âStagnantâ is a word that gets thrown at the current MMORPG market quite often these days. While I question the singling out of the MMO genre in this regard (show me a genre that doesnât generally cling to the tried and true mechanics of games past), I do agree to a certain extent. I played World of Warcraft (WoW) for some five years, and Ragnarok Online for a couple of years before that, but since retiring from WoW around 2010, no other MMO has managed to hold my attention for longer than a month or two.
However, I donât think the problem is as much to do with post-WoW MMOs copy-pasting the mechanics that worked in Blizzardâs game as people say. I think the bigger issue is developers isolating the more tangible elements of WoWâs success - quest hub based progression, instanced dungeons, the MMO Holy Trinity of tank, healer, and damage dealer - at the expense of everything else that made those games so engaging. WoW wasnât great because of itâs quest system or the Holy Trinity; WoW was great because when you entered the game, you had a whole, complete world before you. You felt like you were just one part - a small part, but an important part - of something epic.
This, I think, is what almost every MMO since has been missing. Until now, that is, because it seems as though the team behind Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (ARR from here on out) are on the same page as me about what makes a game stand out in this genre. After a lot of searching, Iâve finally found a game that instills the same sense of awe that got me hooked on WoW and Ragnarok Online so many years ago. And I love it.
A big part of this is how well realized Eorzea, the world in which ARR takes place, is. Itâs not as big or seamless as WoWâs Azeroth, but the attention to detail is simply stunning. Little things, like being able faintly see the skyline of distant cities on the horizon or the way sunlight streams through forest canopies, go a long way to make the world feel alive. Weather effects seem almost tangible, subtleties in monstersâ idle animations make them feel like more than just something put there for players to kill, and each zone feels unique and stands apart from the others. Eorzea is a world that you want to live in, that you want to explore, and whose every secret you want to uncover.
Adding to this is the sheer beauty of the environments. Whether youâre in a desert wasteland or a tropical seaside village, the world just looks absolutely gorgeous. Even the desolate Mor Dhona, the site of a great battle five years prior to the events of ARR, manages to be as breathtaking as it is grim and foreboding. Iâd probably already be level capped by now if I didnât spend so much time just looking at things, stopping to take in the scenery. Some areas just command you to stop and drink the ambience, even if itâs your tenth time through there that day.
As much as the pretty scenery invites you into the world, thereâs not much point if thereâs nothing to do once youâre there. Frankly, this is a problem that I feel a lot of post-WoW MMOs have, with nothing much to do beyond the linear quest grind to the level cap. ARR mostly sidesteps this problem though - even though getting to level 50 is still one of the main goals, you have a lot more freedom in how you get there than most other games.
In addition to the usual quest hubs, main story quest line, and dungeons, there is a decent range of other ways to get experience. Any number of people can take part in frequent random world events, with rewards based on the extent of participation, and each class in the game has their own âHunting Logâ with a series of persistent kill quests. The much maligned Levequest system from the original FFXIV has been reworked here as well, giving you a handful of allowances each day of short, repeatable quests; the allowances can also be saved up.
These sources of experience arenât just a means to an end, either, and a lot of the time are a whole lot of fun in their own right. The dungeons in ARR are a particular highlight, with some really exciting boss mechanics, even in the early encounters, and Hunting Logs are like catnip for compulsive collectors who like seeing those âComplete!â markers. Most standard quests are your regular fetch quests (those can be fun, anyway), there are also a good number of quests that break that trend with solo, instanced boss fights that providing some refreshing challenge.
Those are just the options available if you are focused on getting your main class to 50 quicksmart. I say âmain classâ because one of ARRâs defining features is the ability to change class on a whim by changing your equipped weapon or tool. If you need a break from your main class, all you have to do is swap out your weapon, and you can go off and start levelling another (each class has its own level) - this makes it a lot easier to play around with all of the gameâs classes than in other MMOs. Itâs a worthwhile endeavour too, because not only is each class pretty unique in its playstyle, but select skills can be assigned as âCross Class Skillsâ and used for other classes. Feel like your Archerâs defence is lacking? Level a Conjurer until you learn the defensive spell Protect, and set it as a Cross Class Skill for your Archer to use.
Crafting also provides a nice break from the level grind, and ARRâs crafting system is one of the most engaging Iâve encountered in an MMO. Crafting essentially involves a little resource management mini game: each item you attempt to craft has a limited durability, and your aim is to fill a progress bar through various actions before the durability runs out. Thereâs also a quality gauge which is increased through other actions - also at the expense of durability - which in turn raises the chances of getting a âHigh Qualityâ product with better stats. As you get your crafting professions to higher levels, the range of abilities you get really opens up options, and trying to find ways to maximise quality can be a lot of fun. To top it all off, thereâs a huge amount of interplay between the different professions through intermediary materials, which makes for a dynamic player economy. The only weak point in this system is gathering, which uses the standard âfind a node and clickâ it system and can get a bit boring.
A Realm Reborn doesnât really try to reinvent the wheel too much. Combat mechanics will be instantly familiar to anyone whoâs played WoW, Star Wars: The Old Republic, or any other big name MMO. Some may see this as a point against it, but I think I think Square Enix made the right move in taking whatâs worked before and polishing it up.
The classes are well thought out, with a lot of synergy between moves to ensure that the combat never gets stale. For example, Thaumaturges (mages, essentially) have to manage their damage and MP through smart use of fire and ice spells, with the former increasing damage and MP cost of subsequent spells and the latter reducing damage and increasing MP regeneration.
ARR also takes a lot of small steps to address many inconveniences typical of the MMO genre. Inventory space is plentiful, right from the outset, with no need to shop around for extra bags. Quest items that drop from monsters always have a 100% drop rate - if an NPC needs six rats tails for whatever reason, you can count on having to kill six, and only six, rats. Gathering resource nodes are unique to each player, so there is no more fighting over resources. The list of these conveniences goes on and on; suffice it to say that while ARR may not do much to reinvent the genre, it takes great strides to refine and streamline the familiar MMO experience.
Of course, no game is without its flaws. Most glaringly for ARR has been a raft of launch issues - Square Enix underestimated how popular the game would be at launch, and the servers have simply been unable to handle the load, making it very hard for people to actually get into the game a lot of the time. This is par for the course for the genre, but that doesnât make it acceptable. Having said that, Square Enix has been good at communicating with fans and has been working hard on addressing the issues at hand, so hopefully they will be resolved before long.
Thereâs no kind of talent point system to speak of, and as a result, there isnât much variance within each class. Gear and player skill are the only things that really separate one White Mage from another one the same level; they all have the same abilities and the same strengths and weaknesses. The Cross Class Skill system does offer some scope for customisation, but itâs fairly limited. If youâre the kind of player who really likes to customise their abilities, you might find ARR lacking.
To some, A Realm Reborn might be just another MMORPG that sticks to the âstagnantâ genre formula. To others, though, this game will be a blessing thatâs been a long time coming. Does it stick to the MMO tradition? Absolutely. But it takes that tradition and refines it, and captures brilliantly those less tangible elements that make a great game instead of a good one - an inviting, vibrant world, the foundations for a dynamic player economy, and the freedom to take to the world as you please.
While the rest of the market is frantically trying to âinnovateâ, Square Enix have filled what has become a bit of black hole - a good, polished game that captures the heart and soul of what made the genre great in the first place.