So what's the reward for all of that work? It's a remarkably baroque game in the most positive sense of the word. At the best of times, Final Fantasy XIV is a game that feels like it genuinely rewards you for mucking about with fine details, something that's usually either counterproductive or completely omitted. You have an astonishing amount of things to do, a number of ways to play, and a whole bunch of content to explore no matter what kind of content interests you the most. And in its current state, the game has trimmed down a lot of the awkwardness that characterized its earliest incarnation.
The first thing that blew me away, though, was honestly something remarkably simple: gathering. Gathering is, in most games, one of those actions that's necessary for crafting but is given virtually no attention by the designers. You click on a node and you start gathering. There's no subtlety or complexity; there's just an activity for you to turn off your brain and do. As such, it's also something I find gratingly obnoxious. Either I'm running around in lower-level regions looking for the one reagent I need or I'm in appropriate areas and have to stop gathering every three minutes to fight something. Neither of these is my idea of a good time.
FFXIV takes the idea of gathering and runs with it. Gathering is an entirely legitimate game unto itself. Nodes have different results depending on your harvesting location; chopping toward the upper part of a tree tends to produce more branches, while chopping toward the roots gets you sturdy logs. There's a whole minigame involved, and while it's a fairly simple game of hitting a target reliably, the fact that it exists at all is noteworthy. I've had long play sessions in the game in which I have done nothing but gather, not to craft anything specific but just to enjoy the gathering.
At times, I do miss the idea of having simpler and more transparent crafting. But becoming a good crafter feels like a legitimate effort, not something that just sort of happens. That keeps me interested.
Combat is probably where the game has changed the most, but it's really hit its stride. The current design goal seems to fuse some of the flavor of a strictly class-based game with a profoundly skill-based approach. While you wind up with some skills that are limited to one class or another, you also wind up with a plethora that can go with almost any combat-related class. The main skills that are held back now are ones that would really dilute the flavor of having specific classes.
It sounds odd, but it works. Each class gets a distinct flavor, and astonishingly it's a flavor that holds true in both group or solo content. Gladiators are tanks through and through, but they're also skillful combatants dancing into an opponent's weak points. Marauders are also tanks, but they're meant to hit many things at once, sweeping an axe in a wide arc and hitting multiple targets. Even multi-target abilities have long had distinct methods of operation, with Lancers focusing on a narrow but high-damage line while Marauders work in broad cones.
Plus, the combo system does a lot for the combat, giving players a reason to plan moves and use them in sequence while still encouraging players to occasionally break said sequence. The combat is, overall, slower than that found in many MMOs, but the lack of a more frantic speed means you have more time to intelligently use varied abilities. In World of Warcraft, the average fight might call on you to use four abilities in sequence. In FFXIV, especially toward the higher levels, you can easily end up using a dozen different abilities in a single fight without its being especially unusual.
And even the weird parts of the system have a certain charm to them. Sure, levequests are odd... but there's something comforting about always knowing that quest X is quest X, and you can always expect the same enemy distribution no matter what. You grow accustomed to the quests, and they're quick enough that you can burn a few out for fun without having to devote your whole evening.
There's also the setting, which carries forward the traditions of Final Fantasy XI while being its own creature. Calling it "high fantasy" seems reductionist, somehow; the setting feels alive and vibrant, full of personalities and people and real organizations. The landscapes and structures are grounded in reality, detailed and created so that they resemble places where groups of people live rather than arranged according to functionality.
Even in the places that the story might fall down a bit (and the main story quests are a bit weak, although recent content is excellent), the sheer amount of depth in the setting is impressive. Every single city is facing a multi-pronged conflict from several outside forces, some of which connect to the stories of other nations and some of which are unique. Moreover, said conflicts are portrayed as being complex rather than simple cases of zealotry or misinformation. There's a lot going on in every city, every organization, every minor quest.
You can argue that most of this is standard fare in sandbox games and is nothing unique to FFXIV, but here's the thing: For my money, most pure sandbox titles are dull. They're interesting to read about but not usually all that interesting to actually play. The actual game of FFXIV is fun. I like fiddling with class abilities, assembling gear sets for crafting or mining, and spending time dodging monsters and hammering at nodes. And I also like subsequently yanking a spear out and skewering anything that gets in my way.
There's a lot of work required to get to that chewy center, and some people aren't going to like the work or aren't going to like the center when they get there, but for me, it feels like it's all worth it. When I sit down to play FFXIV, I'm in an adventure, even if sometimes that adventure is a bit complicated to pursue.
Oh, and it has the cutest moogles ever. That's a nice bonus.
There's an MMO born every day, and every game is someone's favorite. Why I Play is a column in which the Massively staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it's the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.