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[Op-Ed] Hands on at Gamescom: A detailed report

24 Aug 2009

Hello everybody!

I hardly have any new information, but I decided to give you a report of most of my Gamescom experience and go into detail when it comes to FFXIV.  I’m not a native English speaker, but I still hope you have a decent read. Grab a snack because I’m not going to skip any detail, here we go…

It all started at 3:30am in the morning with a drive through the Black Forest to pick up a friend accompanying me.  Since I usually don’t go to bed all that early, and I was excited, I had no sleep before heading off.  Around 8:30am we arrived in the queue and when the baffle gates opened at 9:00 there were ~200 people in front of and ~500+ behind me.  This was only one of several entrances so there were already a few thousand people there in the beginning and they just kept coming – so it was really crowded (turned out to be 245,000 visitors overall, making it the biggest game show worldwide).  Once we were inside we headed directly towards the Square Enix booth.  The small groups of people running past me had me a little worried, but as it turned out they all headed for the Blizzard booth.  By 9:02 the queue for testing Diablo 3 already exceeded 30 meters, similar to Starcraft 2 (4hrs wait)!  Upon arriving at the SE booth we secured 2 tickets for 1:30 pm (my company wasn’t interested in playing, but an old FFXI friend of mine was running late so we got a ticket for him).  After a few minutes there were two kids standing next to me and all I heard was (translated): “What?!? I’d rather go see Star Wars!”  They approached me: “Hey do you want to play this now? I have a ticket but I’m not interested…”  Long story short, I got to play twice!

I took pictures and filmed during the first two rounds, here are some impressions, I’ll start with the races:

hyur elezen miqote
lalafell roegadyn

Here I have some artwork I haven’t seen before, unfortunately the presenter rushed it a little so the first one was already darkening out:

shipsandlimsa uldah


After that it was my turn and I gave the camera to my friend and instructed him to film my playing, but unfortunately it didn’t work out too well because of the no-close-up policy and random picking of the player shown on the big screen.  I took a seat in front of a panel with a Lalafell druid (they were all preset), and after a 2.5 years absence from FFXI the instant and predominant feeling was: “Finally, I’m home again!”

I soon realized why most of the videos we’ve seen so far were mostly chaotic, the camera controls were somewhat inverse from what I was used in FFXI and we weren’t told all the buttons that worked, only what was needed.  For example we were told to walk with WSAD but the number pad worked fine as well just like in FFXI or you could hit the space bar to enable chat mode.  I had the impression that the SE borrowed from FFXI to make it playable at Gamescom, but so far the controls are not very beginner friendly and still need quite some work, the targeting for example was buggy.

Here I tried chasing a squirrel till it disappeared and spawned some puks.

I took my time checking out all the spells at hand and made sure I cast everything at least once: Banish, Cure, Blind, AoE Bind (or Gravity), Poisona and Paralyna.  While Banish & Cure worked well, the others were more for show.  I can’t really tell if they worked, the Bind either didn’t stick, was resisted, the effect’s not implemented yet or it just isn’t Bind.  If you translate “Fessel” I’d assume Bind, but a Gravity effect would make just as much sense.  As far as I can tell you can only cast with your weapon drawn which doesn’t surprise me considering how they talked about importance of weapons, weapon growth and your class being determined by the kind of weapon you’re carrying.  However you have the choice whether to keep your weapon sheathed and run a little faster or press F and be ready to battle all the time at the cost of a slower movement speed.  No mob is needed to draw your weapon.

I was told the casting animation doesn’t work properly yet and you could only tell that you were casting something by the green glow coming from your staff, though sometimes the Lalafell centered the staff in front of himself similar to the FFXI Taru casting animation.  The targeting was also buggy, sometimes it wouldn’t recognize an enemy directly next to you.  You could lock on your target with X and strafe around it just like in FFXI.  But since the casting is buggy as well I sometimes had to lock off, switch targets and lock back on before the Lalafell actually started casting.  The effects were typical low level magic you’re used from SE games, they look nice but unspectacular, only to blow you away with their higher tier versions.  They all looked pretty similar but I’m pretty sure there will also be put some work into it to create more optical diversity.  I also found it interesting that most of them were AoE, that would make it less of a chore to free everyone in your party from poison and other detrimental effects, a good step towards more comfortable game play with less downtime.

Here I’m casting cure on myself:

Here I’m having a personal vendetta with the camera and lock-on system, but I finally manage to land a Banish right after the Gladiator used Provoke.

Graphics & Music:
You could clearly see its alpha status, but I was still impressed.  You have an invisible wall around you where in a distance of <15m the high detail grade is reduced greatly and everything is blurred.  But I was impressed by the level of detail already present and there were only minor flaws (like a bad laid carpet, but the carpet itself looks fantastic), there was a lot of higher grass, bushes and flowers and not just textures.  Also the modeling of the landscape was appealing, but boring.  It only needs a polish – consistent with what Tanaka already stated in the Famitsu interview (“high detail level will be maintained even at very far distances”).  Unfortunately I can’t say much about the music.  I heard less than I had heard already from videos.

Animation & AI:
The character animation looks great and in my opinion this is pretty close to what could be the final build.  The best thing about it is that it already brings some “alive sensation” to that early version of the game.  Same goes for the mobs available, they all look cute in their way and seem to behave somewhat intelligently!  At one point I noticed the ranger shooting one of the three Dodos, leading them all to attack the ranger, but not all from the front – with two running behind the ranger in order to perform attacks from behind.  In previous Final Fantasy games this used to cause more damage and even though we couldn’t see any higher damage taken due to the buffed characters, in the chat log there was made a difference between front and back attacks.  So importance of positioning is indicated and strategy will probably be an important factor in group play.  This goes well with the relatively slow combat system and could (hopefully) mean that individual player skill will be a much bigger factor compared to the overwhelming influence of equipment in FFXI.

Not much to say here, it’s the new quest system.  You get your card which has some info to it like a small background story, needed skill level, issuing city, beginning position, time limit, BP cost (no idea here), money reward (currency: Gil of course!) and other bonus rewards (a strength potion in our case).  On the combat related ones we were shown it says what you have to dispatch in order to finish the leve.

FFXIV mousepad
So our group made up of an Elezen Ranger, a Hyuran Gladiator and a Lalafell Druid headed off to kill some squirrels.  After defeating two of them the third one escaped and we had to chase it down. The third one spawned some puks which we also had to dispose of.  After killing all of them a glowing blue teleport column appeared and brought us back to the starting point where I had a few minutes left to examine the tents and cast some spells on my team.  All in all it was a short (7-8 minutes) but great experience – considering the alpha status – and after playing we were given a mouse-pad sporting the FFXIV logo.

After that I checked out many other exhibitors and arrived at the Intel booth where at 11:25 the official FFXIV presentation was supposed to be.  Unfortunately there were some ESL Counterstrike finals going on and no sign of anything SE related.  Apparently there was a short presentation held sometime later I didn’t cvolleyball babesatch, but back at the SE booth I was assured that I didn’t miss anything because it was just the same as they were doing at their own booth every 2hrs.  I met up with my friend from FFXI, we checked out some more exhibitors and had a snack while watching some hot beach volleyball babes beat some video game nerds at volleyball before we headed back to the SE booth at 1:30 pm.  As kind of a compensation for the missed presentation at 11:25, Tanaka-sama was welcome on stage with a huge wave of applause and said a sentence in something that was supposed to be German [see below video] and a few more in Japanese.  I couldn’t understand it but I was impressed that he tried. After the mini pseudo-interview it was our turn to play again.

Hiromichi Tanaka trying to greet his fans in German:

Turn 2:
This time I played a Hyuran Gladiator my friend played the Elezen Ranger, unfortunately on the same quest.  It went a lot smoother than the first time and again I took my time to check out all the abilities at my disposal.  I didn’t bother much with Swordthrust, Swordbash, Red Lotus and Circle Blade, but I tried to use Provoke II, Shield Block and “Choleric II” (=Provokega) as much as possible.  You couldn’t spam them because they of course had a cool down timer.  I assume those didn’t work properly as well because I had trouble drawing hate with those abilities.

After 2 squirrels were dead I didn’t bother following the third but I tried to explore a little, and then I found something new!

The landscape was terraced similar to La Theine and I found a tunnel similar to an entrance to Ordelle’s Caves.  There was rock all over it and it wasn’t as detailed as the green plains above, it wasn’t dark but pretty bright.  One of the Japanese developers behind me saw me going there and approached me in English: “Oh no you’re lost, the squirrels aren’t there, turn around!”  I replied that I hadn’t seen that scenery anywhere before and I wanted to explore it.  “But it’s very buggy, it’s not good.”  But seeing the glow in my eyes he must have realized it was pretty pointless trying to convince me to kill those puks and since he knew I was going to run in a dead end pretty soon anyway he let me roam.  What stopped my excursion through that tunnel was not invisible walls but…the ocean!  That’s right, I had a first glimpse at some water, a coast area and what seemed to be the outskirts of Limsa Lominsa.  I wasn’t able to walk into the water because I was standing on a ~1-2m high ledge which covered roughly 10m coastline.  The water didn’t look too nice since there was no movement yet, but there were some huge rocks, some of them had big white towers built on top of them like we’ve seen in other videos and similar to the Limsa Lominsa artwork and if I recall correctly you could see some bridges connecting them.  Taking an educated guess I’d say what we’ve seen at Gamescom is the beginner area outside Limsa Lominsa and what I stumbled upon looked like a nice spot for novice fishermen, maybe even a spot to carry out a gatherer guildleve.  I stayed there for 1-2 minutes and played with the camera, holding certain frames for 5-10 seconds hoping for my friend would take pictures or film it.

Unfortunately that didn’t happen because by that time the SE booth was very crowded and he couldn’t stand behind me and apparently I wasn’t on the big screen either.  All I can hope for is that someone else took pictures of that scenery and that it’s going to show up on the net somewhere.  After that exciting little trip I went back on the quest to finish of the puks.  I provoked several times and when the announcer said that almost all groups are finished with their quests I fired some Red Lotus and Circle Blades to quickly finish our quest and grab another mousepad.  My friend asked me afterward if I tried emotes and I just screamed “Noooooooooo!”, I totally forgot about it because I was just awestruck and my sleep deprivation was increasing.

At 3:30 pm there was an autograph session with Tanaka-sama and we were back at the SE booth 10 minutes early, but in spite of 40 minutes waiting we didn’t get our mousepads and my FFXI box signed because we queued on the wrong side of the…um crowd of people.  You could see on screen that there were a lot of fans who brought stuff to be signed but I also think there were a lot of people just grabbing something free with an autograph who couldn’t care less what it actually was.  This session was poorly organized, way too short and they should only have started giving out free mousepads to random people, after the real fans that brought various FFXI artworks and stuff along to be signed had their autograph.

We stayed a few more hours checking out some more of the Gamescom, it was just gigantic. I’d say in 10hrs we managed to take a closer look at about one fourth of the booths.  I didn’t even get to take a look at Uncharted 2 because for all the bigger games you just spent forever queuing.  The point of culmination for my sleep deprivation was going to a birthday party straight from the exhausting day at Gamescom, at least you don’t have to get drunk after 40 hrs without sleep, you already act stupid anyways…

So what’s the bottom line?

I’d say the event hit hard, very much like a sword, but a double edged one.

On the one hand I think it was a great gesture to the fans – especially Europeans who’ve been neglected for so long – to have a playable alpha build.  If while playing you kept in mind that it’s just an alpha version, are open minded enough to see how far the developers have come yet, where they are aiming and know from previous projects what they’re capable of, you’ll just kneel in awe before them and hope they hurry up delivering you a great game.

On the other hand I don’t doubt there are people who’ll never set eyes on FFXIV again after playing it at Gamescom.  Nothing but the close-up graphics and animation was even remotely finished, the battle system felt slow and anything but action packed and so on.  People who didn’t inform themselves and beforehand and didn’t know what awaited them were probably disappointed.

Needless to say that I’m all hyped and have confidence in Tanaka-sama and his team delivering a kick ass job!