I last played World of Warcraft in the Wrath of the Lich King era. I played it off and on ever since launch, to be honest, but it was Wrath of the Lich King that saw me finally get to the level cap, although looking back on my time with the game through the eyes of an experienced Final Fantasy XIV endgame player, I now realise that I barely scratched the surface of what WoW had to offer.
World of Warcraft is one of those games that I consider to be part of the ill-defined, amorphous “gaming canon” — it’s a game that I thoroughly believe everyone should play for at least a short time to understand what an impact it’s had on the games industry as a whole: its importance to popular game design, the influence it’s had on other games, and the aspects that it’s drawn from its successors back into itself to evolve and adapt.
Like most MMOs, it’s fascinating to chart how WoW has changed over the years because it’s virtually unrecognisable from when it first hit the market. This most recent time I’ve been taking a look at it represents probably the biggest change I’ve seen to the overall game structure and experience, and among other things it’s put certain aspects of my Final Fantasy XIV experience into a broader context.
My time with Wrath of the Lich King was spent primarily playing PvE (Player vs Environment) in the game’s open world. This is still an entirely viable way to play World of Warcraft right the way through until level cap, unlike something like Final Fantasy XIV, which gates significant portions of the main story behind group content, albeit only of the most casual, straightforward variety right up until you reach the original level cap of 50.
The pacing of WoW is also very different to Final Fantasy XIV. While Final Fantasy XIV is relatively slow-paced with an almost turn-based feel thanks to its long “global cooldown” — the period of time between which you can use most of your abilities — WoW is relatively fast-paced and frantic. This comes at a slight cost, though: whereas Final Fantasy XIV’s encounters are, for my money, much more interesting thanks to their strong emphasis on dodging and being in the right place at the right time — a distinctly Japanese approach to encounter design — World of Warcraft appears to be, to my limited experience, much more about gearing up and overpowering your enemies as much as possible. There’s still an element of “don’t stand in the shit” at times, but not to anywhere near the same degree as Final Fantasy XIV.
The two approaches are both valid, although the fact that it’s possible to WoW-style overpower some of what used to be Final Fantasy XIV’s most formidable encounters leads to a certain feeling of dissonance at times; there’s always that feeling of conflict between the beautifully paced and choreographed encounter that the designers of Final Fantasy XIV put together, and the players’ desire to bulldoze their way through it as quickly as possible. It’s sort of a shame to see what a mockery modern groups make of fights like Garuda Extreme, although when you take this in the context of Final Fantasy XIV being a JRPG at core, it could simply be likened to the experience of level-grinding to a ridiculous degree, then steamrollering everything that once gave you grief into oblivion.
WoW also feels a lot more “free” than Final Fantasy XIV thanks to its diminished focus on storytelling — something which I always used to regard as a bit of a drawback to Blizzard’s game, but which with more seasoned eyes I can see allows it to feel much more explicitly “game-like” than Final Fantasy XIV. This may sound odd, but it’s true: FFXIV very much likes to put everything in some sort of narrative context, necessitating unlocking everything manually by completing various quests, whereas modern WoW simply unlocks things automatically and organically as you level up; you can jump into a dungeon as soon as you hit level 15 without having made prerequisite progress through a questline, whereas Final Fantasy XIV brings you to your first dungeon as part of its main scenario.
Modern WoW also features something I like very much, but which further contributes to its “game-like” feel: the Adventure Guide. This screen can be popped up at any time after level 10 and gives you suggestions of what to do next, allowing you to automatically start questlines without having to manually go to the location first, jump into dungeon queues the moment you’ve unlocked them, and even review strategy guides for dungeon bosses to save the tedious cries of “go watch a youtube video, noob” when a more inexperienced player enters group content for the first time.
WoW also seems to have taken some inspiration from Final Fantasy XIV’s FATE (Full Active Time Event) system in the form of its pre-expansion Invasions. These are events that occur in the open world and require the cooperation of multiple players (albeit not in an organised manner) to accomplish various challenges. WoW’s Invasions are much larger in scale than FFXIV’s FATEs, however; an Invasion typically encompasses an entire zone, with objectives scattered around the place, whereas FFXIV’s FATEs are constrained to a smaller area.
WoW also makes use of an incredibly elegant scaling system for these Invasions, where the monsters that appear as part of the event appear at different levels according to each player’s own level. For example, I was participating in one earlier tonight as a level 12 character, so the enemies were appearing as level 12 with appropriate amounts of health and damage. Meanwhile, my friend Cat came to join me on her level 100 character, and the enemies appeared to her as level 100, with appropriately inflated amounts of health and outgoing damage. The higher-level characters still have an advantage due to better gear and a wider selection of available abilities, but it’s nice that it’s so simple for people of different levels to be able to cooperate on something and get meaningful rewards from it — it’s a bit more elegant than FFXIV’s slightly clunky Level Sync system in that you’re not artifically gimping yourself to participate; the encounter gimps itself to lower-level players.
One thing where I’ve felt WoW has always had the edge over Final Fantasy XIV is in terms of gear. FFXIV has a strictly vertical gear progression system, with very little in the way of variety within each tier of equipment. As you’re levelling, you get a new set of gear roughly every 5 levels or so until you reach level 50, at which point a few dungeon runs will allow you to purchase gear that will take you to about level 58 before you need to replace it. Once you hit 60, there are generally two or three “tiers” of gear that are “relevant” at any one time — one that is available with the endgame currency that has no weekly cap on it, one that is available with the endgame currency that does have a weekly cap on it, and, depending on what stage in the patch cycle the game is at, one or more tiers of raid gear from either the 24-player “casual” raid or the 8-player super-difficult “Savage” raid. In other words, everyone at an equivalent gear level in FFXIV will be wearing the exact same stuff as other people playing that class, though the last set to be introduced did at least encourage the insertion of Materia for limited customisation of secondary stats.
WoW, meanwhile, has a huge variety of gear right from the get-go. Shitty grey gear, poor white gear, slightly more exciting green gear, very exciting blue gear, mega-exciting purple gear and OMG I GOT IT Legendary gear. (And possibly some more tiers besides.) WoW throws a lot more loot at the player than FFXIV, particularly during dungeon runs, with green gear in particular taking an almost Diablo-esque approach to itemisation with prefixes and suffixes denoting variations on a particular item level’s gear.
FFXIV does have an item “rarity” system along these lines — there are white, pink, green, blue and purple items — but in practice, getting a blue item simply means that you’ve acquired some level-cap gear, and purple items are, so far as I know, exclusively for the grind-tastic Relic and Anima weapons at levels 50 and 60 respectively. The only items that have any real variety to them are the pink items you find in dungeons while levelling up; these have standardised basic stats for the item level, but randomised secondary stats. In practice, though, it never really feels like the secondary stats make that much difference; perhaps this will change at higher item levels, but at the moment, adding 5 points of Determination on to your armour doesn’t feel like it has a big impact on how powerful you are, and this is, I feel, a real weakness of FFXIV that should be addressed in future expansions.
Do I like one better than the other? No, I actually like them both for different reasons, and can quite feasibly see myself playing both, since they’re both enjoyable and distinct experiences from one another. Oddly enough, spending a few hours playing WoW and getting to level 20 has made me appreciate the things that FFXIV does better, and also given me a certain amount of understanding as to why some players are the way they are. That doesn’t excuse their behaviour at times, of course, but if you look at how they play in the context of having had previous experience with how WoW does things, certain behaviours like the desire for speedruns or overpowering encounters start to make a little more sense.
All in all, it’s been a positive experience — and if you’re a lapsed WoW player who has been thinking about checking out what the game looks like in 2016, I’d encourage you to do so. The experience for new players has been made a whole lot smoother, and the whole package is significantly slicker than it once was. Plus, regardless of whether or not you bought any of the previous expansions, all WoW players now get all the expansions up to Warlords of Draenor completely free, with only the impending Legion requiring you to spend any additional money. The game as a whole seems much more friendly to short, casual sessions than it used to be, and that can only be a good thing — though naturally once you hit endgame, it doubtless won’t be long before the desire to raid kicks in… and that’s when things get a bit time-consuming!