arrLast week, I posted about a beta code I received for the PlayStation 3 test of upcoming MMO Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. At the time, I didn’t realise it was a 48-hour test period, and thanks to a busy weekend, all I got to do was create a character and wander into my starting city, Gridania. Another 48-hour test began yesterday morning, and this time I was ready for it.

I’ve so far put in about six or seven hours (having to tear myself away to either eat or sleep), and I’ve really been enjoying what I’ve played. I’ve mentioned before that FFXIV would be my first MMO; despite having had an interest in the genre since seeing Phantasy Star Online before the Dreamcast’s release, I’ve never actually given one a go. So what is all-new to me may be tiresome and repetitive for any MMO veterans out there.

I started off by creating an Elezen Wildwood archer called Khroma Midgard, and on arriving at Gridania, I was put through my paces to make sure I could become a half-decent adventurer. These early tests generally revolved around fetch quests or monster culling to prove my worth to various NPCs before being allowed to join the archers guild. You’re given a fair amount of freedom to explore reasonably early on, and Gridania itself is huge, which leads me to one of only a small handful of issues I have with the game: pathfinding is very difficult, at least for me. If you’re in the same area as your objective, you’ll get an icon on your map/minimap showing you the general direction. If you’re not in the right area, you won’t get anything. It would be very useful to have the game at least point you to the relevant exit. Instead, you end up wandering around aimlessly until you either stumble upon your objective or just decide to explore and find new things, which is the upside of the problem.

When you first see the game’s UI, you would certainly be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed. There’s stuff everywhere, and it takes up a fair chunk of screen real-estate. The game does a good job of walking you through everything without feeling too much like a tutorial, though – it rarely feels like it’s tightly holding your hand, and as I said earlier, you have a good degree of freedom to wander around almost from the start. I was surprised at how quickly I adapted to the UI and much of what I needed to do became second nature after a few hours. It will take time to remember where everything is however, and I still can’t quite figure out how to access a potion more quickly than simply dipping into my inventory, which just wouldn’t cut it in the midst of battle.

Speaking of battle, I was glad to see that enemies on the field generally won’t attack you on sight (there seem to be a couple of exceptions, but in the main this seems to be the case). I don’t know if this is just true of the opening stages of the game, so as not to overwhelm newcomers, but it makes exploring a lot easier than it would be if you were constantly getting mobbed. When you see something you want to attack, you simply face it, press X to target it, and then X again to begin auto-attacking. You can bring up your learned skills by holding L2 or R2 and pressing the required button (a d-pad direction or face button), and your skills are of course on a cooldown timer, so you can’t spam them. If you want to target another enemy, you can switch between targets with the d-pad.

It was during one of the aforementioned early monster culling missions that I had my first “This is AWESOME!” moment: While wandering through the forest outside of Gridania looking for ladybugs, I spied a small hill in a clearing atop which stood an enemy I hadn’t seen before – an Ixali beastman, one of the antagonists of Final Fantasy XIV. Curious, I started up the hill and saw that a couple of players had also been drawn there. We all began to do battle with the interlopers, our numbers swelling until there were about twenty adventurers and a small horde of beastmen, funguars, ladybugs and other monsters all engaging in a massive, un-staged battle. Everything just came together in that moment, and we all fought and healed side by side, felling waves of Ixali for what must have approached half an hour. I gained a level and half, and just had an absolute blast enjoying the game with a group of random strangers. That experience is what I always expected MMOs to be about, and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn delivered that for me in the first three hours.

One thing I haven’t touched on yet is the FATE system, semi-random multiplayer instances that occasionally appear on your map. If you wander near one of these FATEs (Full Active Time Events) on your travels, you’ll get a notification that you’re near one and a blue circle will appear on your minimap. If you want to join in, you simply wander into the circle and start taking part. They generally take the form of multiplayer battles against a number of one enemy type, or perhaps a stronger, boss-like creature and the aim is to kill them all or drive them back. FATEs have recommended levels, and if you’re under that threshold your contribution won’t be weighed as heavily when it comes time to share out the spoils. If your level is high enough and you acquit yourself well, you can reap a pretty healthy amount of XP and gil, so they’re worth seeking out, and luckily are a lot of fun as well.

I did have an issue in a couple of FATEs I joined in, where I found it incredibly difficult to target an enemy. Pressing X would put my reticule over a friendly player rather than an enemy, meaning I’d have to cycle through to find a target. By the time I’d managed to cycle through, I’d taken a few hits and everyone else had killed that monster. At first I put it down to the fact that this is a beta of a game still in development, but thinking back, I’m pretty sure this only happened during FATEs that I was too low-level for, so I wonder if the game was purposely gimping me?

It’s safe to say I’ve really enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy XIV so far. I’ll certainly be playing it some more today when I get the chance, though it’s a little sad to think that when the beta ends my character will be deleted. Still, if it means I’ll start the full game on a level playing field with my friends who are planning to jump in at launch, so be it. I’ve certainly seen enough to justify my pre-order, I just worry about quite how much time this will suck up when I’m paying a sub for it!

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn launches on PC and PlayStation 3 on August 27th.

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