A beautiful, but typical, MMO
Final Fantasy XIV has had quite the tumultuous history over the years. Back in 2010 I had the chance to play the beta at E3, and almost immediately, I had a pretty terrible time. It was dated mechanically, not all that exciting, and didn't really do anything to push the genre forward.
Now in 2013, Square Enix is getting a second chance with the complete rework titled Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Right now I'm working on a Lancer on Adamantoise, toiling away in the beautiful town of Gridania. That is, when I can connect to Square Enix's servers.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PS3 [tested], PC [tested])
So what's improved in A Realm Reborn? Well, quests are a little more interesting, the general flow of the game is improved, the graphical engine is much better off (it not only works better with low-end machines, but it looks better on higher-end ones), and the UI and controller support is superb.
Quests are still your typical MMO fare, but the world and the class system are so interesting that you'll have fun doing them. A Realm Reborn feels like the natural progression of the series after Final Fantasy XII, and quite frankly, it feels like a true numbered Final Fantasy game in terms of the top notch overall narrative, played out through select "story" quests. Leveling isn't nearly as much of a time sink as it was in Final Fantasy XI (anyone remember The Dunes? I probably spent real life weeks in them), and you can progress through pretty much all early content by soloing -- which is a huge plus for me.
While other MMOs have dabbled in controller use before (TERA Online actually worked quite well with one), Final Fantasy XIV: ARR seems to have mastered the art. I've played all the way up to level 15 with a controller in hand (a 360 controller specifically, which is plug and play), and haven't had very many issues at all -- especially if I can occasionally just use the mouse to switch around my skills and inventory.
Pretty much everything can be handled with a controller, including target selection (which uses a rather smart homing system to highlight important points of interest) and all of your skills through the use of the triggers and a combination of face buttons and the d-pad. As an added bonus, it also ensures that the PS3 version works perfectly with the Dual Shock. It's called the "Crossbar" system, and I'm addicted to it.
If you take a look at the big picture though in terms of transcending the genre like Guild Wars 2 mostly accomplished, and Everquest Next is aiming to do, A Realm Reborn won't really win the hearts of those who loathe MMOs. At the end of the day you're still going around and doing fetch quests, kill quests, instances, and crafting, even if said activities are actually really good within the confines of the genre.
But despite the fact that I'm enjoying the game, not everything is going smoothly on launch week, as a number of US and EU realms are having major connection issues -- for example, I spent around two hours trying to log in to no avail. What Square needs to do to alleviate this issue immediately is hotfix in an AFK booting system. Right now, players en masse are logging in before work, leaving their characters on all day, and coming back home to play just to have a spot.
Most MMOs force players to auto-log out after an hour or so, so that players who want to game now can actually get in. Having a game be so successful that it can't meet player demand isn't wholly a bad thing for Square Enix, but it's bad for consumers, who bought a game they can't play. I hope that they aren't short-sighted and assume increasing server volume is the sole solution, as they need to give a multifaceted response to help out their early customer-base sooner than later.
So that's my early look at Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn based on a few low level characters I've created. If you're looking for the bigger picture, Patrick will have a comprehensive write-up on the game as soon as he's tackled some of the higher level content! Expect lots of future coverage as well, leading into the PS4 release in 2014 and beyond.