans for a PS3 version are quite alive, and console players will be able to quest alongside their PC brethren on the very same servers at launch. A lot of thought has gone into crafting an interface that works on gamepad, though I wasn't able to try it out for myself. PC still seems like the ideal way to play ARR, but at least the many console fans Square has will finally be able to have the experience too.

In talking to him, Yoshida-san clearly has a great deal of confidence in what his team is putting forth, a confidence backed by what appears to be genuine enthusiasm and love for the franchise. When asked about the decision to go with a subscription-based model instead of free-to-play, his reasoning was simply a business one. Sustaining a free-to-play model requires lots of microtransactions, and thus, tons of extra content to provide on a consistent basis. He just doesn't feel it will offer the kind of reliable revenue, and hence, the sustainability of a subscription-based system, in which you only need maintain a certain number of players to be guaranteed success, was the choice his team made. It's a bold statement given that even a big dev like Bioware had to give up the ghost on Star Wars: The Old Republic and titans like World of Warcraft continue to bleed users.

For my part, I think there's still a place for subscription models, even if only as a way to keep the player base invested and playing. People who pay $12.99 per month (ARR's standard fee) to be in the world are going to log on regularly, and will tend to treat the game and its players more respectfully than if it were a free ride. And as far as I'm concerned, if you can justify paying for WoW or SWTOR before it went FTP, I don't see why you can't justify paying for ARR. Whether it will have the breadth of content to make it worthwhile in the long run is impossible to tell from a few hours. But what I can say is that it's a beautiful world that I found immediately more interesting to inhabit than Azeroth, and with closely guarded optimism, I'm looking forward to returning to it.

Available on PS3 and PC.