A hell of a lot has changed since the Final Fantasy series' last foray into massively multiplayer gaming. We've all got vastly more powerful computers and consoles in the intervening eight years, broadband has become faster and much more commonplace - oh, and a little thing called World of Warcraft has shown that the potential market for MMOs is about 20 times larger than anyone thought back then.
The design team at Square Enix (there's another thing which has changed - back in 2002, they were just plain old Square) has undoubtedly been watching that latter development very closely. Who wouldn't? Love it or loathe it, World of Warcraft is a genre-redefining earthquake of a game, one which still stands astride the entire MMO space like a colossus.
It wasn't unreasonable, under the circumstances, to expect that Square Enix might try to steer Final Fantasy XIV a little closer to the wind that fills WOW's sails. It's to the team's enormous credit, even if it turns out to be a foolhardy move, that they've done precisely the opposite.
After over half a decade of playing WOW and a selection of its clones, Final Fantasy XIV feels refreshingly weird. Rather than aligning itself with the general direction of MMOs, the game has stubbornly continued its evolution in the directions mapped out by FFXI. It's an MMO that's best controlled with a joypad, one brimming with voiced NPCs and epic cut-scenes, one in which you change class simply by equipping a different weapon and whose combat systems are informed as much by SNES RPGs of the early nineties as by rival MMOs.
Those elements of the game which feel familiar are the ones which hark back to FFXI, and even deeper into the history of the Final Fantasy franchise. The five playable races, for example, are essentially the same as those in FFXI, albeit renamed - from the diminutive, child-like Lalafell (formerly Tarutaru) through to the hulking Roegadyn (nee Galka). The world of Eorzea itself often feels like a remix of FFXI's Vana'diel - the section around the starting city of Limsa Lominsa, the coastal plains of La Noscea, are all rolling highlands and lilting Celtic melodies.
Limsa Lominsa is the only starting city which could be selected in the closed beta version of the game - two others will be available in the final game. It's a soaring city of white limestone towers, built on rocks and sea stacks over the waves, and connected by delicate ivory bridges across the chasms. Populated with the game's uniformly gorgeous characters - even the Roegadyn are impossibly rugged and handsome rather than monstrous - the city is a bold statement in itself, letting everyone know that FFXIV will brook no rivals for the title of most gorgeous MMORPG.
Before you get there, however, there's a set of cut-scenes and tutorials to go through. You start out in the hold of a ship bound for Limsa Lominsa, which is attacked by unpleasant jellyfish-like creatures. In cut-scenes, you run into the self-assured Y'shtola, a Miqo'te (the all-feline female race) who, after a brief combat tutorial in which you fight a trio of the jellyfish, saves you and the rest of the ship from the assault.
Once in Limsa Lominsa, you quickly run into her again, in another scene-setting sequence which also introduces your first contact, the foul-mouthed barman Baderon. After a brief introduction to the city, which hints strongly at major quest chains to come, you're sent on your way to the plains outside the city to make your name for yourself.