Yesterday was the first day of Square-Enix’s biggest MMO launch, the 4th Final Fantasy XIV expansion, Endwalker.
Going into launch day for Early Access, we already knew some pretty big numbers were expected, and hopes were high. Did they meet them?
The Server Shit-uation
A discussion of this expansion’s launch cannot be had without first addressing the giant Matanga in the room – the server issues were absolutely predictable and have been handled with a ham-fistedness that is uncharacteristic of the FFXIV team on other matters. The most diehard FFXIV fans will, in a toxically-positive manner, say that these problems couldn’t be avoided, that the team’s explanation is, at face-value, correct, and will stomach no critique of the issue.
The main error is the 2002 lobby server error, which will kick you out of the game while waiting in line and gives you roughly two minutes to try getting back in to get back to your spot in the login queue. If you fail to meet that timer, back to the back of the line with you. The official explanation of this error is that when too many people hammer the login servers at once, it kicks this error and shuts more people out, preventing the server from crashing and losing everyone, but…it happens so inconsistently that it is somewhat hard to take that at face value, at least to me.
For my part, I’ve been able to avoid having it shuffle me to the back of the line in two ways – I use the legacy FFXIV launcher instead of the new one, which loads faster and gets me back to the game client quicker after such an error, and I make sure to tab into the game regularly during the queue and drag my queue position window around a smidge so the game knows I am there. I’ve had fewer 2002 errors than my FC mates and friends this way, and while it is all anecdotal and somewhat weird and illogical feeling, it seems to work!
Now, I am not a server engineer, but it should be said that in a world built on cloud infrastructure, there are numerous ways in which this could have been addressed without just buying more server hardware to own. The use of a flexible cloud infrastructure provider, allocating additional capacity from other Square Enix online properties, etc – all of these would have likely required engineering time, but could have been looked at and at least explained as lacking for various reasons. Arguably, this is one way in which Blizzard does launches better, because they’ve made Battle.net a flexible framework that can use its datacenter capacity for any game in the umbrella, so you grab additional server capacity from Hearthstone and Overwatch to keep WoW afloat, or vice-versa. I won’t suggest that something like Amazon Web Services would do the trick, certainly – but it feels like there were some solutions that could have been tried, given that they’ve been hyping the expansion for most of the year and knew what was to come. Having a login line kick you out of place is, well, bullshit, and I feel like other solutions could have been had if given consideration. That being said, I don’t know enough about server infrastructure to say that with certainty, so it gets a frustrated side-eye from me.
Also, having said all that, once in the game, it seems pretty steady. The only people I know getting errors past login are ones with internet that kicks them out of games on the regular anyways, so I am far more likely to blame that on their network infrastructure at home! I remained in-game for a stretch of nearly 19 hours from late morning on launch day until nearly 6 AM today with no errors or hiccups, and the latency and performance was on-point, so while I find the engineered 2002 errors to be utterly baffling and awful, if the tradeoff for that frustration is a solid in-game experience, it might be an okay tradeoff.
Now, The Actual Gameplay
Endwalker is full of interesting surprises for veteran and new Final Fantasy XIV players alike. On the gameplay front, the stat squish seems mostly well done. I did a solo ARR Extreme trial to test the Extreme Echo, and it worked great (my health scaled to exactly my pre-squish value in the same gear, so seems like that works alright!), and dungeons, trials, and raids from old content that I have done have played pretty similarly. One thing I will say that does feel different, from my perch as a healer, is that tanks are more exposed in this squish – a bad tank sticks out even more like a sore thumb, and I had some abysmally bad, non-cooldown using ones in both legacy content and the level 81 dungeon. If your group is mostly good to decent at the game, it should feel about the same, as I haven’t noticed DPS being lower on a percentage basis or anything of that sort.
Leveling Curve and EXP Needed
The experience curve from 80-90 seems far more forgiving than the same in prior expansion launches, at least thus far. In my 23 hours of play so far, I’ve taken White Mage from 80-86, with my level 86 ding coming in the level 83 dungeon. I have not gone out of my way to EXP grind, doing one Endwalker hunt bill for low-level zones, turning in a single Wondrous Tales while I was level 83, doing one full rotation of Roulettes minus Guildhests but having done the Trial and Normal Raid roulette twice, and having only done 3 sidequests for Aether Currents in the new zones. I’ve tried to keep a well-fed buff throughout, but have done poorly at it, admittedly. It feels increasingly likely that there will not be an EXP wall in the MSQ progress, at least not as I can see it. In Shadowbringers, I hit a big wall at 78/79 even with a week’s worth of Roulette rotations done and the full MSQ, so this feels quite different, as at least in Shadowbringers, my level felt roughly in-sync with the level range on offer for the zones.
The new dungeons are great, and I think they work towards something I’ve talked about a bit here in the past. In FFXIV, dungeons do tend to be fairly straightforward and simple affairs – if you pay a modicum of attention, you’ll easily trounce them. The level 81 dungeon in Endwalker sets the bar considerably higher off the bat – more effects require more attention, the timing of abilities is noticeably harsher, and there are far less warning circles and it usually ends up the case that if you wait for the big orange no-no zone to tell you to move, you’re too late. Having said all of that, they still aren’t really difficult, per se – just more stacked with mechanics and requiring more attention and better timing. I’ve had a single death in all 3 dungeons I’ve run (two level 81 runs and one level 83 dungeon run), and it was a Dancer who was not paying attention and got hit by 3 mechanics at once (yes, there is a boss that has that level of overlap). You can still absolutely do the dungeons completely blind and the normal FFXIV sanctity of experience is there, but you do need to be marginally more on your game!
Toolkits and Role Design Philosophy
FFXIV’s healer meta is largely unchanged – your goal is to pump DPS while using oGCDs and more efficient means of keeping your group alive from damage spikes, using a triage approach with encounter awareness to reach the pinnacle of play. In older content, you are slightly less able to mask a bad tank with strong healer gameplay, but otherwise it goes about the same. In new content, the same design philosophy for PvE otherwise applies for non-bosses – wall-to-wall pulls are the norm for a competent group and past the launch window, I expect they’ll be as common as ever.
A notable change for healers is that the main damage nuke spells are now 1.5 second base cast and GCD locked, similar to how Astrologian’s DPS has always worked. This gives you a 1 second window between the casting of a DPS nuke and your ability to use another GCD-locked ability, which makes weaving oGCDs much easier. In fact, the healer gameplay of this expansion seems absolutely locked-in on making sure that healers are using oGCD heals effectively – and it makes it much, much easier to do. I can’t speak to the other roles at this point, as I have only played White Mage on this side of Endwalker, so that will be something to unpack over the coming weeks and months.
Without spoiling the back-half of the story, it can safely be said that the design of zones here is more akin to Stormblood than either Heavensward or Shadowbringers. Zones are disconnected and pretty far apart in the world, so there is less sense of space than the small amount that FFXIV’s zone loading already allows for. The game makes up for it with some fun immersion trickery in the story to give you a feeling of how things work and the space between zones, and picking on FFXIV for having a disconnected-feeling world full of seams is kind of old hat at this point.
The game makes up for this in Endwalker by presenting zones that are absolutely massive and have a strong sense of place and identity. Each zone feels special and unique compared to what came before, and the landscapes are dotted with fun little details that really sell things well. It may just be my eyes and the fact that I was doing a lot of 3D modelling and texturing in the weeks leading up to release, but Endwalker zones have, to my eyes, noticeably sharper textures that appear higher-resolution, at least at max settings on PC. There’s a richer feeling for it, and new gear and NPC models have noticeably less of the jagged, pixelated normal mapping that adds gear detail in FFXIV, so things are sharper and better-looking overall.
If you’re not a fan of the dialogue-heavy, minimal combat MSQ style of FFXIV, Endwalker will not change your mind. Relatively few quests involve any fighting, and those that do present a small number of easily-bested foes. Similar to Shadowbringers, a lot of the early questing is more cutscenes and watching than actually playing, but the story delivery is, for me at least, pretty good and there’s a good job done of setting the stakes and establishing the major players early on.
One thing I was dreading as I started to see it were the escort quests, which the early part of Endwalker absolutely beats you over the head with, but they are actually pretty well done and the NPCs are not bizzaro navigation obstacles, compared with WoW escort quests, where NPCs are either slower than a run but faster than a walk, or absolute turbo/slowmo assholes who leave you in the dust/insist that you wait for them to fossilize as they walk. The NPCs keep pace and the bits of optional worldbuilding dialogue you can get do a lot to add a sense of character and interaction to the game.
If you’re level 80 already heading into Endwalker, you know what to expect, generally, and short of a few special moments I can’t discuss more for spoilers, it will meet those expectations on the gameplay front.
Soken delivers, period. I will say, however, that if you like his more eccentric side of composing, like the Titania theme of Shadowbringers, you might feel a smidge sad, at least so far. The soundtrack has a heft to it that feels apropos of the apocalypse, and so far nearly all the zone music I’ve encountered, 3 zones deep, makes use of the Endwalker main leitmotif, so the zone music does have similar rhythms and patterns very early on and you have less hyper-unique tunes like La Hee (sorry, “Civilizations”) in favor of there being a very central, strong expansion flavor that is layered in nearly everywhere. I like the music a lot, so that isn’t bad, but it is different from the flavor of Shadowbringers.
This part has some hinting at the story that may constitute a spoiler. Be warned!
Okay, what can I say here that won’t be a spoiler?
Firstly, I can say this – I datamined my own patch files during the maintenance window (it was a fun momentary learning experience!) and I have read the dialogue files for all the 6.0 MSQ cutscenes with voice acting, which means not the whole story, but the biggest beats and overall arc of it. I did this because my approach to spoilers is that knowing what happens is not the entirety of the experience and let’s be frank, I was crawling out of my skin with excitement for the game on Thursday! As I’ve been discussing the game with friends, I’ve been pantomiming not knowing what happens and playing along, mostly avoiding direct discussion to prevent that knowledge from slipping in.
The overall arc of the expansion is likely to be polarizing, depending on how much people get stuck on certain story beats. There are things in the story that you can get stuck on in that way, and to some extent, I get it, as there are a couple of things I normally dislike in there too.
Having said that, so far, I like this expansion a smidge more than Shadowbringers. The story is able to focus in a lot more on the actual events as we aren’t doing the worldbuilding that ShB required to bring us all up to speed on the events in the First, and the early zones of the expansion instead use some of that sauce to contextualize our presence in each zone and what that means to the people there.
The story as a whole has a main theme woven through it that is fascinating to me as an exploration, and you get the core premise very early on, which is then layered upon with each new zone story, each new character, and each development in the Final Days. The way all of this ties in to the central characters and in-universe events of the story is quite masterful, in my opinion, and I’ll avoid saying more because it could be too much!
Character-wise, I enjoy the ways that prior character plots are paid off and advanced here so far, as it feels like a buffet of plot advancement and growth and it all logically follows from what came before.
Anything else I could say would constitute big, bad spoilers, so I will just end on this – buckle up, it’s a wild ride.