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.

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