A very pleasant discovery in my mailbox: a video comparing the Alpha and Beta versions of Final Fantasy XIV. I'm uploading it to soulrift.com for you to download, should you wish to see it for yourself. Just click here to download. The graphical differences between the two are notable, and quite nice, but overall just little bits of improvement here and there. Of far, FAR greater interest to me was the clip of combat at the end of the video, which revealed a number of very interesting details about combat in FFXIV.
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So, where do I begin? Number one is the new stamina bar system. This is like the ultimate evolution of the Active Time Battle gauge that has slowly been growing in Final Fantasy games for over 10 years. The ATB gauge in Final Fantasy games up to 12 have acted as a "turn" system: when the bar fills up, your character can take one of any kind of action. In FFXIII, characters have 3-5 ATB gauge "blocks" that slowly fill up, allowing your character to take one or more actions that fill up those blocks. EG: 4 blocks means 4 1-block skills, 2 2-block skills, 1 3-block and 1 1-block, etc.
But Final Fantasy XIV has gotten rid of arbitrary action sized and now presents an ATB Gauge where actions of any size can use up a "chunk" of stamina. The video only shows two skills so far, and while it's possible that the designers are intentionally limiting their skills to certain fixed sizes of stamina bar usage, there's no strict reason why they'd have to. They could make skills that use any amount of stamina in that bar, meaning that skill timers are visibly represented by the usage bar size rather than a set of numbers. Effects like haste and slow can now work in two ways: by causing the bar to fill up faster or slower (like traditional haste/slow effects in prior FF games) but can now be applied to specific skills (FFXI's merit points anyone?) by causing the block of used stamina to grow or shrink. I think this is simply fantastic. No more of that garbage global cooldown from WoW!
Of further interest is the new action bar system. 10-button action bars have become a stable in MMOs (well, 12 button bars these days...) and FFXIV have incorporated them in full force, along with multiple bars you can switch through. This isn't too different from the shortcut bars in FFXI, but instead of only showing up when you hold a key and only showing small text descriptions, they're now fully visible, with icons, and important information like re-use timers (see the 20 second timer when she uses provoke?) and TP and MP costs.
The TP costs are of particular interest. In FFXI TP built up whenever you attacked and you could only use it in 100, 200, and 300 blocks, emptying the gauge entirely. Now, different skills use TP like mana. Note that when she uses TP to cast Red Lotus, the remaining TP is saved for the next skill. Also, "basic" attacks that don't cost TP are all live, so instead of simply auto-attacking, you'll actively chose the attack to use. While this might mean a lot of hitting the same button over and over, hopefully you'll have enough basic attacks with meaningful differences to keep combat exciting and interesting. Note in the video she switches between stab and slash to build up TP.
A few more things I noticed: HP and MP do not regenerate during the fight, which means these points will work much like they did in Final Fantasy XI: presumably you have to rest after fights to refill the bars. Enemy health bar shows up as you might expect, but new are little icons underneath the bar to show status effects (such as provoked). All in all, I'm hugely excited about combat in Final Fantasy XIV. This could finally be the MMORPG that revolutionized the "tab-and-autoattack" combat mechanic that has been sucking the excitement out of combat since Everquest.