As part of my New Year’s commitment to MMORPG gaming, I promised to finally give Final Fantasy XIV a proper go. And, over the last few weeks, that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve raced around Eorzea on a heroic adventure, uncovered sinister plots, and saved the world countless times. Even as an FFXIV latecomer, I’ve had a blast.
But that’s not everything. I’ve also started working on secondary classes, dug into the crafting system, pledged my allegiance to a Grand Company, and even bought an apartment. There’s a heck of a lot to do in FFXIV, and I’ve been desperately trying to sample as much of it as possible.
However, all this got me thinking: just how many people are in a similar boat? There’s a lack of good-quality and story-driven MMOs right now, and FFXIV promises to fill that niche in a major way. But is A Realm Reborn still worth trying some four years and two expansions later? To answer that question, I’ve put together this FFXIV Latecomer Review based on everything pre-Heavensward. I’ve also included some tips on the best ways to get started, should you be tempted to join in.
Long and Winding Road
Final Fantasy XIV is built around a central story, full of heroic adventuring against terrifying opponents, but with a side-order of political intrigue and an undercurrent of mysticism thrown in. There are a lot of moving parts, and watching it all unfold is breathtakingly satisfying.
That story – known as the Main Scenario – is set in a late-medieval to early-industrial period, with shades of steampunk and technomancy. A tenuous peace holds between three central nations, each struggling to deal with internal conflicts and the constant threat of war from abroad. In these difficult times, a hero is sought – a Warrior of Light. Guess what: that’s now your job.
Alongside that Main Scenario quest chain are side-stories for each class and profession. As I levelled up as an Archer then Bard, my trainers would send me out on missions to further the aims of the guild. Some would be more martial, while others would have a philosophical tangent. It also helped to explain the purpose of each guild in the world – the Archers were seen as defenders of New Gridania, while the Arcanists would also serve as customs auditors for the port city of Limsa Lominsa.
Getting to the original level cap of 50 was astoundingly easy. The server I chose had a permanent ‘Road to 60’ XP buff running, and I had a bunch of XP-boosting gear to get me started. Just by focusing on the Main Scenario and Guild quest content, I managed to reach what I thought was endgame quickly enough.
However, the ‘Vanilla’ Main Scenario content can be carved into two chunks. The 7th Umbral Era quests launched with the base game, while the 7th Astral Era quests were added in through patches over the course of two years. Like a child forced to eat his greens, I had to chew through this second batch of quests before I’d be allowed into the Heavensward expansion content, and it became a slog of jumping around Eorzea just to inch the plot along. I can see how this would have been nicely spaced out at launch but, as an FFXIV latecomer, it gets a little painful.
Speaking of mandatory content, that Main Scenario also forced me into grouping up for dungeons (multiple boss instances) and trials (boss-in-a-box). I can understand the rationale behind using instances to tell parts of the story, but I prefer to look for groups on my terms, and not because the plot demands it.
I also have a few gripes about how the story is told. There’s the voice acting that grates on me from time to time, and the clunky pseudo-medieval English that feels like Shakespeare-done-badly. Often, dialogue will feel a little clunky and a little expressionless as if actors are battling with the script. And yes, Aught is Always Amiss.
Even so, the payoff for completing it all is immense, with multiple cutscenes to pull the pre-expansion story threads together, and creating a monumental cliff-hanger for the Heavansward expansion. Overall, it’s better than anything I’ve experienced in World of Warcraft, and ranks alongside the original launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic (although this has diminished in recent times). Yes, it’s been a hard slog sometimes, but it definitely feels worthwhile at this point.
I have a pizza analogy for describing MMOs. Some are thin-and-crispy, covered in a multitude of tasty but superficial toppings. Then there’s deep-pan, with fewer game systems that are intricate and detailed, where you can get lost in a diversion for weeks. Final Fantasy XIV easily falls into that second group, with some unique approaches that offer a meaningful alternative to the daily grind.
One aspect I love is being able to swap class just by changing weapon, and being able to level up that secondary class on the same character. One minute I might be playing tunes as a Bard, and the next I might be herding Carbuncles as an Arcanist. It makes for a different choice: instead of thinking ‘how do I want to build this character at the start’, it’s more a case of ‘how do I want to develop this character today?’
I even appreciate that the whole banking and marketplace management is taken care of through Retainers – hired NPCs that do the busywork for you. It’s a neat twist that challenges MMO preconceptions, adding a touch of distinctive style.
Looted weapons and armour are stored in an Armoury Chest that’s separate to the main inventory, and the slot-specific compartments make it easy to manage chest pieces separately to hats. I’m terrible at managing my own inventory, and this small touch is a huge perk. There’s even a ‘Recommended Gear’ option that will equip my character with the best selection from what I have depending on what I’m doing, and gear lists to make swapping things around easy.
For me, though, the best bit is the crafting and gathering system. I can pick any profession I like, or even learn all of them. Each profession has its own levelling progression, and each tends to complement the others. There doesn’t seem to be any competition for gathering nodes, but each spot can offer up different types of resource – and even a chance at some high-quality stuff. Crafting involves careful use of skills to make items, and again has a chance at producing high-quality gear. And yes, I’ve been collecting a fresh set of clothing and tools to help improve both of these.
And the great thing is that, even as an FFXIV latecomer, there’s a market for all this stuff! I don’t know if it’s because I’m playing on a new-ish server, or because there’s been a surge in new players, but the marketplace has been doing a brisk trade on both materials and finished items. I only tend to dabble in the economy, but this is great news.
Spellcasting or Stabbing
Long-time readers will know that I’ve historically been a big fan of spellcasters. Whether it’s throwing fireballs or arcane missiles, I’m a sucker for standing back and hitting those big DPS numbers. More recently, though, I’ve shifted away. Being stuck to a spot when casting felt painful, and there was a trend by designers to go heavy on the glass fragility while leaving out the fun damage cannon. Self-healing melee and pet classes started to win me over, alongside more dynamic combat.
As it turns out, FFXIV offered me a mix of both. Archer (and Bard) lets me shoot arrows while casing, and has a ‘Second Wind’ heal to help me get out of tight spots. Carbuncle herding has a much longer (and stationary) cast time, but you get a pet and some heals as a compromise. Melee I’ve yet to try, but there’s a range of options from Gladiator to lancing Dragoon and quick-moving Ninja.
Sometimes, the combat can feel a little clunky, particularly when there’s a lot of damage hitting the floor. FFXIV has adopted the trend of telegraphs for many boss attacks, but it’s only an indicator of where the damage will land, not when. As a result, there’s a bit of skill in watching boss castbars or animation tells in order to pick the best time to move.
And, while there’s the Main Scenario story for my main class, each quest hub is liberally dusted with NPCs eager to offer me work. Dynamic content FATEs offer a quick way of picking up XP just by wandering around the map and completing kill or patrol missions, and each unlocked dungeon has an LFG queue that moves briskly. However I slice it, I’m definitely not bored for lack of content. Sometimes being an FFXIV latecomer has its benefits.
I originally went into Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn on a 3-month subscription, giving Square Enix 90 days to win me over. It’s taken me a third of that to complete the base game and take a few steps into Heavensward, the first expansion. Over the remaining two months, I’ve got that content to chew through and there’s the more recent Stormblood expansion on top.
In terms of value, the base game costs £10 including 30 days of subscription time, and I’d argue that it’s money well spent. Beyond that you’re paying around £9 a month, plus the usual savings for 3 and 6 month deals. Square Enix also offer a bundle that includes both expansions for £35, which might make more sense if you’re diving in for the long haul. Although everyone I’ve spoken to says that the story gets better in the expansions, I can’t testify about it myself.
There is a free trial that works for every class up to level 35, and refer-a-friend bundles that can make getting started a ton easier if you know someone playing. I’d strongly recommend this, but more for the Aetherlyte tokens that make getting around the world much cheaper. It also means that there’s the opportunity to find levelling buddies that can play alongside you and help shorten those dungeon queues.
That said, there’s also a few wrinkles in SE’s pricing approach that annoy me. A copy of the game allows you to create characters on EU, US and Asian servers, but you’re locked to buying gametime from the same region you buy the base game in. And, while Final Fantasy XIV is available on PC, PS4 and Mac, you need a copy of the base game plus expansions for each platform you want to play on. Both of these feel like unnecessary complications that work against the average gamer.
If you’re going to join as an FFXIV latecomer, I’d suggest taking the following steps to make sure it’s the right game for you. Ideally, find someone who plays and get a refer-a-friend invite for the sweet bonus items. Play a little and experiment with a few classes, and buy the full game if it works for you. At the moment, I’d suggest the Complete bundle as it’s good value and unlocks more class options, but the base game for £10 is hard to argue against.
Over the last few years, I’ve developed a bit of a January ritual. I look at the games coming out and think about what I want to play, and there’s plenty to look forward to in 2018. But I only have so much time to play games, which means something else has to give.
Sometimes it means that a free-to-play game gets shelved for a while, but it also makes sense to cut back on subscriptions. After all, why spend £10 a month for a game that I don’t even have time to log into? That way I get both more time and more money.
So, without further ado, here’s what’s on the chopping block this year. And although some of the titles may be obvious, the reasons why might surprise you.
World of Warcraft
This isn’t so much a ‘never again’ as a ‘see you later’, but I’m dropping my WoW subscription for now. Once the artefact scaling was resolved and the cap felt less of a brutal grind, I actually enjoyed Legion’s content. Unfortunately, that’s now become stale or repetitive, and I’ve no real interest in heading out to Argus.
Yes, it’s true that new level scaling has been added, making alts more enjoyable and providing different paths towards top-tier content. But the content is the same, and I’ve not really got any interest in chewing through the same content that I’ve already been through several times before. I’d prefer to save that grind for Allied Races when they launch, rather than fatiguing myself now.
I’ll definitely be back for Battle for Azeroth when it launches, which I hope will be towards the end of this year, but 10 months is a long time to wait. For now, at least, my time on Azeroth is on pause.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
I thought that a new Star Wars movie would help rekindle my interest in this BioWare title, but no. I am so utterly bored of this game, and I’m tired and weary of creating my own content. Ever since the roleplay server was hamfistedly merged with a standard PvE one, RP has scattered to housing plots.
I’m also tired of the poor value. Other MMOs that have a subscription offer me a range of cosmetics in-game or for direct purchase. By contrast, SWTOR puts the nicest in Cartel Crate lootboxes, forcing me to gamble for the shinies.
Personally, I’m hoping that Anthem isn’t going to be baked in the same monetisation mould. But unless something significant changes for the better, my subscription is toast.
Here’s the thing: I still love the universe of New Eden, and I still love flying around space. Even though I’ve been playing for a number of years, I feel like I’ve only managed to scratch the surface of what’s possible in CCP’s sandbox. There’s so many things I haven’t tried, it’s astounding.
And yet, I feel like EVE Online is one of those games that needs more time than I can afford. Even though I was running two subscriptions, the amount of time involved in updating industry jobs and planetary interaction meant that I’d have to spend several hours every day crunching through it. As a result, I didn’t feel like I was progressing much, just fattening my ISK wallet.
In time, it’s likely that I’ll make a return to EVE Online and try out other areas of the spacefaring sandbox that are less dependent on setting up a routine, and cater more towards randomly logging in and doing stuff. Until then, my set of shiny ships will remain on the shelf.
New year, new game. Back in December, I mentioned that I’d be giving Final Fantasy XIV a try, with the Japanese MMO getting three months to win me over. Surprisingly, it’s managed to hold my attention in a magitek grip ever since I created a new character earlier this month. If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, I’m having a whale of a time.
However, if I’m honest, this isn’t my first time in FFXIV. Back in the original beta, rolled a new character and ventured forth, quickly stumbling on a quest to kill ten rats. Only the rats only had three spawn points, and the spawn timer was so low that a growing crowd of players swamped them. I logged out and never looked back, passing on the game until now.
That was almost ten years ago. Time passes and games change, but few have gone through as much upheaval as FFXIV. I interviewed producer/director Yoshida-san back when he was preparing to relaunch the game with the subtitle A Realm Reborn, and I couldn’t help but appreciate the energy and faithful commitment he brought to the job. A few years later, the reboot was a success and his team was already working away on an expansion pack.
I’d always promised that I’d give FFXIV a proper go, and even bought a boxed copy for PlayStation 4. But something else always got in the way, or trashed my plans, or caused a complication. Until this year, it always seemed not to be.
Today, I feel like an idiot for putting it off for so long. After playing for a few weeks, I’ve discovered that Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is huge fun.
Redo From Start
So what’s changed? I’ve rolled a character on Omega – a new EU server that’s offering a ‘Road to 60’ XP boost for new characters. Add to that a few XP-boosting items, and Rested XP, and I’ve literally been chewing through the content. While there’s plenty of side quests and missions at every town and village, the boost means I’ve been able to focus purely on what’s called the ‘Main Scenario’ – a central quest chain running through the game. Throw in a hefty-portion of class-specific quests, and I’m levelling so quickly that the missions can’t keep up.
Despite my late arrival, FFXIV still looks great on my new rig with everything maxed at 4K. But it’s the depth of the world that’s grabbed me, from being able to teach your chocobo combat skills, to hiring a retainer that acts as bank, auctioneer and mission runner all in one. It contains all the trappings I’d expect from a modern MMO, but gives each piece a twist, or looks at the function in a new, unusual and intriguing way.
I’ve also experienced a lingering feeling of freshness, a bit like that new car smell. Maybe it’s because I’ve ignored my normal approach of rolling a grumpy old mage, or my default backup of a self-healing paladin-type. Instead, I went with a scallywag Miqo’te and started training him up as an archer. Picture him as a charming rogue, and you get the idea of G’zah Tia.
The biggest shout, however, has to go to the community, who’ve been friendly and welcoming all the way through. I’ve not yet joined a guild or Free Company, but I’ve not felt the need to either.
An Unusual World
There are other nice touches, like I can swap between classes just by changing weapon, or that crafting skills are treated as classes in their own right with their own skills and levels. After levelling up my Archer, I could specialise as a Bard, and discovered that I could actually play music in-game. Maybe my adventurer will take a sideline in rock star.
It’s not been a perfect experience, and I’ve done a ridiculous amount of running back and forth between the main cities around Eorzea at the behest of factions and secret societies. However, I’m told things get much better from level 50 onwards, so time will tell. Group play has also been disappointing, with FFXIV’s Main Scenario regularly insisting that I face an encounter alone.
Even so, it’s been enough to persuade me to buy the expansions and go for cap. I’m not sure if Final Fantasy XIV will hold me much beyond that, and I guess it depends how much I get into endgame. For now, a change is as good as a holiday, and my adventures in Eorzea fit the job perfectly. And perhaps – just perhaps – I’ll keep my promise.
About 4 or 5 years ago, I built the Angry Caretaker. Contained inside a tiny case was a monster of a PC, pairing a top-grade core i7 processor with NVidia’s latest graphics card. But, while it was fun to construct, the fiddly proportions made it tough to upgrade. If I wanted to replace anything, I usually had to pull several other parts out of the way first. It taught me a lot about working with confined spaces, but it just wasn’t practical.
And so, I decided that my next build would be a step up in size, from mini ITX to micro ATX. The space would give me more room to move, and I’d also get more upgrade flexibility from the larger motherboards. Yes, it meant going for a larger case, but I figured the trade-off was worth it.
Trouble is, while I’ve been watching the PC parts market for a few years now, I’ve not seen a compelling time to buy everything needed to upgrade. NVidia have made gains with graphics chips, but Intel’s latest processors are only marginally better than the old ones. It was only when things started to break down that I actually needed to start swapping things out, which eventually pushed me into making the big leap.
Of course, trends in PCs have changed as well. It’s not enough to use single colour lighting; today, everything is software-programmable RGB. And I do mean everything – even motherboards and memory sticks have LED-encrusted variants that add to the light show.
Which brings me to today. I’ve kept the old hard drive, power supply, and a 1Tb SSD. I’ve even managed to lay my hands on an old Corsair Obsidian 350D case. Everything else is new, although I did buy the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti about six months ago as an interim measure.
What’s in the box? An Intel Core i7 8700k is at the heart of this new rig, primed to crunch through video encoding, photo editing, and maybe even a few games if multicore support ever gets off the ground. I’ve also added an indulgent 32GB DDR4 RAM, which is overkill for most things but handy for heavy photo editing sessions with huge numbers of tweaks.
Stepping up from Haswell to Coffee Lake, or from 8GB to 32GB RAM, or from a GTX 780 to 1808 Ti, aren’t huge when taken individually. But the benefits to me go beyond gaming, from better I/O for faster boot times, to handling the workloads from my other hobbies. In more ways than one, I feel that I’ve got room to breathe.
However, it’s the new light show that’s really making me smile, and I’ve found it very easy to install and configure. Corsair do a 3-pack of their latest LL 120 RGB fans that come bundled with a controller, connecting via internal USB to provide that software link. I’ve also added an RGB Lighting expansion kit, which contains four strips of LEDs to run inside the case, and attaches to the same controller as the fans.
Performance wize, my new rig massacres almost any game I choose. Whether it’s Destiny 2, World of Warcraft or FInal Fantasy XIV, I’m able to max out the settings and play at 4K with solid framerates. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping this will continue over the next few years, with even more great games coming out in 2018.
It still needs a name, but I’ve managed to build something that makes me grin every time I power it up, and which I’m pleased to have sitting on my desk. With all that, I couldn’t ask for more.
When I look back at 2017, the MMO landscape is tinged with disappointment. Destiny 2, my big hope for online extravagance, failed to live up to expectations. World of Warcraft has hit another lull in the gulf between expansions. Over the last 12 months, nothing new has truly landed and stuck.
Yes, there’s a few surprises. Final Fantasy XIV launched its Stormblood expansion, while Guild Wars 2 brought us Path of Fire (more on both later). But, putting these to one side, the biggest breakouts in online gaming haven’t brought us grand new MMOs. Instead, tight new ideas like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite have dominated the online scene.
Anyhow, enough dwelling on the past. Looking onwards to next year, and there are some significant gems on my release radar. Not all of them are MMOs in the purest sense, but I’m confident this selection will still scratch that itch. So, without further ado, here are my MMO picks for 2018.
After pledging on the Crowfall Kickstarter, I’ll admit to being the laziest backer out there. I’ve not logged into the alpha or beta, and I’ve only briefly caught up on the news. Still, there’s a lot about the Throne War MMO that has me interested, particularly on the crafting and economy side, and I’m eager to get more involved now that the title’s inching closer to launch.
Over the last few months, Sea of Thieves has won more of my attention. The comedy-laden pirate-fest seems to be pitching for lighthearted and inclusive fun, particularly with the way quests are gained and shared. While I’ve not had a chance to play the beta (and I’m sorely tempted to wait until closer to launch). it’s definitely got me intrigued.
One title I have managed to play is Dauntless, the monster hunting persistent online experience. Once again, it’s a game that I’ve bought into by picking up a Founder’s Pack, and I’m glad to have put my money in. That said, the experience is much more like Destiny than a full-fledged MMO, although the developers behind it recently made the welcome decision to remove loot boxes. Actions like that deserve my support.
On a similar theme, I’m also interested in Monster Hunter: World. After playing the beta on PS4, I fell in love with the living, breathing ecosystem that Capcom had managed to put together, making every fight feel unique and different. But, while the console release is slated for January, we won’t be playing it on the PC until some unannounced date later in the year. Personally, I’m happy to be patient this time around.
Wrapping up my bunch-of-five is Anthem, a Bioware-made online experience that seems to be cut from the same cloth as Destiny 2. The short gameplay clips I’ve seen are interesting, and I’m confident that Bioware can put together a grand world that’s crammed full of lore and has a compelling story. However, the recent Star Wars: Battlefront 2 loot box debacle has me paranoid that, somehow, EA will find a way to screw it up.
My 2018 MMO playlist will also see the return of some old favourites, now that the dust is starting to settle. Guild Wars 2 will finally get the play through it deserves, as I’m eager to devour the remaining Path of Fire content. Final Fantasy XIV will also be getting three months of airtime, as long as I can find an EU-based Free Company (guild) to show the ropes to me and some friends.
I’ll also be making a return to World of Warcraft when Battle for Azeroth hits, which is believed to be later this year. My subscription will likely remain on pause until the pre-expansion patch hits, as I’ve played most of the content I wanted to, and most of the people I used to hang around with have long-since quit playing.
Further afield, I’m keeping an eye on New World, although I’m concerned about the silence from Amazon Game Studios following the announcement. I’m also vaguely interested in Ashes of Creation, but I remain incredibly cynical about the development team there – a feeling that will probably remain until I see a concrete and feature-complete beta.
But, if you don’t like my list, there’s still plenty to pick from. Both MMORPG.comand Massively OP have compiled extensive lists of their top upcoming titles, and both are worth perusing. 2018 might not herald a great MMO renaissance, but there’s definitely a lot to look forward to.
Earlier this week, MMORPG.com’s Suzie Ford made the bold claim that Blizzard wanted to show something new at Blizzcon 2017. Instead of majoring on Battle for Azeroth, the next expansion for World of Warcraft, her theory suggests that CEO Mike Morhaime wanted to introduce something new. That unannounced title? A new Diablo MMO.
It certainly sounds plausible. After a rough launch, Diablo 3 managed to redeem itself with the Reaper of Souls update, going on to sell some 30 million copies worldwide, so there’s definitely appetite for more. Beyond that, Blizzard has been hitting the job market hard, advertising for a Production Director with MMO experience to bring ‘the Diablo franchise into the future.’
However, it’s not all clear-cut. Blizzard’s also been hiring for a mobile RTS MMO project. Again, this is an unannounced title, but the studio also wants Unity expertise (the same engine used to power Hearthstone). Question is, are these job ads for the same game, or does Big Blue have two games in the pipe? The answer, frustratingly, might be yes and no. The next Diablo might be Blizzard’s biggest bet yet – going in-home and on mobile within the same grand experience.
This is Blizzard’s chance to release a title that dominates on all platforms – PC, console, and smartphone – with a unified world that enables players to hop from one to the other. In a single swipe, hybrids like Destiny 2 and Anthem look antiquated by comparison. The studio might not have been ready to share its vision on the Blizzcon stage, but there’s already plenty of hints about the direction being taken.
Any new Diablo game would need to preserve a few key principles from the original: constant and meaningful loot upgrades (I’m looking at you, Destiny 2); compelling combat that’s simple to understand, but with depth for mastery; procedurally generated dungeons that are packed full of monsters; and (most importantly) be a solo to small group experience. No 20-player raids to take down Mephisto, thank you very much.
This design also fits in with the Battle.net cloud architecture that Blizzard’s been gradually developing. By carving up the Diablo experience, each can sit on a piece of the cloud that spins up when you enter the dungeon, and closes up when you leave. The whole thing would scale horizontally, be resilient to outages, and still support online play. It would be a little like Destiny 2, Anthem, or that long-rumoured Borderlands thing that Gearbox still isn’t talking about.
Even so, online play is going to be a tough sell to the Diablo community, and Blizzard knows it. There would need to be a compelling reason for people to want an always-on experience, particularly when Hardcore mode gives players a single life, and a network glitch at a bad moment can ruin weeks of progress. While online might be a boon to co-op players, there’s not much for those looking for the toughest challenge.
However, I think that Blizzard will offer something extra for those willing to move online. This is where that second batch of job adverts comes in – making Diablo portable. Games like Lineage 2 Revolution, Arcane Legends, Bastion and Transistor have proven that a Diablo-style perspective can work on smartphones and tablets, with all the online plumbing to support online play.
There’s always been this idea of making an MMO accessible to mobile gamers, but it’s usually limited to add-on apps like inventory management or chat features. The idea of having a mobile Pet Battles app for World of Warcraft has been popular, but I’ve got a gut feeling that Blizzard’s ambitions are bigger. After all, it wouldn’t take much for Diablo 3 to be playable on modern smartphones, so why not build the mode into the new version?
Why is this a big deal? With this approach, Blizzard can respond to both the hybrid-MMO trend and the mobile-MMO trend, using a heavyweight IP that’s ideally suited to both platforms, and is proven to work well on consoles too. They’ve already got the creds for mobile development through Hearthstone, and this would be another step on the road.
Yes, it’s possible that Blizzard could be working on two completely different games, like a new Diablo MMO and a separate mobile MMO RTS. But the studio’s never been very good a splitting focus (cough Titan cough), and a mobile-only game would be unusual. It’s also possible that the next Diablo experience might be split – play the hero on PC/console, play the minions on your smartphone.
Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until next year to find out just what Blizzard’s been working on, but I’m quietly confident we’ll be pleasantly surprised. With most of the studio’s heavyweights now working on the title, it’s bound to be big. Well, bigger than a Diablo 3 port to the switch at least.
Vanilla – it’s a flavour of Warcraft that veterans remember fondly. Class raids to Stratholme, 40-player raids through Molten Core, and camping general chat to find dungeon groups. It was a time before transmogs, flying mounts, or pet battles. And now, in the form of Warcraft Classic, it’s making a return.
The WoW community was very different back then. Players chose a server and stuck to it, earning a reputation amongst their peers that would last for years. I even have my own memories – both good and bad – of what WoW was like back then. For some, overcoming the struggles of Vanilla WoW made a different type of player, and built a different type of community – one which some have clamoured to bring back.
But why has the concept been hard for Blizzard to implement? And what might have changed in order to persuade the studio to rethink? In essence, it’s likely taken a gradual overhaul of how WoW actually works, from a simple server setup, to a flexible landscape where the modern server engine and game content are completely seperate. How would it work? Read on…
Raid Like It’s 2005
Back in Vanilla, each Warcraft Realm ran on four physical servers – one for Kalimdor, one for Eastern Kingdoms, one for dungeons and raids, and one for looting and commerce. In the EU, these were HP ProLiant BL25p blades. If you’d like to see the innards, iFixit has a handy teardown.
This architecture had some obvious limitations, which manifested in predictable ways. During the early days, one of the two continents would occasionally go offline, while the other was still happily playable. Sometimes, loot would take time to transfer from a corpse or chest to a character, or the auction house would fail to respond. Capping it all was the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj event where players flooded into a zone in order to participate, bringing the sweating server to its knees.
Something had to change and, gradually, it did. The architecture that’s used in today’s World of Warcraft is radically different. supporting cross-realm play in more ways than ever before. I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the physical infrastructure has long-since been disbanded, with realms existing simply as logical scaleable components in a more flexible cloud or hybrid environment. Put simply, a realm probably doesn’t exist as a single physical cluster any more.
World of Warcraft Classic Announcement - YouTube
Not In Hillsbrad Any More
Why is this a problem? As J.Allen Brack explained at Blizzcon this weekend, it means that bringing Vanilla realms back is a tricky task. The original hardware doesn’t exist any more, and bringing Warcraft back in the old way would also reintroduce the same old problems and limitations. Yes, it’d be possible to mimic that old hardware using virtualisation, but that doesn’t remove the limitations.
On top of that, there’s the huge range of Blizzard services that WoW now plugs into. Battle.net for authentication is an obvious one, but there are also subscription services, character services, the in-game store, and so on. Integration styles and methods have changed, and Warcraft Classic would need to be tweaked to plug into them. That either means updating the legacy code, or building a series of adapters to handle the translation between the old and the new.
Security is also a huge concern, especially as Blizzard has developed sophisticated techniques to identify and remove bots, spammers, scammers and other nefarious agents. Would rolling back the tide undo all that hard work, or would the studio need to build something new in order to keep a tight ship?
Making Shal’Dorei Silk Look Like Linen
So, what’s the solution? From the announcement, it’s clear that Blizzard has worked out a way to make Warcraft Classic a thing. The studio may also have picked up some hints from private servers on what that Vanilla experience actually means to players, and how they could enable it without taking too many steps back.
Private server operators never had the luxury of having the Blizzard code for Warcraft realms. Instead, they had a copy of the Vanilla client, some network monitoring tools, and detailed knowledge of what it should look like. From there, they had to work backwards, deciphering how to get that vanilla content and all the required systems up and running on easily obtainable (and cheap) virtual hosting.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the folks in Irvine have taken a similar approach. Instead of trying to emulate a server infrastructure that had known limitations, why not just migrate the classic content onto the new framework? It changes the problem from being an engineering one to a data modelling and migration one, which is much more solvable. Plus, all the platform improvements are preserved, making it a huge plus.
Vanilla on an Azerite Platter
Today, that more modern and resilient architecture is in place. We’ve seen the stones being laid through various expansions and patches – cross-realm dungeons and raids, zone sharing, and more. Now that game content is separated from the services that provide the game infrastructure, the prospect of Warcraft Classic is finally possible.
In fact, in interviews with both Eurogamer and PC Gamer, that seems to be the approach Blizzard is taking, with J. Allen Brack confirming that an internal version of Classic is already up and running on the modern infrastructure. Confident that it’s technically possible in some form, the studio now needs to decide on the details, which the community will be heavily involved in.
Much still remains to be decided. What patch will Warcraft Classic launch with? Will our old characters still exist? Will old achievements register against our more modern accounts? And, crucially, how much will we have to pay for it? Answers to all of these will come in time but, for now, the important news is that Blizzard has made that crucial first step.
On Tuesday 24th October, Destiny 2 finally launched on PC. One of the most anticipated releases of the year, Bungie’s platform debut became gained even more interest following an incredibly successful beta test. By all accounts, the open-world FPS performed brilliantly and looked gorgeous on a wide range of hardware.
Unfortunately, much of that goodwill came crashing down with reports of a rapid and reactionary banwave. According to a statement from Bungie, roughly 400 players had their accounts forcibly revoked after that first day, some after only playing for a few hours. The developer stated that its actions were necessary to remove those “who were using tools that pose a threat to the shared ecosystem of the game.”
I appreciate that Bungie wants to protect the integrity of its game, but there are several problems that I have with the way they carried out this action.
Firstly, the banwave was enacted without an accompanying statement to describe what was happening and how many people were impacted. Instead, the various communities and enthusiast press were left to speculate on possible causes, forcing Bungie to release a statement. I’m surprised that the studio didn’t learn from Activision stablemate Blizzard, who are well-versed in managing this process from their experience with Overwatch and World of Warcraft.
Secondly, the banwave appears to have been performed in haste. Bungie’s statement points out that no players have been banned automatically, and that accounts have to be reviewed manually. And yet, can the studio be confident that the process is foolproof and no mistakes have been made?
Thirdly, and here’s the significant oversight: there’s no appeal process. Tools to detect malicious behaviour are imperfect, and false positives do happen. Likewise, humans are prone to making mistakes, particularly when working to tight timescales. The lack of an appeals process smacks of arrogance, and is again something that should have been learned from Blizzard.
It’s slightly heartwarming that Blizzard seems to be offering refunds to those who bought Destiny 2 through the Battle.net store, but that doesn’t help those who got a free code from a promotion or similar. Likewise, invoking a credit card chargeback risks having your entire Battle.net account suspended, which some will immediately rule-out doe to the other Blizzard games in their collection.
Ultimately, Bungie’s actions have an inexperienced and knee-jerk appearance, rather than the considered and calculated approach of a developer who knows it’s not infallible but is trying to do the best for its community. The situation is made worse by not tapping into expertise that was readily and easily available, and could have mitigated the whole sorry mess.
As it is, PC gamers might feel like they’re playing the best version of Destiny 2. But they’ll also be feeling nervous that there’s a trigger-happy staffer just waiting to ban them without any chance to appeal. For a genre that lives or dies on its community, this is entirely the wrong message to send out.
Previously, I was cautiously optimistic about the Destiny 2 beta on PC. Unsurprisingly, after hitting it for a few hours yesterday, I’m much more enthusiastic. I’ve always felt that good first-person shooters are played best with a mouse and keyboard, and Bungie’s latest served to reaffirm that opinion. Even so, I can’t help but think that this was less of a beta, and more of a teaser for the full game.
It wouldn’t be a launch without some kind of mishap, and Destiny 2 managed to throw up a few errors when the horde of players tried to log in. I got caught by the ‘saxophone’ error message myself, but kudos to the teams at Blizzard, Activision and Bungie for crushing it quickly. I’d barely lost 30 minutes to the issue before the announcement came across Twitter that the problem had been resolved.
Ultimately, it ended up being an evening of highs and lows as I chewed through the single-player scenario/mission, and teamed up with friends to stomp through the Strike. At the end of it, we all agreed that the beta was more of an advert for the classic FPS crowd than a lure for MMO players. However, with Destiny 2 securing a spot next to World of Warcraft on the Battle.net Launcher, gamers may be lured to the sci-fi magnum opus purely out of curiosity.
For most people playing on desktop, it seemed as though performance was perfect, with the auto-configuration algorithms hitting the sweet-spot for most. Running at 4K resolution on a Nvidia GTX 1080Ti and Intel 4th generation Core i7, I was able to hit ‘High’ graphics settings without dipping below 60FPS. At that point, the game looks gorgeous – but that seems to be the opinion wherever you stick the slider. Not everyone was cheering though, with Belghast hitting issues on his gaming-grade laptop.
The intro mission served as a great way to demonstrate how Destiny 2 is going to deliver the story, although it’s worth bearing in mind that the scenario was cherry-picked to deliver a hefty impact. Being pragmatic, I’m expecting to spend as much time planetside or delving into a Strike as playing through a set-piece like then one we experienced.
As someone who played Destiny on the PS4, I also had an instant familiarity with the control scheme and abilities. Even though, much like Roguetrooperz, I was making the hop from controller to keyboard, I knew what abilities I was supposed to have and how it all roughly worked. Running and gunning was instantly portable, and my aiming accuracy got an uptick from using a decent mouse.
If Bungie was hoping to convert a ship-full of newcomers, the PC beta we played was not the best way of doing it. A complete lack of tutorial meant that many I spoke to were bewildered or confused, and didn’t understand how to unleash the full power of their character. Even though the intro mission was simple and straightforward, the 3-player strike could be punishing if you’re not familiar with the game, particularly the end boss.
Control was also a little iffy at times. In order to cram every useful binding onto the keyboard, melee and other special attacks could be awkward to tap, requiring more dexterity than my meaty claws can manage. Luckily, it’s possible to remap almost every control, or use an Xbox controller instead. Unfortunately, the vibration is almost constant with this option, kicking in every time you fire your weapon, and desperately needs shutting off in the options.
And, as Scopique mentioned over at LevelCapped, there’s a lingering tinge of ‘so what?’ It’s a criticism that I got from speaking to a few franchise newcomers, that this supposed epic feeling just wasn’t present. I was reminded of Emperor Zarkon of Voltron fame a few times in my conversations, where the deep and prosaic villain serves as cartoon-based popcorn fodder. (Update: I’ve since been informed that Neil Kaplan does the voice acting for both!)
What I experienced in the Destiny 2 PC beta was a thin slice of the eventual game, but containing all the right elements for a shooter fan to make up their mind on preordering. For MMO and online gaming veterans, it did a poor job of demonstrating the vastness of Bungie’s galaxy, and showcasing the wondrous environments we’ll be taken to. Sure, there’ve been teaser videos and lore deep dives, but it’s not the same as experiencing it yourself.
Even so, there’s one ace us PC gamers have up our sleeves. With the console launch almost two months before ours, there will be plenty of time to read reviews, pick through the criticism, and make our own judgements. If we think of the Destiny 2 beta as a test of how it runs and plays on our gaming rigs, we’ve got plenty of time to decide if the content is something worth paying for.
In the end, though, Destiny 2 really does feel at home on the PC. The precise gameplay of mouse and keyboard, paired with rich 4K visuals at a high frame rate, means there’s no contest. If I end up buying in, I’ll be leaving my console friends behind.
Destiny 2 is right around the corner. For console players, just a few short weeks remain before launch day. PC gamers will have to wait until late October for their turn, but the open beta this week should help soften the blow. It’s a time to check system requirements, clean out drive space, and ponder on that preorder.
And yet, Destiny 2 is not a ‘must buy’ for me. Not yet, at least. My experience of the original Destiny was a triumph of missed expectations – I’d hoped for a deep and involving storyline that took us to fantastic places, and instead we got a mediocre script and lacklustre voice acting. Once the shrink-wrap sheen wore off, it slid into the ‘some-other-time’ shelf, next to my PS4 copies of Battlefield 4 and Final Fantasy XIV.
Still, I’d keep coming back. About six months ago, I hauled the console out from under the TV and into my home office, just so I’d feel more compelled to fire it up and get some games in. I picked up the expansion pack for Destiny, which improved the experience hugely, and progressed up to level cap. There’s still more of the saga for me to complete, but I feel like I’m getting the gist of Bungie’s vision now. It’s just a shame it took so long for me to get there.
Which is why I decided to check out the Destiny 2 beta on PS4 earlier in the year, and why I’ll be trying out the PC beta later today. I much prefer using mouse and keyboard for first-person-shooters, plus I have a much bigger network of friends on Battle.net ready to play alongside. Besides, there’s a meaty Nvidia 1080Ti and 4K monitor just waiting to devour all of those glorious pixels.
Why am I still cautious? It’s because, apart from my notes above, Destiny felt like an incredibly solitary experience. Sure, I regularly did fireteam instances, but I could have been alongside a couple of AI for all I knew. I treated it as a solo experience, and it treated me as a lone player in return.
By contrast, my Warcraft and Hearthstone contacts have been gearing up to get involved with Destiny 2. It already feels like we’ll be able to set up a clan and regularly chew through content. Plus, the PC version comes with a chat box!
I’m also hoping for more world building this time around. When I first looked at Destiny, I couldn’t decide if it was going to be a full-fledged MMO, or just an online persistent FPS. Although it’s much harder to tell from a thinly sliced beta, my opening experience with Destiny 2 on the PS4 leads me to believe that the story will have more weight this time around. The why will be as important as the how.
Looking for Group
Even so, the MMO schedule is hugely cluttered at the moment. Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire launches in less than a month. World of Warcraft patch 7.3 is due to hit servers soon. SWTOR just got a content update. If you’re an MMO nomad, that’s a lot of plates to keep spinning.
Will Destiny 2 get a slot in my gaming schedule? I hope so. After all, it sounds ideal: plenty of solo RPG content when you want it, mixed in with group play on-tap when everyone’s online. If the next few days work out well and we manage to run through the content a few times, I’m definitely keen to give it a chance.
And if not? Well, there’s always something else on the horizon.