The brief guided demo I was shown at E3 didn't give me much of a chance to explore how this game sets itself apart from the previous online Fantasy title. It was absolutely, jaw-droppingly gorgeous (especially in 3D, a feature which may or may not make it to final release), and seemed to capture the "feel" of the core series, but both of those are accolades that can be applied to the franchise's eleventh outing.
The demo was broken down into two segments, the first of which had me wandering through one of the game's three main city-states, Limsa Lomasa. Even though the area was almost completely devoid of player characters and NPCs alike, the city itself felt alive. It featured a series of islands hoisted precariously over a rolling ocean, with ships (and airships) going about their business above and below. The visuals in this city were completely captivating -- though that was probably aided by the fact that I was quite literally surrounded by 3D screens.
After my tour of Limsa Lomasa, I was dropped in a massive field reminiscent of the overworld area of Gran Pulse from Final Fantasy XIII -- you know, that area you got to when the game really got good? Me and two other adventurers spawned near a beacon which allowed us to pick up a simple fetch quest. As our party leader agreed to the task, the rest of us automatically received a prompt telling us what we'd be doing. (We were fetching pages torn from a book, strewn about a nearby field. How heroic!)
Once again, both the expansive environment and my party's character models had the level of intricacy and detail that I've come to expect from the series. Unfortunately, the game's beautiful world is marred by the returning, clumsy user interface. To interact with an object, you have to go near it, target it, open up your action menu, and click "Yes, of course I want to pick up this stupid page, I walked all the way over here, didn't I?" Actually, it just says "Examine," but that's how I read it in my mind.
The combat is similarly hamstrung -- to attack something, you have to target it, press a key to initiate combat, and then choose attacks from a skilbar at the bottom of the screen. Each attack requires a set amount of Stamina, which slowly recovers as the battle goes on. It's as close as MMOs are going to get to replicating turn-based gameplay in an online world, but it lacks some of the fluidity and speed of other entries in the genre.
It's difficult to judge the merits of an MMO -- especially one still so early in its alpha stage -- based on a half-hour demo on the show floor of a major expo. Based on the details that have dripped out over the past few months, as well as the gorgeous trailers that have surfaced since the game was announced at E3, I've been looking forward to see what Final Fantasy XIV has to offer. Unfortunately, this particular demo didn't do a great job of showing how the game had evolved since Final Fantasy XI. I'm really hoping these changes will become more apparent in the upcoming beta.