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Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward review in progress

FFXIV Heavensward Screen 1

Welcome to my review in progress for Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward, Square Enix’s first expansion to their self-redeeming Final Fantasy MMO. For the next two weeks – or however long it takes me to get to the end-game – I’ll be exploring what Heavensward has to offer, and giving you guys some early impressions with this blog, before writing up my final verdict.

This blog will be regularly updated, so be sure to check back often for my latest thoughts and adventures, and be sure to get involved in the comments section for discussion and questions alike.

Last update – levels 52-54: first dungeon and flying mounts.

While this review in progress will not contain spoilers for the Heavensward story, it does contain spoilers for the A Realm Reborn (2.0) story, which is required to play the new expansion. Please note that any submitted comments that spoil the Heavensward story will be subject to moderation.

FFXIV Dungeons 1

Levels 52-54: first dungeon and flying mounts.

I’ve explored much of Western Coerthas at this point – I’m still in awe at how big these new zones are compared to 2.0 content. Exploring all their nooks and crannies has been a real treat, both for the eyes and for further developing my character. You see, Heavensward introduces the ability to use flying mounts, in any of the new zones. Unlocking your first flying mount – a black chocobo – is relatively easy, as it’s tied to the main quest line.

But it isn’t that simple. Just as we’ve seen with Blizzard’s controversial choice to remove flying from their latest expansion, and substantially their decision to put it back in, Square Enix don’t want you to simply fly over all of their labour of love. Along with your black chocobo, you’ll be given an Aether Compass – a small device used to track down Aether Currents.

The majority of these currents are scattered all over the map, while some are bound to quest rewards; usually following the main story. If you want to fly in any given zone, you’ll need to collect all of the currents inside the zone. This way, you’ll have explored a decent chunk of the zone by foot; many of them are atop of small jumping puzzles.

I’ll have more on the actual flying part later, but as I was in the midst of hunting down the last few remaining currents, my Duty Finder had popped, sending me to my first dungeon in Heavensward: The Dusk Vigil.

FFXIV Dungeons 2

After the great Calamity, many of the great defensive outposts were abandoned, as Ishgard tried to gather its strength for an impending invasion of dragons. One such fortress, named the Dusk Vigil, refused that directive; its defenders wouldn’t abandon their duty for no one. Time has since passed, and it’s presumed that the fortress is all but deserted, and its defenders dead.

So when I was asked nicely by a old priest to go and fetch an important relic of his from Dusk Vigil, I knew that presumption was not going to pan out.

I gathered with my party of four as we prepared to take on whatever still resided in the dungeon; old or new. One thing I must make a comment on, while not directly related to Heavensward, is how nice the FFXIV community is. Everyone welcomes each other upon entry, explains tactics if someone is new to the instance, and generally makes the whole experience much, much more enjoyable.

This particular party were more than happy to wait between boss fights as I took a flurry of screenshots for this post; there were no arguments, no impatient pulling – in fact most were eager to hear my thoughts on Heavensward so far. The opportunity to make friends in this game is plentiful.

Again, this isn’t a recent phenomenon, I’ve seen this happen over the majority of my FFXIV career, but it still should be appreciated. In a lot of other MMOs, players are completely silent, methodically fulfilling their roles, taking the loot, and then leaving without saying a word. It can almost make it feel like a chore.

FFXIV Dungeons 3

Naturally, Dusk Vigil was anything but devoid of life. Various unfriendly creatures had taken refuge inside its walls, and worse yet, the old stalwart defenders had been reduced to hostile husks, attacking anyone who dared enter.

The bosses of the instance were varied in their tactics. One thing I enjoy about FFXIV and its boss battles, is that it rarely employs one-shot-kills to punish those who make a mistake. Instead, some of a boss’s attacks will be accompanied by a stacking vulnerability debuff – keep making a mistake consistently, and yeah, you’ll eventually feel death’s cold grasp. But you’re also given the chance to lets the stacks fall off, resetting them completely.

Out of a hulking Oliphaunt (think huge mammoth), and husk captain Ser Yuhelmeric, the final foe, a giant and majestic griffon named Opinicus, pictured above, was easily one of my favourite fights. You fight the beast in a circular room, which has several chunks of piled debris dotted around the edges. Periodically within the fight, Opinicus will summon a vortex of wind that pulls players into the center of the room, stunning them, and then sends them flying into the air for a hefty chunk of damage.

To avoid this, you need to position yourself behind these piles of rocks, but their position constantly is in motion as the griffon destroys them, and new piles fall from the roof. There was also a cool diving attack, where the boss focuses a single player, before dive-bombing them, requiring the unlucky allie to move away from us all.

We completed the dungeon without a single wipe or death, which I expected since it’s the first of the expansion, and most players will be familiar with their roles by this time. I also managed to score two items inside, giving me a huge boost in power.

FFXIV Flying

With Dusk Vigil out of the way, and the old man reunited with his precious treasure, it was time to unlock flying. The last Aether Current involved quite the climb to reach, but nothing was going to stop me from letting my chocobos wings fly; not even a giant mountain.

As I channeled the energies of the final current, the game grandly announced that I had mastered the winds of the surrounding area, and that I should take to the skies. Flying works just like you’d expect – you use WASD to move, and spacebar to gain altitude. There is indeed a maximum flying height in the game, but it’s perfectly reasonable, and strikes a balance between freedom and practicality.

Even though my main story quest was taking me away from Western Coerthas, I still had so much side quests to complete. This is where it struck me – flying is a perfect tool for those who are diehard completionists. You’re given flying at a turning point: proceed to the next area if you’re addicted to the main storyline, or stay and complete all the quests on offer; use this flying mount to make it a doddle.

The black chocobo isn’t all that’s on offer either. I’ve seen many different flying mounts soar past me on my adventures: griffons, dragons and morbidly obese chocobos just to name a few few. One thing I was slightly disappointed about however, was that mounts from 2.0 with the capabilities of flight, cannot actually fly. My harrowing one-eyed Ahriman, who moves by flying just off the ground, was affected by this.

I understand that they’d probably need to add in new animations and various tinkering to make this work, but getting some 2.0 mounts who have wings in the air would’ve been a slick move.

FFXIV Flying

And that’s it for this update. Next I’ll be exploring more of the Sea of Clouds, and also heading deep into the heart of the land of dragons. I’ll be progressing the engrossing main storyline, doing more dungeons, and testing out more new features in Heavensward.

Again, a reminder not to post story spoilers in the comments section below – that would be bad.

FFXIV Heavensward Screen 2

Levels 50-52: launch day and Ishgard

Early Access for Heavensward has been active since Friday, but thanks to a little annual event called E3, my playtime was limited until the tail end of the weekend. Today however, the expansion has officially launched, opening the floodgates to all who own the expansion. The most important subject of any big MMO launch is server stability, and with Heavensward I have very good tidings.

Personally, I’ve not had a single disconnect, and the server has only gone down once for a pre-launch maintenance. My smooth experience can also be attributed to Square Enix’s efforts: a 30 min AFK kick timer is in effect, as well as a nifty channel system much akin to Guild Wars 2, where they can spread the load of a server over multiple copies of a map.

When I look back at the launch days of recent MMOs such as Warlords of Draenor and ArcheAge, I can’t help but appreciate a successful launch.

But lets get down to the good stuff, and I’ll start with a story recap. The Scions of the Seventh Dawn – the player’s faction that defended all of Eorzea – has been scattered at the hands of betrayal. Wrongfully accused of perpetrating the assassination of the Sultana Nanamo, you are forced flee the city of Ul’dah, but not without the sacrifice of most of your fellow Scions to keep your pursuers at bay. With no where to go, your only alternative is to seek asylum in the neighbouring city-state of Ishgard.

FFXIV Heavensward Screen 3

Ishgard feels unlike any other city in Eorzea. While the great Calamity gravely wounded most of Eorzea, there’s at least some signs of recovery, largely thanks to your hero. Ishgard on the other hand is still locked within an eternal war with the Dravanian Horde – mighty dragon-kin who know little else than rage and bloodlust.

The entire city is one big fortress, designed with the singular goal of keeping dragons from ravaging its citizens. Ramparts line the parameter, manned by Dragoons – lance-wielding warriors who are experts in dragon combat; a job available to players as well. If that’s not enough, they’re backed by huge turret encampments, which appear to fire gigantic chained lances into the sky. A pretty effective way to deal with dragons.

I love the gothic feel Ishgard embodies.

It’s also a great place to show off the new graphical features that DirectX 11 bring to the table. The marble floors of the grand Ishgard cathedral now contain reflections of both lighting and objects; including player characters and NPCs. The same can be said for bodies of water, which thanks to tessellation also looks far more realistic. A helpful injection of SSAO also gives 3D objects a lot more depth and definition. The biggest advantage of DirectX 11 however is its notable increase to efficiency: in high populated areas, I’ve gained a significant increase in my FPS with all the settings on maximum.

FFXIV Heavensward Screen 4

One of Heavensward’s biggest selling points is three brand new jobs: the Dark Knight, Machinist and Astrologist. Each play a part in the tried and tested holy trinity: tank, dps and healer respectively. What’s unique about them though is that they don’t start at level one, or require any prerequisites to pick up.

After you’ve done some preliminary story quests around Ishgard, you’ll see on your map the three job icons. Going to their locations will lead you straight to the quests required to unlock a particular job, along with some starter gear. They’re not long or hard, but give a good insight into the lore behind each role, and your new trainers; folk who you’ll be coming back to regularly to complete job quests to earn new powerful skills.

All three new jobs start at level 30, and so have a good headstart in terms of experience. It does mean though that you’ll need to return to 2.0 content to get them to level 50, the appropriate level to begin Ishgard with. It sounds arduous, but Square Enix have made it easier by giving players some bountiful perks, primarily a healthy bonus xp buff to straight up make the whole journey quicker.

But you’re probably better off spamming FATES – FFXIV’s version of dynamic public events, especially with the influx of players causing them to be quite healthily populated.

Because the new Jobs start at level 30, I will be giving them a spin towards the end of my review in progress, prioritising progression and the story. But if you’re really desperate, you can always check out my hands-on, where I got to try all of them out last month.

FFXIV Heavensward Screen 5

Having acquainted myself with Ishgard, and picked up the three new Jobs for later, it was time to get exploring. The main questline gives you the option of two starting areas: the snowbound desert of Western Coerthas Highlands, or the bright blue sky and lush green islands of the Sea of Clouds.

The most striking thing about these new zones is that they are huge. The two routes only give you a taste of each zone; I think I barely covered 20% of each one at the end of my little quest chains. Square Enix really weren’t lying when they said that Heavensward’s zones would be 50%-100% larger than 2.0 zones.

The quests themselves aren’t largely different. There’s still a few infamous “kill x and collect y” tasks, but they ask for such little amounts, that the tempo keeps you from nodding off. Many quests had some interesting and fun stories behind them; I actually didn’t skip a single quest text at all. One thing that impressed me with how streamlined it all felt, something that did exist in 2.0, but has been greatly improved on. I was never lost, or confused about what to do – the quests just naturally rolled off one-another until you were done.

Without spoilers, the main quest’s story is as engrossing as ever. I thought its events might have slowed down at the beginning of the expansion, but they’ve done anything but. It’s all kicking off, and it leaves me racing to the next quest in order to find out what’s going to happen.

I tried turning back on the english voice acting, and was surprised to hear that some characters have been replaced with new actors. Some will be hard to get used to for longtime players, but the quality and consistency has definitely improved. Square Enix have upped their game on that front. For me though, I’ll be sticking with the original japanese audio, as I did through all 2.0.

FFXIV Heavensward Screen 6

That concludes the first part of my review in progress. The next big thing on the horizon is gaining access to my first flying mount, another big feature of Heavensward. As you can see by the earlier screenshot of the Sea of Clouds, some zones have a great deal of verticality to them, and I can’t wait to get stuck into the experience of flying within them on my little Chocobo.

If you’ve been playing Heavensward too, let me know how you’ve been finding it. Please don’t post story spoilers though, as we’ll be forced to limit break your comment with powerful moderation.