The lifting of a NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) is both an exciting and painful experience; on the one hand, you're finally free to discuss all of the things you love and hate about a game you've normally been playing in bits and pieces over several weeks or months, and yet on the other, you've forgotten what all of those things are because you've only been playing it in bits and pieces, and haven't played it in several weeks or months. Or maybe that's just me...
Fortunately, the NDA lift on Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn occurred during the 3rd phase of the beta testing period, and while I'd most certainly forgotten most of the things I wanted to discuss back in the first 2 phases, I found a whole bunch of things I'd love to talk about in this one. If only I hadn't forgotten those, too. You'd probably have enjoyed reading this a lot more.
Though they haven't changed a great deal since the original release of Final Fantasy XIV, the visuals are the first thing that impressed me. From the character models to the environments, and extending to the UI and combat animations, FFXIVARR is a gorgeously detailed game with very reasonable computer hardware requirements, and everything from exploring the world to interacting with NPCs and stomping monsters is a visual delight.
Following that, I was immediately impressed by the feel of the game. In the original release, moving about the world with your character felt clunky and unrefined; most of that's gone now, and with the sprint ability and jumping, navigating the world of an MMORPG has never felt better. Combat's good like that, too - though not terribly enjoyable (it's still very much a matter of press 1, then 2, then 3, and so on) it's smooth and refined, and again, looks spectacular.
Unlike the first 2 beta tests, I spent this one playing on an Xbox Gamepad, and surprisingly, it felt really good. Better than the keyboard and mouse, really. Well, mostly. As far as questing, combat and navigation were concerned, it felt much like a traditional offline Final Fantasy - the controller really lends itself to that style - and I enjoyed playing it this way much more than previously. Switching back to the keyboard felt... awkward, but managing the interface was easier, as was switching targets. Bitter sweet, I guess.
Elsewise, I really enjoyed playing FFXIVARR this time around. It's making great leaps in the beta test phases, and I think it's going to launch with a stable, clean build sometime soon. That said, there's a few things holding me back from committing to it.
The obvious issue I had in all of the beta phases, and with FFXIVARR in general, is that fundamentally it's just another World of Warcraft clone. Shots fired.
I know, I know, they're all just WoW clones. Theme park MMORPGs, that is. But FFXIV wasn't, and it sucked. FFXIVARR is, and I have issues with it.
I think I'm really just done with the genre, but 'make a character, accept a quest, run to a zone, kill some monsters by pressing 2 buttons repeatedly and running back to hand it in' isn't my idea of compelling gameplay anymore. I wanted more from FFXIVARR, not less. And while there have been too many great improvements to ARR to fault it, they've turned it into the kind of MMORPG that you already know exactly how to play before you even begin. I can't get past it. Here's hoping the levels beyond 15 evolve into some deeper gameplay, because quests and dungeons just aren't going to do it for me anymore.
That said, specifically, there wasn't a lot about FFXIVARR that I didn't like. That made me happy. I think a lot of people will have an issue with the way classes and professions work - having to re-level each from the beginning, but not having access to the same quests - though, I imagine this'll be much easier (and more enjoyable) at higher levels.
Oh, I almost forgot. Actually, I can't believe I remembered, but here goes: I'm really not enjoying the story. I love the cutscenes, and I'm sure I'll love them even more when they're voiced in the final release, but just generally, the storyline... it's weak. Not as weak as a traditional MMORPG, but a lot weaker than a Final Fantasy title. Perhaps it'll flesh out later, but as it stands, it's slow to develop leaving a lot to be desired in the way of pacing, the characters are dry making for some tiresome dialogue (yes, yes - I read the quest text) and, overall, the plot feels rehashed and flat. Again, maybe this'll get better later, but as it stands, it's probably the thing that's going to stop me playing altogether. I can deal with grindy gameplay, but it needs a good story behind it. That's like... Final Fantasy 101.
I'll be playing FFXIVARR plenty over the months to come, streaming it live on Twitch and documenting my travels right here on Corsual. Stay tuned, and jump in the forums to discuss your thoughts on the game.