Preview - A Realm Reborn: Final Fantasy XIV

A Realm Reborn: Final Fantasy XIV is a near-complete rebuilding of Square Enix's disastrously received first release of its second MMORPG. The UI, combat system, crafting system, engine, dialogue, quest design and player interaction have all been dramatically reworked in an effort to restore the faith and deliver the excellent MMO the company has proven it can deliver. These many changes are welcome, sitting comfortably in the game's largely traditional loop of accepting quests, killing monsters, collecting materials and augmenting your character with better equipment. The framework may be innocuous, but through it lives a savvily designed online game with a terrific combat system that is able to transcend a lot of people's core complaints with the genre. This renewed effort manages to feel exciting, an MMO whose refinements feel legitimately fresh.

Fighting is far and away the most consuming portion of the game, and that's a great thing. Many other massively multiplayer titles struggle to maintain a balance between combat that's interesting but also appropriately scales into the long-term kind of commitment this sort of game requires. I feel like A Realm Reborn really nails this balance. Like many other games of this kind, you'll mostly be popping skills via a hotbar on the bottom of the screen (or via a great, PS3 XMB-style controller interface), though the cooldown times on these skills are extremely low. Skills are less islands unto their own destructive power than individual pieces that are meant to be chained with others in many different ways. Powers are quick to execute and recharge, so not only is it easy to experiment with your skillset in different ways, it's fun as well. The flow of combat makes FFXIV feel instantly more lively and fast-paced than other MMOs, and that's something I appreciated from my very first fight onward. Furthermore, taking damage is often based on positioning, allowing you to move out of harm's way and not rely entirely on the game's internal math. Area of effect markers often lay on the ground, telegraphing major attacks against you before they happen and giving you a fighting chance of avoiding an untimely respawn. Characters have a much faster movement speed than in your typical MMO, allowing you to do things like circle-strafe around lumbering targets and sling magic while avoiding their slow, damaging blows. Your attacks  do largely work on math, which I appreciated over clumsy direct-combat attempts like Tera. Between managing multiple enemies, skills, and your own well-being, you'll be plenty busy as is.

The fracas felt a bit like an even more direct, satisfying evolution of the combat in Guild Wars 2, though that's selling A Realm Reborn a bit short on its unique potential. It's a little difficult to put into words, since many of the building blocks of the game are very traditional. The combat feels responsive to your input and makes you feel both challenged and powerful - regardless of whether you're a huge bruiser or straight magic-user - and that's something I can't say I've felt about a game like this before. The game works just as well - maybe even better - with a controller, letting you easily and smoothly position your character while popping a bunch of skills in a way I felt was more comfortable than the genre-standard mouse and keyboard. A strange thought, I know, but one you should explore: it's one of the very first options the game queries you about for a reason.

All that feuding you'll be doing in the land of Eorzea is well integrated into questing, as well. FFXIV has live, dynamic quest zones (here called "Fates") in which players need only walk into range of the event to seamlessly join in. Typically, it's some sort of unique sub-boss or wave-based challenge that lets you hone your combat strategies even further. Then there's "Levequests," repeatable missions that often start you smack in the middle of a frantic combat scenario. It's almost like a private Fate; you accept a Levequest, and walk to the quest zone radius. Then you open your journal, hit "initiate," and presto: an instantly generated quest that skips the preamble and puts your right into the thick of it. In addition to varying kinds of Levequests that focus on combat, crafting or jobs, there are also group-only selections that - at least at this stage - require a premeditated group before taking on. You can only do a certain number of them a day, presumably to prevent too big of a levelling frenzy, but Levequests made me extremely interested to see how frenetic the group-based, late-game combat will play out, and I feel very good about its chances.

Aside from those group-specific Levequests, the vast majority of zones in FFXIV invoke the organic feel of progressing through the game alongside others, whether you'e conciously grouping or not. Instancing just the right amount of players to make questing enjoyable and looking for groups largely unecessary, Square Enix has done a terrific job balancing out the game to be played this way, and the net of this approach is a game that always feels populated and alive. The game is pretty good about sharing kill counts needed for quests too, allowing you to just wander the game and progress solo, largely unabated. Of course, if you want to belong to a consistent group of players, purchasing a Linkshell (with in-game currency) allows you to group and chat with others in a guild-like format, regardless of their location.

The vast majority of your time will be spent with your weapons drawn, but the quest design delivers a surprising amount of pleasant and interesting tasks that have nothing to do with combat as well. The opening hour is filled up with some boring interface imprinting, but once you get past that, you'll find yourself occasionally questing in town and not dreading it. Belong to the Archer's Guild, for example, and you'll sometimes play a sort of hide and seek, snooping through out-of-the-way areas to find hidden targets to shoot. Even the most basic "ferry this item to this person" task is seasoned with some bits of lore that fill in the backstory in concise, illuminating ways.

As of this writing, voice over is absent from the game entirely, save for player emotes and battle grunts. It's unclear exactly how much of the game will be fully voiced, although cutscenes and story quests are almost assured to be. Square's been showing off a little bit of the English VO during its most recent trailers, and it sounds…OK? Maybe more robotic than I expected, but tough to tell from just a few lines. I suspect these and other presentational features, like the currently missing model of your avatar on the character sheet, will be implemented before or during the open beta test (or "phase 4," in the game's parlance) coming some time in the next few weeks.

Phase 3 (during which this preview was written) introduced character transfers from the original client, along with a majority of the final class and character customizations and, in general, things just worked. Almost eerily so for an MMO whose official release is still a couple of months away. I didn't have any issues logging in during the scheduled test times whatsoever, and the client is quick to patch, boot, and shut down. With a good amount of RAM and a GTX 460 card, performance was smooth with high settings. Square Enix asked that closed beta participants don't post their own screens or video for the time being, but I'm not sure why: the game is beautiful, a more-than-worthy realization of the company's talented art team.

Final Fantasy XIV seems to have redeemed itself from its misguided first steps out into the voracious MMO sphere, emerging as a competitor that delivers both questing and combat with a zeal I'm not sure I've seen in the genre before. In other words, it's new surtitle seems quite apt to me, and with the open beta phase and official launch both due before the summer's out, it won't be long until you get to see for yourself: A Realm Reborn: Final Fantasy XIV launches for PC and Playstation 3 on August 27th.