I’m operating at a Zen level of contrarianism these days due to having spent the last two weeks binging on Final Fantasy 14’s Heavensward expansion. It’s another session of blind obsession that has seen me level to 60, complete the Main Story through the credits, and begin working on obtaining the highest level of equipment possible whose acquisition does not involve teenage angst levels of pain and suffering. I’ve narrowed down my desires to combat tanking on my Paladin job exclusively with a bit of personal room decorating and equipment dye experimentation on the side. I’ve ruled out pursuing any of the other jobs, including the three new ones which I’ve unlocked and have sitting at level 30. I will not be leveling any of the crafting jobs. I have never been a crafting person, even in games with robust and interesting crafting systems such as EverQuest 2 and Vanguard. I rarely visit the Manderville Gold Saucer these days, have no lasting interest in any of the fluff activities such as training chocobos or racing them, and am similarly not interested in acquiring any more minions or mounts than I already have. As for Triple Triad, well, I’ll be playing it in Final Fantasy VIII which I recently purchased on Steam during their fire sale. Yep, that’s the right Roman numeral. I have a hot date with the Queen of Cards – we’re going to see who has the better hands. Come what may, I suspect we’ll both end up winners at the end of the night.
Rather than engaging in my customary habit of relaying a novella-length description of my own ethereal navel-gazing, I’m going to talk primarily about something you’ll find much more relevant: what I thought of the hot new expansion to Baby’s First MMO. To begin with, we can no longer call it that as it’s made strides toward developing an endgame with moderate levels of job complexity: there are substantive, formative discussions emerging on the theorycrafting behind priority queues; the conversations regarding equipment statistics are becoming more nuanced; the top tier endgame dungeons are beginning to evince some of the demands on one’s situational awareness and ability management that we had previously only seen in the top tier raids in versions 2.0 to 2.55; and the fact that the Extreme version of Heavensward’s Trial #2 requires a preformed party of exactly eight people with no role requirements is interesting from a philosophical standpoint: it conveys the message that players are responsible for establishing motivation and party composition rather than being automagically matched up as one tank, one melee DPS, one ranged DPS, and one healer via the Duty Finder. The training wheels are off.
I’ll readily admit that these are all personal opinions based on my experience through all of the available dungeons and Main Scenario content and as someone who’s been playing MMOs for ten years or more; however, I do think that most people would agree that the expansion introduces a new, higher level of challenge for players who have reached that point in the story. If there’s one thing that Final Fantasy 14 is absolutely great at, it’s taking someone who has never played a game in their life and teaching them how to MMO from level nothing to godmode. It is very, very slow and gradual. It is guided. It is on rails all day, every day. It is also very effective.
With that said, I’m going to talk about some of the things I didn’t like. I’m in the unique position of having my head both in the clouds and up my own ass simultaneously, so take my personal perturbances with a dump truck full of salt. The music is wonderful with the exception of some of the “we’re being whimsical now” pieces in which the instrument selection is somewhat grating to my ears. Specifically, the bagpipes, which are otherwise normally totally cool. I didn’t find their inclusion among the sweeping orchestral pieces and hushed piano melodies to be thematically appealing. I rolled with the disco themes that popped up out of nowhere from time to time. I guess I just didn’t “get” it the same way others don’t “get” the zanily cartoonish super-spaz telegraph world of WildStar. The same goes for the inclusion of anthropomorphic factions whose presence in the Main Story provided all the narrative potency of Jar Jar Binks. I’m not talking about familiar factions, kupo, lest you mistakenly think that I’m slandering everyone’s favorite floating friends.
And the nodding – my god, the nodding. Liore dubbed it “stoic nodding” and I find this to be painfully appropriate. The level of nodding in cutscenes is over 9000. Pregnant pause? Set phasers to nod, Ensign. At one point my character nodded to a fucking dragon. Had the dragon nodded in reply I think I would have lost it; fortunately, it transcended the tiresome customs of mere mortals and alit into the sky with the flapping of wings too ancient and world-weary to care about such things. Praise the Twelve and thank you, Wind-up Chibi Alphinaud, for not leaving the fourth wall in a heap of smoldering rubble.
It’s quite clear from all of this that this is Square Enix’s story and that your character is the vessel via which their tale is being told. You are simply being given the privilege of controlling the Warrior of Light behind the scenes. This doesn’t make the story any less fantastic, but it is what it is. When I first started playing the game, I wrote about how my character’s lack of voice pissed me off. I later stated that I had come to terms with it. Having played through Heavensward to the rolling credits and beyond, I’m back to where I was when I first started playing: I do not at all like the fact that my character has no voice. It’s part of an overarching dramatic license in which the potency of my character’s agency waxes and wanes as the plot calls for it. A novice wishes to lead you around by the nose? Off you go without complaint, champion of Eorzea. What’s convenient for the plot becomes true for the story.
And thus on more than one occasion did a band of sackcloth-garbed bums see fit to challenge my world-destroying cat Paladin whose fiery rage had decimated many a Super Saiyan to mortal combat despite the fact that, yes, they had heard of me and my exploits. It came as no surprise to anyone, then, except the gauntlet-tossing challengers that when I punched them in their level 1 face with my level 100 fist that they were completely and utterly wrecked with a capital KEK. Turnabout is fair play, though: had the plot called for them to take me prisoner, I’m sure the next scene would have seen me in chains groveling at the feet of a barroom brawler whose greatest life accomplishment was waking up in the gutter one morning without having pissed himself.
To put the cherry on top of this tasty, sugary cake, there were also places where our band of well-dressed round pegs in round holes were seen to express the sentiment that a particular thing was to be avoided at all costs. Grace made the astute observation that the next quest the game sends you on requires you to do that very thing no fewer than eight times. Well, then. This is clearly the right thing to do because I’m doing it. Your protestations to the contrary are duly noted.
If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself that I somehow have the gall to criticize a game with several million active players, keep in mind that I’ve been playing the game for the last month or two while complaining about the fact that I’m still playing it. It’s because it’s a great game. Fabulous. Brilliant. Superb. Too good for its own good. Any quibbles I might have with it or its features are subsumed by the excellence of its design. Heavensward is an outstanding expansion that I can recommend to anyone without hesitation. The content in 3.0 will easily take the average player 40-60 hours to complete – and that doesn’t count the regular content additions such as this coming Tuesday’s Alexander raid.
In the course of completing another eleventy billion quests, I was able to use the side quests in conjunction with the Main Story Quests and job-specific ability acquisition quests in order to level my Paladin almost all the way to 60; I had to resort to clan hunts and dungeon runs for the equivalent of perhaps one level. It was the customary business of running errands and acting as courier that saw me thoroughly exploring every section of every map via multiple tedious backtracking quests. The back and forth got pretty serious at one point. Did I enjoy it? Not particularly. I relied mostly on dungeons to instruct me on the proper ability rotation; open-world questing was monotonous health bar whittling with crap DPS because I refuse to wear STR gear. Disagree if you like – I’m a tanking Paladin and will be using VIT on every gear slot that offers it. I prefer not losing to winning and am willing to sacrifice personal DPS at the expense of minutes and hours of my life spent killing things more slowly than other people. As for materia melding and such, I’ll probably just end up reading a guide and asking someone in the Free Company to meld the appropriate statistics for me that will allow me to reach the critical and parry and accuracy caps or whatever they are so that I can get back to the business of twitch-spammy, telegraph-dodging tanking.
Now that I’ve diligently completed all of the pre-Elder Game things that I wanted to complete, my goal for this game is to play it more like a game and less like a job. I’m aiming to put things on “farm status” so that I can log in once a day to complete the daily Duty Roulettes for the Tomes of Law required for i170 gear. (I could also spam Dungeons #7 and #8, but that takes us back into “second job” territory.) After that, I’d like to log in a couple times a week to run statics with the Free Company to tackle the more challenging content and acquire i175/i190 gear. (Greysky Armada on Cactuar, totally cool people. Look us up.)
From where I am right now, I’m looking back and thinking to myself that the questing was worth the story. It engaged me and got me interested in the events and characters. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to become acquainted with it; at this point in my life, though, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have rather watched it in the form of a movie and then played the video game spin-off in which I immediately jump into dynamic tanking action. I’m even rethinking my relationship to WildStar as a result of this – WS is a game in which the theorycrafting and gear set management is rather involved; Final Fantasy’s armory and automatic hotbar/equipment/stat allocation swapping when changing jobs makes life a breeze and I can intentionally be an airhead about statistics without serious consequence. I’m not sure to what extent I want that level of managerial complexity nowadays. In short, Final Fantasy 14 has damn near beaten the desire to commit persistent mental resources to games out of me. I think. More TSW and GW2 are in order – games that allow you to jump into the action immediately, one of which is a bit better at it than the other, and in which the game’s story-movie operates much more in the forefront as part of the player experience.
To sum up: I want FF14 on farm status and nothing else. I want more story games and time to reflect, ride emotions, and navel-gaze. Less jobby, more gamey. I will also spend several more weeks babbling about life outside the confines of my self-imposed, self-designed gaming prison as if I had a clue.