Second Wind Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn, part one
The time is finally upon us, everyone: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is live. It has been for a few weeks now, actually. And over those few weeks, I've spent just about every spare moment of my time in the fantastical world of Eorzea, running my remarkably adorable Miqo'te tail all over creation to save the world from rampaging primals and the nefarious Garlean Empire -- and occasionally sewing some rather fetching clothes.

There's no denying that Square Enix has taken titanic strides in revamping its much-maligned MMO. Whole game systems have been torn apart and rewoven into something barely recognizable, and I'm not even going to entertain whether or not the changes were for the better. They absolutely were. The real question here is whether it will be enough to change the game's course. And as it happens, that's just the question I plan to answer in this multi-part edition of Second Wind.

Screenshot -- Final Fantasy XIVOne of the first things returning players will notice about A Realm Reborn is that the UI has been completely reworked. Unlike its predecessor, the new UI is sleek, modern, and remarkably user-friendly. It's much easier to navigate, eschewing the archaic menu system for a more up-to-date hotkey-centric approach, and generally it's a massive improvement.

But still, the UI isn't perfect, and it omits a number of features that would be incredibly useful. The current inventory system is something of a mess. There's no way to automatically sort your inventory (yes, I know, there's an option in the character settings, but it applies only to new items being added and does nothing if your inventory is already full and disorganized), and manually rearranging items between inventory tabs is tedious to say the least.

There are no side-by-side item comparisons when mousing over a prospective new piece of gear, and the tooltip shows only the differences between the item's basic stats (such as physical and magic defense for armor). It doesn't show stats, which are infinitely more important 99% of the time. These are quality-of-life issues moreso than gamebreaking bugs, but reducing tedium is important in ensuring that players can focus on the game itself.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the game's visual appeal. I'm completely comfortable saying that Final Fantasy XIV, hands-down, remains one of the most graphically appealing MMOs in recent memory. From the lush forests of the Black Shroud to the parched sands of Thanalan to the snowy peaks of the Coerthas Highlands, A Realm Reborn is full of breathtaking and marvelously rendered scenery, a variety of spectacular weather effects, and a number of small details that help fill Eorzea with a sense of vibrancy and life. In the same vein, the character models are superb and wonderfully animated, right down to their facial expressions.

And thankfully, players will now be able to truly relish all the eye-candy FFXIV has to offer, as the revamped zones are no longer a baffling labyrinthine mess that requires a team of cartographers to navigate. I'm looking very pointedly at you, Black Shroud. Some may find the map redesigns a bit linear for their tastes, but if that's the price of lush, well-designed zones packed full of unique landscapes and features, then it's one I'll willingly pay.
Second Wind Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn, part one
But enough about how it looks; let's talk about how it plays. To do so adequately will require more space than I have here, so for now I'm going to focus on my experience leveling my primary class, Conjurer, which is of course a Disciple of Magic and therefore is focused on the combat-centric aspects of FFXIV. If you're more interested in the Disciples of the Land and Hand, I'll be covering those in part two.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of progression, let's take a moment to talk about combat. In the game's initial launch, combat was slow and often tedious with a great deal of downtime between fights. Combat in A Realm Reborn takes its cues from other major MMOs and doesn't necessarily deliver anything new. You've got your hotbar of abilities, you target what you want to kill, and you execute your rotation. It's nothing groundbreaking, but compared to combat in 1.0, it's a big step up. Unfortunately, it's not without its (sometimes glaring) flaws.

A Realm Reborn introduces a more mobility-focused style of combat, as players will frequently be required to move out of large attacks, which are telegraphed by red area-of-effect indicators on the ground. In theory, this is a great addition to the combat system that requires players to stay on their toes if they don't want to end up taking a dirt-nap. In practice, however, it leaves a lot to be desired. Enemy attack animations rarely sync up with the ability's cast time, and since the game determines whether or not a player is hit based on his location when the ability finishes casting rather than when the animation plays or when the red AoE indicator disappears, this can lead to great deals of frustration when you seem to have dodged the attack but end up taking damage anyway.

There's also a noticeable, pervasive sense of delay in ability executions. It's something that's hard to describe but very evident if you actually play the game. Abilities that are supposedly off the GCD often don't execute when you want them to (generally while the GCD is ticking down), and it feels as if I often have to wait for ability animations to finish before I execute another one, even though the cast time itself has already finished. In general, combat just feels... unresponsive. I find myself all too frequently mashing an ability's hotkey over and over just to ensure it executes properly.

And one more thing that I have to gripe about as a healer is the game's targeting system. For some reason it seems to be virtually impossible to target allies when they're in motion (and sometimes when they're standing still, for that matter), which makes healing players not in my party exceptionally difficult. The game's overhead nameplates don't make matters any easier, as they seem to be just as elusive to my mouse-clicks as the character models themselves and are often concealed by scenery, mobs, and other players. The thought of adequately healing non-group members in large FATEs is downright laughable.

Screenshot -- Final Fantasy XIV
One thing that FFXIV has going in its favor is the sheer variety of progression options available for both Disciples of War/Magic and Disciples of the Hand/Land, though in this installment I'll be focusing on the former. Players can earn experience for their adventuring classes through numerous methods, from traditional quests, to FATEs, to guildleves and guildhests, and more. Unlike the game's previous incarnation, A Realm Reborn offers a progression system that puts more of an emphasis on traditional questing (at least the first time around) than on mob or levequest grinding, and the FATE public quests provide an additional boost to experience gain.

Players begin the game in one of the three major cities, depending on the Disciple of War or Magic class they chose at character creation. The main story questline (denoted in-game by special icons above questgivers' heads) acts as something as a guide in the early game -– something that 1.0 sorely lacked -– introducing players to key game concepts and eventually unlocking new features such as airship travel, Grand Company membership, and so forth.

The story questline also (generally) guides players to the various hubs where they can pick up a number of sidequests to complete... well, on the side. These sidequests serve as the player's primary source of gil, gear, and experience on the trek to level 50, but it's important to note that each quest can be completed only once, so while they're useful the first time around, players leveling additional adventuring classes after the first will have to rely on alternate methods of advancement.

Second Wind Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn, part oneOf course, this is a Final Fantasy game, so the quests aren't (always) nothing more than experience fountains. Players can expect some high-caliber storytelling delivered via a number of cinematic cutscenes. The presence of voice acting is fickle, however, and it seems to come and go as it pleases. Regardless, the main storyline starts out a bit slow, revolving around local affairs in the player's starting city, but around the mid-20s it kicks into full-on we-have-to-save-the-world mode, and fans of the series will find plenty to love in both the narrative itself and the numerous nods to previous games in the series.

Another valuable source of experience that's completely new (barring some similarities to 1.0's behests) to FFXIV in A Realm Reborn is the game's many FATEs. FATE stands for Full Active Time Event which, I suspect, was shoehorned into the acronym after-the-fact. These are essentially Final Fantasy XIV's take on public events. As in many other games, the idea is that any player can wander into an area where a FATE is taking place, contribute to the completion of objectives that can include gathering items, escorting an NPC, killing a bunch of mobs, and even squaring off with a big bad boss monster.

While the idea sounds nice, there are a few major issues with FATEs as they stand. For starters, they're currently the single most efficient way to level, due to their frequency of occurrence and the sheer XP reward (for gold-level contribution, at any rate) compared to the amount of time required to complete them. This has led, as in many other games focused on public events, to players simply forming massive roaming death-squads and steamrolling through FATE after FATE in search of precious XP.

Unfortunately, FATEs don't scale particularly well after a certain point (if they even scale at all; I haven't been able to tell, frankly), which results in most FATEs being completed within a minute or two of spawning, and if you're playing a class that relies on abilities with substantial cast times, good luck getting a hit on anything before its HP melts away under the weight of the zerg.

Screenshot -- Final Fantasy XIVIn the more sought-after FATEs, such as the Cancer fight in Costa Del Sol and the Behemoth battle in Coerthas Highlands, it seems as if the game itself is even working against you. Even if your rig is hardy enough to withstand the framerate hit that so many players in such a small area incurs, you probably won't escape the wrath of the game's model rendering prioritization, which frequently causes mobs or friendly players to simply not appear until they're inches in front of your face. And as a healer, I can assure you that there's nothing more infuriating than finally managing to target that guy who's low on health and hopping around like a psychotic rabbit only to have him phase out of existence because he got too far away.

There are, of course, other options for leveling. Guildhests are instanced missions that seem to be designed to teach players the basics of MMO dungeon running, including such lessons as "don't stand in the bad" and "let the tank pull," which is great for new players, but the experience they grant is abysmal after you've collected the bonus for first-time completion, so players don't have much of a reason to do them more than once.

The same goes for dungeons because the time investment to experience ratio is too low to justify running them more than is required by storyline quests. Sure, they drop gear, but everyone knows that any gear before endgame is going to be replaced pretty quickly anyway, so why bother waiting in 45+ minute queues (unless you're a tank, in which case enjoy your instant pops) when you can just farm FATEs for exponentially more experience per hour plus the added bonus of Grand Company Seals?

That being said, I'm decidedly a fan of FFXIV's dungeons. They start out relatively basic because after all, not everyone is a weathered MMO veteran, and gamers frown on games that thow players right into the fire, regardless of how delicious they may be. But let me assure you that, later down the line, FFXIV's dungeons pull no punches, and even in the mid-level dungeons players will have to fight smart and hard to secure their victories. As someone who thrives on challenge and is quickly bored by a succession of tank-and-spank fights, I was delighted by the difficulty of many of the fights I encountered (and of course, the sense of satisfaction upon besting them).

Screenshot -- Final Fantasy XIV
I'm also quite fond of how FFXIV structures their dungeons, which for me hit something of a linearity sweet spot. Don't get me wrong; you're not going to find yourself getting lost in any of FFXIV's instances, as they all are of the straightforward go-here-and-kill-this-boss variety, but the addition of sidepaths and optional rooms (and sometimes events) that can be cleared for additional loot adds a bit of variation to the usual sprint-to-the-end style of dungeon-running.

Despite some hopefully soon-to-be-fixed issues, Disciple of War and Magic progression is delightfully smooth for the most part. Story quests take you to quest hubs, and sidequests combined with the occasional FATE, dungeon, and guildhest keep you moving briskly through the story and the world itself. The formula works remarkably well, with the engaging narrative keeping players' attention throughout the decidedly themepark-style leveling process. Unfortunately, around level 40 the steady climb through the levels becomes something of a slow trudge, but that's a tale for the next column.

So tune in next time for the undoubtedly thrilling conclusion of my thoughts on the Disciple of War and Magic leveling experience and join me as I delve into the nitty gritty of the Disciples of the Land and Hand. Until then, friends, I'll see you in Eorzea.

MMOs are constantly changing, and our opinions can change with them. That's why we're here to give some beloved (or not) games a second (or third) look. Has that game that was a wreck at launch finally pulled itself together? How do the hits of yesteryear hold up today? That's what we're here to find out as Massively gets its Second Wind!

This article was originally published on Massively.