Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Slight Return : FFXIV

With all the big stories breaking across the MMO news front last week it would have been easy to miss this little squib. Final Fantasy XIV, voted Game Most Likely To by the "we used to play WoW but we're so over it now" crew, took another step towards full assimilation by expanding on its existing free trial.

I'd forgotten FFXIV even had a free trial but it does. It used to expire after two weeks - just like WoW's used to do. Now it goes on forever - just like WoW's does. You still have to make a fresh account to take advantage of it - just like you used to have to do in WoW. I imagine in due course you'll be able to log in existing accounts and play them under the trial restrictions because, well, that's the way WoW does it.

Trial accounts have all the restrictions you'd expect, mostly designed around preventing goldsellers and other undesirables from exploiting Square's generosity. By and large, though, it allows you to play the game in a not dissimilar fashion to a paying customer.

There is one very big difference between FFXIV's free trial and what you get for your no money in WoW: in Eorzea you're limited to Level 35, which really is a big step up from WoW's Level 20 clampdown. You can very easily hit level twenty in your first session in World of Warcraft but back when Mrs Bhagpuss and I played FFXIV at launch it took us a full month, playing maybe 30 hours a week, to get to the mid-30s.

What is it about Catgirls? We couldn't just wear leathers? I blame Cordwainer Smith.

Indeed I don't believe my character was 35 when the thirty days that came with the box ran out and we declined to subscribe. Given that FFXIV's design allows you to level every class on one character and that the the free trial allows you to make eight characters (all on different servers), it seems entirely possible you could play the game for free, as your main MMO, for months.

Not that I'd want to do that. I have a very odd relationship with FFXIV. There are many things about it that I really enjoy. The visuals are spectacular, the world is gorgeous and rich, the character animations are glorious. Combat is old-school MMO tab target, which is what I like best. The quest dialog is idiosyncratic and entertaining. The cut scenes are exceptionally well-rendered. There's a deep and intriguing storyline.

I could go on for quite a while with the positives and yet for all that FFXIV tires me out. It's an enervating experience. I've spent considerable time in the original beta, the "we know this is bad so you don't have to pay us" phase of version one, and finally in this, the Realm Reborn and, unlike almost every other MMO I've played, each session I play leaves me feeling drained, worn, ready to lie down.

Okay, I exaggerate. It's not that exhausting. But it does leave its mark. It's not simply the pace, which is stately, to put it politely. I like a slow MMO. It's something about the weight, the texture, the heft. FFXIV doesn't feel slow in a relaxed way, a take your time, smell the roses kind of way. It feels slow as in ponderous, plodding, heavy-footed.

#1 Cats do not like rain
#2 I am really not dressed for this...

This time round it didn't help that I logged in to a wet afternoon in Gridania. When it rains there it really rains. It was midday but it looked more like dusk. The plethora of instructional pop-ups in FFXIV's fussy font and ornate frames only added to the sense of oppression.

Fortunately, having played before, I was able to set things up as I like them fairly quickly. Like most MMOs, left to its own devices FFXIV obscures almost all of its fine art with game-related visual clutter that destroys any hope of immersion.

Once I'd got that out of the way I had to spend a long time fiddling with the controls to try and get screenshots to work. I failed. I don't believe that's FFXIV's fault. It seems to be a Windows 10 issue. In the end I gave up and started FRAPS.

By which point I had already had enough. That was yesterday. Today I tried again.

For the first few minutes I ran around gathering up quests. When I played at launch I read every word of all the quests, which is possibly why it took me a month to hit the thirties. To say FFXIV's quests are verbose is to do a disservice to verbosity.

I don't remember there being an Achievement system but I guess if WoW has one...

This time round, having already read it all before, I gave myself permission first to skim and then to skip the dialog entirely. I ducked out of every cut scene that allowed it as well and by golly does FFXIV have cut scenes!

Even with all that time-saving, as Syp said, I still found myself "doing nothing more than running back and forth and back and forth across a city". Which is fine in its way but, as I said, I've done it before, and not just the once either.

With the example of LotRO's wholly opposite approach to accommodating  freeloading tightwads in mind, I decided to ignore all the myriad elves and La-Las counting on me to cheer up their depressed friends or fetch their forgotten toolbags. Instead I wandered off into the woods and began killing stuff.

I think someone made the game easier since I last played. It's hard to remember exactly how it was three and a half years ago but I'm not sure I was able back then to mow down mobs three or four levels above me as fast as I could find them, using only the gear I woke up wearing.

See this, Secret World fans? This is why your game failed. You didn't have a big enough Level Up thingy.

Last time I was playing a caster. This time I rolled an Archer, the same class I played before the rebirth. Maybe that's all it was. Whatever, it was a lot more fun than running endless errands and reading yards of oddly formal prose.

I was getting bonuses for chain killing so I shot at anything I saw. A FATE popped and I ran to that, only to find that apparently I was under-level to get full credit, even though the mobs were the same level as me. I killed them anyway.

This killing spree lasted until I reached the next zone, where the mobs were level 10. I was level four at this point and although I'd been happily slaughtering level sevens I thought a six level gap might be a reach too far.

Retracing my steps I found another FATE, which again advised me I was too low to be there, even though the Ladybirds I was meant to exterminate were level four just like me. There were a lot more of them than there were of me too and they were highly aggressive. When no-one else came to join the FATE I found myself overwhelmed and eventually went down fighting four at once.

Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home. No, wait, just die. It'll be quicker.

At which point I stopped and came to write this. My Miqo'te is standing in a field of Easter eggs running her idling animations right now. It occurred to me to look up what those eggs are all about because no doubt there's some holiday going on, but much though I love an MMO holiday, perhaps I won't.

If I'm going to enjoy playing FFXIV and not just end each session feeling drained I think I might need to take a step back from what the game wants me to do. Indeed, I think I ought to stop treating it as a game at all. That was, perhaps, the problem.

Eorzea could be a magical place to spend time if people just stopped handing out endless lists of things you ought to be doing. The game does it, the meta does it, the NPCs do it, everything about the entire set-up screams "do this! do it now! do it my way!" and that's maybe why I could never settle.

As is becoming ever more apparent, free trials or restrictive free-to-play offers have the potential to hand some much-missed control back to the player. Knowing I can never go past level 35 takes a huge amount of the pressure to perform away.

It isn't going to do much for Square Enix's profits but, like LotRO, FFXIV is almost certainly back in my rotation. Just don't expect me to make "progress".

10 comments:

  1. If you can imagine a bar of dark chocolate the size of a football pitch, you've got the essence of the Final Fantasy XIV experience. You'll be enjoying it in small doses for an eternity.

    The game's English text is written by someone who clearly knows how to write and loves doing it. I enjoy reading up to a certain point - somewhere at the midpoint of chapter five, my mind shuts off. That's probably a good place to end one's play session, I'd imagine. The problem is that you probably still want to do things like shooting bows; getting to a point where this becomes engaging is downright painful.

    Yoshi P and crew love the world of Final Fantasy - and it shows in the ubiquitous, Nth-degree attention to detail - but good grief the pacing is tedious.

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    1. That's a very good analogy. It's taken me a long time to work out why it is that I can't play FFXIV "seriously" - it's too dense. I'm used to MMOs being deep or broad but this degree of density is a new one on me and it's too much.

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  2. They do let previous trial accounts re-up and do the full trial, according to the teaser email they sent me. I never did pay a month so maybe that is why?

    Yet another game to put in the queue. Unlike you, I solely play single file.

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    1. Yep, that's the reason. You can re-start an expired trial account but if you ever subbed and stopped (or just bought the box) that account is dead to you unless you re-sub. But WoW was the same and now it isn't so no doubt SE will follow, eventually.

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  3. Level 35 is definitely a lot higher than I got in FFXIV before I got bored and never logged in again (two or three weeks into the month I got with the box)!

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    1. I didn't exactly get bored - more worn down. I think if it wasn't for all the gating progress via compulsory dungeon runs I might have made it further. That was the real deal-breaker.

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  4. Thanks for the update. I have been playing EQ2 less and less so I was thinking of trying something different. This sounds pretty good.

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    1. Well it *is* an unlimited free trial - no better way to find out if it's for you or not. I think I'd go insane if I I had to play it all the time but there's a lot to like if you don't let it take you over.

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  5. I am the opposite here, I loved just being in Eorzea - especially the starter areas around the main hubs, absolutely everything Dark Shroud or La Noscea made my heart sing. The game sure has a ton of stuff to do nowadays, but I am good at ignoring what distracts me from being aimless. ;) Just focusing on map discovery and the main storyline got me to max level fairly quickly, thanks to dungeons being very puggable too.

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    1. One thing I didn't mention are the oddly granular, even gritty, visual textures. It doesn't show much in screenshots but in game I find it makes my eyes tired quite quickly in a way few other games ever have. It's not just my PC either because I've played on three different set-ups with different graphics cards and monitors and it has been the same on all of them.

      That very much contributes to the tiredness I feel after playing for a while.

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