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.
If this sounds like a pretty high level of handholding through the first segments of the game, well, it is - but you'll be thankful for it, because even seasoned MMO veterans will undoubtedly be thrown by some of the game's more curious systems. Take guildleves, for example. These are quests which are picked up from the counter at the Adventurer's Guild, and then activated by approaching a crystal in the nearest encampment to your quest goal (these crystals also serve a variety of other functions, including teleporting you around the world).
In the beta, at least, these "levequests" form the backbone of the leveling experience - both for your combat jobs, and for your crafting or gathering professions. You can tweak the difficulty level of the quest dynamically depending on how many people are in your party, which is a nice touch, and the quest will give you an indicator on the map showing you where your objectives are. Levequests can be refreshed every 48 hours at the Adventurer's Guild, and there's some kind of system for swapping new quests for old which claims to yield bonuses if you do it right, although I never quite got to the bottom of what that might involve.
This is a pretty solid system for dispensing quests to players. It's also entirely contrary, of course, to the way most other MMOs do it - but will instead be familiar to players of, for example, Final Fantasy XII, whose beast hunt optional quests used a similar system. This sets a pattern that you'll find running through most of Final Fantasy XIV.
The beating heart of the whole game, to give a prescient example, is the job system. Final Fantasy XI, taking its cues from games in the franchise as old as 1990's Final Fantasy III, allowed every character to play multiple job roles, rather than forcing you to roll a new character in order to switch classes. XIV takes this concept to new levels - you no longer have to go back to your home city to change class, but can instead swap between roles dynamically simply by changing the weapon in your main hand.
Equip a greataxe and you become a Marauder. Pop a staff in there instead and you're a Conjurer. Your character levels up in two different ways - you have a "physical level", which remains consistent across all your jobs, and then a "job level", which is specific to each one. Physical level determines your strength, dexterity, intelligence and so on, as well as your magical resistances. Job levels yield various new attacks, combos and abilities.
To make things slightly more complex, there are four different types of job - Disciples of War are the various melee classes, while Disciples of Magic are, self-evidently, the magic-wielding classes. Disciples of the Land are gatherers, while Disciples of the Hand are crafters - and each of those is considered a separate job, with its own ability set, experience bar and equipment. Equip a mining pick and you're a miner, or pop on a hammer and you're a blacksmith - and each of these professions has its own quest chains to follow too. Not only that, they even have specially designed mini-games which you must play in order to mine ore and so on, which makes them into much more involved affairs than they are in most other games.
The game is pretty innately designed around the idea that rather than specialising in one field, players will chop and change between classes a lot - and that they'll pay as much attention to their crafting and gathering as they do to their combat skills, with the player economy clearly being high on Square Enix' priority list. One interesting feature from that point of view is the ability to hire a "retainer" - a character who effectively acts as a bot for you, sitting in a city and selling your wares from a bazaar, as well as monitoring the Auction House for items on your watchlist, while you go off and adventure elsewhere.
As to the game's combat system, it too is a curious mixture of the new and the familiar. Gone is the somewhat slow-paced battle of FFXI, replaced by a rapid-fire combat system which gives you a steadily refilling stamina bar and a selection of abilities which drain from it. If the bar is full enough, you can fire off abilities one after the other - only if you drain it entirely will you have to pause. Special abilities retain a cooldown timer, and spells take a certain amount of time to cast, while some other abilities draw from yet another pool - your TP, which fills up as you spend time in combat and steadily depletes out of combat.
Even fighting solo is quite an interesting juggling act as a result - expect players to be debating the most effective chains and combos for exploiting Stamina, TP and cooldowns to their maximum for years to come. It's also worth noting that the game seems much more friendly to solo players than its predecessor, which pretty much enforced partying from level 10 onwards.
However, like any MMO, the real meat on the bones lies in teaming up with other players. Here, too, things are a bit different from the usual. It's common for players looking for a party in an MMO to mark themselves as "looking for group", but in FFXIV the leaders of teams in need of members flag themselves as "looking for members" instead, having informed the matchmaking system of what kind of people they require. It's going to take some time for players to get used to this - in the beta, most parties seemed to be formed in public chat rather than in the LFG system.
Party combat in FFXIV can be approached simply as an exercise in collaborative monster-bashing - which is great fun - but there's a depth to the game which was by no means fully explored in the limited time we had in the beta. A system called Battle Regimes calls upon players to figure out the strategy they're going to use and then queue up attacks to unleash in order. It seems incredibly powerful, but lacking a tutorial or a gradual introduction, was utterly impenetrable during the closed beta, and it remains to be seen whether it will have the desired effect of turning party play into a strategic affair rather than the DPS melee it is at present.
In fact, this is the sentiment which can be taken away from much of the FFXIV closed beta - "wait and see". Over the past decade, MMO makers have recognised that betas aren't so much technical tests as they are advertising for the game - but Square Enix apparently didn't get the memo. The closed beta felt very much like a technical test, with accelerated XP gain making it hard to evaluate how the lower levels would really play, while huge swathes of the game's features seemed to be switched off - including, I suspect, a lot of the major quest lines and the various tutorials which would ease you into the more complex professions and systems.
If that incomplete picture of the game seems a little disturbing on some levels - is this really a game that's going to be finished and polished for its launch in late September? - it's also hugely promising. Final Fantasy XIV could so easily have taken the path of least resistance, neatly inserting the Final Fantasy tropes of chocobos and summoned beasts into a WOW-style framework. The fact that it's something radically different, willing to willfully ignore WOW in favour of trying out its own ideas and expanding upon the core themes of the franchise, is cause for celebration.
Whether it will work or not, however, is another question entirely. We'll have to wait and see - but with only three weeks remaining to its launch, the wait will not be very long.
Final Fantasy XIV is due out for PC on 30th September, with early access granted through the special edition on 22nd September. An open beta for the game launches tomorrow.