Final Fantasy XIV: Realm Reborn: First Impressions

29 08 2013

FFXIV Emblem 

 

So as many as you are probably aware, Square Enix bravely decided to reboot their own MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV after a less than cordial reception upon its release. Originally, I had been so turned off after playing the original FFXIV beta that I wasn’t interested. However, after I began to really think about it, and just what they were undertaking, while publicly acknowledging their own failures, I decided it was well worth a second look.

Before I launch into my first impressions after a week of play, and why I think you should give this re-launch the time of day. Let me first start by acknowledging, and repeating, exactly how much of a big deal it is that Square Enix was able to basically say, “Yah, we know our game sucks, and we aren’t happy with it, so here’s what we are going to do…” Based on the sheer amount of effort, time, and money it takes to release an MMO ( and I know first hand, as I physically work on an MMO at Arena Net ) it dawned on me just how humble and revolutionary this idea was.

From a design perspective, designers have a classic mantra to the effect of, “We learn to eat our young”. Basically, that means that you have to learn how to be told that your game, idea, or work in general, sucks and needs help. So because of all of this, and my first week of experience inside of FFXIV: RRB, I believe it’s worth your attention. ( +1 Point )

Story

So, first things first, if you played the first FF XIV, you are probably wondering, well how are they going to tie the story in? Well have you ever heard the expression, “Nuke it from orbit, and burn it with fire.” Well, this is literally what they’ve done. Without going into TOO much detail ( and spoilers ), an event happens that basically nukes half the planet, and a few years after that, that’s where you pick up. So far, it seem pretty interesting, and from what I can tell, there looks to be several quality story arcs developing along my chosen characters path. Suffice it to say, my curiosity is piqued. ( +1 Point )

FFXIV CharacterCreation

The only oddity that I’ve encountered, and this may be patched over time, is that you start the game, and there are ZERO VO’s ( voice overs ). While it’s a Final Fantasy title, this doesn’t inherently bother me, just feels a little retro. Except, once you start to get into some of the important story cutscene’s, you start to hear VO’s…. and some of the English voice actors, are well… pretty terrible so far. So to remedy this issue, I switched the VO’s over to Japanese, and even though I can’t understand what they are saying, the passion in their voice acting is apparent, and I have subtitles to read besides. So needless to say, I know voice actors are expensive, and it costs a lot of money to get all of the proper localization and post processing done, but so far, the English voice actors sound like shit. ( -1 Point )

Closing with the story, the questing appears to tie directly into the story narrative, and FFXIV: RRB does a great job focusing your attention on what you should be doing, and when. In the first twenty levels, there was never a moment where I stopped and asked, “WTF am I supposed to be doing here?” ( +1 Point )

Classes

During the beta phases, I tried playing several disciples of war ( didn’t have time to check the magic users ),  and I finally settled on Lancer while picking the “Miq’ote” race ( which some of you fondly remember as “Mithra” ). I don’t profess to fully understand the class system yet, but it appears that you can basically play ANY of the base classes with one character, but you can only specialize in one or few of them with that character. What I mean by specialize is that my “Lancer” will eventually be able to turn into a “Dragoon.” ( +1 Point )

As is traditional with oriental game developers, and audiences I think, the game restricts you heavily on what you can do early on. It forces you to finish your quests ALL the way through level ten ( which is a hefty amount of quests ), before you can begin to learn other classes from other guilds, etc. While this doesn’t bother me, I believe it’s a common method in oriental games, which is to heavily teach the game, or class, before physically letting the player explore other areas of the game. This may sound very heavy handed to some of you, but I assure you, the game keeps you engaged enough, you won’t even notice ( that much ). ( +1 Point )

Combat

Ah yes, COMMMMMMBAAAAAT… ( wait… wrong game.. shit ) everyone’s favorite, and rightfully so, one of the most important topics of the game! As if the core gameplay mechanics suck, well, then so must the game no? So let me first start by saying, if you played Final Fantasy Eleven, there’s enough here in the combat mechanics to make you reminisce, but with enough innovation and improvements not to scare away everyone else. Interested yet? Well you should be! So basically, they took the traditional tab targeting system, and the class based combo system from eleven, and gave it some crack cocaine…. By that, I mean they sped it up. So a lot of the structure operates the same, as far as chaining kills, targeting enemies, doing combo’s off of other’s skills, but at a much faster rate of speed, which I believe was much needed. ( +1 Point )

Related to this, once you attain other classes, your character will switch classes by just changing your gear out for the appropriate class, and all of your stats and hotkey items swap with it. It’s fast, seamless, and you don’t have to talk to a damn kupo to do it! ( +1 Point )

Crafting

Here is a topic that I can’t talk to heavily on, as I currently have two crafting professions started, but not very high. The point I’m going to stress, is that the way they handled it is very interesting. Basically, you go to a “guild” and learn the crafting profession that you wish, and all of the regular hubbub that you would expect ensues, you get some crafting tools, some quests, a speech about how you suck and show learn the trade to be super awesome, etc. etc…… except one major caveat. Crafting professions behave identically to a regular character class, so that means, when I’m running around as a botanist, or a carpenter, I have my own unique stats, gear, hotkey items, etc. This is interesting as it presents a sort of, “meta” game for cutting down trees, or for whatever you are doing. It singlehandedly makes crafting more interactive, and likely more difficult in the long run. ( +1 Point )

The only point of contention that I have here, is that they make you wait till your level 10 quests are done on that character, until you can begin to think about cutting trees down, so far, not a fan. ( -1 Point )

Graphics

Not a whole lot to say here, but that the game is absolutely gorgeous, well if you are fortunate enough to be playing on a PC, if you are playing it on a PS3…. I’m sorry for you! ( +1 Point )

Although, speaking on that point, I’ve been asking myself for years, “Why the hell isn’t there cross platform MMORPGS??!” Well, they have just proven that it’s a matter of policy, and political arrogance and likely not much more, that is keeping more MMO’s from being on multiple platforms, and to that, I say boo! ( +1 Point )

FFXIV Gridania

Quests

In FFXIV: RRB, Square Enix decided to keep with the traditional method of having a “Journal” and tracking your quests as you collect them. Normally, I’d say, “SCREW THAT!” especially after being spoiled by Guild Wars 2 and their questing system that they built. However, so far, it seems like you are never overburdened with too many quests that you lose track, and I always knew what was the most important, and never really had a hard time tracking them. ( +1 Point )

That being said, and this could probably deserve its own category, but when you receive a quest or an objective to navigate to somewhere else, the map is not very helpful, it’s hard to explain, but if it’s somewhere you haven’t been, the quest marker doesn’t give you shit for a clue on how to get there. What they really need here, is some type of pathfinding tech that will kinda “point” you in the right direction of a new area that you need to go to. ( -1 Point )

Economy

 Last but not least, the “Economy”, probably one of the most critical elements to an MMO for success, and easily the hardest to create, innovate upon, and balance. Well, I don’t have shit for you at this point. As an obvious effort by Square Enix to “ward” out gold sellers, my character is level 17 and doesn’t have access to sell items on the auction house yet. Essentially, you have to purchase a “retainer” to help you sell your items. While this is frustrating, if it helps keep gold sellers out, then I’m all over it. As if any of you remember in eleven, gold sellers nearly ruined the game! ( +1 Point ) ( -1 Point )

Events

 So, in traditional video game industry style, Square Enix shamelessly copied some dynamic event ideas from Guild Wars 2, Warhammer online, and probably a couple of others. In FFXIV: RRB you have what are called, “Fates” that randomly spring up on the map, and anyone who runs into the area, automatically joins in to receive progress ( assuming they contribute ). It’s a nice touch, and it automatically lends itself as a design to getting players to work together naturally. ( +1 Point )

Conclusion

Obviously, I know that you can hardly judge and MMO based off of the first 20 levels, and the content therein. However, I felt that they deserved the attention based on the leaps and strides the game has come since the first FF XIV launch. I can honestly say I’m legitimately interested in seeing what they have to offer, and how the proverbial “End Game” plays out. I know the game has a subscription model, which will immediately turn many of you off, as we’ve been spoiled by F2P business models in the past few years, but I say don’t let that discourage you. If you like the art direction, or have liked ANY Final Fantasy game in the past, this likely deservers a second look by you.

I doubt I’ll reach level cap in time to do a quality “End Game” review before the hundreds of people that don’t know how to sleep beat me to it, but I felt this initial review was necessary, and deserving.

I hope you got some helpful information out of it.

 





Tomb Raider 2013 Review

16 03 2013

Tomb-Raider-2013-621x350

 

Introduction:

I have to start off by saying that this should have been the game I’d been waiting on and following since it was announced. However, I had the misfortune of making Aliens: Colonial Marines the game I had been following and anxiously waiting for since 2007. Much to my chagrin we all know how that game turned out, but I digress on that point. What I’m getting at is Tomb Raider, for me, more than lived up to the hype it built up before release.

Lastly, before I get started, let it also be known that I did play the “old school” Tomb Raider games, but I wasn’t exactly a diehard fan, so I think my opinion should be fairly un-biased in approaching this game. (At least I’ll pretend that it is ☺)

For those of you that have not played the game, or are mostly oblivious to what this game is about, basically Crystal Dynamics decided to do a reboot on the Lara Croft franchise. Which in my opinion was a solid move as the franchise was in desperate need of the revival.

Tomb-Raider-2013-Wallpaper

 

Setup:

So if you’re a classic Tomb Raider player, you’re probably used to playing a female avatar in short shorts, skimpy top, ridiculously large bosom, and dual wielding pistols while vanquishing bandits with physics defying aerial maneuvers. While that approach worked in the 90’s, nowadays, the trend in AAA games tends to be hyperrealism. Basically, Crystal Dynamics took this idea, and really ran with it. They realized they needed a more “human” Lara Croft than in previous renditions of the game. So how do they accomplish this? They do a prequel of course! What better way to attempt actual character development with this heroine than going to a time when she’s young, innocent, and not the badass Tomb Raiding diva we were used too.

tomb-raider-2013-video-games

 

More than that, they needed to make Lara Croft relatable to audiences. As previously stated, the classic formula of having a cliché hero/heroine just “blowing shit up” doesn’t cut it much anymore, it’s typically far less engaging to audiences, as they want something real, like I’ve already said, something relatable.

Initial Impressions:

The first hour in the game is spent going from quick time event to quick time event while Lara is literally brutalized and beaten relentlessly, and if you’re not on the ball, killed in some pretty viscerally nail biting ways. Fortunately, the extreme linear nature of the first hour does not persist for the rest of the game. The first hour is really about establishing one thing, Lara is alone, hurt, cold, starving, in a foreign place, and most importantly, she’s incredibly afraid for her life.

tomb-raider-20110606002352891

tomb_raider_2013_x22_by_kinia24lara-d52p8cb

This is an important fact because the rest of the game you’ll watch as Lara goes through a transformation of an innocent archeology graduate to a steadfast heroine, who is not squeamish in the least in dispatching her enemies.

Some critic argue that the transition from Lara being unwilling to take lives to when she no longer has a problem with it happens a little too quickly. While I do agree, it happens rather quickly, based on the severity of their situation in the story, it doesn’t feel too awkward or unnatural. Especially after you see some of the scenes she goes through, you probably won’t have a problem with her willingness to take human life so readily.

If you are familiar with the classical “Hero” cycle with story arcs, you’ll find a lot of checkmarks and parallels with Lara Crofts story.

Environment:

After the first hour of play, the game really opens up. For the most part, the game still follows a linear design, however, within specific areas you’re free to find tombs (which are puzzles without enemies), salvage materials in the area, hunt for food, or you can keep plowing along the main story quest. With the salvaging, there’s a nice meta experience as you constantly acquire and upgrade your gear, it adds a nice progression system to the game.

Getting back to the environment, to date, it’s one of the most breathtaking games that I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying. Keep in mind, I played it on PC but I’m told it looks very beautiful on console as well. I found myself just periodically stopping and panning the camera so I could enjoy the visuals of the island. I think out of the entire play through, which took me about 12-13 hours, there was only one or two areas that didn’t look absolutely stunning.

Tomb-Raider_2

The environment also does a really good job of hiding the overall linear aspect of the game. It FEELS like a sandbox type game, even though it truly isn’t. One way it accomplishes this is by the “campsite system”. Once you’ve discovered a campsite location, you can travel to it from any other campsite. This allows you to go back and explore tombs, or large areas that you might have blasted through.

Speaking of the tombs, they are pretty satisfying, and some of the puzzles are pretty creative. Overall, I think they could have made some of them more difficult, but they were creative and interesting enough that it more than made up for it. From a design perspective, the Tombs are a very creative way of incorporating “negative space” into the pacing of your game. “Negative space” is time in the game where designers give you a cool down from excitement, usually that equates to time in games when there aren’t enemies trying to kill you. They do this because they want to bring your excitement (chemicals in your brain) down to a lower level, so you don’t get fatigued on an engagement level. However, I’m going off on a tangent so I digress. Basically, the tombs allow for a nice break from the action! (See, much more simple lol…)

Tomb-Raider-2013

 

Core Gameplay Mechanics (Combat, platforming, etc.):

So let’s get on to some of the core mechanics in the game. Naturally, first and foremost Tomb Raider is a platformer. You’ll do all sorts of climbing, jumping, falling, zip lining, running, dodging, and overall manipulating your environment to attain some goal or objective.

What is also unique about this Tomb Raider is that they incorporated a fair amount of combat into the game. I think they did a pretty good job balancing combat with platforming elements however. When you enter into a space where enemies are present, Lara will automatically go into a crouched combat mode. You can choose to hide in the environment and silently assassinate your enemies with a silent arrow, or you can close with them and engage with guns and a climbing pick axe.

tomb_raider_2013_game-wide

The thing I was most impressed with was the fact that some areas require you to manipulate objects, then jump off them, or use them in some way while they are still in motion to achieve your goal. This sounds like a “well no shit it’s a platformer”, but if you know anything about game development, setting up collision volumes and the proper physics properties on objects within the game is a tremendous amount of work. Needless to say, they pulled it off pretty damn well.

UI:

To be honest, there really isn’t much of a user interface in this Tomb Raider game, which is a good thing. You have your classic non-diegetic ammo HUD counter, and when you enter Lara’s “instinct” mode, you’ll see specific objects light up in a tac-com type UI. For Lara’s health, they use the classic meta-physical system of blood splatters and your screen changing colors to represent how close to death you are. There’s no health bar, and Lara’s health will slowly recharge over time. You’ll also get audio and visual cues from Lara that she’s been damaged. Overall, there are as few as possible UI elements within the game that you actually see.

Overall this is great as you spend more time looking at your character and the beautiful environment she’s running around in.

Stability:

Like I said earlier, a solid play through with about 80% completion of everything in the game took me about 13 hours…. and the game didn’t crash once! Granted, if you have an Nvidia card, there are supposedly some issues with on that hardware setup. Or you can play on console and probably not experience any crashing either. I highly recommend you play it on PC if you have a rig that can run it on at least high graphics settings, especially as you can turn on the Tress RX function and see how it looks when every single strand of hair is animated. Sometimes, it gets all out of wack and you see some wonky animations, but overall it looks amazing.

I run a fairly decent high-end machine, and I still had to turn some of the graphics from their highest setting, so the game has a very high potential if you’re an enthusiast and like buying $600 video cards every six months. Either way, the game is absolutely gorgeous.

Complaints:

I only have a couple of comments here. One is that the quick time events do not transfer very well to PC. Half the time you don’t know which button you’re supposed to be mashing, and the hit detection for the keyboard during quick time events just sucks all around. Most people I know just had an xbox 360 controller plugged into their PC, and grabbed it real quick for the quick time events. They are doable, and you actually get used to their brokenness, but easily the biggest drawback to play the game on PC. Fortunately, after the first hour of play, there aren’t very many quick time events, so it’s only a minor inconvenience.

Lastly, the only other complaint is that there are certain parts of the game where Lara doesn’t react how you’d think she’d react, there’s a few character dialogue sequences that feel….. fake. Fortunately, there are less than a handful of them, and the overall character development and dialogue are so well done that it doesn’t break the engagement of the game or story. Considering how many sequences they had to draw up, act out, animate, and what not I’d say that it’s pretty damn well executed. Especially considering that it’s not a Call of Duty 4 hour campaign, even rushing through, I still sunk about 13 hours in, so you definitely get your money’s worth.

Summary:

Overall, I think Crystal Dynamics knocked it out of the park with this game. I feel they did a good job of doing a solid heroine hero cycle as I felt a connection with the character I was playing, and not only through pathos, but in triumph in overcoming obstacles and watching the character change after life altering events. I thoroughly enjoyed the Tomb Raider reboot, and I think the new Lara Croft is an engaging, realistic, and relatable female character for audiences to connect with. If you haven’t given this game a look, I highly suggest you check it out, as you won’t be disappointed.

tomb-raider-20133

Feel free to comment here with your thoughts!