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Taking flight: Final Fantasy 14 Heavensward spreads its wings

Hands-on with A Realm Reborn's first expansion, an interview with director Naoki Yoshida and 50 new screens.

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"Rather than setting a sort of number goal, our major focus was to regain the trust of the players and the fans who were disappointed in the game" - Naoki Yoshida

When most people think of the difficult time Square Enix had during the last console generation, they're most likely to picture Final Fantasy 13's divisive reception and the lengthy development of Final Fantasy 15 - previously Versus 13. While one of these remains as divisive now as ever and the other is still a wait-and-see unknown, the company actually managed to make an incredible recovery with what was arguably their biggest mistake - Final Fantasy 14.

Rushed out with a plethora of problems including balance issues, technical troubles, unsatisfying gameplay and copy-pasted environments, the original release of 14 was a disaster, with the Square Enix CEO at the time saying it had "greatly damaged" the powerful brand.

Enter Naoki Yoshida. At the time a little-known SE employee who had primarily worked on a string of Wii-based Dragon Quest spin-offs, his appointment as director and producer was an unexpected shot in the arm for the struggling game. Within a few scant years the company pushed out A Realm Reborn, an outright reboot of the FF14 world provided as a free make-good to those who had purchased the original game and re-launched to the wider public as an all-new title.

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FF14 ARR didn't just fix things; it was excellent. A few years on FF14 is now about to receive its first full expansion, Heavensward, and Square Enix employees beam as they give a presentation before we go hands-on. Over 4 million accounts, the presentation boasts. Impressive for any subscription-based game, let alone one with FF14’s difficult past - from the ashes indeed.

"Rather than setting a sort of number goal, our major focus was to regain the trust of the players and the fans who were disappointed in the game," Yoshida later reminds me, something he's told us at VG247 before. He appears more at ease now than any other time I've met him, confident in his game's success.

After years under the gun simply trying to craft a satisfying and functional replacement for the original FF14, Heavensward is giving the development team a chance to try new things - and they seem to have seized it with an impressive energy. The team managed revolution - and now they're chasing evolution.

There are the basics you'd expect from a MMO expansion, of course. The new scenario, The Dragonsong War, will supposedly take some 50 hours, with additional free content to follow post-launch. A new player race, the lizard-like Au Ra, join the fray, as do three new classes. A slew of new field enemies and elite marks also litter the game's massive new areas, while those less interested in monsters can also battle other players in a new PVP area with a new rule-set.

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The level cap rises to 60, and with it comes a new suite of side-quests in all of the game's many end-game disciplines, plus new high level Levelquests, FATEs and Raids to tackle including a journey through the guts of iconic FF beast Alexander.

Heavensward's bullet-point stars of the show are its new classes - the buff-and-heal tarot-card using support class Astrologian, the gun-wielding and trap-laying Machinist, and the Dark Knight, who largely channels abilities and the general feel of classic FF4 hero Cecil.

In my several hours with the game I quickly developed a favourite in the form of the Dark Knight, a solid damage dealer with some great abilities that string together into boss-ravaging combos. Able to string a damaging slash into a MP-healing strike and then a HP-draining finisher, he's a great option for those who like to use magic here and there but also want to get up-close and personal.

By the time it comes to join a party of other press in a dungeon, I'm fairly proficient with the Dark Knight, and am happily using his enemy-provoking abilities to tank while simultaneously using Dark Magic to steal HP to stay alive. It's an exciting class to play, but several around me were also equally excited about the subtle balance changes to their favourite classes, all of which have been adjusted and rebalanced in ways both subtle and overt.

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In this instance we tackle a cursed library type structure filled with powerful demonic books, some of which summon deadly creatures including a particularly nasty behemoth. One enemy, a giant book, happily drops our party a few times with a one-hit-kill attack until we figure out how to avoid it. Like with most MMO boss encounters, it comes down to learning a pattern and acting decisively as a team - all of which feels as good in Heavensward as it did in A Realm Reborn.

The classes are interesting, then - but the star of Heavensward is, surprisingly, its world. Square claims that the new areas are at their smallest 50 percent bigger than ARR’s areas - and in some cases that rises to twice the size.

"I feel that if you're an MMO and you're able to continue updating and maintaining the game for a good ten years, that's a sign of success. One of my immediate goals is to be able to keep 14 for at least ten years" - Naoki Yoshida

All this comes from the decision to include flying mounts - with the key point being that these truly fly, with unrestricted movement across all axes. These mounts don't just float above the ground and move a little faster - they actually fly with as much freedom as one might be used to in a single-player title - which also means they're limited to the ground in old ARR zones.
New zones are designed around this freedom though, with players actually expected in some areas to fly between various floating island landmasses. This freedom is impressive - particularly in an MMO - but it was also a challenge, especially in a title that has a base technological ceiling of the spec-constrained PS3.

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"Because with the flying mounts you're able to gain altitude and look down from a very high point, what we would typically do is hide certain objects," Yoshida explains. "But you'll be able to fly quite high with the flying mounts and therefore see more. This made it a pretty big challenge technology-wise to be able to render what you can see from a high altitude but still be able to run it on a lower-spec PC or a PS3."

"We made sure to be flexible in terms of things like the texture size and how far in the distance each piece of geometry is being rendered. The technology team was able to devise a system that compensates and allows for a lot of flexibility in what can and can't be processed depending on the hardware in use. As such, we've been able to achieve the maximum amount of graphic rendering possible as per the capability of each different piece of hardware."

As well as soaring about the massive new areas, flying mounts are also faster - which presents another issue entirely.

"Machines that have a lower RAM speed, including the PS3, would sometimes struggle with their speed," Yoshida wearily explains. "Sometimes you'd have an important NPC waiting for you at one point, but you're moving so fast that before it can render you've already flown right past them." He demonstrates with a gesture, and laughs at the predicament.

"Eventually we made it that if there’s an NPC that you need to encounter, even if you can't see the actual object or person yet, you'll at least see their name, or a quest dialogue icon if they're part of a quest string," he reveals after a pause. "As such, we're avoiding the sort of situation where people might pass right by something important. We've tiered that process so that we can keep the gameplay experience smooth and still compensate for the lower performing machines."

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While in our hands-on we were limited to two major hub areas and two of the expansion's eight new instanced dungeons, the world remained the stand-out star throughout. Artistic design is one area where the FF series has seen none of the last decade’s difficult decline, and that’s as true here as ever. The area sizes are also a little mind-boggling for the genre, as is the level of freedom now on offer thanks to the ability to fly more or less anywhere.

"For an MMO to be able to depict field areas at the kind of scale as we've been able to achieve in Heavensward - I think we're the only title that has been able to render the graphics in that kind of capacity," Yoshida smiles. He's clearly aware that it's their trump card.

With the base game successful and the expansion seemingly on-track to impress existing players and hopefully draw in some new ones, just how far into FF14's future is Yoshida, who took over a mess of a game in 2010, looking? He chuckles at the question, scratching his chin.

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"We are ramping up for Heavensward, but all of the story that leads up to it - what we call the 2.X patch series - was actually already laid out in the roadmap when we came out with our first 2.1 patch. The plans were already in place - and we are going to be doing that for the next series, the 3.X series," he tells me.

"We've already planned out the content, the general roadmap of what we want to do throughout the 3.X series. We usually plan anywhere between one, one and a half years to two years' worth of content with enough room to improvise and ad-lib along the way. We want to continue that - we want to have a long-term plan and go according to what's been planned with enough room for some improvisation."

"Very few MMOs get to that ten year mark. I feel that if you're an MMO and you're able to continue updating and maintaining the game for a good ten years, that's a sign of success. As such, one of my immediate goals is to be able to keep 14 for at least ten years."

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After a thoughtful pause, Yoshida continues. If there's a lesson from FF14's rise from the ashes, he says, it's one of perseverance.

"You do see different MMO titles that come out with a great PR campaign and marketing campaign, and before you know it they've switched over to free-to-play. It might just simply be because those people decided to give up. It does cost an enormous amount of resources to not only create but also to maintain an MMO - and I feel that some of those who switch over or disappear have to make that difficult decision or can't wait for the revenue to catch up - so they have to give up, make way.

"It all boils down to if we're able to create a great game and deliver great content to our players. I feel that the most important attribute is to not give up - never give up."

Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward goes into Early Access for pre-order customers on June 19th, and will be available more widely for PC, Mac, PS3 and PS4 on June 23rd. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is out now.

Disclosure: To enable the writing of this piece, Square Enix invited VG247 to France to play Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward and meet its development staff. Flights, accommodation and food were paid for by Square Enix.

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