Editor’s note: Lane
is at work and will have pictures later on today when he can access his screenshots should not make promises he cannot keep; his screenshots apparently did not take and he is too tired to do them again, so here are some pictures he stole from Google.
Why does Square do it?
Obviously, they are staffed by capable people. The most depressing thing about Square games is that they appear 75% finished, as if a massive push were made to build a really great game about 3/4s done, and then work stalls, and what limps to the finish line is an 80%-finished game passed off as “acceptable.”
I realize Square’s PC front has always been secondary to their console market, and that they may be largely unfamiliar with PC architecture and design optimization… and while that may have worked back in the late 90s for the computer versions of FFVII and FFVIII, it should hold no water now that we are almost to 2011.
The decision to beta test Final Fantasy XIV is a good one; Square has legions (untold legions) of loyalists that embody the video game fan. Blindly devoted, consumed by Square-Enix fanaticism, these hordes will descend with a bubbly, shiny faux-Japanese wrath on any that dare criticize the Great Master.
But it has to be some sort of demented, masochistic relationship. No one would bow to such an unforgiving, uncaring master without a serious jones for self-flagellation.
But I wonder: what is being done with the beta?
Long story short, I was one of that demented legion in attempting to secure a beta key. Unlike most people that just want their shinies early, I honestly wanted to test out the game and see if I could improve it. I have always liked Square-Enix, as a company, and find that despite their flaws as a game company, they can usually cook up one hell of an immersive world. As I said, Square always starts strong, with the basis of a world dripping with promise… and manages to squander that capital with pointessl minigames, grinds, overused cliches, graphical glitches, bad translations… you name it, it can happen.
As was problematic with both of Square’s other online MMO properties, Final Fantasy XI and Fantasy Earth Zero, the game interface is just not designed correctly for an online game.
Menus are bad.
Say it with me, Square. It is the only way to heal.
Menus are bad. Submenus doubly so.
Point-and-click is a terrible interface for consoles. It is even worse for computers. It may have worked for LucasArts in the 80s, but this is 2010. Point and click is bad. If I cannot operate a menu with the keyboard, there are problems. If I must rely on the mouse, the slowest, laggiest piece of shit human input device hooked up to the computer, things are bad.
But I get ahead of myself. What follows is the Epic Chronicle of the Beta: The Limsa Lominsa Years.
Sitting Down With Final Fantasy XIV
Sunday, August 15th, 2010. Around 1:00 post meridian, Central Standard Time. Scene: the living room of Lane’s house. All is quiet; Mrs. Lane is taking a nap in the bedroom. Spazcat the Wonder Kitten is tucked away on some elevated perch, surveying which of her stuffed animals shall meet its grisly fate next. The TV is dark, the fridge humming softly. Only the soft glow of a laptop screen lights the shaded interior of the house. Soft blues, whites and greys bounce cheerily from the screen, casting shadows and creating stark relief with the grimly intense face of one Lusipurr.com reviewer, Lane Haygood. He stares determinedly at the screen.
“Reveal your secrets to me, File Planet.”
But the repository of gaming frustration known as “the FP” is silent; the IGN-based network lets no trickle of information slip from its grasp. Its moderators are silent as to when the beta key giveaway will commence. But Lane knows something. He knows that he must be vigilant, for in a mere few seconds, the Final Fantasy XIV beta keys will be gone into the hungry digital, cheeto-stained maws of a thousand ghastly ghouls.
He sees the message: “beta keys up in a few sec…” but he cannot pause to read. No, it is off to the site. Click. The next page. Information auto-filled. Click the checkbox… and… beta key, bam, right there on the screen! He cries in joy. The cat leaps from her hiding spot and bolts into the other room. His wife, startled, emerges bleary-eyed and wielding a bat. But Lane does not notice; he has succeeded in his mission. Now, he can provide his dear and constant readers with the news, opinions and shinies they crave.
This fanciful retelling of my attempt to secure a beta key was actually not embellished. I also know that it took approximately 10 seconds for them to run out of keys. We are fortunate, dear and constant readers, that my Internet connecon chose that moment not to lag.
After activating my beta account, I abandoned the Mac-y goodness of my laptop for my stolid PC workhorse. I ran the FFXIV benchmark application, just for S&G, to see how this thing would hold up. Two years ago, this computer was a gaming beast. It has a 3.0Ghz Core 2 Duo, a 1GB nVidia 9600GT GPU, 4 gigs of DDR2 RAM, and a speedy XFX motherboard to haul all that data around in. I never benchmarked the thing with Crysis, but I have yet to meet a game that cannot be played at 1680×1050 with the settings cranked up to “melt CPU fans.”
I got fair-to-middling scores on my FFXIV benchmark, just over 2000. Not terrible, but it left me thinking, “Square expects normal networks to hold up to this kind of abuse?” I mean, an 11GB install file was not the worst of my troubles for my bandwidth. That is still a lot of client-server communications!
To grease the skids for this, some actual hacking of my router was required. Whereas most commercially-available networking hardware will keep a few common ports open for back-and-forth communication, and most commercially-available firewalls provide easy configuration for programs, FFXIV and its associated updater client require quite a few ports to be open. Opening them is a simple matter, and once I did, I saw my client download speed jump from a shockingly terrible 3kbps to over 600kbps. I shudder to think what would have happened had I not turned on uPNP and forwarded the right points.
Once everything was installed, a process that took about as long as one would expect, I began to play.
The game opened up in windowed mode.
I hate playing games in windowed mode.
Windowed mode was created by perverts like SiliconNoob so that they can look at paizuri hentai while playing the latest Tales game. Lusipurr himself uses it to write Pokemon slashfic while recording the podcast. Those recording glitches? Those were just the times when he was too involved in hot Psyduck-on-Psyduck action to bother paying attention to Skype.
But, OK, I think, I will just change that setting to full scre…
Well, what if there were no option to change? I suppose that playing a game in a measly 1280×720 for a beta test is OK. My framerates will go up.
The game starts off as one would expect, with the classic Final Fantasy theme being played, goofy all-white screen with stylized logo, and then it is off to character creation.
Square boasted “lots of options!” for character creation, and I expected something with sliders and tweaking, much like one could do in Dragon Age or Mass Effect to create a truly unique-looking character.
Nope. It is presets. And not even a large amount of presets. About what one would expect from WoW, which is to say, a six-year-old game.
Anyway, the standard complement of races is there: the human stand-ins (though I was pleased to see that Square is not shying away from allowing players to create non-white characters), the elf/dark elf stand-ins, the ugly-cute mini-persons, catgirls, and large, burly bear men. At least there are no bagaa. Yet.
As near as I could tell, the race was purely cosmetic, so I fired up a trust human, outfitted him with some dorky looks, and went on to choosing a class.
The Armory system will be discussed further in, but a brief overview of the class creation is necessary. There are four broad categories. Whereas one might be tempted to say, “tank, melee, ranged, healer,” one would be wrong. They are “physical, magical, gatherer, crafter.”
That is right, gatherers and crafters represent separate “jobs,” if one will, rather than simply sub-skills tacked on under a character class.
For a PVE MMO, this seems weird. I would buy it in a social MMO like Second Life, but if the goal of the game is to fight monsters, then being a class that can somehow aid in the fighting of monsters is important. I assume that a Blacksmith could whack a rat with his hammer, or a Carpenter perhaps use some sort of saw. After all, Cid fought with Wrenches, so…
But I could not bring myself to make a gatherer (fisher, miner or herb-picker) or a crafter (one of a long list, but think of the basics: armorcrafting, leatherworking, blacksmithing, tailoring, alchemy, cooking). Spending my initial leveling experience sitting in the middle of the street making arrows seems stupid. It is stupid. No one wants to level that way. Except gold farmers.
So I checked in to meatshields and pew-pewers.
For magic users, there are a whopping two choices: thaumaturge (mage) and conjurer (some sort of hippie). Apparently, both serve roughly the same function of being equal parts black and white mage. OK.
To be honest, this seems a little anemic for one of the iconic Final Fantasy classes. I know that the job bank contains Black, White, Red, and Blue mages. I know that each has there spheres of specialization. This largely cosmetic differentiation between casters is… lackluster? Trite? An insult?
So being a magician was right out, which is for the best, because I hate playing casters. Off to the wild world of melee!
As a “Disciple of War” one can be a Gladiator (tank), Marauder (plate-wearing DPS), Pugilist (hand-to-hand fighter), Archer (please do not make me explain that one), or Lancer (weirdo mid-range fighter that has a goofy outfit).
Because the Marauder looked like some sort of cast-off from the gay porn spoof of Pirates of the Carribean, and the idiotic puffy sleeves on the Lancer turned me off, I took a look at the remaining classes. The Pugilists quick speed and flashy animations drew my eye, but I could not abandon my roots, and chose to make a Gladiator. Awesome. I get a sword! All is right with the world. After picking a name, a birthdate (really?) and a patron god, I was ready to adventure! It should be noted that these last options are not explained. How they tie into the game mechanics is a question I would like answered.
Into the Game
The game starts off with a rather detailed cinematic. Players are treated to a view around the hold of a ship. A United Colors of Limsa Lominsa ad on the high seas. There are people of every race and nation just sitting there… except for the player character. The PC is hallucinating, probably from some bad grog. Hearing voices, the PC gets up. At this point, players can talk to such engaging NPCs as the “Voluptuous Vixen,” who is neither voluptuous nor vixenly. Once players realize that nothing of interest will ever happen, they can exit by walking up to the big doors. A prompt appears, “Are you sure? Once you leave, you can never come back!”
Oh, as if things were so interesting down here! I can run around a whole six feet of space! What joy!
Fuck off, game, I am cheesing this place.
Stepping outside triggers another cutscene. This time, the Player Character has visual hallucinations of fire falling from the sky. She or he is engulfed by a wave of fire… only to find out that when tripping balls, one can mistake a wave of sea water for fire. Apparently there is a bad storm, and our landlubber PC just cannot hack it.
Thankfully, a helpful catgirl is there to tell you to get your ass back belowdecks where stupid people belong. Of course, the PC does not listen. She or he watches in dumbfounded horror as the ship is beset by floating jellyfish.
Inquiring minds might ask, “why floating jellyfish?” If we are on the open sea, it stands to reason that floating would not be a trait evolved by jellyfish, since jellyfish floating above the ocean would be stupid. But we are in the open sea, and now there are floating jellyfish.
Never you mind, says Square-Enix. Just realize that now is the time to fight. Whether this was meant to be a tutorial, I could not tell. There were not any actual helpful tips. But I figured out soon enough I had to kill me some floating jellyfish, so off I went.
Targeting is a nightmare. In most MMOs, targeting can be accomplished in one of two ways: clicking on the enemy (good) or using the tab key (less good). Tab targeting is sometimes unreliable, but in a well-made MMO it will at least select only things the player can attack. Pressing tab in FFXIV will first select the player. Thoughts of suicide are, sadly, not entirely foreign to the situation of playing the game, so perhaps this was intentional.
Clicking is more difficult. Better MMOs will provide an enemy nameplate, a context-sensitive area of the screen where clicking will produce an instant target. This is necessary because TIME AND SPACE and their magical properties intervene between MY COMPUTER, to which my mouse is attached, and the SERVER which actually tells my computer what the fuck is going on. If I click a floating jellyfish at Point A, by the time my command is actually relayed to the server, the jellyfish has floated to Point B. Result: no targeting!
A nameplate solves this: clicking on the nameplate says, “fuck wherever the sprite is supposed to be, target that bitch whereever he is and fire the fucking missiles.” But, no. There are no nameplates in FFXIV. One must bash the tab key to target.
Once targeted, the player then enters “Active Mode.” In “Passive Mode,” players cannot attack, but they can talk, or walk around slow as fuck. Seriously, walk-speed in MMOs is annoying. But to activate “not limp along” mode, one must sacrifice the benefits of HP/MP regeneration and not walking around with a hard-on for violence. Once in Active Mode, though, an action bar appears! Well, that was a neat UI trick. I think I like it.
I have but one attack. No auto-attacks on top of which to layer my specials. All attacks must be chosen. OK, not a bad system.
I press “1” signifying my desire to use “Heavy Blow.”
I press 1 more insistently. I click the #1 spot on my Hotbar. My Stamina Gauge, which I assume (since I have not been told) is my special attack resource, is full. I can see the projected Stamina cost of my Heavy Blow attack. I have enough. Nothing.
I leap forward and slash the Jellyfish, doing respectable damage. “OK, something worked.” I frantically repeat my process. Wait. Wait. Jellyfish attacks, doing massive, painful damage. But thankfully, my catgirl friend heals me. Some big lout with an axe stands there and watches.
“A little help?” I ask. My cries fall on deaf ears.
Another slash! More health drained. I think I am getting the hang of this! When pressed, an attack is queued, and then when my next attack period is up, I will perform that attack. What is the attack period? How is initiative negotiated? Not a clue, but this is annoying. Turn-based combat is fun in single-player games; in an MMO it is stupid. I also should be able to queue up several attacks at once. For instance, later in the game I would learn a standard fire damage + slashing damage attack with my sword. It sure would be swell to use that as an opener, apply a damage-over-time effect from the fire, and follow up with my main attack. Pressing 2-1 should queue that right up.
Pressing 2 will sometimes queue up the fire slash, but only after it activates will I then be free to indiscriminately press 1 until my normal attack happens.
When pressed, the buttons seem to “elevate” off the hotbar for a bit, turn bright, and then fade back down, sometimes with a cooldown indicated. Again, I like this system. I ought to be able to see my queued actions, maybe make substitutions later in the queue if I need to. It could be an engaging system of combat, where I keep a constant barrage of a rotation ready to go. Very strategic and less frenetic than most MMOs. A nice change of pace.
Except that I do not think that is what is happening.
I think it was meant to be a hotbar just like every other MMO in existence. Except… the interface and server lag is so horrible it only looks like a turn-based fight. It really is real-time, it is just that “real-time” is a slave to the horrors of bad networking and buggy, unoptimized code running rampant. I made a post on the official fansite asking, “Am I just stupid?”
The consensus was, “no, that is how it works for now.”
I might buy that system in an alpha, but we are a month away from release, and the basic combat mechanics still are not handled right? Ooh. This looks bad.
Anyway, after dispatching the jellies, we are treated to (guess! guess!) another cut-scene, this time with Leviathan (seriously, call it a sea serpent all you want, I know fucking Leviathan when I see him) leaping over the ship. Catgirl thinks this is cool. I think she’d be hot if it were not for those damn ears.
Quick cut. It is daytime, the sailors look haggard, but there is land in sight! Rejoice!
Limsa Lominsa And The Curse of the Deadly Menus
We land, and disembark into the land of Pirate Talk Cliches. Seriously. Landlubbers ahoy. Scallywags. Salty dogs. Slick legging.
OK, I made the last one up, but it has to have crossed someone else’s mind.
Whatever, I’ll forgive it. I will even forgive the lack of voice acting in the NPC dialogues, but not even a cursory, “can I help you?” or “For the Horde!” when I click off is disturbing.
It is also difficult to follow NPC text. The chat window sits a bit obtrusively in the bottom left corner. It can be resized, but not moved… and the NPC chat window, which opens at the bottom of the screen, is partially covered by the actual chat window. All NPC text is also repeated in the chat window, making it a little hard to read.
Also, one cannot use the mouse to advance NPC chat. At all. Have to press Enter, which is just as buggy and lag-filled as hotbar-based combat.
Anyway, once inside, the owner of the inn will give players their first quest: go to Camp Bearded
Clam Rock and do a levequest.
As to “how the fuck do I get to Camp Beared Rock,” they say, “look at the map!”
OK, I think, maps are cool. I press “M,” the universal key for a map. A map appears! Great success!
About ten seconds later, things appear on the map. I see some guilds, chocobo stables, whatnot… fairly self-explanatory. But no “Camp Bearded rock.” I try to pan and scan, no good. Until I figure out that the IJKL keys control map scanning. Whatever, I can live with that, I suppose.
Then I find out that this map is only part of LL; the “Upper Decks,” specifically. Apparently the gate to Camp Bearded Rock is on the Lower Decks. How do I get there?
Menus! Delicious, non-anti-aliased text-filled menus! Click on “see other maps” produces a list of places I cannot go, but luckily, under the first sub-menu I clicked I found “Limsa Lominsa Lower Decks.” Excellent! Now how do I get there?
I wandered around the whole city for an hour looking for a staircase. What did I have to do instead? Walk ten feet from where I started to a lift. But then… how do I use the lift?
No buttons. Cannot walk into it. Clicking on it produces nothing. But I see others using it, so there must be a way.
That is when I notice that a small bubble has appeared at the top of my screen. I click it, and… MORE MENUS!
This time, it opens up the main game menu (with such esoteric titles as “attributes and gear” and “actions and talents”), with a special context-sensitive button that says, “Use lift.”
I press it, and… MORE MENUS! I get to choose between “Cancel” and “1. Chocobo Stables.”
Gee, game, I wonder where I want to go.
A brief jaunt out of the city later, and I am at CBR. Once there, I know I have to click the big shiny crystal, which opens up another bubble-context-menu, with several new choices. Apparently I can initiate a levequest (what I am supposed to do), read an entirely unhelpful tutorial, or do some other shit. I did not really pay attention. I initiated my levequest, and…
“Kill 3 rats.”
But I did not quit, oh no. I soldiered on, for the sake of my readers.
I found my rats (my minimap pointed me right at ’em), and proceeded to beat my head against the keyboard until three rats were indeed dead. At which point, the fabric of space and time itself rent asunder, and I was able to teleport back to the Bearded Rock. I received 100 gil for my troubles, and then teleported back to the guy that gave me the quest. “Coolio,” he says. “Now go give some fish to the cooks.”
Off to the cooks I start to run, before I realize, “I do not know where the fuck I am going.” And the map is unhelpful. It has names like, “The Hyaline,” which is a shop that sells… clothes? I think? I am not sure. I have managed to find the weapon store and the potion store, but there is precious little explanation of what and where they are.
I did find the cooks’ guild, though, and after another cutscene, I was reintroduced to my catgirl friend. Apparently, she thinks it is a big deal that we saw Leviathan. No one believes that we did. She acts all mysterious and leaves, and I am sent off of the Musketeers’s Guild.
And that… seemed boring, so I went back to the inn, and picked up a few more levequests. I did not want to chase catgirls. I wanted to gain some experience, learn some new skills, maybe buy some better gear… but no, all I got were more “kill 5 giga-sheep and hump a dodo” quests. Fuck that.
I finished the quests, some of which made me run around the whole fucking zone to round up giga-sheep, and got my money… but I could not find anywhere to spend it. Also, it is 2010. It is very annoying to not be able to jump or jump down the sides of a hill. I should never be prevented from moving up a hill by the lack of the ability to jump. It unnecessarily adds to the amount of time I need to move around.
As I leveled, I occasionally gained new skills. In most sensible games, putting them on the hotbar uses a complicated “click + drag” method. This was apparently too easy for Square, who decided that instead we must choose and equip a limited number of skills at all times, and create a laggy, menu and submenu laden interface for doing so. The system is non-intuitive and, quite frankly, too slow to be pleasant.
Most of the menus in the game fall in this fashion: no explanation given, not bound to sensible keys, and entirely driven by context-sensitive mouse placement that will often change the screen without the need for input from a player. I suppose that on a console, using a controller, the system might be passable, but on a keyboard and mouse, it is a nightmare.
Graphically, the game is “adequate.” I would not say that its graphics are any better or worse than current pay-for-play MMOs. Certainly it is not as cartoony as WoW or as dorkily “gritty” as WAR, but the graphics are serviceable DX10 textures. Animations are fluid, if there is a bit of judder and artifacting. Framerates on my computer hovered in the mid-30s, which is more or less acceptable. But it did not wow me with flash. The graphics compare to Age of Conan, which suffered from the problem of being too intensive for a network game. Sorry; those are the breaks when it comes to MMOs.
I dicked around with the video settings, but I saw neither an appreciable difference in frame rates nor a reduction in server and interface lag.
I even tried out several severs, including the high-population “Shadowlands” (nearly unplayable due to lag) to the decidedly more friendly “Exdeath.” Still, even on low-load servers, the lag, specifically in the menus and in combat, is terrible, far, far worse than it should be in a game about to be released.
Arms and Armory
The job-switching system of Final Fantasy has been a mainstay of the series since the early days. “Job” is largely defined not by making a selection but by what the player has equipped. Of course, different jobs must still be leveled independently (though a basic “physical level” remains the same across all jobs). Thus, the idiot that starts a Fisherman may go and buy a sword, and ipso-facto, Gladiator! This presents… interesting… choices for leveling, but I still wonder why gathering and production skills are referred to as “jobs in their own right, and not simply subclasses of skills that can be learned, a la Runes of Magic.
Leve Me Alone!
The “guildleve” and “levequest” system, touted as innovative, is… really just an updated version of the Turbine/Dungeons and Dragons Online system. Get quest, go to quest start, queue up the appropriate difficulty (from solo to legion!) and get started. Imagine if with every quest in WoW the questgiver asked: do you want to solo this for green rewards, or go get a full raid for a chance at some rares or epics? Sounds like a neat system, and it is… but so far, the leves that I have been given have all been kill/collect quests. I do not feel like a single one of them has advanced the story line.
And what about factions? I see lots of stuff in there for building my reputation with this faction or my patron god, but no explanation for what that is, why it is beneficial, or what I can do with it. The ever-present carrot of MMO gameplay, phat lewts, are also in short supply. I could not even purchase a new weapon at the weapon shop! What fun is it to go and kill ten rats if I am not getting a sweet new shield at the end of the quest?
At least level advancement comes quick and often, but it seems like there is a minimum of player choice involved. New skills are simply acquired and equipped. There is no need to visit a trainer or select a skill upgrade. There is hardly any notification at all. Also, the experience bar and other related information is often hidden in… did somebody say menus? I heard menus! Menus! Lots and lots of menus!
UI and Controls
As longtime readers know, I am an absolute fanatic when it comes to a snazzy user interface. The best things about Lua-based games are the ability to create interface mods to replace the invariably shitty default UI with a usable one.
FFXIV does not use Lua.
Still, the UI elements are at least all movable, except for chat windows.
The game handles like a big rig with out-of-alignment tires on a slippery mountain rode while a rabid weasel attacks the genitals of the driver. The WASD layout is clunky, the lack of jumping makes movement awkward, the hotkeys are arcane, and the action bar responsiveness is just somewhere above Shawn after a three-day Pokemon binge. I cannot think of a worse playing experience on the computer. This is even worse than Fantasy Earth Zero, because at least in FE0, one can jump.
WHAT DO NOW?
By now, dear reader, you have either decided that I am a heretic and deserve the cleansing fire of the pyre, or are heartbroken that once again Square has summoned Gor the Ravenous from the Nether Pits to devour you again, and again, and again with their callous indifference. If you are the former, your Square Defense Force captain has called, and apparently some Namco hoodlums were seen as burning a moogle in effigy somewhere and you all have to go and rescue it.
If you are in the latter, let me say this: unless it really, really matters to you that you be a very early adopter of the game, skip it… for now. The problems with the game, though structural, are fixable as well. Lag could be reduced (drastically, with some code optimzation). Graphical assets could be scaled down. Combat can be fixed, and unintuitive game elements can be explained. If I know Square, the winning story is there, it merely lurks under layer and layer of unnecessary obfuscation.
At this point, I like the world and its promise enough to say, “Wait for the PS3 version.” Likely, the controls will be better suited for the PS3, the game’s response time better, and the overall experience better. And if not, by then, hopefully Square will have patched the game significantly.
The most heartening thing I could hear between now and September 24th is, “we are pushing back the release.” The game is not ready yet; it is very much a beta, and while I will be doing my part to document these flaws on the beta fora, I am not sure if Square really has it out to make this a true beta test, and is instead using it as more of a hype-generating machine. Which is sad, because Square is beyond having to play these sorts of games with us. We want to be loyal to you, Square, but you cannot keep abusing your fans this way.