The MMORPG market is one of the most competitive genres in gaming; at least, that would be a fair statement if World of Warcraft didn't dominate in sales and player base. Regardless of this though, many other MMORPG's have come and gone over the years in an effort to compete with the monster that Blizzard has created. On the other hand, when gamers think about 'traditional RPG's', one of the first game franchises that comes to mind has to be Final Fantasy, Square-Enix's epic series that has captivated everybody since it debuted in 1987. A wise move then it must be that the Final Fantasy mythology be combined with core MMORPG gameplay attributes to create Final Fantasy XIV, an amalgamation of sorts that hopes to captivate both markets of RPG fans... but does it succeed?
The short answer is 'not quite' but with scope for improvement. See, being an online title, we're all very aware that it's going to rely heavily on updates over the coming months to fine-tune the product. Some of the issues that were seen at the launch of the game have already begun to be ironed out, so this review is going to take that into account given that we're now a couple of months in and the developers have had some time to address a few of the niggling issues.
You start, like any other MMORPG, by creating your character. There are a variety of classes and skill sets that you can choose at this early stage to make your ideal character, but this it's not overly important given that you can adapt and change your style at any point in the game. Tired of using magic? Pick up an axe. Bored of healing people? Learn some fire spells. It keeps the flow of the game dynamic to a degree and means that you can learn multiple crafts as you go along, which fans of the genre are either going to love or hate. On one hand, it gives freedom to do whatever the hell you like; on the other hand, there's no serious commitment to any one class which means ultimately the choices you make about your character style ultimately don't have an impact on the world at all, which is potentially a bad thing.
Once you've got your awesome character set up, you are pretty quickly thrown into an instance and the game begins throwing some narrative at you in true Final Fantasy style (read: confusing). After a few conversations with NPC's, you're set free into the big bad world, and... what next? This is the question that came to our minds as we explored the city and the outskirts; there wasn't a clear direction on exactly what to do. Again, this definitely provides an element of 'do it yourself' freedom that some may applaud, but it's unclear how to tackle quests (within something called the guildleve system), how to craft things or how to do... well, anything specific. There are lots of menus filled with text and eventually you'll start to pick up basic skills, but the whole experience is a bit overwhelming at first and getting involved shouldn't be so instantly difficult and frustrating.
Before we go any further, we should mention that the game looks amazing on a high-powered PC. Texture effects, lighting, the scope of the world and the amount of detail in every character and location is at times truly breathtaking, and stays very true to the Final Fantasy formula in looking miles ahead of its competitors in terms of graphical flare. On lesser PC's however, the game seriously struggles. Take a good hard look at the minimum specifications before you lay down your dollars for this one, because even with all the settings turned down to their lowest on a standard PC setup, the game had issues running properly. Like Crysis before it, if you want to play this game, you'll want to upgrade your hardware. We should also mention that the soundtrack is classic Final Fantasy and works well with the entire experience, as do the sound effects and the typical high-quality voiceover work.
The downside to the presentation of Final Fantasy XIV is that the menu system is incredibly tiresome to deal with. It is difficult to find out what your quest objectives are, where your items are hidden and how to equip certain pieces of equipment, and it's difficult to work out the crafting system and trading system as well for the same reasons. Often you'll need to load up multiple menus just to do something that really should be basic to begin with, and it makes a lot of the game a chore to play.
The quests themselves are also designed in a strange manner; once you've accepted a certain number of quests, you'll have to wait through a timer before you can acquire any more. In the mean time, the game expects you to grind, craft, or hop on and join others in finishing their quests instead. While this will eventually give you the experience you need to increase your skill levels, it's disappointing that there aren't more guildleves at your disposal to begin with, which would prevent a system like this that forces you to help others with the same repetitive kill-quests over and over again as a time-waster.
The fine print, and the good news, is that the game is well on the way to being fixed. The market system that was clunky and fairly useless overall has been given an overhaul so that it's manageable (with another tweak promised shortly), and there are other serious fixes coming over the next couple of months to increase the amount of guildleves and fix issues with the crafting and item systems, overall creating an experience that will be far more enjoyable to play; and one that actually makes sense! The bottom line is, at the moment, Final Fantasy XIV is a playable MMORPG. It's not great, and it's not going to take the crown from WoW anytime soon, but at least the issues that have been made clear are on their way to being fixed. Those who love Final Fantasy may be able to suffer through the current problems with the title, whilst others can have the peace of mind that things are soon going to change for the better. Whether that warrants its purchase from today is entirely up to you.