Square Enix handed in a solid MMORPG with Final Fantasy 14 Online: A Realm Reborn, despite a gruelling two-year development period that saw the original game rebuilt and radically redesigned with a new engine, gameplay systems and network infrastructure. We've already covered the PC and PS3 versions of the game extensively, but now there's a PS4 version in town. Freed from the shackles of seven-year-old hardware, does it mean console players can finally enjoy the same polished experience available on PC?
Previously, producer/director Naoki Yoshida has said that the developers were targeting a native 1080p presentation for this PS4 version, with similar graphics quality to the PC version running on maximum settings. Taking a look at the framebuffer, we can indeed confirm a full HD resolution, backed up by a fairly standard FXAA implementation.
Image quality is a match for the PC version, right down to the slight texture blur and shimmering across sub-pixel elements of the scene. The pixel precision afforded by 1080p ensures scenery and characters in the near field appear reasonably clean and well-presented, although it fails to prevent the appearance of jaggies elsewhere.
A Realm Reborn on PS4 was also supposed to be targeting a consistent 60fps frame-rate, but the final version of Realm Reborn actually comes with an unlocked frame-rate (capped at 60Hz) and the goal of keeping things north of 30fps. It's a similar set-up to Square Enix stable-mate Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, and suggests the game is more demanding to run than its origins on ageing hardware might imply.
"Image quality is a match for the PC version, right down to the slight texture blur and shimmering across sub-pixel elements of the scene."
All the niceties are in the right place, at least. Texture detail, character modelling and the majority of the effects work - from smoke and particles to reflections and transparencies - all appear identical across PS4 and PC, with both formats delivering a sharper and vastly more detailed representation of the game world than the murky-looking PS3 release. This allows fine details and intricate artwork to come through virtually unscathed by comparison, resulting in a huge visual advantage over the last-gen console.
Looking closely through the shots in our Final Fantasy 14 triple-format comparison gallery, the only real difference between the PS4 and PC is the visibly lower level of anisotropic filtering on Sony's console. The PC version operates with 16x AF in our shots, while reduced effect on PS4 leads to texture details becoming blurred when viewed from sharp angles, although otherwise the artwork remains relatively crisp and clear.
The way the game is lit and shaded has a strong impact on how the colourful world appears, with dynamic day/night cycles and weather effects completely transforming the look of the landscape. The quality of the conversion work also extends to the PS4 in this area, where we see a lighting model that casts more shadows across the environment than in the PS3 game, leading to more realistically shaded locations.
Another key graphical advantage over last-gen is the way assets are handled on PS4 and PC as you explore the expansive environments. Level-of-detail transitions are far less aggressive, and as a result characters and the surrounding scenery are less prone to culling at a distance. Small bushes, fences and other objects are clearly visible on the horizon, resulting in a world that feels more alive and detailed when you gaze across the landscape.
From a gameplay standpoint this also makes it easier to see the various icons displayed across the ground and above other players, which allows you to get clearer picture of just what is happening in busy combat scenes and scripted events before your reach them.
Moving into performance, Final Fantasy 14 on our decent but not spectacular PC - an Intel Core i5 and GTX 680 - comes close to delivering the solid-60fps gold standard in smoothness and controller response, with relatively few compromises along the way. Besides a few noticeable drops in frame-rate during large-scale battles, along with some mild judder in busy areas, we are effectively looking at a consistent 60fps experience.
"While Final Fantasy 14 isn't the most advanced PS4 title from a visual perspective, it's clearly a significant step up from the PS3 version, delivering a much cleaner-looking presentation."
This is the kind of thing we'd like the PS4 to match, offering both greater consistency and a smoother experience where gameplay is concerned, but unfortunately it isn't the case. A Realm Reborn does hit 60fps in some circumstances, but the truth is it's inconsistent. For the most part the game averages 30-45fps across an extended gameplay session, very occasionally dropping into the twenties during large battles featuring many players. V-sync staves off screen-tear though, and even this uneven frame-rate is miles higher than PS3, with the knock-on effect that control is much more responsive and there's less judder all round.
Of course, the vast technical upgrade over the PS3 version is perhaps to be expected, but more impressive perhaps is the lengths to which Square Enix has gone in integrating the PS4's unique features. Basic DualShock 4 functionality is similar way to PS3 version, although there are more Cross Hotbar customisation options, but the touchpad really helps, putting a decent replacement for a PC mouse at the tip of your finger.
You can move a cursor around freely, while pressing the touch pad cycles between different parts of the HUD menu - chat bar, map icons, quest log, etc. It takes a little while to get the hang of, but once you understand it, it's very flexible. And hey, it's also possible to plug in a mouse and keyboard.
"Perhaps the most impressive thing about Final Fantasy 14 though is that it is fully cross-platform compatible."
Final Fantasy 14 on PS4 also makes full use of the console's video and screenshot sharing functions and live-streaming options, while the inclusion of Remote Play means you can even play the game on Vita, albeit with poorer image quality and a bit more latency in control.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Final Fantasy 14 though is that it is fully cross-platform compatible. That's handy if you're a PS3 owner who wants to upgrade to PS4, because by following a simple transfer progress using both consoles it's possible to transfer data and any saved progress from one to the other and keep playing. But the killer feature is that players on PC, PS3 and PS4 all exist in the same world together. There are no borders or shards hiving you off into different areas. It's a massively multiplayer game with a massively multiplayer approach to its host platforms, too.
Final Fantasy 14 on PS4: the Digital Foundry verdict
The PlayStation 4 version of Final Fantasy 14 is an impressive port that comes close to delivering a PC-quality experience on a console. The PC version is still the best option overall, but the crisp 1080p visuals, more detailed artwork, longer draw distances and the possibility of having hundreds of characters on-screen at once without that big a dip in performance are all fantastic achievements for this next-gen console release, and people who simply prefer doing their gaming on console will get a good deal out of this version - while still getting to play along with their friends on PC.
A more consistent frame-rate would have been nice, but it's still a world away from the low performance of the PS3 version. After a painful period of redevelopment, Final Fantasy 14 truly feels reborn - and newly alive.