Final Fantasy XIV's ongoing refinement steadily continues with the PS4 release of A Realm Reborn, sure to be the choice version of this excellent MMORPG for a lot of players. It delivers all the brisk questing and flexible character building of the other versions with clarity and performance that matches a high-end PC. Along with some PS4-specific touches, Square Enix's latest online endevour as ideal on the couch as it is on a desktop.
If you've never played it before, A Realm Reborn is a great-looking and fast-paced MMO that adheres to a monthly payment model but delivers the goods for your dues. There's a lengthy main quest, a well written and occasionally voice acted fantasy epic that keeps you moving through the vast land of Eorzea while giving out enough visual details and talkie quests to really make all of the different biomes distinct and enticing. Quests are still largely a means for pointing you to new areas around the time you're high enough level to hold your own against the monsters there, but Final Fantasy XIV packs enough personality and self-referential humour in to keep its story interesting. Each of the eight classes - all of which fit snugly into the tank, carry, and healer archetypes at first - have their own plot threads to sift through. Once you hit level 15, the game lets you pursue multiple classes on the same character, switching weapon types to swap between any of your classes at a moment's notice. This system eventually leads to jobs - class specializations unlocked by reaching level 30 in one class and level 15 in another. These, too, have unique content and cutscenes associated with them. You can dabble in crafting - alchemy, blacksmithing, cooking, weaving, fishing and botany, to name maybe half of what's available to you. You can buy and furnish your very own home on a unique instance of an Eorzean suburb.
In other words, there's never a shortage of avenues to pursue or sights to see in Final Fantasy XIV.
Slaying the creatures that roam its lands is often key to making your way, of course. However it's being framed, combat manages to feel actionable in a way that makes A Realm Reborn feel a lot more active than most of its competition, and MMO players both new and old will have some challenging battles ahead. There's a flair and urgency established in both the demanding timing of combat and the arresting sights you cut a swath through. Attacks are mostly based on cold hard math, but special (and often especially damaging) strikes are telegraphed ahead of time with red markers, making it both imperative to keep moving and possible to cancel out attacks with a well-timed stun or pacification skill. My Gladiator's shield bash was great for the latter, and I was eventually led to the Paladin job that made me more durable and led me onto a new skill track that futher helped me gain enemies' attention while helping me and others take our lumps. Cooldowns are swift, and some skills - like the Gladiator's Shield Swipe - can only be popped for a second or so after meeting a condition like blocking an attack. Archers, spellcasters, healers and (pet) summoners are all here, too, each with their own positional game and set of focused, area, and stun attacks. Seeing how classes mesh during Duties - matchmakeable group instances that bookend most main story threads - never ceases to be entertaining or illuminating.
Once you've started levelling at least one other class on the same character, you can start bringing some of their key abilities over to your primary class to create a hybrid build all your own. The deeper you're willing to train into multiple classes, the more possibilites open up. Whether you're in the thick of battle or quietly arranging a new build in town, MMO combat hasn't felt this stimulating in a long while.
The DualShock 4 is a big contributor to making FFXIV feel great with a controller alone. As before, this game uses triggers and face buttons to construct a hotbar you can customize however you want (up to eight bars), and a PS3-style crossbar interface takes care of most menu options. But the advent of the touchpad allows a few control tweaks that really help this game fit onto a controller. Its main duty is to simulate a mouse, tracking across the screen as your finger slides along the pad. This lets you easily make a snap change to the occasionally faulty targeting or check which waypoints are for what quests on your map without having to call a single screen-obscuring menu. You can also optionally configure the touchpad's left and right buttons with custom commands. It's a marked improvement over the already solid gamepad schemes currently possible on PS3 or PC, and other MMOs ought to take notice; it finally feels completely comfortable to play a game like this on the couch. Serving as the tank in high level Duties was no problem. If you prefer a mouse and keyboard or to switch from one to the other as you please, that's all possible too - and handy if you want to get chatty.
If you own a Vita, it's worth noting that A Realm Reborn translates pretty darn well to it via remote play. MMOs are built with network delay inevitably in mind, and that means the additional remote delay is no big deal when you're levelling or questing solo. When one or more groups of players are depending on you to avoid tougher foes' area attacks while launching precision strikes of your own, the input lag becomes a lot more detrimental. Bosses in particular require you to avoid or stun a foe at a precise time, and that demand can't be met with remote play. Being able to level your chracter remotely and portably is still a hell of a feature, one that makes FFXIV on the PS4 all the more attractive if you're equipped to take advantage, but it's worth noting that high-level group content isn't quite so playable this way.
There's little about Final Fantasy XIV that renovates the MMO's basic form, but it tackles that addictive paradigm with zeal and emerges with an engrossing world and fluid combat system all its own. The PS4 version looks and plays great, not to mention the new control and play options only available on the platform. It all adds up to make this the most functional version of the game yet, itself one of the most exciting and polished MMOs around.