Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

Final Fantasy XIII: Resolutions (In Which Nothing is Resolved)

In The Gaming Community on March 12, 2010 at 5:25 pm

If you’ve read Penny Arcade‘s March 10th newspost or have in general kept up with the massive PS3 vs 360 icon that is Final Fantasy XIII, you’re likely aware that there is a difference in the quality of video output between the two versions.  I’d like to discuss that.  I’m in no way saying you should care about what I say; this isn’t designed to make you buy one version over the other, as I’ve always stated that personal preference should trump potential differences when regarding multiplatform titles.  This is, probably, a criticism against those that overly scrutinize something like video resolution when there’s so much more of the game out there that matters.

To begin with specificity, the PS3 version natively has video at 1080p with gameplay at 720p.  This difference matters, as due to the way televisions handle switching outputs, these two sets will be merged, either upscaling gameplay or downscaling video to match.  And while there have been some criticisms of the PS3’s scaling capabilities, that isn’t the topic of this discussion.  Contrast the 360 version, which comes in at 576p for both, also known by its indian names, “Enhanced Definition,” and “Not Technically HD,” though the latter depends on whether you’re in Australia where it is considered HD.  Where does this come from?  Note that the PS3 version isn’t really 1080p, not completely, and the 360 is capable of native 720p.  Bear in mind both systems are capable of upscaling as far as 1080p as well. 

It’s more than worth mentioning that FFXIII was natively produced for the PS3 for most of its development cycle, thus officially granting the 360 version ‘port’ status.  This still doesn’t explain the difference in quality unless we factor in that Squeenix did a less-than-capable job in porting it over.  Yes, loss of the luxurious Blu-Ray storage space may be a factor, but that didn’t quite stop Mass Effect 2, multiple discs not withstanding, and knowledge that Square-Enix didn’t take advantage of the 360’s in-house or licensed video compression algorithms is widely-available knowledge. 

Does this mean that, given the option, basing your decision solely on a technical comparison, you should opt for the PS3 version, lacking personal preference or incentive to do otherwise?  Probably.  Does it really, truly matter?  That depends.

Certainly, we all hope Enix^2 will iron out these inconsistencies for the onslaught of games utilizing their proprietary Crystal Tools, but for today how much this is going to bother you depends greatly on whether you like the Emperor’s New Clothes.  Or, on how much that last comparison irritated you.

Googling around for comparison shots and videos and you’re liable to see gigantic screenshots of paused action-shots demarking minute difference in texture appearance and quality; this isn’t how you play the game, side-by-side with the same game in a different resolution, pausing to notice possible differences.  If you didn’t read this or other articles and avoided counting pixels you might not even be aware there was a difference, much less that it was being presented at sub-HD resolutions.

Of course, these differences might come to a head if you’re playing on a 55+ inch 1080p television, where the upscaling will really be apparent, but on anything less, especially if you’ve decided to stick with 720p until relevant games actually support it — and you’re part of a small population that gives a tin shit — you, again, won’t notice the difference.  Sony runs 1080p around like a million-dollar tart but CNET, gamers and the games themselves seem to be just fine with its 720p cousin, virtually identical in all noticeable respects.

Final Fantasy XIII was supposed to be a big Sony killer app, a long-held franchise that’s always moved units off shelves for whichever iteration of Playstation hardware on which it’s parked.  The loss of such exclusivity, especially with the published intent to milk the setting and franchise of XIII especially must have hurt gamers who based their initial Sony investment on such exclusivity more than Sony; or maybe not and they’re really into statistics and the idea of HD everything.  All the same, this grandstanding only seems to highlight the divisive nature of the 360 vs PS3 crowd, rather than celebrating the latest installment of gaming’s most loved franchise.

When so much malarkey has been raised for this, it’s hard to stand for any kind of argument that gamers enjoy games for story or character, or that gaming may evolve into an art form if it hasn’t already.  Artists may discuss the ramifications of not using the best materials available, but that really doesn’t change the quality of their interpretation, now does it?


Initial Impressions: FFXIII

In Video Games on March 10, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Western RPGs stand on the shoulders of their bretheren, hoping to be everything and more with each successive release; this action evolves the genre as a whole.  New (successful) titles shapes each new release by popularizing karma meters, open-world gameplay, dramatic moral choices, character customization and so forth.  And while the results can sometimes be likened to a chef including chocolate in every course since it proved to be so popular for desert last night, the general idea is that gamers don’t tend to tolerate stagnation or full steps backwards in their headliners.

Japanese game development does not abide by this dictatorship by committee.  Their RPGs in particular are sovereign entities, each presenting new interpretations, crafted wholecloth, of battle systems, item crafting and character interaction, with the only consistent element being the broad application of an epic save-the-world scope.  Players should be surprised if new entries into established franchises resemble previous titles; they should never expect them to actually present an overarching design concept or goal, much less an evolution.  Imagine a world where each McDonald’s served a different menu…

All the same, Final Fantasy tends to have high expectations mounted up before it like letters to Santa Clause on Christmas Eve, dotingly requesting that the new title be as awesome as the last one while simultaneously removing that which irritated in the previous game (i.e. everything) while maintaining all the good bits (i.e. everything) and could they pretty please make it more like FFVI (nostolgic jerks) or FFVII (tasteless new kids).  Of course, Final Fantasy XIII holds the rare pedigree of being able to say, “It’s like game X, with concepts with game Y and the battle system from game Z!” while referencing only other Final Fantasy titles.

Owing to the backlash against FFXII‘s open world exploration and non-transitioned battle system, FFXIII is much more linear — a trait it shares with FFX — while possessing a much more dynamic transitioned battlefield with strategies and concepts lifted directly from FFX-2.  Thematically, FFVII seems to be of primary influence with the dichotomy between the world above and below, with an oppressive government dolling out different classes of soldier to boot.

Thus far I’ve only arrived at the crystal sea, which is specific enough for those that know and ambiguous for those who wish to remain unspoiled, but sufficed to say I am not very far as yet.  Such games are difficult to judge based on their first few hours, as the time they take to phase you through the tutorial and introduction to just the world can eclipse the length of the first two Lord of the Rings movies.  And as such, would it be an injustice for me to complain of the remarkably poor pacing?  The flashbacks that should have been the first level of the game, which would have given some emotional impact to the events of the actual first level?  That only some of the characters are likable as certain party members stand in stark contrast to the grim mood established by other characters and events?  On the positive but sure to be temporary side, several of the party members seem to have it in for one or more of their compatriots and I would love to see this blossom into full-scale antagonization.  More to come on that I suppose.

As far as production values, this game has not let me down yet, which is to be expected.  While the voice acting has been a bit touch-and-go — with high points and medium points — the nuances to the animation, especially the facial expressions, pleases me greatly.  Everything from the subtleties of their stance to an irritated eyeroll bespeak their thoughts on the current situation.  Additionally, the characters themselves seem to speak to each other outside of combat either topically or generically complaining that I’m getting into too many battles, and for the most part their actual design is fairly charming, so I’m beginning to feel attached to them and their motivations.

The battle system has several components lifted from previous titles such as FFX-2.  While you may only control one character at a time, and with that only through inputted commands, combatants move about the field in a pantomime of an actual battle (I suppose Skies of Arcadia did this too).  This affects certain area attacks as their random movements make them more and less effective.  On the whole, the battle system seems less interactive and the outcome seems less dependent on your specific actions, mainly due to the “auto” feature.  Where people may have had reservations that FFXII‘s gambits would remove the ‘play’ from ‘gameplay’, the actual implementation  required player input both in positioning as well as to deal with situations you didn’t accommodate in your gambits.  Those reservations have finally come to fruition in FFXIII — I suppose you might snark that your table is ready — as the game merely requires a warm body tapping “auto” to complete the battle, as this function will populate your upcoming actions with abilities best suited to the context: a group of bunched enemies will be met with an auto-area attack, while spread out or singular enemies will get the auto-hacknslash.

This may be temporary; I’d just encountered the tutorial for the “Paradigm” system, familiar for FFX-2‘s sphere changing mechanism.  Basically, each character has a few related roles or classes which are shifted as a set for the party to a previously kitted out selection in mid-battle, and these concepts dictate how your non-controllable members act, from prioritizing healing to bolstering defenses and absorbing damage.  As each kit possesses different abilities, shifting through paradigms — an action encouraged by the tutorial as there is no penalty for doing so — and selecting specific, non-auto abilities may become paramount.

But the first few hours are largely a cutscene interspersed with a battle element that is only sightly interactive.