Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Final Fantasy XIV highlights the shortcomings of Dragon Age Inquisition.

I recently made my first foray into MMOS by playing the FFXIV's 14 day trial on my ps4. To not make a long story out of it, I enjoyed it a lot and ended up buying the game for myself but that's not the reason I am here. I am here because what I thought about the most while playing Final Fantasy XIV was , surprise surprise: Dragon Age Inquisition !

Yup, every fun moment I had in FF XIV reminded me of the fun I did not have in Dragon age Inquisition ! I am not saying I didn't have fun in Dragon Age at all, but for each time I did I can count 10 where I did not. For all of its grand designs, the game felt bland and lukewarm in every implementation. For all its shiny exteriors, Inquisition felt like a monotonous trudge through a series of beautiful environments.

Enough complaining about it, though. Here are some of the points which I realized were similar in FFXIV and yet more fun or engaging than Inquisition:
  • The Combat:
    This is where the two games are most similar. Both the games have ability based combat which is governed by cool down meters for those abilities. Multiple abilities share a common cool down meter while some abilities have their own cool down time. Abilities also stack up on each other well if you chain them in a proper sequence. But this is also the aspect where FFXIV is a lot of fun while Dragon Age Inquisition is just serviceable at most. Chaining abilities and taking crit shots in FFXIV is exhilarating while in DA:I, even though we can switch between characters and have cross class combos, when you do land a crit its just another hit, just another fight. One does not get the feeling of having pulled it off correctly or intelligently or victoriously. So what is it that makes FF better in this regard?:

  1. Well, for one the Cooldown times:
    They are faster in FFXIV. I have not measured them in milliseconds or anything, but combat is faster and more hectic in FFXIV making it feel more energetic and involving than DAI where the slower pace makes it feel drab and button spammy in nature. I know these are perceptions and can vary with each individual but then games are perceived experiences and the main emotive or perceptual goal while designing a combat system is the feeling of excitement, the adrenaline rush, while making you believe that your actions and decisions matter. In other words, the goals of designing a combat system include a rise in pace/attention and player agency. If any of these fail the game's combat is bound to feel bland or lacking without the player being able to tell why. Both, a sense of player agency and a higher pace of events than normal requiring higher level of attention, snapping the player out of the exploratory humdrum,are essential in imparting a feeling of being in combat.
  2. Finisher moves:
    this is where Final Fantasy nails it and imparts an indispensable feeling of achievement and decisive agency. Playing as an Archer I acquired a skill called the "Misery's end" which is high powered shot from the bow which can be triggered only when the target has less than 20% health. The idea being that you fire this as the last finisher shot to end the battle on a victorious note. This might sound pretty simple but it leads to a small but significant moment in battle where I, the player, feels a complete sense of agency, power and accomplishment in one go! Of course, there is a chance that the target might live through the move, especially if it's a boss, but even then it foreshadows your impending victory bringing an ebb and flow to every tiny battle you fight. Thats storytelling techniques within each battle ! It is like an announcement by the player that I am about to win this right here, right now ! When it kills, it's like the exhilaration of declaring 'Checkmate' after a well fought chess match ! And to top it all its not some end game skill which one unlocks at the fag end of his/her levels but something that is provided to you very early in the game. From what I played DAI lacks this sorely during its early hours leading to the battles lacking any kind of flow to them. It's stacking attacks upon attacks till the enemy dies. That is not to say that DAI doesn't let you use tactics, it does and does pretty well later in the game but can it make you stay in the game till then? And that brings us to our next point.

  • The Pace of Levelling up:
    this is another area where FFXIV scores ever DAI in keeping your interest intact during the early hours of the game. In FFXIV you level up fast, very fast initially. I was levelling up every 20 minutes or so during my initial hours and even faster when I had my sanctuary bonus running in the background giving me double xp for every quest. What this means , other than gratification and general sense of accomplishment, is that I was gaining new abilities, new toys to play with, every 15 -20 minutes! OTOH, in DAI After spending double figure hours in the game, I realised I had only managed level 7 or 8 which directly equates to the number of skills I had at my disposal to play with. Of course, these numbers are not directly comparable between games but it does show the disparity in rewards and the number of choices I had in each game to play my way or feeling that l could choose my play style after a specific amount of time. FFXIV manages a perfect 'flow' in its "challenges vs rewards" curve and keeps the player engaged and interested while the much much slower reward pattern of DAI makes the similar combat feel like a grind ! It's a designer defined experience and the choice to keep the initial hours slow in terms of progression and choice can lead to that definite feeling of grind. OTOH, giving out too many rewards can make the game feel hollow and nullify the importance of the world you are fighting for or engrossed in. The 'flow theory' is at work here and FFXIV manages that challenge vs rewards graph very smoothly.To be honest, FFXIV is more Grindy than DA:I but it doesn't let you feel it at all which is not just  due to the faster levelling up and engaging combat but also due to another aspect which brings us to our next point.

  • Characters and humour:
    this might seem not to affect the player's impression of the grind but actually it contributes equally towards the perception the player forms of the activities he is tasked to perform. Believability and sense of purpose are the two defining factors here and FFXIV scores better on both fronts but not by making the characters and the world more realistic but instead it makes its world, characters and activities 'believable' by doing the exact opposite ! FFXIV doesn't strive for realism and instead embraces its existence as a game. The characters do not pretend to be real in their dialogues or actions and are perfectly contended in being non realistic 'cartoons', for the lack of a better word. Since there is no make believe going on here, the player's mind also accepts them as fictional cartoons which do whimsical and silly things. The game spices it all up by adding humor to every scene or dialogue cementing the notion that it is all in good fun and none of it is to be taken too seriously ! This approach, well balanced in FFXIV, works wonders and whenever one is tasked with another one of the good old fetch quests, one doesn't cringe at it as there is no suspension of disbelief, there is no part of your brain fighting with the unrealistic demands of the game as the quest giver itself also is aware of the meaningless quest as highlighted by the humor in its quest description. OTOH, DA:I chooses to go the 'realistic' route and as good as Frostbite may make the characters to look and sound, they feel like clay puppets trying to sound too serious in vain. The believability is lost each time a character speaks only to look like a shiny plastic doll devoid of expressions or an exposition is presented out. At each quest description, your mind jumps out to inform you of the futility or the un-feasibility of the required task and the illusion built so delicately by the graphics of the game falls apart. The Witcher 3 succeeds in this department while still keeping the world and characters realistic, thanks to some well written dialogue, the humor and the very well made emotive faces.

  • The dense and alive cities:
    another aspect that elevates the believability and immersive-ness of the world of FFXIV is the way all of its areas feel dense and full of activity all the time. This is where the MMO nature of FFXIV brings in its advantages. Each and every area is bustling with activity creating a convincing illusion of a living breathing world, all thanks to the multitude of players populating its worlds. Even if you never interact with any of them, your world is always full of other people going about their own quests or businesses and that sets the world apart ! Being a single player experience, DA:I cannot do that convincingly and we cannot hold it at task here but this does bring forth the importance of having people together in your game. We could , for example, have a system, somewhat like Demons Souls, where in you can see a lot of players in your game, playing around doing their own thing, even if you cannot interact with them. It would still make the world feel alive and bustling with activity ! Though, of course, your fiction must be able to accommodate this influx of heroes :).

Playing FFXIV has actually made me more interested in going back to Dragon Age and finishing it as it has shown me how good a cooldown based combat can be. Now , I am re-downloading DA:I to see if the game improves in the later stages of the campaign and actually delivers on the promise of being not only an expansive and exhaustive RPG but also an enjoyable and immersive RPG. But the game will have to do it fast because MGS V approaches soon and then, its all over to Snake and Master God Kojima San !

Here's wishing me luck ;)

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