While I'm one of the people who posited the idea of fighting over stats on underwear -- and yes, I still think this is at once hilarious and awesome, hence the title image -- I really do think that we're actually going to see a very different tack in the game for two reasons. The first is that we know there are cosmetic headpieces available from a low level, with the purpose clearly being appearance-related. The second is that we know your physical level allows for the increase of stats directly.
What if most gear in FFXIV was cosmetic? While I haven't seen anything claiming for certain that it is... the leaked alpha manual mentions equipping tools and weapons, but not armor. More to the point, even in the recent Famitsu article involving shopping for gear, there's no mention of stats or improvements on the armor... just level restrictions. When characters can buff their stats however they want without the use of equipment, it may actually be that most equipment -- or even all of it -- is for looks rather than stat bonuses.
Far-fetched? Probably. But it's certain that we have a much wider range of options pertaining solely to appearance, and a much more relaxed stance compared to Final Fantasy XI's equipment. (And we're all aware that Vana'diel wasn't exactly devoid of cosmetic armor.) There's another possibility, however, which ties into abilities down below. It's possible that the type of armor you're wearing directly affects the strength of abilities -- for example, heavy plate would be more conducive to martial abilities as opposed to caster robes. We don't know enough to be certain yet, but we can reasonably assume that the game will not feature a heavy emphasis on gear, or at least not in the World of Warcraft model of tiered progression.
Whatever you could say in praise of Final Fantasy XI's combat, it certainly wasn't fast-paced. With a few exceptions, battles moved at a very steady pace. In a way, this was a good thing -- it meant that knowledge was far more important than twitch reflexes, with the possible exception of timing skillchains. However, especially at low levels, it could also start to feel somewhat monotonous.
So far, FFXIV uses a fusion of Vagrant Story and Secret of Mana as the basis for its combat system. There's a distinction between being active or passive, very reminiscent of the former game, and there's a charging "effect gauge" which is reminiscent of the latter. Rather than a simple auto-attack, it seems as if everything is based around using an ability, a la City of Heroes.
That having been said, expect one of the first abilities of physical classes to be "Attack." We've already seen precisely that in Final Fantasy XIII, and I would be surprised if they didn't re-use the idea. Attacks will, of course, have a delay before you can use them again, as they warn us almost everything will... but there will be a basic attack command, most likely. Select the command, wait for it to charge, and then unleash it... or store it up for a bigger effect. Or because one of your more specialized commands hasn't cooled down yet.
We've seen extrapolations of the gauge-charging ATB-style combat system in several games before, and I imagine we'll be seeing some thorough variants here. Considering the importance of the effect gauge that's stored when you don't burst out instantly with your chosen ability, expect most skills and attacks to have some sort of "secondary" effect magnified by the gauge. A straight increase in damage isn't always going to be desirable if, for instance, you can bust out three normal-strength attacks in the time it takes to fully charge the effect gauge. (Yes, that full-charged attack might be at 400% strength to compensate... but it would also still have the chance of missing.)
Every ability, once learned, will be usable by every job. We can now breathe a collective sigh of relief. Abilities will be weaker in other disciplines -- which might be made up for by wearing certain equipment, or perhaps by charging the effect gauge. It goes without saying that whatever weaknesses they inherit will be to avoid degenerate combinations and give an incentive to playing the "core" class. Most likely weaknesses will be less pronounced across classes of the same type such as Pugilists and Marauders, versus using a Pugilist's Whistle on a Thaumaturge.
So far, we know that we've got twenty abilities at our disposal at any given time, with the implication being that this will expand. Obviously, most games don't expect you to use every ability your character is capable of using, but it seems to suggest a fairly fine gradation of skill. What hasn't been made wholly clear is whether those twenty spaces are just visual spaces on an action bar, or twenty slots akin to a Blue Mage's spells. The former means we just know what characters are expected to do now... the latter implies that auto-abilities and the like may "take up" space on your action list.
I'm leaning toward the former, however. Most likely auto-abilities and stat adjustments will lie with each individual discipline as you level it up, giving you a bit more incentive to use your Marauder tricks as an actual Marauder. It also forces players to think about their stat choices early on -- if you want a Dark Knight-esque character, for instance, you'd want to be buffing your magical stats so that you'd be able to cast decent spells even as a physical class.
Part one of many
So where do we end up?
People have been saying they don't see the difference between FFXI and FFXIV. Except we have a game where it's looking like combat is more engaging and reflex-oriented, equipment is far more focused on cosmetic options, and abilities are usable among broad groups of character types instead of just one or two. These are all big changes. And they're just the things we can pull together and reasonably speculate about from a very limited testing perspective.
We're not certain about all this just yet. But it hangs together, and that's the most important part.
Of course, I'm sure people will disagree with me and whap me upside the head with something I didn't know about in the comments. If you want to preserve my dignity in public, or have a question or an interesting discussion thread to highlight, send me some mail at Eliot at Massively dot com. (And yes, I know that Secret of Mana was the second game in the series and that the whole charging mechanic was ported directly from the first one. You seriously don't need to tell me that.)