Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Review: God Of War 3 (PS3)

Very rarely am I sucked into the hype machine, often remaining sceptical or decidedly unimpressed unless something awe-inspiring happens. Be that extraordinary visuals, a captivating story, or simply, a game in which through sheer polish and exemplary development becomes something much greater than it ever was before.

With God Of War 3 I was unimpressed from the very beginning. The initial teaser trailers didn’t look particularly great from a graphical point of view, and the gameplay seemed to be more of the same, something I never really took to when playing the first game some five years ago. My hands-on with the E3 demo both at the Eurogamer Expo and on PSN, completely failed to change my mind.

The final game, however, is a different beast altogether, delivered with such finesse and a sense of grandeur that it can only be described as one of the most intense, and visually alluring games yet to come out of a Western development studio. GoW3 is not only one of the most graphically impressive videogames I have ever seen, blending in both great art and benchmark technology. But it’s also the first time I have thoroughly enjoyed a God Of War title, being one of the most epic thrill-rides to grace the current generation of videogames consoles. It isn’t a perfect game however, and suffers from at least one gameplay quirk that threatens to break an otherwise awesomely fun, massively epic adventure.

This particular issue has to do with the control scheme, or more specifically, with how the game has you double jumping into a glide when leaping of the edge of a platform or ledge. More on this later on in the review but suffice to say that it isn’t enough to bring down the game, especially after a few hours of play in which you should have the mechanic mostly oiled down to a tee.

Other than that reasonably minor issue - seeing as you spend most of your time fighting hordes of Zeus’s minions rather than attempting to become the Greek equivalent of Lara Croft - the rest of God Of War 3 provides players with a solid and absolutely epic experience. One which presents you with more enemies and larger than life set pieces. If you thought the scenery destroying, screen-filling bosses of Bayonetta were impressive, think again, as God OF War 3 ups the ante even further along into chaos.

The beginning of the game alone is focused purely on a huge boss battle between a giant stone Titan (Gaia) and the ocean god Poseidon, with Ktatos having to jump back and forth between Mount Olympus, which the Titan is climbing, and Gaia, where the main battle takes place. All through this encounter you have to fend off waves of Zeus’s minions, before having to scale up the giant Titan to begin the final assault against the ravenous ocean god. All of this plays out like a blood soaked version of Shadow Of The Colossus, featuring huge characters making up what can only be described as an actual level itself, along with some of the most intense and downright impressive QTE action sequences in the entire game.

It’s a pretty incredible opening, which not only showcases the enormous sense of scale and epic gravitas the game provides, but also its insanely good looking graphical prowess, which stands right up there against both Uncharted 2 and Killzone 2 for one of the best looking games this generation. Indeed GoW3’s recipe for success is not only making things look great, but also making every large encounter feeling very much like one giant endgame.

In terms of actual gameplay, not much has changed from the demo we played both at Eurogamer last year and the PSN download we locked horns with last month. However, the execution is far slicker, and the visual upgrade creates a smoother more responsive game outshining the demo in every single way. Whereas the demo ran mostly at 30fps during any combat or action scenes, the final game hits 60fps for the majority of its encounters, and only drops down to the 30fpos mark in the biggest of battles. In most heavy scenes through the game, 45fps is commonplace, and is still smooth enough to keep the controls responsive and the visuals suitably polished.

Like in the first two GoW games, the combat still hinges on you mixing various moves and specials together, changing weapons to deal with different enemy types and varying boss encounters, whilst having to dodge and counter numerous attacks and obstacles. But you now have the ability to change weapons on the fly, integrating different moves from different weapons all into the same combination attack. In addition a few new moves have been added making it easier and more enjoyable to take on the increased amount of enemies at any one time.

Whereas before there would have been a dozen or so enemies, now comes two or three times that, followed up with some of the largest bosses to feature in the series so far. At the same time the game gives you all the tools you need to deal with such adversaries. Which is a good thing too; as there are bloody loads of them to deal with, many of which are twice your size and capable of slicing you to pieces given the chance.

Thankfully, having the ability to change weapons mid-combo effectively allows you to take down larger foes without taking a massively long time to do so. For example, Kratos can use the Cestus Gauntlets to break through an enemies shield, before switching back to his trademark Blades of Chaos to finish them off with some prolonged combos and special attacks. You can of course, simply, just continue to use the Gauntlets for the entire battle, seeing as they are so powerful, but you then run the risk of being overwhelmed by many weaker enemies as a result.

This change makes the game feel far more varied as a result, especially when it throws at you bosses or creatures, which require specific weapons in order to defeat them. You will find that the game transcends its initial button bashing nature by making you think about what you’re doing, and how you go about doing it. It makes a great change from the grating nature of continuously pounding the ‘square’ and ‘triangle’ buttons in the hope of success, whilst also allowing you to experiment beyond using basic magic or shooting the odd arrow here and there.

Special weapons also have regenerative abilities now. Whereas in GoW 2 they would expire after a certain amount of usage, they now occupy the yellow bar below your health meter, which refills itself within a few seconds or so of you not using a special weapon. This means that weapons such as the Bow of Apollo, can be used continuously through the game, and can always be counted on for additional support knowing that it will regenerate a few seconds after being used. Occasionally you will find that it is pretty easy to exploit this trait by simply firing off ten shots or so, dodging any attacks while the yellow bar fills up for a few seconds, before once again repeating the process. This even works on bosses, though not all, and attempting to kill them this way takes ages compared to using the multitude of weapons at your disposal. However, it does make things easier for less confident players without compromising the challenge and integrity of the game.

To top off the game’s already polished combat system, GoW3 also speeds up the previously slow heavy attacks, now allowing them to be used in combos as a starter, or even mid way through. Using them in all situations is no longer a death sentence, but now becomes just another way of dealing with the increasing amounts of enemies being thrown your way. The result is that the overall game is far more fluid than any of the previous instalments, something more akin in some ways to Japanese style hack’n’slash titles like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry without loosing its trademark feel in the process.

Of course, GoW3 isn’t about all the gut wrenching and killing that comes with being a fallen god with a taste for revenge. There are a number of slower, more sedate parts throughout the game, with lesser amounts of enemies and more controlled aggression directed your way. These sections are home to the series trademark puzzle solving elements in addition to upgrading your skills through finding abilities, as well as gaining new weapons and magic.

Unlike GoW2, the puzzles in GoW3 are smaller in size and are altogether much simpler. They rely on the same box-pushing, lever pulling scenarios present in the last game, but are at the same time slightly easier to figure out, with solutions being down to common sense logic rather than anything cryptic or obscure. They also seem to span across one or two large rooms at the most compared to the long and sprawling puzzles laid out in the second game.

I didn’t find any of these to be problematic, instead feeling that they made the whole experience a far more interesting one. You could say that they made the sense of adventure surrounding the Greek mythology and architecture quite captivating at times, whilst also breaking up the button mashing nature inherent in other parts of the game. For once, during an action-based game, I actually really enjoyed and appreciated these thinking man’s moments, with only a few times in which I remained stumped – even then it was only for a few short minutes.

In addition to throwing a puzzle or two at you, the game also features some rather frustrating platforming sections, let down by the overly picky jumping system. Basically, most of the jumps in these platform sections need almost complete precision in order to be tackled successfully, relying on both your timing of the glide and double jump moves, while also giving you no leeway for any mistakes.

Jumping and gliding in itself isn’t particularly difficult. However, in GoW3 you seemingly can only perform the higher jump when there is solid ground below you, and not as you are throwing yourself off a ledge in order to leap across any pitfalls below. At the same time, having you glide by holding down the ‘cross’ button in the same button press required for the double jump feels particularly unnatural, being different from pretty much every game released that relied on such a technique.

This aspect of the game does much to potentially spoil the experience, and I often found myself frustrated at my repeated failed attempts to progress in these sections. Had the jumping and gliding mechanics been a little easier or more conventional in their execution then I wouldn’t have has many problems, and these parts of the game would have been another highlight. As it stands, they serve only to disappoint and take away some of the finely polished nature of the rest of the game.

The rest of the game doesn’t suffer from these problems, and is of course pretty awesome as a result. In my humble opinion it could well be described as the western equivalent to Platinum Games Bayonetta. GoW3 has all the tried and tested gameplay of its prequels down to a fine art, an art made even finer by the changes to the combat system and the epic scale of pretty much most things in the game. Everything from the boss encounters to the puzzles are extremely well done. And if it weren’t for that stupid jumping mechanic, there wouldn’t be much left to criticise at all, except for the fact that Kratos, as a lead character, is nothing more than a rancid, vile jock, who is in desperate need to be put out of his misery.

Even though I haven’t played through all of God of War 1&2, I would have at least expected his character to have developed from the mindless rage he displayed in the last two games. Instead, we simply see more of the same, with only a small glimmer of redemption later in the game. Even then, his anger and rage still shine through more than any other trait, making it hard to feel anything for him, except maybe disgust or distain.

Visually, God of War 3 succeeds on two levels, both artistically and technically. The art design whilst being a mixture of dark and uninviting colours, is never drab or unappealing, and in some scenes has a distinctly hand painted look residing over it. The backgrounds are a perfect example of this, in which the lush, hand-painted sky and distant horizon blends in perfectly with the painted textures of the environments and characters.

Technically, God of War 3 stops short of perfection, but still manages to define just what we should be expecting from these current-gen gaming consoles. Textures are incredibly detailed, clean, and extremely clear. And whilst they aren’t all as detailed as the ones found in Uncharted 2, they represent the art style chosen for the game almost perfectly. The lighting and showing system is another showstopper. It’s all completely dynamic, reacting with everything from the characters and the environments. Shadows move and lighting is cut off when something passes through it; Kratos’s weapons, when used, casts a short lasting glow which lights up the surrounding environments and enemies, with metallic objects reflecting the light back out into their surroundings.

The Anti-Aliasing on show is also something which needs to be seen to be believed. There’s no doubt in my mind that Santa Monica Studio’s implementation is the most accomplished form of AA in any console game to date. Much of GoW3 has very little, to next to no jaggies whatsoever, sans on a few distant background objects and scenery. Everything remains nice and sharp despite the high levels of AA on offer, and the areas which do suffer from jaggies, have much smoother edges than in other games which have little in the way of AA.

For me though, the real triumph isn’t the glossy visuals, the epic scale, or even the gameplay, but how they all come together to form a complete package which in the face of a few small flaws, easily stands up there with Uncharted 2 and Killzone 2 as one of the defining titles on Sony’s machine. From the moment I laid eyes on that opening battle scene between the Titan and the giant God fighting it out over Mount Olympus, I was convinced. Then, just a few hours later, most of the things that I was unsure about from playing the last two games had been alleviated. Almost completely, with the exception of the game’s platform sections being the only blemish on an otherwise superbly crafted experience.

God Of War 3 might not be wholly original, or particularly different from previous instalments, but it is a far more polished affair, and one which does enough to rise above from being just a great game, becoming instead a genre defining one. It is a title which I was expecting nothing more than a rehash of previous games, and although arguably that is exactly what it is, it’s done with so much flair and attention to detail that it certainly doesn’t always feel that way. In that respect, God Of War 3 is exemplary, blending an established formula with some new found refinement and polish, both of which go a long way to making this pinnacle of the genre.


Saturday, 27 March 2010

Review: Final Fantasy XIII (PS3)

Final Fantasy XIII is very much a game of two halves. Had I written this review with only 10 hours of play put into the game I would advise anyone who liked the traditional JRPG that it was not worth those 10 hours. The main reason being that Final Fantasy XIII is no longer an RPG at all. As it turns out in the end, this does not make it a bad game, just a very different one to its twelve predecessors.

Final Fantasy XIII feels like an oversimplified and streamlined version of previous instalments. The battle system and levelling system are taught through needlessly long tutorials that drive the point home through repeatedly meaningless battle encounters. For 25 hours of the game you are prevented from having a full party or changing your playable characters that feels like an attempt by Square to make Final Fantasy XIII approachable to those who have avoided the series before. There are no towns to get lost in, or sub characters with whom to take on additional quests or learn more about the worlds of Pulse and Cocoon.

The game play is extremely linear and results in the 6 playable characters running from one end of the level to the other, only stopping for cut scenes or for battles. This and the battle system make it very fast paced but also makes it exceptionally repetitive and dare I say boring. Final Fantasy has always had an amount of linearity demanded by the story, but this is usually hidden through a sense of openness in the world maps. Final Fantasy XIII has no open world and suffers for it, the player has no choice in where the characters visit and this removes the sense of involvement, leaving the player feeling rather apathetic to the entire experience.

This is a shame because the characters feel like they are well developed, each with their own history and personality traits. The characters are of a diverse age, and balance off each other well, which helps to add familiarity to an otherwise unfamiliar territory for RPG fans. The story is not original but thanks to the characters remains captivating.

The game looks absolutely stunning. The colours are intense and bright, the two different worlds of Pulse and Cocoon seem huge and well designed, Pulse is wild and overgrown whilst Cocoon seems controlled and modern. The attention to detail is fantastic, so there's always something to catch your eye, and it feels like every single aspect of the world has been considered and individually designed.

The battle system is the gem in the game. You only have control of one character, the party leader, who is non-negotiable for half the game. You can select role-specific abilities for the leader to use each turn based upon a number of time bars which refill over time. Some abilities such as magic spells will require two sections of the active time bar where as a basic attack requires one.

I have neglected to mention one feature called the auto battle displayed on the battle menu system that appears to be another method of control over how the game is played. Its design is to increase the speed of battle and to aid new players and its usefulness decreases as the player gains familiarity with the game. However I believe the game would function better with its removal, at the sacrifice of the fast paced action. To me players should be able to make mistakes and spend time considering their actions rather than hammering on the X or A button repeatedly for hours on end. However by having this feature included you are able to concentrate much more on the other aspect of the battle system.

The majority of skill required is all in setting up Paradigms where you assign class role to each of the characters that you can freely change during battle to suit the situation. It is reminiscent of Final Fantasy XII's innovative Gambit system because it allows you to automate the behaviour of your party without having to control each individual character’s turn, and this once again allows battles to be fast paced and fluid affairs.

There are 6 roles in total. They are Commando- specialist in physical damage, Sentinel- defender or tank, Medic- akin to a white mage, Ravager- closest to a black mage although can deal in physical as well as magic damage, and finally the less commonly used Synergist- providing party with positive status effects (buffs) and Saboteur- weakens enemies through status changes (debuffs). To do the most damage and in some cases succeed in battles you must knock the enemy into a staggered state.

A staggered state leaves the enemy with weakened defense, attack speed and power, and is achieved through any combination of attacks, defense and debuffs. To achieve this state different paradigms and roles are needed throughout the course of most battles (all battles later in the game) which adds a real quality of strategy and challenge to the game. A star rating at the end encourages players to repeat the battles to achieve higher ratings and rarer item drops (used to upgrade equipment).

As you work your way through your enemies, you earn crystogen points that can be used on the Crystarium. The Crystarium allows you to progress your characters in both stats and new abilities and is set up in a manner akin to Final Fantasy X Sphere Grid system. It is well designed but still exhibits a certain amount of control as you follow a path through the various enhancements. However further into the game the game trusts you with more freedom in choosing your development’s direction and resembles more of a net like structure than a dictated course.

Halfway through the game the experience completely changed for me. On my arrival in Pulse it seemed that the developers had had a change of heart and turned back to the tried and tested formula of an open map, freedom of movement and side quests. At this point the paradigm system became complete with the party size consistently set at 3 people and the ability to teach all characters anyone of the six classes the player would like. For the first time the whole party could be changed which also increased the amount of control I felt I had over the game.

For me, if the whole of the game had been like the last half, I would have awarded this game 10/10. As the game stands I felt like it was a mediocre experience that I will remember as an astoundingly detailed and great looking game, but with a lack of depth and involvement I have come to expect from a Final Fantasy game. Despite this I respect what the developers have tried to achieve with Final Fantasy XIII as an attempt at revitalising the somewhat dying Japanese RPG genre and appreciate the development of a great battle system I hope to see refreshed and reused in future Final Fantasy games.


Mary Antieul, Contributor

Thursday, 25 March 2010

King Of Fighters XIII Finally Unveiled!

A few weeks ago SNK announced the latest instalment in their flagship King Of Fighters franchise with The King Of Fighters XIII, while also revealing that more information would be forthcoming at a private event due to be held later on this month. Today at that very event in Akihabara, SNK spoke publicly for the first time about what to expect from the game, detailing the inclusion of more characters and new gameplay systems.

Those of you hoping for a new trailer or any gameplay videos will be sorely dissapointed, as SNKP only released a few screenshots demonstrating how the new gameplay systems would work, whilst also showing three of the game's stages. We have some of these screens right here at IQGamer, all of which are scattered about down below somewhere.

Game director Masaaki Kukino, confirmed that KOFXIII would feature a storyline continuing on from KOFXI, bringing together a conclusion to the ‘Ash saga’ started in KOF2003 on the Neo Geo platform. Unfortunitely no other details were revealed on the matter, though at least there IS going to be a story this time around, seeing as the so-called rebirth of the franchise in XII lacked not only any kind of narrative, but also an end boss character too.

In terms of characters, Mai Shiranui, Yuri Sakazaki and King will be returning to the series, and some brand new faces would also be appearing, though again, no more details were forthcoming. It isn’t a gamble for us to speculate, with confidence I might add; that an incredibly cheap end-boss character will be making an appearance in addition to those three familiar faces and un-named new arrivals.

New stages were also announced at today’s event. Kukino mentioned that a Sumo festival style arena, a bus-filled British street, and an Indian temple themed area would at least feature in the game. Screenshots on this page show all three revealed stages along with the Capcom Vs SNK 2 inspired health bars and on-screen counters. The British street stage, with no less than three red London busses in the background, seems to be a direct homage to the England stage from King Of Fighters 94.

More importantly, Kukino revealed some of the interesting new gameplay mechanics that would be going into KOFXIII. The first of which was the addition of EX moves; these moves actually increase the power and damage ratio of your Super moves by using a segment of the Power Gauge to enhance their abilities. Think of it as like a super charged version of the EX moves seen in Street Fighter III, and more recently SFIV, but in a sense of Super combos rather than standard Specials.

Moving on to Supers, the new Drive Cancels allow you the ability to cancel out of one Super move and immediately go straight into another, delivering the possibility of opening up far longer and more damaging combos following on from a Normal attack, into Special, into Super, before cancelling, and then unleashing another Super all in the same combination of attacks. The last new feature is the use of something called Hyper Drive Mode. This is powered by the aptly named Hyper Gauge, and allows you, when the gauge is maxxed-out, to perform unlimited Drive Cancels, assuming of course that your super bar has enough segments left to perform those moves.

The King Of Fighters XIII is scheduled to appear in Japanese arcades sometime this summer, with the first of many location tests, used to gauge user feedback and correct any issues with the fighting engine, being held this weekend at the Hey arcade in Akihabara. We should be able to learn more from the event and will endeavour to bring you another report early next week if anything comes our way. Hopefully we wil have some more screenshots of the game, whilst at least seeing how much progress has been made with the game engine and character movesets.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Nintendo 3DS Announced

A couple of weeks ago IQGamer reported that Nintendo were in the process of developing a true successor to the Nintendo DS, and that Nintendo president Satoru Iwata had maybe, by accident, let slip some details on what to expect, such as more powerful hardware along with something else entirely. Well, today Nintendo officially confirmed that they are working on a follow up to the NDS due for a full unveiling at this year’s E3.

The Nintendo 3DS, an official working title for the machine, is being considered the true replacement for the current line-up of NDS consoles, and will boast a completely glasses-free 3D gaming experience. The new handheld, due for a complete reveal at E3 this summer, in which it will be playable, is expected to launch in Japan sometime before March 2011, and will be backward compatible with all DS and DSi software.

Speaking to the New York Times, Ken Toyoda, chief spokesman at Nintendo stated that "We wanted to give the gaming industry a head's up about what to expect from Nintendo at E3," and "We'll invite people to play with the new device then."

Despite not announcing any other details, a few sources have been digging a little deeper in regards of finding out just what will be powering the 3D screen on the device, and also looking at what control methods could be included in its design.

Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, seems to have uncovered that the 3DS may in fact be using a Sharp 3D LCD panel in the console. This particular LCD panel uses a thin film attached to the screen, separated form the screen by a tiny space to create the 3D effect without the need for any special glasses, making the image look different to both eyes, thus giving the graphics a 3D look to them.

This way of driving a glasses-free 3D image via an LCD panel is known as the parallax barrier method, and was hinted at by Blitz Games chief technical officer, Andrew Oliver in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz.

"I'm fairly sure it would be based on the parallax barrier method, which is better than lenticular screens and has seen some great advancements recently," he said. "It can also be turned off to give a perfect 2D screen as well. This screen already exists in the Fuju 3D camera and I have a 3D laptop from Sharp with this technology and it works very well for one viewer within a reasonable viewing area for a handheld."

In addition The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, a paper usually responsible for breaking Nintendo hardware related news, reported that this latest handheld would in fact include a ‘control stick’ for moving characters around in 3D instead of the current d-pad seen on the existing DS’s, along with information regarding some kind of rumble technology being included too. Nintendo apparently acquired the patents for the rumble tech late last year, which also matches up with our earlier report in February surrounding this ‘mystery’ successor to the NDS.

Whilst the machine will be 3D enabled and feature rumble functionality, both the battery life and wireless range will be improved over the current DS models, as well as potentially boasting some form of motion control via an accelerometer, which would allow the user to control on screen characters by tilting the machine. Though at present this inclusion of motion is not set in stone, and is merely being ‘looked into’ according to the paper.

The last piece of the puzzle falls onto the technology powering the machine from inside, namely the combined CPU/GPU believed to be from the Tegra 2 family of chipsets by NVIDIA.

Around three years ago a report surfaced that Nintendo had entered into a contract with NVIDA to use it’s Tegra IP for use in the 3DS handheld. Now it’s not quite known whether the contract was for Tegra 1 or Tegra 2 architectures, however the fact that they have the rights to use the IP means that they could take the more costly and power hungry Tegra 2 chipset, and simply scale down the design to fit their needs for this new DS.

Given past custom choices for their handhelds, it is likely that Nintendo will go down the route of working with NVIDIA in developing a 3DS specific chipset from the established Tegra 1 or 2 IP chain. As we reported in our article last month, the use of such a chipset derived from Tegra IP could well mean that the 3DS will produce visuals on par with what we were seeing on the GameCube, or possibly even the Xbox depending on how advanced their chipset or CPU/GPU chip turns out to be.

Of course this is simply speculation at this point, although we shouldn’t have to wait to long to find out the truth about just what is inside the 3DS. Details should be forthcoming during or shortly after E3.

Nintendo will of course be fully unveiling the 3DS at E3 this summer, delivering what they promise to be the next leap in handheld gaming, the true successor to the Nintendo DS series of consoles. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, seeing as many people I’d imagine, are getting rather fed up of incremental upgrades to a nearly six year old hardware design. Thankfully being fully compatible with all DS/DSi software will mean that the sudden announcement of yet another Nintendo portable just weeks after the western launch of the DSI XL shouldn’t offend too many people.

IQGamer will be following any news on the Nintendo 3DS closely, and we look forward to bringing you an in-depth look at the system sometime in the future.

God of War Collection and Trilogy Announced for Europe

With God of War III having now been released around the world, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe has finally announced a release date for the God of War Collection in Europe, having previously been released only in the US.

UK gamers will be able to pick up the God of War Collection on April 30, either as a standalone Blu-ray disc (£24.99) or as part of the God of War Trilogy boxset (£64.99).

The God of War Collection is a compilation of God of War I and God of War II, both previously released on the PlayStation 2. The compilation Blu-ray disc for the PlayStation 3 contains both games, having been lovingly upgraded for the HD generation. Both games now run at a silky smooth 60fps and are gorgeously represented in 720p, and feature full trophy support.

Stay tuned for IQGamer’s God of War III review.

God of War III is available now. The God of War Collection and the God of War Trilogy boxset will be available from April 30 in the UK, Ireland, Germany and Austria. All other PAL territories will see releases from April 28.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Review: Sonic Classic Collection (DS)

If you’re anything like us here at IQGamer, you’ll be eager to get your hands on Sonic 4 later this summer. In the mean time, SEGA have treated us to a little reminder of how good Sonic games used to be. This time, on the Nintendo DS.

Developed by the Australian branch of SEGA’s Creative Assembly, Sonic Classic Collection is a compilation of Sonic’s main Mega Drive titles and includes the ability to play through Sonic 2 and 3 with Knuckles, just like the old “lock on” feature that came courtesy of Sonic & Knuckles. It would have been nice if SEGA had included Sonic Spinball and Sonic 3D, but you can’t have everything. We won’t even mention Knuckles’ Chaotix…

Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic 2, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles have been nicely represented on Nintendo’s handheld system, but don’t expect much else other than the games themselves. There’s some artwork to look through and a credit sequence to watch, but that’s about all. This really is a barebones collection, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if all you want to do is play through these old classics for the umpteenth time.

For the most past, the games have been nicely emulated for the DS, and the slightly squashed resolution isn’t really an issue. However, there is some nasty slow down at points and particularly when the action heats up. Should Sonic loose his ring collection when a few enemies are on screen, the action slows down to a nasty pace. The same annoying slow down is evident during a few boss fights too. It’s not too a big deal, but better emulation can be found elsewhere and we weren’t expecting this in a retail version of the games.

A handy save and load function has been implemented for all the games, with the exception of Sonic 3 that retains it’s own save function. It’s not a case of saving your game and loading it from where you left off though, rather at the beginning of the act you last played. Its better than nothing, but other emulators do enable you to play on from anywhere, which would have been ideal.

There really isn't anything new we can say about these classic titles, suffice to say that all the games play exactly as you’ll remember them, and nothing has been added or taken away for this collection. What was great back in the nineties retains all of its charm on the DS and the games are as playable as ever. They work really well on Nintendo’s handheld system and the save function, however limited, works well enough for on-the-go gaming.

Sonic Classic Collection is a nostalgic indulgence that’s worth picking up if you’re a fan of the series. It may not be much else besides a compilation of four games, but there’s not much else that can be done with these titles that hasn’t been done time and time again. Emulation issues aside, this is a reminder of what made Sonic great and makes us hopeful for the upcoming sequel this summer.


Thursday, 18 March 2010

Could This Be 360 Slim?

There have been rumours about an eventual slim line version of the 360 for a few years now, with various sources and unsubstantiated reports sighting plans for an all-in-one CPU, GPU and EDRAM chip, coupled together in one massive internal revision of the 360 console. That revision was allegedly known as Valhalla, which would see both the main processing components of the 360, along with the EDRAM, shrunk down into one power-efficient little chip, bringing down the cost of production, and allowing for a complete design makeover.

At the time, it was impossible to expect such a revision to appear for at least a couple of years, given the slow and struggling process of being able to shrink down the EDRAM in line with both the CPU and GPU inside Microsoft’s console. So much so, that only last year were the fabrication plants at TSMC were able to significantly reduce the size of the 360’s GPU, resulting in the much more reliable ‘Jasper’ revision of the hardware.

Yesterday however, two leaked photos seemed to show that those initial problems have in fact been alleviated, now allowing a combined CPU, GPU and EDRAM on a single chip, or at least on one single die containing all three separate chips, albeit much smaller in size than before. It also shows what looks like a complete re-engineering of the 360 motherboard into a much more compact form, at least one third smaller than the current design, and a glimpse into the potential release of a slim 360 console.

The two images in question were released on a Chinese tech forum, A9VG, and shows what looks like a genuine reworking of the 360 motherboard, while also revealing various other changes inherent in the basic design of the new console. The first photo above, shows the actual shape of the motherboard it self, demonstrating the new small size, at the same time teasing us with an image of a smaller combined chip underneath a stock Coolermaster cooling fan.

From what we can see, it’s pretty obvious to us, that use of an off the shelf cooling fan isn’t likely to be part of the final retail unit of this 360 slim. Instead all signs point to these photos being of a test unit, still under development and in the last stages of trialing, before being cleared for a final production to start. However what’s interesting is that the second photo clearly shows us a single CPU and GPU package on what could be a single chip, along with changes to the motherboard showing perhaps what kind of hard drive they will be using for the unit, in addition to changes with regards to the type of audio outputs available on the machine in this latest model.

This second shot shows us all of the motherboard and its features in clear view, most noticeably confirming that the CPU, GPU and EDRAM sits together on either a single chip, or more likely a single die, with the each of the three chips being separate entities integrated onto it. My reasoning behind this is that integration of the EDRAM and GPU into a single chip would actually require a major redesign in order to fit into the shader core, whilst also having to be produced on the same process node. Basically it would have to be fabricated at the same size as the main GPU, something that is still a problem at the TSMC from what I’ve been hearing.

Another thing, is that due to the photographer’s lack of removing the heat spreader, we don’t really know for sure just what is lurking underneath, or what process node the chip is on. I’m pretty sure it would have to be at least 45nm, but then it would mean that the CPU, GPU and EDRAM are definitely still separate chips housed in one die, rather than a single chip. It’s highly unlikely that the EDRAM could be processed at a 45nm; instead more along the lines of 55nm, making this part separate at least from the CPU and GPU.

Interestingly the motherboard looks to contain parts required for additional features to be present on the slim 360. Now, these are pretty much a reworking on the things which the current machine already has, just done in a different way. The first thing that comes to mind is the extra SATA connector available for use on the board, bringing the count up to two. On the current 360 the board only has a single connector, used for the DVD Rom drive, whereas here on the slim, an inclusion of a second seems to hint at an internal hard drive storage solution, or at least a new type of external connecting HDD.

An internal drive is unlikely, as it would prevent an upgrade path for arcade users, whilst also preventing Microsoft from selling larger hard drives later on down the line. However, they could in theory break free, and make a fresh start with the slim, whilst still producing HDDs for existing 360 owners. In fact, that is probably the most obvious choice, as a clean break is the only way for them to achieve a cost effect new hardware design.

Also there’s no sign of the mounting holes used to fix the existing DVD drive into the unit, and at any rate, it would not fit into the new slim design, leading me to believe that either MS are planning to give us a shiny slot loading type drive, or are simply moving its position around a bit. Perhaps they will use some kind of top-loading system for the slim, although more likely is another version of the current slot-loading drive found in the fat 360s.

Memory card readers have also been cut down to one unit now, and there is no sign of any inbuilt wireless adaptor, which is disappointing. I guess MS are making too much of a killing by selling the existing Wireless N adaptor at 60 quid, and would rather continue with their lucrative margin on accessories. However, they have seen fit to at last include an optical output on the back of the new unit, meaning the end of buying the overpriced audio dongle for surround sound when using a HDMI cable without an HDMI compatible amplifier.

From what we gather, the power supply seems to be another external jobbie, unlike the tightly integrated PSU of the slim PS3, which although mildly disappointing, at least allows the machine to be potentially much smaller than the current design. In that respect we expect the overall size of this new 360 to be smaller and more representative of its unofficial ‘slim’ moniker than with the latest PS3. You could say that from the motherboard photos it could well end up looking a little bit like the Dreamcast, just with a stylish slot loading drive instead of an outdated top-loader design.

That’s pretty much all we know right now, not being able to shed anymore light on that interesting single chip/die CPU, GPU and EDRAM combination, or to ascertain whether this latest revision of the 360 hardware is in fact a slim console, or just another revision, albeit a massively more drastic one.

All signs do point to something major happening though, with Microsoft advertising for a Motherboard Design Engineer for the Xbox console, who is being described as being responsible for "aggressive cost reduction of the console throughout the life of the product”, and at the same time, past candid statements from company execs, which detailed plans for a brand new version of the 360 console due to release at the same time as Natal.

As per usual Microsoft declined to talk about the matter, issuing the same “we don't comment on rumour and speculation” line heard many times before, but this isn’t the first time such unofficial leaked information has provided the solid background for hardware confirmation. PS3 slim was revealed in much the same way many months before it was announced and released.

Ultimately we don’t know whether this is going to be a 360 slim for sure, though all signs do point that way, and in any case, Microsoft like Sony, wouldn’t want to reveal anything too soon as not to disrupt current sales of the existing 360 console, especially many months before the new machine is ready to go.

Either way, it won’t be long before we find out even more details, and we're willing to bet that unofficial leaks will be the leading source of information long before any official announcement takes place.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

PS3 3D Support Confirmed For This Summer

We’ve talked about 3D before at IQGamer, about the ramifications on how it could affect game design, as well as the possibilities in providing an experience that is literally closer to home. However this 3D revolution could actually be hitting you sooner than you might think, especially since by this summer, most of the large flat panel manufacturers will have 3D enabled displays finally on sale.

Sony are one such manufacturer, and whilst in the past there has been speculation as to when exactly the firmware update will arrive to enable the PS3 for 3D output, possibly hinting at it appearing in time for the launch of their first 3D Ready HDTV, it has now officially been confirmed by Sony themselves.

The company plans to launch their first 3D enabled TV in Japan on June 10, a 46-inch 1080p Bravia LCD screen, costing around 350,000 yen. Panasonic are also planning to launch a 3D HDTV in time for this summer. Their flagship 50 inch VT20 3D Ready Plasma is set for release in early May, right here in the UK, and is a screen which borrows some of the legendary technology used inside Pioneer’s exceptional Plasma displays. Some leaked shots of Firmware 3.20 confirmed the plan to offer PS3 owners with a 3D solution earlier this year, and now a report on Japanese site AV Watch dates its release for this June.

This report has since been officially confirmed by Sony themselves, and just yesterday, Sony engineer Ian Bickerstaff, in an interview with Gamasutra, speculated on what kind of initial uptake to expect, and how development studios themselves were planning for a potential 3D revolution.

"I think (3D gaming uptake is) going to depend on the uptake of 3D televisions. We're not going to spend crazy, crazy amounts of money (on 3D games) expecting everyone tomorrow to have 3D TVs, clearly. But, we believe this is the future, and three or four years from now, you won't be able to buy a television that doesn't have a 3D capability."

"To be honest, we have not had an internal project to throw at people to make their games in 3D, yet there are loads of games in 3D, like MLB 10, Super Stardust HD - that looks fantastic - and so on," he said. "And that's really just because of the enthusiasm from the developers themselves."

He also added that Sony as a company were taking the cautious approach, but were very optimistic with the potential by going down that particular (3D) route. By the same token, he also stated that it would take time for 3D to really take off in the home, boiling down to how fast an uptake there is with people buying 3D TVs.

How fast will it take for 3D to finally hit the mainstream? Well that all depends on the price of entry, as well as the ability to buy a 3D TV in a smaller screen size, such as a manageable 32-inches, or something similar. Currently all 3D offerings are at least 42-inches or above, with pricing starting at over £1000, not something anyone will be able to rush out and buy. However, with 120hz accepted input and 3D support likely to be integrated into all new HDTVs in the future; it’s perhaps only a matter of time before it becomes another standard check-box feature to tick off your list.

We look forward to finally getting our hands on at least one 3D enabled display at IQGamer. You never know, hopefully someone will be kind enough to let us to sample the mighty Panasonic VT25 upon release, but we doubt it.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Tech Report: Anti-Aliasing In God Of War 3

Looking at any of the full resolution screenshots from the final release code of God Or War 3, you could be forgiven for thinking that what you are seeing is nothing more than supersampled bullshots, shots created for the purpose of making the game look good when blown up several times its original size for magazine printing. However you’d be very wrong indeed, because although some have speculated that these latest direct-feed grabs of GoW3 are downsampled images like most of the screens released for the demo, we at IQGamer can confirm that they in fact showcase the game’s unique Anti-Aliasing method in action.

That method in question is MLAA, or Morphological Anti-Aliasing, another form of edge smoothing done using the SPUs on the PS3 rather than the RSX GPU. We only heard about the game’s somewhat exciting AA solution a couple of weeks ago, after it was revealed in an online interview with one of the developers working on the title. It seems that whilst the original plan was to use the usual 2xMSAA method of jaggies reduction – and that was present in the recent PSN demo – that all changed at some point this year, in which a programmer at Sony’s Santa Monica Studio found a way of performing a much better method of AA on the CELL, whilst in turn saving the use of precious GPU and memory cycles in the process.

Just take a look at the screenshot above. The AA is absolutely amazing, far better than anything the 4xMSAA 360’s GPU can manage, and in some places matching perhaps what you expect from a high end PC gaming rig performing 16xMSAA. Either way, it is the best example of Anti-Aliasing on any console game to date, bar none.

In addition, the developers themselves at Sony’s Santa Monica Studio stated that they managed to increase both performance and quality of the AA used, along with other effects in the game, by offloading tasks normally done on the GPU to the SPUs on CELL.

“AA on the cpu is MLAA Morphological Antialising. We saved 5-6 miliseconds by moving it off the cpu's. Many props to our coder Cedric for making this happen and it looks way better!”

Of course the benefits of having better AA isn’t just dealing with jaggies reduction, but also reducing aliasing caused by certain shaders, such as specular aliasing for reflections and transparencies, whilst also eliminating texture shimmering caused by a lack of AA, bringing a stability and smoothness to the image allowing the art design to really shine. Its importance is usually only ever compromised due to the lack of available memory and bandwidth available on both systems. On 360 it’s having to fit the final framebuffer into the 10MB EDRAM, while on PS3 it’s dealing with just a lack of available bandwidth altogether. The use of MLAA can alleviate some of these issues providing a more even split of resources, which can then be used to improve other graphical aspects of the game.

The above screenshot demonstrates how well this use of MLAA works on gameplay scenarios. Notice that every single pixel in the shot is covered by the AA, without any extensive blurring of the detailed textures, even smoothing off edges that are small and far off into the distance. Everything remains clean and sharp, minus the parts of the scene which feature the engine's depth-of-field effect, used only on specific areas of the scene. You can see this happening on the botton left of the image, in which the scene is slightly blurred, whilst on the right, just above Kratos, all details are sharp and clear as day, even in the distance.

Another recent release, Metro 2033, due out this Friday, also uses a custom form of AA done specifically on the CPU, but this time on Xbox 360. It’s called AAA, Analytical Anti-Aliasing, and works by finding all the pixel edges, rendering samples of them in a higher resolution, before then downsampling those samples for use in the final 720p framebuffer. Effectively the only performance hit you get, is a slight one caused by having to render a small amount of pixels in a higher resolution, and the end result is another AA solution which allows for the same effect as using 16xMSAA. However the developers still managed to save 11MB of memory by using this technique instead of regular MSAA, which was their original choice, memory used for other visual effects taking up precious space in the framebuffer.

So God Of War 3’s impressive use of AA is just one of an increasing amount of games looking for a more flexible AA solution than the out of the box MSAA fix found on both consoles GPUs. By exploring these other areas, and by doing things differently they can ultimately drive forward better image quality, whilst focusing more on things such as art design, which has always been more important that raw technical prowess.

Lighting is another area in which GoW3 proves this notion of thinking.

“We built our engine around being able to use up to 20 dynamic lights per game object. The light can be big or small, it doesn't matter. In the end, I believe we support up to 50 dynamic lights per game object. We are not using a differed lighting scheme. Our lead programmer Vassily came up with this amazing system during pre-production, us artists love it!!! We can place lights in Maya and have them update in realtime in the game on the PS3, its like being able to paint with lights.”

Again, this is Santa Monica Studio thinking up a solution that isn’t right out of the box, but is technically at the forefront whilst also being very much in consideration with just what their artists were looking for. It’s exactly this kind of attitude and understanding that is driving forward the use of alternative AA solutions, at the same time providing increased graphical fidelity, whilst saving on performance, and making development easier for future titles. This is especially important with regards to memory related issues, which generally keep coming up in every console generation, and in which working smarter, not harder is really the only way in pushing forward console performance years after launch.

From a developers point of view, now has never been a more exicting time to be involved in console gaming, in which both tools and innovation are coming together setting the new standard of videogames production. Anti-Aliasing is of course just one part of the picture, but in GoW3's case, it could be its defining one.

IQGamer will be performing our in-depth technical analysis on God Of War 3 this weekend just after the game’s release. Be sure you check it out, as it will be filled with interesting technological reveals about some of the development process behind the game, and the ever more innovative steps that developers are taking to push the visual envelope forward.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Tech Analysis: Final Fantasy XIII (PS3 vs 360)

Final Fantasy XIII has been having a rough ride in the press recently, with both fans and journalists alike quick to critise the linear and almost on-rails nature of the majority of the game. And while we much of their criticism is well justified, we can’t hep but feel that the new Paradigm Shift mechanic, combined with a faster variant of the Active Timer Battle system, make up for the tightly controlled nature delivered in the first 25-30 hrs of gameplay.

One area in which we feel deserves all the criticism being flung towards it, is with regards to Square Enix’s pitiful attempt at cross platform development, simply quick porting across the PS3 code to the 360 without any optimisations, or consideration for the hardware. In that respect FFXIII is nothing short of a travesty, and a disservice to not only Xbox 360 owners everywhere, but also the development community as a whole. Given that the release date for both North America and Europe was pushed back significantly in order to allow for a 360 version to be available on the same day as the PS3, we have every right to expect a far better conversion than what we eventually got.

Also, for this latest Technical Analysis come Head-to-Head feature, we at IQGamer, have decided to cut the fat down just a little, feeling that our exemplary Bioshock 2 analysis was far too long winded for it’s own good. So in that respect, for our latest tech feature, we’re going to be far more concise and straight to the point. All the details of course will still be present and correct, picked over with the same fine toothcomb as before. But unlike in the past, it’s not going to be presented in the way of a 3000 plus word dissertation on the subject. More like our quick, clear, and thoroughly in depth Halo Reach analysis.

As always, we’ll start by stating the rendering resolutions used for both versions of FFXIII, before moving on to cover texture filtering, use of framebuffer effects, etc. You know the drill by now.

Final Fantasy XIII renders in full 720p (1280x720) on the PS3, using 2xMSAA (Multi-Sample Anti Aliasing), whilst on 360 it renders in a meagre 1024x576p, also using 2xMSAA. The outcome of this has a devastating effect on overall image quality and screen clarity, hiding away some of the more detailed textures used, whilst blurring the entire image.

On the 360 version the game renders in little more than Standard Definition resolution, and then is upscaled by the internal game engine to 720p, with the HUD elements being added after the scene has been completed. The scaling on offer is slightly worse than found in upscaling original Xbox games via the 360, creating mildly fuzzy edges on geometry, and blurring many of the finer details clearly visible in the PS3 game. Why Square Enix (SQE) didn’t decide on using the internal scaler found on the Xenos GPU is beyond me, as it definitely does a better job of things. Maybe they were using that particular part of the GPU for something else, or found that it was simply easier to use their own engine for the task.

720p 2xMSAA

576p 2xMSAA

In the above two screenshots you can see those differences we’ve just mentioned and the effect it has on the final look of the game. The PS3 game remains pin sharp, as it’s native 720p with nothing else going on, whereas the 360 game is significantly blurrier as a result of upscaling from 576p. The only consolation is that the use of 2xMSAA on the 360 version allows it to be upscaled with fewer jaggies being visible than if no AA was present, giving cleaner looking edges with less artefacting.

It seems that SQE has resorted to using 576p on the 360 in order to fit the framebuffer into the 10mb EDRAM available whilst still using MSAA, and to avoid titling multiples of that 10mb into main system RAM. Having the game render in 720p with 2xMSAA would mean titling to system memory, whilst incurring additional performance hits with regards to objects present in both titles, so to speak.

With regards to texture filtering, both versions are identical. Neither one uses any kind of AF (Anisotropic Filtering) solution, instead going for the more common Trilinear approach. No doubt this was done to converse the memory footprint so precious when working with the PS3. Although since PS3 effectively features nearly double the amount of texture units on its GPU than compared to 360 – meaning that AF is almost a free commodity – it’s somewhat surprising to the a lack of AF being present on that build.

In addition, the PS3 version appears to not only have more detailed textures than the 360 game, it also features additional texturing not found anywhere in Microsoft’s butchered port. The next screenshot further down shows exactly what is missing in some scenes, and all signs point to it being more than just a case of poor upscaling of a lower resolution image. Although, we did find that many textures are also identical across both platforms, with the 360’s upscaled image hiding some of the detail.

To test out this theory of additional texturing, we actually played the same sections on the PS3 with the console’s video output set to 576p over HDMI, letting our Plasma do the upscaling work. The result was although we had a blurrier image than the 360 game – due to the 360 upscaling the game better than the TV – we also could see that the textures were still more detailed on the PS3 despite the poorer quality upscale.

One area however, which is like for like across both platforms, is the use of Alpha to Coverage (A2C) for transparency effects and particles. When using A2C in order to render transparencies, instead of rendering a whole transparent texture, the A2C produces an interlacing style effect, creating an almost dithered look to things. It’s kind of like a mild screen door type effect, used to half the amount of bandwidth needed for such effects. The advantage is that you can render full resolution transparencies with lower cost than if you were rendering them as a whole solid effect.

All of the transparent elements of characters facial hair, except eyebrows are rendered using A2C, including the hair on their heads, and even eyelashes too. Also, numerous particle, and smoke effects are rendered this way, though not all, to keep bandwidth under control.

The screenshot below shows the A2C at work on both version of the game.

Unfortunately, the 360 version not only uses A2C in order to fit the framebuffer into EDRAM, it also renders lower resolution transparencies as well, due to the reduced overall rendering resolution, making the effects look even worse on that build than they should. The PS3 has no such issues, other than the interlacing style look to anything see-through, because all these effects are rendered in 720p. Quite how SQE couldn’t take advantage of the 360’s near limitless amount of bandwidth to deliver full resolution transparent effects is unknown, but we feel it’s a case of why bother, rather than how, given the short conversion time and rushed approach to 360 development.

In terms of framerate, both versions manage to stay at a mostly stable 30fps. However, it is the 360 build which has a slight advantage here, with us noticing less drops than with the PS3 game. While both drop down to around 20fps at times – without any equipment to measure framerate, we can’t be any more specific – it’s the 360 version which seems to maintain 30fps in close-ups during the in-game engine cut-scenes, whereas the PS3 version tends to slow down slightly. Both versions seem to slow down at similar points in battle sequences, though again, the PS3 slows down slightly more.

Any differences we found between the two were very slight, certainly the PS3 game, when it drops, does so by only a few frames more at worst than the 360 game. This seems to be the only area in which I would say the 360 version hits parity with the PS3 one. Oh that, and the use of 2xMSAA.

Despite these issues, Final Fantasy XIII actually manages to be a very pretty game. In some situations it looks almost stunning to behold, with various HDR lighting effects, reflections, and particles being pushed around on screen. Plus at the same time, featuring some of the most detailed gigantic creatures we’ve ever seen in a game. Lost Planet aside, obviously. In this regard SQE have produced a visual wonderment in which art design is equally important as technical precision, and that goes a long way in constructing its visual impact. Naturally the 360 version also benefits from this too, as the post processing, lighting effects, and beautiful art style, helps in keeping the image clean whilst being upscaled to 720p.

Moving on from in game assets, and into the realm of CGI cinematics, I honestly didn’t expect the 360 version to fair as badly as it did against the PS3 game. After all, if you’re gonna be putting the game on multiple discs, then surely you’d have enough space for some high quality video sequences. Unfortunately not, and SQE have once again taken the quick and easy route in porting the meticulously produced, almost Blu-Ray quality CGI video sequences and transcoded them rather poorly.

Seeing as the both the 360 and the PS3 have full support for allowing for HQ video encoding, it’s a complete mystery to me as to why they didn’t take advantage of that fact. Instead they’ve gone down the route of using much lower bit-rate compression, resulting in a rather poor image. During quick pans, and overall fast motion, the 360’s CGI sequences are filled with macro-blocking and other artefacts, dissolving any fine details to be found.

At least the CGI cut-scenes are rendered in 720p on the 360, which is more than could be said for the actual game itself, although they don’t feel that way.

By contrast the PS3 version features what looks like full 1080p (1920x1080) cinematics, all encoded using far better compression schemes. And whilst they aren’t quite BR quality, due to the lower bit-rate used, they don’t suffer from any of the issues facing the same footage on 360. In fact, on PS3 detail is superbly clean and sharp, with no artefacting.

Arguably, it’s such a shame to see such a disrespect taking place with regards to keeping FFXIII’s trademark cinematics at a high quality. If nothing else, all those long-winded CGI cut-scenes are as much the lifeblood of the franchise, as are the actual turn-based battles, or resilient level grinding seen throughout much of the series. And to see them here, butchered up to make way for a quick and easy multiplatform port, isn’t really fair to the fans, which are ultimately the ones who allow the series to carry on flourishing.

In the end, it’s the PS3 version of Final Fantasy XIII that shines in every area, losing absolutely nothing over the badly butchered 360 port. Not so surprisingly, I’d put 360 FFXIII alongside Tekken 6 and Bayonetta on the PS3, as one of the worst multiplatform developments released by a Japanese software house to date.

However, despite all the technical shortcomings, Final Fantasy XIII is still the same game on 360 as it is on PS3. You’ve still got the lovingly crafted, and utterly captivating storyline to get your teeth into. The battle system, whilst being geared towards newcomers to the RPG genre, also contains numerous depth, making up for the faster pace, and linearity of much of the game. In addition, you also have what could be considered the most polished of all the JRPG’s released so far this generation, especially on the 360, which has seen it’s fair share of failed attempts to reinvigorate the genre.

Even if you only have the option in picking up the 360 version, it is definitely worth doing so, as all those graphical shortcomings won’t tarnish the overall experience for most people, and there’s a whole lot more to Final Fantasy XIII than just how it looks.

Given the choice though, the PS3 version is the one to get, any day of the week. Its full resolution, 720p output, makes it a far more accomplished animal graphically, allowing its art to shine far brighter than on Microsoft’s console. Also, when you are talking about a game that relies so much on visual presentation to carry everything else that goes along with it, you don’t really want to be making any compromises with that on a visual level.

Hopefully, Square Enix will be able to move on from this debacle, putting a greater emphasis on future cross-platform development, whilst taking their time to creating decent multiplatform tools and a versatile engine to go along with them. Because by the looks of it, this is where the industry is heading, and you either keep up or get left behind.

For a rather unorthodox look at Final Fantasy XIII, head over to Beames on Games. It's not quite what you'd expect, making for an entertaining read.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

PlayStation Move: The Complete Report

Motion controls are definitely being seen as the next big thing to embrace videogaming this decade. Driven by the success of Nintendo’s Wii, both Sony and Microsoft are now attempting to steal away some of the Big N’s dedicated fan base with their own attempts at motion control. While Microsoft are pursuing a controller less system of body and movement tracking, Sony are playing the head to head game with Nintendo, featuring a wand-style controller design, along with head tracking and more advanced movement in conjunction with using their PS Eye camera.

At GDC10, Sony revealed a near finished version of what they are now calling the PlayStation Move, previously known by the codenames of Gem, or more recently PlayStation Arc, and originally referred to as simply, the ‘PlayStation Motion Controller’. Two individual parts making up a complete set of controls for the device was shown, one recognising various movements and actual screen positioning, and the other used as a secondary option for games also requiring more traditional controls in addition to motion recognition. Both serve as Sony’s higher end tech approach to Nintendo’s Wii Remote and Nunchuck.

Sony first showed off the ‘Move’ at E3 2009, in which audiences were presented with a device not too dissimilar from the Wii Remote, but featuring a more curved ergonomic shape, and a round glowing ball on the end. On first impressions the Move looks much like a highly modified Microphone controller for use with Singstar, but with the glowing Ping Pong ball attached. However the device is flatter on the underside, and features an array of buttons found on the Dual Shock 3 and Sixaxis controllers. The controller also features the full rumbling capabilities of the Dual Shock 3, and vastly superior motion handling compared to the Sixaxis.

On the underside of the Move, near the end, you have one analogue trigger, whilst on the front you have the main ‘Move’ button, surrounded by the ‘square’ and ‘cross’ buttons on one side, and ‘triangle’ and ‘circle’ on the other. Below this sits the iconic ‘home’ button with the familiar ‘PS’ logo on it. Further down sees a Sony logo placed above the small and familiar, square-shaped red light, used to indicate power and connection of the controller with the PS3. The Move itself is fully wireless, featuring a built in battery just like the standard Official PS3 controllers, and is charged by using the same USB cable as those. The port for this sits underneath the bottom of the Move controller directly, just where on the Wii Remote the Nunchuck would plug into.

Using different sphere colours for each controller, up to four Move controllers can be tracked at once with the PlayStation Eye. At the GDC Sony showed off demos for the PlayStation Move using one Move motion controller, as well as some which used two motion controllers, where the user hold one in each hand. Initially, Sony has stated that all launch titles for the device would be playable with just a single Move controller, with additional options for use with multiple motion controllers. This is being done to minimize the cost for the user, to make it more appealing for the casual gamer, and to allow a faster uptake of the device, otherwise hindered by an additional expense of buying several controllers.

The other part of the Move experience is the Sub-Controller, which looks very similar to the Move itself, having almost the same rounded, ergonomically designed shape, but featuring a slight downwards curve on the underside at the front. The Sub-Controller is essentially Sony’s Nunchuck companion to the main Move device, and is used to facilitate the duties usually carried out by the Dual Shock 3 controller.

Around the font, and at the top of the controller, sits a single Dual Shock 3 style analogue stick. Below this sits the ‘cross’ and ‘circle’ buttons, whilst a traditional d-pad is situated directly below these. Just down from this is the ‘home’ button, marked again by the ‘PS’ wording printed on top. Like with the Move controller the ’Sub’ also features a printed Sony logo at the bottom, along with the power and sync light. Lastly, on the underside of the unit, situated at the front, you’ll find both an L1 button, and L2 analogue trigger. Unlike the Move controller the Sub has no rumble or motion handling capabilities. It is unclear whether this is the case due to either a lack of software using these features, or simply, that the controller just lacks these abilities outright.

These two separate parts, and the use of the PS Eye make up the complete overall motion experience that is PlayStation Move. In many ways usage of this system should be almost identical o that of Nintendo’s Wii. Certainly judging by the early reports from GDC 10, this seems to be the case, although one single element sticks out from Ninty’s system, and also borrows a chunk right out of Natal. This is the Move’s ability for accurate body and face recognition features in addition to the standard motion controls available.

By using the PS Eye camera’s ability to track head movements in combination with the sensors inside the Move, and through the ball on the end, allows the system to track basic body movements in a 3D space, much like how Natal does. However the Move and the PS Eye system in combination can operate within just 1 or 2 frames of additional lag, meaning that at best only around 66ms of lag will be present on the console side of things. Most decent HDTV’s will add around 15 to 38ms of lag on top of that, which in total is on roughly on par with what games like Halo 3 are providing, minus additional lag via the TV. In worst case scenarios total lag is likely to be around 150ms including HDTV lag, in a fully optimised title. This however is still much better than the kind of lag most Natal titles are having to deal with, but sadly, there was nothing software-wise remotely finished enough at GDC to make any solid technical statements to back these up, other than the raw factual data about how the Move operates.

So the Move can handle at least basic body recognition, and is extremely accurate with very little control lag. But how does it do this, and why does it have the potential to work so well?

Well, we’ll start off by explaining how the actual Move wand works itself. The glowing ball on the end of the controller glows in a range of colours using the built-in RGB LEDs, these colours serve as a marker of sorts in which the PS Eye can track along in its image plane. The rounded shape of the ball, and the size of the light, allows the PS3 to determine the distance of the controller from the PS Eye via the light’s image size, enabling the controller’s position to be tracked in three dimensions, with a great deal of accuracy. This sphere-based calculation method, allows the controller to operate with minimal processing lag compared to other ways of image processing via the camera. Which is why there is expected to be slightly more lag when using the PS Eye to help track body movements, even though is likely to be no more than around 2 or 3 fames at most.

In addition to this, the Move also features a range of internal sensors to also help with movement and position tracking, especially in situations in which the device is hidden from the PS Eye camera. A pair of inertial sensors inside the controller, along with a three-axis linear accelerometer, and a three-axis angular rate sensor, are used to track rotation and overall motion of the device. In addition to this, an internal magnetometer is used for calibrating the controller against the Earth’s magnetic field to aid in correcting cumulative errors, or drift, if you will, in the inertial sensors. All these sensors can be used to track the position of the controller when obscured from the camera, such as when held behind the player’s back, or behind another player in the same room. Meaning that the Move isn’t completely reliant on the PS Eye in order to function correctly at all times.

In terms of the level of precision this system provides, Eye Toy creator Richard Marks stated that “the sphere's position along the camera's image plane can be resolved at a really sub-pixel level”, which in terms of accuracy, allows for some pin-point adjustments and subtleties not available to either Natal or the Wii Remote with Motion Plus enabled. This means that one-to-one recognition will be available as standard, and will be easier to achieve than on Nintendo’s Wii Remote and Motion Plus. Also, that this kind of accuracy should be available when talking about the full body tracking made possible by using the PS Eye.

More information was forthcoming at Sony's GDC press conference, with David Coombes, and Anton Mikhailov showcasing a number of technical demonstrations, many of which showed audiences the Move's pinpoint precision and low latency. Along with these, they also discussed how the Move supports full body tracking, showing a demo of an on-screen puppet being controller by the use of the Move and PS Eye, not unlike similar demos for Natal.

Like I mentioned earlier, body tracking is made possible by the combined use of the Move and the PS Eye’s head tracking abilities. According to the GDC presentation, the PS3 will also be able to detect faces, identifying individuals through face contour and feature detection. It will also be able to recognize gender, age, smiles and when eyes open and close, in addition to tracking movement. All of this is also done with minimal processing lag, hopefully allowing maximum responsiveness on the users end.

Coombes explained during the presentation, that all the calculations to do with the image processing are done by the Cell CPU, which is perfectly suited to the high levels of floating point calculations needed for such a task. Apparently the raw data taken from the Move and PS Eye can be processed in “under a frame” in optimum circumstances to around one to two fames in most others. The amount of memory usage for the whole process is also only around 1-2MB of system memory, which Mikhailov described as being truly “insignificant”.

Essentially what this means, is that the Move when used with the camera, can not only handle direct one-to-one motion tracking, but also what amounts to augmented reality applications too, all with extremely high levels of accuracy, without too much impact on user control or fluidity. Of course it will be down to the software, and developers to make sure everything is implemented and optimised in a way in which to take advantage of these advanced features. If they do so, the Move could well be an impressive solution to handling some of the controller less type games so integral to the Natal experience, whilst also providing a platform for ‘core’ gamers to enjoy the benefits of motion control.

Unfortunately, Sony failed to show off any unique, or particularly polished software at their GDC press conference. Most of the titles simply featured merely serviceable levels of motion control, with noticeable lag being present, or in some cases a complete lack of on-to-one motion handling at all. Some of the Sports titles displayed seemed to rely more on gesture-based systems than the high end tracking available with Move.

However Sony did manage to demonstrate two or three games, which used the Move in the precise ways shown in their technical demos. The first of these was the newly revealed SOCOM 4, which used the Move in combination with the Sub-Controller exactly like Resident Evil 4, or Metroid Prime 3 on the Wii. The Move device handled all the aiming and shooting, while the Sub-Controller was used for moving your character around amongst other things. Sony showed a demo of SOCOM 4 in action, using the two-controller set-up. The difference being that the pointer precision was far more accurate than on Nintendo’s console, and the motion detection seemed to have a greater range of sensitivity; The second was another in-house Sony product, titled Motion Fighters, a boxing game showing off the full body tracking capable by the Move, and lastly, camera-enabled real time 3D interaction in Move Party. For each of these demos the Move was shown to be incredibly accurate, with regards to response time and tracking. However the software had a number of glitches, and Move support was obviously very early, leading to problems with lag and calibration issues.

So far, what has been revealed, shows off a tantalizing potential for Sony's Move device, producing a one-fits-all controller which could well become the new standard in motion-based gaming. However despite this, Sony had very little in the way of real polished software, certainly nothing screaming out as essential as to buying the Move, plus, as of now, there are still far too many questions left unanswered. We still don’t know if the Sub-Controller has any motion capabilities, and nothing concrete was revealed on the pricing structure, or if any solid bundles featuring the PS3 and the complete Move package would be available at launch.

Sony did confirm that they were looking into providing something along these lines, though obviously subject to change at the moment.

- A basic starter kit, which includes a PlayStation Move controller, along with a PlayStation Eye and a demo disc, for no more than $100. This seems to be the basic entry package.

- A pack which includes a PlayStation 3 console, DualShock 3, PlayStation Eye, and PlayStation Move motion controller.

- Lastly, a bundle with a PlayStation Move controller with selected games.

Other than the rough $100 entry package, no other specific pricing details were revealed, and disappointingly there was no mention of a complete package with a Sub-Controller, leading me to believe that you may well have to buy it separately. On top of the above options, you can expect to be able to buy extra Move controllers, and Sub-Controllers separately. Though again, no pricing details were announced at this time.

It is believed that Sony will be making a full unveiling of the PlayStation Move, along with pricing and more polished software at this year’s E3 expo. There we shall be able to see if they’re on target to deliver some of the initial promises of actually having the most accurate, and most responsive motion control system this generation. We shall also will be able to see how the Move stacks up against Microsoft’s Natal, and to see which one provides the user with a greater range of motion controlled gaming experiences.

You can expect a fully featured tech article at IQGamer later on in the year, along with a full hands-on with both Controllers. Until then, we’ll be sure to fill you in on any details passing our way.