The first time I created a character, it was in the only starting city available for closed beta, Limsa Lominsa. The second time, I opted for Gridania, reasoning that I didn't really want to start there during retail but did want to see what it was like. In both cases, though, the starting experience was similar -- your character stumbles waifishly through the opening events, meets a couple of NPCs who could not be more obviously important to the storyline if they were carrying plot coupons, and then is promptly required to take part in a bit of the ultraviolence.
While the combat during the tutorial is just the extremely basic bones of a much more complicated animal, what really stands out is the cinematic presentation with each of the events. Yes, they're functionally identical, giving you a chance to hit things and a bit of backstory as to why your character is traveling in the city and what's going on. But each one has its own flavor and tone -- Gridania, for example, feels much more light-hearted and prone to comedy. ("Nana? Is that you?") And the cutscenes do the admirable job of drawing the player in.
Once the opening business is done, you reclaim control of your character and are given a free ticket into the Adventurer's Guild. That starts you down the road to the introductory quest, which helpfully advances the storyline, gives you a reason to tool about the city, and introduces you to various concepts along the way without shoving them at you. You're gently guided in the right direction.
Is that good structure? Hard to be sure. If you're a new player, you might wind up missing something. On the other hand, the fact that the game just gives me a gentle push and then lets me decide what comes next is a welcome freedom. I've been bandying about the term "sandpark" for this sort of gameplay -- it's got just enough rails that you have a direction, but player choice still rules the day. There's something to be said for that part of design.
Getting things under control
No discussion of Final Fantasy XIV is going to be complete without talking about the controls. To recount: software mouse, strange keyboard layout, controller vs. standard PC controls, and so forth. Really, it's a kind of ridiculous debate, because it comes down to a matter of preference rather than objective fact.
Are the controls perfect? No, there are a few elements that I would really like streamlined. (Menu commands remain a bit awkward.) But given all the control issues I could have experienced, I'm not too inclined to complain. The controls all work, which is a big issue, and most of the complaints come down to the fact that they aren't wholly intuitive. It's a fair complaint, but it's not something that can't be learned. You're either going to find the controls within an acceptable learning curve or not, and there's not much to be done for it either way.
So, I'll leave the debate at that. They didn't bother me that much. They might bother you a lot more than me. Take from that what you will.
Under the nails
If there's one complaint that I've heard repeatedly that I don't get, it's that combat is slow. There were a lot of adjectives I could apply to combat, including "buggy" on several occasions, but "slow" wasn't among them. And I'll admit that part of what made me fall for the game was the first tutorial levequest that sent me out to slaughter local wildlife.
I prefer melee combat, so I started off with a lancer for my first character and a pugilist for my second. And there was something about the way combat was balanced from the beginning that appealed to me. The rhythm of attacks mixed with weapon skills was satisfying, as was juggling between the different modes of attack. It wasn't perfect, but it was involved and it was engaging, with plenty for characters to do at any given moment.
Guildleves were enjoyable, in a canned sort of fashion. They were entertaining enough, although I'm sure the luster will wear off much as it did with randomly generated missions in City of Heroes. And that's essentially what guildleves are -- while they've got a bit more substance to them, and there's a whole interplay of exchanging leves, they're still pockets of content that send you running about performing pretty arbitrary tasks.
On the other hand, the fact that you can do leves for gathering as well as crafting, coupled with the freeform nature of the game, means that I'm not bothered too much by the random structure. Sometimes your quest is as simple as getting the materials you need to craft a new piece of armor, and with the game's emphasis on crafting, that's a task in and of itself. The player is kept occupied by means other than breadcrumbs of quests, and it seems fairly likely that the same will hold true of future content as well. And it rewards you for trying a wide variety of different professions, which I like.
Crafting... well, I wrote up an entire guide discussing crafting. I like it, and that's something, because as a rule I don't like crafting. It's engaging and only a touch frustrating, with that frustration mostly coming in the form of no recipe list built in to the client. For some people, this is going to be a major issue. I do happen to be one of those people, because come on, guessing the materials for the millionth time crosses the border from fun into obnoxious. I'm willing to forgive the game this irritation because the actual process of crafting is fun.
So much to say
Entire books could be written about the experience of the open beta, not to mention that several of the common complaints from said beta are already on the list to be addressed, quite possibly on launch day. Guildleve cooldowns, failed leves on crashes, anima generation, fatigue values, and the hardware mouse are all listed under things that the development team will probably be getting straight into operational status.
But all of that is still getting away from the actual subject. What were my first impressions of FFXIV?
Adoration. Pure, unadulterated adoration. I was awestruck at the game I was playing, and every subsequent moment of play only reinforced that initial rush. For every choice that was a misstep, there were another half-dozen decisions that were just plain brilliant.
FFXIV is a game that I've been looking forward to for the better part of a year, and for me, it's been worth every minute of the wait. It is very emphatically not a game for everyone, and yet the people who are going to like it are going to really like it. In the end, you can't ask for better than that.