I've spent some time with FF14 in its open beta over the last week. The game is very reminiscent of FFXI in that it isn't going to hold your hand through anything, and I am perfectly OK with that if that is type of game SE is pitching. But they are hyping this casual-friendly, non-punishing, happy-go-lucky MMORPG where everyone gets their nose wiped and bad times are a thing of the past. Whoever approaches FF14 with that predisposition is going to experience something completely disjoint from their expectations.
UI and Controls
The most significant and show-stopping issues with the game deal with the interface and controls. It is as if they pinned up a keyboard sketch and bound functions to whatever keys the dart happened to land on. As of this writing, there is no way to officially remap keys. The controls were so obstructive that my first few sessions were only 10 minutes long, and I had to log off in frustration.
In FFXI I could play without the mouse because I used the numpad for movement, menus, targeting, and confirming actions; the arrow keys for camera and item selection; and used my left hand to perform skills with alt/ctrl+#. SE decided to keep the familiar numpad binds, but not the arrow key camera controls. So I need to use IJKL or the mouse to control the camera. A WASD/mouse scheme would work well except that the mouse is rendered on a software layer and thus is unresponsive to the point of unusability. I've been getting by with using a full keyboard setup: movement with numpad, camera with IJKL when I need to.
Some of the FFXI slash commands are in FF14 except for their shorthand aliases. E.g. instead of /cm p to change default chat to party, I must type out /chatmode party. I did not discover a PM reply shortkey or slash command; only after I type out the character name in a /tell does ctrl+r auto-populate a reply for me. These are just minor annoyances.
The basic resource in combat is Stamina which operates exactly like WoW's Rogue Energy mechanic or Global Agenda's combat: each ability depletes some amount of Stamina, but Stamina refills fairly quickly. There is no auto-attack. Prior to realizing that I had another skill at my disposal, I was simply hitting '1' over and over again, and cried with boredom, "This is it?"
With the aid of my friend (and the audience around the Aetheryte Crystal I pissed off by bitching about the game in spacial chat), I found out that jobs get new skillz every even level. And in fact once a player completes the intro scene (and subsequently hits Lv.2), they should have at least 2 skills. This makes combat slightly more interesting (although as a Gladiator, my Lv.2 skill requires MP; and MP doesn't refill unless you return to the Crystal...).
Explaining to players that they have new skills and how to find/equip them are obviously not priorities at SE. I leveled several jobs to around Rank 4 before I even realized that I acquired new abilities. In the Abilities menu, there should be a drop down box on the right. It defaults to nothing (which is completely moronic); if you select a weapon from the list, then equippable skills will be shown.
Where to find abilities in FFXIV's GUI
Upon hitting Lv.6 I got a skill that required only Stamina and TP, so this actually did add choice during fighting. The skill was also AOE, and since we were duoing mobs without a problem I started to engage and pull them near each other in order to make things go a bit quicker.
My two-player party was out in the field just killing mobs without any real guidance. Guild Leves (AKA quests) will not fill up a complete play session unless that session is very short. Expect to kill mobs without a quest prompt telling you to do so.
I'm not entirely sure how the mob relative strength gauging works. We were primarily killing blue-con mobs, but we tried to fight a blue monkey once and got killed quickly. Also, like its predecessor, FF14 doesn't indicate what mobs aggro (and perhaps how they aggro).
The first time I died, my body lay on the ground for 5 minutes while I awaited a GUI popup with some options. None such message was displayed, and I eventually found a "Return" option in the main menu. This teleported me back to the Aetheryte Crystal.
I found the death penalty to be contradictory. Returning to the Crystal waypoint debuffs the character with "Weakness". This status effect reduces its HP, MP, and Stamina regeneration rate. So the player is pretty much just waiting around for this to wear off before setting out again. For an MMORPG that is supposed to be catering to the casual crowd I find this mechanic to be defective. Displacing the player is already a loss of time; why make them wait around even further?
I didn't experience all the Disciplines of the Land (AKA Gathering jobs) first-hand, but I am willing to bet they all operate the same way.
Gathering professions can equip some skills that help players find resource nodes, giving distance in "yalms" and a compass direction. One ability even provides a sprint buff if the player is far away from the closest node.
Nodes aren't "claimed" as they are in WoW. Anyone nearby or late to the show can walk up and start gathering from the same node. Each player get a personalized Attempt count. Once a player runs out of Attempts, she's gotta move on. The node itself seems to have a global Attempt counter and will deplete eventually if enough people gather from it.
The act of gathering is a simple pattern matching hot-cold guessing game. Players get 3 or 4 guesses along a meter. An indicator moves back and forth along the meter and hitting Confirm places the guess. The game responds with text clues indicating if the guess is way off, going in the wrong direction, close, or very close. If a very close message is presented, guessing the same location again seems to still produce an item. It is possible to guess correctly on the first try.
This gets old fast.
Before the minigame starts, the gatherer indicate "where" they would like to gather. It is a height meter indicating, for example, the depth at which you want to fish. I have a hunch that it skews the probabilities of receiving certain items. I seem to find Copper Ore near the top of the meter, while I often strike Tin when mining near the bottom.
Synthesis in FF14 is very similar to that in FFXI, except there are some additional options. The familiar 8-cell grid for materials is present, and players still have to discover recipes.
The UI is extremely slow; a single synth took 5 mins. The game even froze for 2 seconds (looked like blocking network i/o to me) each time the materials grid was displayed.
I have a feeling all the crafting professions are very tightly coupled. So players are expected either to level multiple Disciple of the Hand jobs (lol), or to pay out the nose for refined materials. And with no Auction House, things might get a bit frustrating. I didn't get past rank 1 Armorer and cannot fathom how someone could level a Crafter primarily.
When information was first breaking about some of the systems in FF14, I feared it would fall flat on its face. But now I see that it does carry on the FFXI legacy, and all those players will enjoy it very much.
However, I don't understand how seasoned and AAA game developers can completely neglect UI and controls. A game is its interface. A sluggish or cumbersome UI just makes the game unplayable, and FF14's UI will delay my purchase until it is remedied. (I am told that the game plays like a dream with a controller, but when a PC title launches 6 months before its console version, the PC controls better be just as intuitive.)
I'm willing to bet that the instruction manual goes through a lot of the basics (like how to equip skills and to accept defeat). It would be nice to have in-game guidance, especially in a post-WoW MMORPG--pop-ups, tutorials, some form of assistance on how to use the UI. But once again those are GUI concerns, and that department doesn't seem to exist at SE.