Having returned to FFXIV for a few weeks now, the experience has been surprisingly great. I’m level 51 on my main class (Paladin), and I’m currently working through the main quest content that was added in patches after launch.
The story is great. The run up to the ending of the original main quest line, and the final few steps, was really fantastic. It’s not often that a game, let alone an MMO, wraps up a long story well, but FFXIV most certainly does that. And not only that, but it manages to do so not just in one long cutscene, but with story progression as you complete various dungeons and one-off instanced group battles. It’s extremely well done. Plus the story content that was added after isn’t a complete 180, but rather picks up where the ending finished and goes further. Yes, the main quest story starts a bit slow for the first 30 levels or so (more on that later), but once it gets rolling it’s a freight train, especially if you stay focused on it and keep the momentum going.
The actual gameplay of the at-50 content is also very solid. The instances you run aren’t super-hard at this point (most people are very over-geared, even with the sync system), but it rarely felt face-roll dumb, and no one bit of content was overly long or filled with nothingness to take up time. Playing a Paladin at this point is interesting, with plenty of abilities and decisions to be made, plus longer cooldown tools to throw out as needed. Tanking instances is a lot of fun, and certainly reminds me of vanilla WoW at the level cap, where it’s not raid-level insanity, but you also aren’t just spamming one AoE button and winning easy.
The work that SquareEnix did to this content following the expansion and the level cap increase is also phenomenal. In many themeparks the older content would not only be left to die, but would intentionally be skipped over. In FFXIV this isn’t the case. You still need to complete the main quest content to open the expansion content, but there have been steps taken to make this a little easier and more streamlined.
For instance, back when level 50 was the cap, it made sense to have end-game content focused around getting better gear via running instances and collecting tokens. But as a level 50 today, that isn’t the case. Why would anyone spend weeks/months gearing up at level 50 through multiple levels of gear when that gear will rather quickly be replaced prior to reaching the new level cap? Now again, in most themeparks this entire aspect would simply be glossed over, but in FFXIV things have been tweaked to make more sense. The main quest line has been updated, first with increased XP prior to level 50, and then all of those level 50 steps have had their rewards reworked so you gain the old token-level gear just from the quests, while the XP gains are slowed so you don’t out-level what you are doing. It works remarkable well, and while you don’t get the full ‘at-cap’ experience, you do at least experience some of what it must have been like. (It actually makes me a little sad I wasn’t 50 prior to the expansion, because the content is that enjoyable right now).
Finally, I want to touch on the whole ‘required content/dungeons’ thing about FFXIV. I honestly believe anyone bitching about it is just the wrong audience not just for FFXIV, but perhaps the MMO genre. FFXIV is a themepark, not a sandbox, and in a themepark the content SHOULD be guided and you SHOULD be on a rail for the big stuff. That doesn’t mean side content can’t exist (god does FFXIV have a lot of that), but it does mean certain pieces of content are must-do. What this allow is for the FFXIV devs to know that everyone who hits 50 will have a certain level of gear, certain abilities, and be ready for what is next. It also allows them to know that everyone is on the same page with the story, and that everyone has seen and experienced the dungeons, meaning they can take whatever lessons you learned in instance X and carry them forward into instance Y. That’s really, really important, and FFXIV does this extremely well.
Another strong point is the balance of required content, and required group content, vs everything else. The easy talking point for complaining is that FFXIV forces you to do these 100+ quests, or that it forces you to run 10 dungeons, but while that is true, it’s a small percentage of the total content you will consume on your way to 50, and everything else is very flexible. If you want to play solo as much as possible, there are lots of options for that. If you want smaller bites of low-effort content, you have that. If you want to focus more on grouping or larger chunks of stuff, you also have that option. FFXIV isn’t a sandbox, not even close, but the wealth of options you have almost anytime you log in to progress, be it your main role or something else, is staggering.
FFXIV has a lot of similarities to vanilla WoW in terms of what it does well. It has good group content, it has good solo content, and it just has a lot of content period. It also does most of what WoW did back in 2005-6 better today in 2016, which one would expect (though if you look at a lot of other MMOs, that’s just not the case). It’s not a massive leap in terms of innovation. It’s certainly a smaller step forward than EQ to WoW, but none-the-less it IS a step forward, in just about every way. Given how solid WoW was, and how much the genre has struggled just to replicate that over the years, the fact that FFXIV just does it better is indeed impressive, and most certainly worth experiencing.
PS: About the game’s slow start; for veterans of themeparks, you don’t need 30+ levels to ‘get’ what FFXIV is about, but if someone is coming into an MMO for the first time (say, because they are a huge Final Fantasy fan from consoles), those 30+ levels of slower learning are needed, and don’t feel slow. We often forget just how much tribal knowledge hangs around playing an MMO, and any MMO is going to face an uphill battle to bring in and retain totally fresh players if it throws everyone directly into the deep end. Does FFXIV have a slower-than-average ramp up time? Absolutely (though in terms of total playtime, getting to 30+ is still a very short amount of time compared to your overall time spend playing a good MMO). Does that likely result in retaining more players overall vs those who are lost from the slower pace? My guess is yes. And keep in mind, the first MMO you play is almost always the hardest one to leave, so hooking a new player to the genre can have more value long-term than entertaining a veteran content locust for a month or two.