Archives for category: Demos

2B and 9S
I absolutely love NieR. It wasn’t always so; until a little over a year ago, it was one of those games that sat in my perpetual backlog, waiting to see if I’d ever get around to playing it. Friends had tried to convince me, telling me of its unique characters, its genre-hopping tendencies, or its wonderful soundtrack, but still it sat unloved on my shelf. And then, at E3 last year, there was a surprise. A sequel was coming, and it was being developed by Platinum Games! I saw friends celebrating this announcement the way I celebrated Shenmue 3‘s reveal and I knew that I had to pull my finger out and finally play the 2010 original. After doing so (and coming to realise that it’s one of the best games of its generation), I came to regard that E3 surprise as something of a dream project: Taro Yoko was back to direct, as was producer Yosuke Saito and composer Keiichi Okabe, and they were being joined by frigging Platinum Games and Akihiko Yoshida. Holy fucking shit.

And so here we are, a few months before release, and Square Enix have bestowed upon us a little Christmas present: a high-octane demo to take us through the festive period. If there’s one weakness the original NieR had, it was probably the functional but fairly uninspiring combat, so the idea of Platinum handling the fighting engine is cause to salivate, and there’s plenty of opportunity to try it out here. We’re let loose as android warrior 2B, as she fights aggressive robots through an otherwise abandoned factory, a rusty, dilapidated setting somewhat reminiscent of the first game’s junk heap dungeon, though the boss waiting for you at the end is much larger than P-33 (or Beepy to his friends).

Bullets!

Combat recalls Bayonetta at her balletic best, as 2B pirouettes around the arena with a pair of swords at her disposal. There’s a heavy and light attack for you to create combos from, with jump and heavy attack performing a wide-arcing launcher allowing you to continue your assault while airborne. Executing a heavy attack in mid-air will see 2B slam her sword heavily into the ground, while holding the button when stationary will charge up a short, brutal heavy combo. Of course, this being an action game, you’re going to need a dodge, and NieR Automata‘s might well be the best I’ve encountered in any action game, allowing you to not only nimbly evade enemy attacks but glide elegantly around the battlefield. It even has a touch of Bayonetta‘s witch time about it, with a perfectly timed dodge seeing 2B almost dissolving into thin air. It doesn’t slow down time, but it feels just as satisfying to pull off, and looks terribly flashy. But this isn’t just a straightforward action game, it’s a NieR game, and that means there’s going to be plenty of bullet hell sections, too. To aid you in this, you have a robotic pod that hovers above your head and sounds a lot like Mass Effect‘s Legion, effectively playing the part of Grimoire Weiss here and empowering you to shoot down enemy bullets. It’s definitely not anywhere near as charming as a floating magic book that sounds like Alan Rickman, though.

Reaching the end of the dungeon, there’s of course a massive boss to contend with, and even a touch of fighter jet/mecha action, and as you finally defeat the gargantuan construct, only to witness more of them rise from the depths of the ocean, it hits home just how much Automata feels like a perfect mix of Taro Yoko and Platinum; there was the worry that one would dilute the other, or both might only be able to operate at half strength, but it feels like everyone is firing on all cylinders and working together nicely. Though the demo is combat heavy – and as such we are yet to see the more expansive environments, genre-splicing madness and deeper RPG trappings you’d expect of a sequel to NieR – there’s a sense that you can feel the touches of everyone who has had their hands on this, whether it be the character action combat of Osaka’s finest, the perspective shifts and bullet hell sections that made NieR such an idiosyncratic gem, or the wonderful Akihiko Yoshida character designs and haunting soundtrack from Keiichi Okabe, this really is NieR x Platinum Games, and it seems like it’ll be everything I wanted, and everything that this particular collaboration promised. It’s almost as if it’s a game tailor-made for me: I can’t quite believe that the next great Platinum character action game is also going to be a NieR sequel. What a time to be alive.

Side-on

Now there are only two things to wonder about. Firstly is how well Platinum have kept to the structure of the original, which drew a fair bit of inspiration from the Legend of Zelda franchise; as much as I love Platinum’s games, I don’t want a NieR game to be a series of discreet missions (although, now I think of it, I’d love to see them have a stab at Drakengard somewhere down the line, too!). It also remains to be seen just how much Automata will tie into the original game, with this one apparently set more than eight thousand years after the events of NieR, with humans having fled to the moon, the earth having been overrun by hostile robots, and taken to sending androids like 2B to the surface to reclaim the land. We already know that a few characters will be returning in some fashion, so I’m hopeful that we’ll get some kind of insight into the immediate aftermath of the first game, where the world was left in a pretty sorry state. But then, when has Yoko ever done the expected thing and given us a direct sequel? Only time will tell.

NieR Automata releases on March 10th 2017. You can see a playthrough of the demo below.

regalia
Little more than two weeks before the release of Final Fantasy XV, Square Enix released the third and final demo for their ambitious open world adventure. First there was Episode Duscae, our first proper look at Final Fantasy XV that released more than 18 months ago, as a bonus for those purchasing Final Fantasy Type 0. Then, as the company held a lavish event this past March to announce the (now missed) original release date for the game, we were, ahem, ‘treated’ to the Platinum Demo. With each demo, there has been as much to complain about as there has been cause for celebration, but this time the good massively outweighs the bad; this latest taster, Judgment Disc, shows not only that the game has come along in leaps and bounds, but that the two months Hajime Tabata’s team bought themselves back in September have been wisely spent indeed.

Of course, before we get into the gameplay and technical details of Judgment Disc, it’s important to note that it is a Japan-only demo. As such, if you want to play it, you’ll need to either change your Xbox region to Japan, or create a Japanese PSN account. As there’s no English text or speech, you could also do with some working knowledge of spoken and written Japanese. I have neither, but managed to stumble through the demo regardless (though not without a couple of issues, as I’ll get into later).

Getting into the demo itself, the first thing you’ll note is that it both looks and performs much better than either of the previous releases; offering nice clean image quality and steady frame rates, Judgment Disc shows Final Fantasy XV looking and feeling better than it ever has before. It’s even noticeably improved from the Gold Master footage Square Enix made available in the days after the delay announcement, so there’s no doubt that pushing back the release was absolutely worth it. The chunk of the game we’re given picks up right from the start, with the unexplained (and somewhat bewildering) chapter 0 flash-forward giving way to the present day as Noctis and chums must push their broken down car along a sun-baked highway to Hammerhead, before moving onto Galdin Quay in hopes of catching a boat to Altissia so that the prince can make it to his wedding in time.

Before long, you’re set free and out into the sandy region of Leide, to hunt monsters as payment for your car repairs, and it becomes immediately obvious that the chunk of world we’re given to run around in is absolutely vast, the generous demo recalling memories of Panzer Dragoon Saga‘s entire first disc being given away on the cover of Sega Saturn Magazine back in May ’98 (I still have that disc!). Indeed, it’s a shame that this demo hasn’t been made available to everyone, such is the positive impression it leaves; few will have played the promising Episode Duscae, tethered as it was to first print purchases of Type 0, and Platinum Demo really wasn’t something that deserved to be most people’s first point of contact with the game. Granted, it’s easy enough to get your hands on Judgment Disc – especially on Xbox One – but the fact that all text and voice is in Japanese will be off-putting to some.

If there’s one concern I do have at the moment, it’s that, at this admittedly very early point in the game, I think I preferred the combat in Episode Duscae – well, certain aspects of it at least. The systems are broadly similar of course, with Noctis switching between four weapons, stringing together combos as he goes, all the while dodging enemy attacks with an MP-draining defense stance or a more traditional dodge-roll. What’s different here is that, rather than building your combo by placing weapons in specific spots, influencing when and how they’ll show up in your ongoing assault, you now have the ability to switch weapons in real-time, a change originally seen in the Platinum Demo. This is absolutely A Good Thing. What’s less welcome, however, is the absence of Duscae‘s weapon-specific Techniques. In that first demo, each weapon in Noctis’ armoury had a powerful ability attached to it – his Blood Sword, for instance, offered Drain Blade which, after a short wind-up would hit the enemy and transfer some of it’s vitality to Noctis, while his Dragon Lance would grant you access to that iconic Final Fantasy Jump command. While we’ve known about this change for a while – they were also missing from the adult Noctis battle at the end of Platinum Demo, for instance – it’s still a rather disappointing change, and can serve to make combat feel a little more one-note than it previously did; while the game still isn’t a case of ‘hold circle to win’, as many detractors would claim around Duscae‘s release, it does now feel a little closer to that than it previously did. That being said, these Techniques do have a replacement here, of a sort. They’ve been given to your allies.

Well, kind of. You see, above your weapon UI, there’s a green bar with a few notches along it that fills as you battle enemies. Attaining a notch on this metre allows you to perform a party attack, ordering one of your entourage to carry out a specific ability. For instance, Gladio, Noctis’ beefy bodyguard, will perform Tempest, a wide-sweeping sword attack that pulls enemies together and was last seen attached to Noctis’ Engine Blade in Duscae. Ignis and Prompto have their own abilities of course, with Prompto firing a piercing shot at the targeted enemy and Ignis throwing his daggers out to mark a number of enemies, which Noctis will then warp between. These actions are always enjoyable to use, and successfully landing one triggers a QTE which allows Noctis to follow up with a tap of a button. And while they are definitely an addition I like, as they make the otherwise-uncontrollable members of your party feel a bit more involved and under your control, I must question whether they had to come at the cost of Noctis’ own weapon techniques, which were, more often than not, a risk/reward mechanic in Duscae, as they needed both a long wind-up and a good chunk of MP. Without this mechanic, the rhythm of battle has changed from one where you’d constantly be looking for a bit of time and space to slip in a damaging technique to one where you just attack until you build enough meter to trigger a party member into action, which then takes you out of the fight for a few seconds. Again, it’s very early in the game at this point, and I’m sure there’ll be later additions to the core combat system that shake up that rhythm somewhat.

gladio

What’s a little more concerning is the somewhat unresponsive nature of your button presses. There’s a noticeable delay between pressing a button and having a command carried out; running through the world and jumping over obstacles will see you needing to press jump before you actually reach that obstacle, for instance. While this is something you’ll get used to fairly quickly, it’s exacerbated by the combat system’s reliance on animation priority, making it very easy to get stuck in the middle of a sword swing – especially with a slow weapon like the Engine Blade – and then take a hit despite holding down the defend button while you wait for the animation to finish. Animation priority alone would make the combat a little more ponderous, as you wait for an opening before committing to an attack (think The Witcher 2‘s sword combat) but marrying this to unresponsive button presses can and will cause frustration. Enemies are weak to specific weapons, so if you’re fighting a monster that requires you to use a heavy sword – like the crabs near Galdin Quay you can see in this article’s second video – you’ll probably end up getting knocked about before you land a hit. I’m hoping that the responsiveness will be improved for release (we will still be getting a day one patch, of course), but otherwise it’s something I’ll have to adapt to by playing much more cautiously, watching enemies for an opening rather than just wading in with a massive sword.

There is actually a mechanic in the battle system which seems to exist to give you a bit of breathing space, however: link attacks. Should you land a parry or a back attack while standing next to an ally, you might trigger a cool, cinematic co-operative attack with that party member. These segments always look fantastic – witness Gladio throwing Noctis into the air from the point of his sword, before the prince comes crashing down to earth with his spear – and like the aforementioned party actions, these also take you out of the action for a second or two. I can imagine that attempting to manoeuver yourself into a position to make link strikes happen as often as possible will be a big part of your combat strategy, giving enemies less of a chance to attack.

We got a brief look at magic usage in the Platinum Demo, and Judgment Disc gives us an opportunity to try out the game’s new spell-crafting system. Gathering magic is somewhat reminiscent of FFVIII‘s draw system, as throughout the world you’ll find naturally occurring deposits of elemental energy that you can absorb and then use to craft magic spells. Unfortunately, I couldn’t manage to wrap my head around the crafting mechanics, whereby you select an equippable magic bottle, an amount of elemental energy and then modifying items from your inventory to create spells with differing effects, such as a fire spell that will also poison your target. As I couldn’t read the text prompts, I had to settle for pressing all the buttons in hopes of making something happen but sadly, elemental mastery eluded me. It’s a system that should help add a few wrinkles to combat, and I can’t wait to get to grips with in the full game, but Judgment Disc does at least gift us a few uses of the base fire spell partway through the demo. Try not to throw it at your team mates. Or do, if you want to see them panic a bit, as magical friendly fire is a thing that exists in Final Fantasy XV.

Another aspect of the game that I look forward to finding out more about is sidequests. In the chunk of game offered here, you can take on hunts at local diners before heading out into the open world to exterminate troublesome mobs, but other than that side content seems a little thin on the ground. Again, not being able to understand the language puts me at a disadvantage here – for all I know, it’s possible to pick up additional quests simply by overhearing NPCs or reading in-game items – I’ll find out for sure when I have an English copy of the game. We’ve also seen some side content in the material Square Enix and various press outlets have put out in the last couple of months, it just remains to be seen how impactful that content will be; will it boil down to fetch quests and monster hunts, or is there something more interesting in there?

What is interesting is that we finally get to play with the Regalia this time. We came tantalisingly close in Episode Duscae, with the demo ending just as we were ready to get behind the wheel, but here we get to finally take our flash set of wheels for a spin. You can choose either to drive manually or let Ignis take control, and this mode is surprisingly enjoyable, as you’re left free to spin the camera around and enjoy the scenery, all the while listening to classic Final Fantasy tunes on the car radio. I can see myself driving all over just to enjoy some old school Uematsu magic, though if I have one piece of advice, it is this: do not forget to fill up on fuel!

Story remains my biggest interest, though. In a sense, I’m quite glad I can’t understand any of the text or dialogue in this demo – though I have seen all of this content in English, thanks to Square-Enix’s aggressive video policy post-delay, the language barrier has kept me from getting too interested in the goings-on of Noctis and his retinue, allowing me to focus solely on the gameplay. But this has always been one of the biggest draws for me in a Final Fantasy – following the narrative beats, getting to know the characters, and losing myself in the world – and having avoided all spoilers, I know just enough to be very interested in where things go from here. One thing I had been worried about was the absence of the imperial invasion of Insomnia – originally slated for the game and now only appearing in Kingsglaive – fearing that the events of the game might feel a bit disconnected from that really quite important story detail. Thankfully, the day one ‘Crown Update‘ will add scenes from the film (as well as the excellent Omen trailer) to flesh out the current state of the world, so that should help. As I mentioned in my Kingsglaive review, I am a little sad we’ll never see the Insomnia invasion in-game, but I’m ready to see where this version of the story takes us, and I can’t wait to join Noctis and crew on the road. After ten years of waiting, I can’t believe its merely days away.

nocto
Yesterday, a new demo was released for the upcoming Final Fantasy XV. Called Final Fantasy XV Judgment Disc, it is unfortunately limited to Japan, with no plans to release it outside of the region.

This is a bit of a shame, considering that it’s effectively a chunk out of the beginning of the game, and while you will have seen it all a hundred times over if you’ve been paying particular attention to the post-delay coverage, there’s nothing quite like getting to play it for yourself. This is especially true when you take into account that the rather disappointing/baffling Platinum Demo is still the only exposure most people will have had to the game.

Still, just because it’s Japan-only doesn’t mean we can’t get our grubby mitts on it. It’s available on both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s respective stores, and with a little effort you can grab it for yourself. If you’re on PS4, you’ll need a Japanese account, but things are a little simpler on XBO; simply switch your console’s region to Japan (you can even leave language to your original setting), locate the demo on the store (I searched for ‘Final Fantasy Judgment’), set it to download, and then switch your region back. Although I will be buying the game on PS4, I grabbed the demo on Xbox One simply because it was easier.

CARBUNCLE'S BACK!!

CARBUNCLE’S BACK!!

Of course, just because we can play it, doesn’t mean we can understand it. There are no options for either language or subtitles, so unless you can understand spoken and written Japanese, you won’t have much of a clue as to what’s going on. I can pick up a handful of words of spoken Japanese, but when it comes to text I’m SOL. Luckily, a helpful Redditor has compiled this list of menu translations. It won’t help you understand the game’s dialogue, but at the very least it allowed me to invert my look controls before I lost my damn mind.

So far, I’ve only muddled my way through the tutorial (which, thanks to on-screen button prompts, isn’t particularly difficult to do) and played a little bit into the first chapter, killing a few oversized scorpions in a bid to get my flash car fixed. I’ll have a full write-up going up in the following days, once I’ve had a chance to play through it fully, but for now there’s one thing I can say for sure: Prompto is best bro.

Faith
I love Mirror’s Edge. It’s one of my favourite games of the last console generation. Thanks to some fantastic controls, its immersive viewpoint and that now-famous sense of movement and flow, it allowed me some vicarious sense of free-running across a beautiful-yet-sterile cityscape, all without having to worry about smashing my precious knees.

So when a sequel/prequel/reimagining/whatever was announced back at E3 in 2013, it was immediately a day one buy for me. Since that unveiling, we’ve learnt about the game’s open world setting, which has been a source of consternation for some; was the game set in an open environment simply to tick a box? What kinds of things would we be doing in this world? Would it subsequently suffer from the open world bloat that blights so many videogame worlds? With last week’s short, three-day closed beta now over, we can answer some of those questions.

The beta afforded us a decent-sized chunk of the City of Glass to run around in, and featured a small handful of story missions – including the climb through the Elysium building we saw at Gamescom last year – to get us oriented in this reimagined world. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a reboot of sorts, though the broad strokes seem to be the same; Faith is of course still a ‘runner’ in this near-future dystopia, essentially a punkishly rebellious courier, and once again her parents were outspoken critics of the borderline-totalitarian establishment. Some unspecified trauma in Faith’s past has led her to become a runner, and as we begin the beta she’s just out of juvie after a two-year stint. What we have here is a younger, more cocksure rendition of Faith, taking risks and defying authority almost as soon as she’s let out of her perspex prison. I wonder if in the full game we’ll get a playable prologue explaining quite how she got there.

It’s an effective start, and the beta is pretty quick to give us control and let us run. The first thing to note is how familiar it all feels: essentially, we’ve got one button for up (jump), and one button for down (crouch), just as in the original game, and wall-runs, springboards and everything else all feel the same as they did back in 2008. This is a very good thing indeed; Dice nailed Faith’s movement on the first try, and traversal isn’t where they needed to innovate. That’s where the move to an open world comes in, and while the City of Glass does feel rather empty at the moment, how much of that is down to this being merely a small slice of the full product remains to be seen.

Restless

Of course, there is a decent amount of ‘stuff’ to be done in the beta, but how compelling it is will come down to the individual. There are time trials – called Dashes here – and rooftop delivery runs, and a number of data bundles and security chips littered across the rooftops waiting for an agile runner to pilfer, but I can’t quite escape the feeling that it’s all stuff I’ve done a thousand times before in a hundred other worlds. However, that the core traversal feels so damn good elevates these tasks somewhat; it’s just fun getting to and from each mission, and I think they’re a more than acceptable trade-off if it means we get this gameplay loop in an open setting.

Getting around the city can be made even better by simply turning off Runner Vision. In the first game, Runner Vision picked out a path for you by highlighting navigable terrain in bright red – unnecessary as that was in such a linear game. Here, you can either have ‘classic’ Runner Vision, which does much the same thing, ‘full’, which basically gives you a ghost to follow, or ‘off’. The latter is the best way to play the game, especially here in an open setting where there’s more than one path – there’s a whole lot of fun to be had simply picking a point on your map, setting a waypoint, and then just finding your own way there, turning something as simple as getting to a mission into a challenging climbing and navigation puzzle as you find your own way over, under and across the City of Glass.

There’s another staple of gaming in the 21st century that has found its way into Mirror’s Edge, and this one I’m not entirely sold on. In the menus, you’ll find three skill trees for movement, combat and gear, each with a broad array of abilities to unlock. As a big RPG fan, I’m certainly not against the inclusion of skill trees, but one thing about the system implemented here that irks me somewhat is that skills that were a core part of your repertoire in the original game are now locked behind an XP system – things like that quick 180-turn, tucking your legs while jumping to clear higher obstacles, or even the skill roll that allows you to maintain your momentum after a long drop. All abilities that you’d use frequently in the original Mirror’s Edge, and all abilities that would be very useful to have in the early stages of this beta, when you have to do without them. With the move to an open world, I can understand that there is some need for gating; allowing the player to get anywhere in the game world right from the off would probably give the mission designers massive headaches, but in a game built entirely around movement, I’d prefer to have everything available from the start and have areas gated by gear, instead. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst seems to have both, and obviously the game is going to be designed around having to unlock stuff, so in practice it shouldn’t be an issue. It still chafes somewhat though, knowing that the full repertoire of Faith’s traversal skills aren’t available from the off, as they were in the original.

Skill tree

Where I can see the skill trees working well is with combat, which has seen something of an overhaul for Catalyst. While gunplay was a very minor part of the original game, it’s now been excised completely in favour of bolstering hand-to-hand combat. Weaker strikes with Faith’s hands are mapped to the X button and can be used while running to knock foes out of the way without slowing down, while kicks are on Y and can cause enemies to stagger. Kicking an enemy with a left or right directional input will knock the enemy sideways, often into an ally, causing both to stumble and giving Faith an opening, while the right trigger in combination with the movement stick grants a directional dodge. This can even be used to circle strafe enemies, and it’s endlessly entertaining to swing ’round the back of an enemy and kick him in the butt, sending him stumbling off the edge of a building to certain doom. It’s enjoyable to play around with and far more than the necessary evil that combat often was in the original game. Additional, unlockable skills should help to keep it fresh and fun.

But for all that’s new, the crucial thing to take away is that this looks, sounds and feels like Mirror’s Edge. How all those additional systems of progression and questing will shake out, we can only wait for the full game to discover, but Dice have absolutely nailed that same sense of immersive flow that made the first game so great, and allowed me to keep my knees in one piece.

FFXV Leviathan
One of the most exciting announcements at last week’s Uncovered event was the news of a new playable demo for Final Fantasy XV. After the many thrills of the conference, it was an enticing thought that we’d be able to actually have a crack at the game shortly after.

Of course, we’ve had a decent look at the game already, or at least those of us who bought Final Fantasy Type 0 have. Last spring’s Episode Duscae was a nice little glimpse at how Square Enix expected their new game to play out, giving us a short, multi-part quest to follow and a fairly large expanse of land to traverse. The message was simple; here’s how the game plays, and here’s what you can expect the environments to be like. The message we get from Platinum Demo is much less clear.

We begin as Noctis, only it’s not the same slightly moody guy we might be used to. After some unexplained event (maybe that Marilith attack we see in the beginning of Brotherhood?), a young Noctis awakes in a sunlit glade. He’s greeted by an incredibly cute incarnation of recurring series summon Carbuncle who tells him – via text message, of course – that he’s stuck in a dream, and serves as our young protagonist’s guide as he runs, jumps and fights through a few short, linear environments. It’s an odd demo, to be sure, as Noctis travels towards the Royal Citadel in an attempt to wake up. Far removed from Episode Duscae‘s wide-open plains, Platinum Demo plunks our diminutive hero into three small areas where all he really has to do is find the exit.

Carbuncle

Beginning in that peaceful glade, we follow a forested path out into a rocky canyon, collecting some shining orbs along the way. These unlock strange metal plates embedded in the ground that, when stepped on, trigger various effects. We can change the time of day, watching the lighting adjust in real-time, or switch up the weather, going from bright sunshine to cloudy skies, and finally to a grey downpour. Other plates trigger very short cameo appearances from summons like Titan and Leviathan, while in the second area, in a scene surely inspired by 1989 classic Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, a tiny Noctis can transform into a pickup truck (yes, really) and drive around the table legs in a huge dining room, before climbing stacks of books to reach the exit on the tabletop.

Next, we find ourselves in the streets of Altissia, a striking city on the water, and while there’s still not much to do it’s nice to get a feel for what towns might be like in the full game. The chunk of the city we’re given to run around in is fairly small but dense, with plenty of stairways and alleys to search but again, our only objective is to find that exit, and to that end Carbuncle tells us to look for a long corridor (insert Final Fantasy XIII joke here). Of course, we have a few more of those transformation plates dotted about, and here they turn Noctis into one of three animals. No, I don’t know why, either. Stepping on a plate triggers a random transformation into either a crocodile thing, a buffalo thing, or a giraffe-antelope thing, and you can use these forms to rather clumsily attack the handful of enemies that litter the streets.

Noctis can of course fight through these three areas, but with only a toy sword and squeaky hammer to defend himself for the most part, it’s not the most engaging thing in the world. It effectively boils down to holding circle to win, with the occasional tap of square to evade. There are a handful of funny, childlike spells to find, such as ‘raindrops’, which pours a shower of neon sparks over the affected area, or Firework, which goes off like a firecracker and deals damage to nearby enemies, but there’s little here to set pulses racing.

The young Noctis gameplay is all rather lightweight and uninvolving, and it’s built on an odd premise, too. Really, this is a tech demo, built to show off the time of day and weather systems, while giving us a brief look at how magic and things like driving will work in the final game – both things that were conspicuous by their absence in Duscae. Tying it up in a strange dream narrative in environments that surely bare little-to-no resemblance to the wide open world map we’ll traverse in the full game is an incredibly bizarre choice; as someone who played Episode Duscae to death, it’s nice to get a sneak peek at some of those mechanics that were missing, but this is the demo that Square Enix have chosen to make available to everyone – it’s not behind a paywall that only the most dedicated fans would be willing to scale. If this was my first point of contact with the game, I have to think I’d be rather put off.

Thankfully, the final part of the demo is a little better. As Noctis reaches the Royal Citadel, he’s faced with an enormous Iron Giant that wishes to prevent him from waking up. Realising that he is in control of his dreams, Noctis promptly grows up, becoming the young man we all know, and we finally get the opportunity to properly get to grips with the battle system.

The first thing to note is that fighting has seen some changes since Episode Duscae. In that demo, you’d set different weapons in a series of slots, which would then determine where those weapons would appear in your combo, carried out by holding the attack button. While you’ll still be holding the attack button in Platinum Demo to effectively auto-combo, we now have real-time weapon switching, with weapons taking up the four direction slots on the d-pad, allowing us to tailor our combos and mix up attacks in a more pleasingly-manual way. Here, we have the Airstep Sword, new in this demo, that allows Noctis to use that iconic Warp technique – whether that’s to swiftly close distance or escape – and the Zweihander, a massive Buster Sword-alike that swings slower but deals more damage, and has a nifty charge attack. Look around the Citadel, and you can also find a couple more weapons, the Cross Shuriken and Hero’s Shield. The Shuriken in particular is good fun to use, allowing you to attack from range and start your combo from a distance, before, perhaps, warping in to continue your assault with one of Noctis’ swords, while the shield allows you to stagger opponents with a well-timed button press.

PLATINUM DEMO – FINAL FANTASY XV_20160406152443

As in Duscae, you can hold square to enter a defensive state or manually dodge-roll with a press of the button and a directional input. In Duscae, entering a defensive state allowed to you automatically dodge pretty much everything, at the expense of a rapidly-draining MP meter. Holding the button here doesn’t drain MP anymore, but that trade-off does mean that you no longer dodge everything – you’ll still get hit a fair bit if you only really on holding the button down, but it does allow you to parry certain enemy attacks. The way these are telegraphed has also changed since Duscae, and I preferred the system in that demo, where enemies would briefly flash and a discrete spider-sense-type icon would appear on-screen. Here, we get a huge red “DEFEND” sign pop up in the middle of the screen. I guess it’s easier to notice, but it doesn’t look great.

We also get to use Fire in this battle, and there are a handful of explosive barrels (yes, really) dotted around the battleground for you to blow up – luring the Iron Giant towards one of these before flinging a spell at it is always a good idea, engulfing the enormous boss in a massive fireball in the process. Magic feels good to wield, allowing you to aim and throw it exactly where you want it, but one complaint I do have is that any magic spells you have also need to be set in one of those four d-pad slots, meaning you then have less space for weapons. I would like to see one button – maybe L2? – act as a modifier; hold that and you’d get a second set of four d-pad slots, allowing you eight in total, for instance. Four slots for both weapons and magic just feels too limiting. Perhaps this will actually be the case in the full game, where we’ll have access to far more weapons and spells than we’re afforded here.

Overall, combat feels like one step forward and another one back; while the Armiger mode – essentially Noctis’ limit break, available when he’s at full MP – returns here, the weapon-specific Techniques that existed in the Duscae demo are completely gone in this build. They were an enjoyable wrinkle in Duscae‘s combat, offering a bit of a risk-reward mechanic as they could hit hard or siphon HP while leaving you open to retaliation if you missed. The fact they’re gone here, in a demo far closer to release, is rather concerning, even as the Platinum Demo combat offers its own advances. It’s a bizarre state of affairs.

Once you’ve defeated the Iron Giant, you can choose to respawn him and fight again, and it’s worth doing so to get a proper handle on the battle system. Combat isn’t explained all that well for newcomers, so you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking that combat boils down to holding circle until you win. There’s actually a reasonable amount of depth, even here, with only one character, a handful of weapons and one spell, but there’s no real reason to explore that depth except for your own curiosity. After slogging through three rather sedate areas as Young Noctis, I have to wonder how many people would bother – some would likely be glad it’s all over. A little direction would go a long way – this is supposed to be a demo to get people excited about the game, to show them some of the things that might excite them. If you don’t illustrate anything beyond the basics, the basics – like simply holding circle to combo – are all many players will see.

When all is said and done, it’s that sense of confusion that hangs over the Platinum Demo, and I can’t help but think Square Enix would have been better served sprucing up the existing Episode Duscae demo, perhaps by adding some new areas and quests, and updating the battle system to the one seen here in Platinum Demo. That would surely have been a better indication of the final game’s quality and structure than whatever this is. Again, those of us that played Duscae will appreciate the glimpses at towns, magic and driving, but newcomers – surely the focus now – are most likely going to be confused and a little bored. The Iron Giant fight at the end is obviously placed at the demo’s climax to get players excited to come back, but it seems a little too lightweight at first blush to really grab the attention. It’s something of a shame that this will be most people’s first experience of Final Fantasy XV, as the game is otherwise looking very impressive, and I personally can’t wait to play it. But this demo did little to make that wait any harder.

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Though GameSpot managed to spill the beans mere hours before Square Enix’s Uncovered: Final Fantasy XV event in Los Angeles last night, spoiling the upcoming title’s release date in a since-removed YouTube video, they certainly didn’t manage to ruin all the surprises. Square Enix’s social media accounts had promised that fans of the long-running Final Fantasy saga should tune in regardless, promising they’d be missing out if they didn’t watch. And, as it turns out, they were absolutely spot on, as Uncovered featured a bevy of reveals, announcements and surprises, the first of which was Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, opening the show.

Taking the stage to rapturous applause, Sakaguchi-san talked about how he views the series as his child, and much like a child, a parent often wonders whether they are on the right path or not – a not so veiled reference to the franchise’s recent struggles that sent some ripples of laughter through the 6,000-strong audience, and set a playful, self-assured tone for the rest of the night. Though he hasn’t been involved with Final Fantasy for quite some time now, leaving Square Enix over a decade ago, he spoke about how he had a chance to sit down with Final Fantasy XV director Hajime Tabata, who told him that he planned to take the series back to its ‘challenger’ roots. This reassured Sakaguchi, who had always thought of Final Fantasy as something that always sought out new challenges, and it certainly looks like that’s what the team are hoping to do with Final Fantasy XV.

The main takeaway from Uncovered is that Square Enix seem to be incredibly bullish about Final Fantasy XV‘s chances at recapturing the public’s imagination. They’re going all out with this property, treating fans to a lavish event streamed around the world, with Final Fantasy royalty in the house – as well as Sakaguchi-san, long-standing series artist Yoshitaka Amano, FFXV composer Yoko Shimomura and director Hajime Tabata were all in attendance. Last night’s event wasn’t just to generate hype for the new game, which we now know will be launching worldwide on September 30th (yes, this year); it was also to announce that Final Fantasy XV will be accompanied by its very own compilation of expanded material. Years after Final Fantasy VII’s release, with its legacy already assured, Square Enix began the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. With Final Fantasy XV, they’re establishing it as its very own metaseries right now.

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In an astonishing display of confidence, last night Square Enix, via presenters Greg Miller and Tim Gettys of Kinda Funny Games, announced that Final Fantasy XV will be getting a five-part anime prequel series, a feature-length CG movie, and a mobile app minigame. They’re going all-in with this, turning Final Fantasy XV into a complete cross-media sub-franchise of its own, so let’s talk about each of those in a bit more detail. Brotherhood, the anime prequel, stars the game’s four main characters – Noctis, Ignis, Gladio and Prompto – and serves as a direct prequel to the game, promising to elaborate on the history and bonds between our heroes. Made by A-1 Pictures, the animation house behind the likes of Sword Art Online, the five episodes will be free to watch on Square Enix’s YouTube page, and the first one is already available to watch now. I’ll be writing about that in more depth in a separate piece.

Kingsglaive is the name of the CG movie, a feature-length film in the vein of 2005’s Final Fantasy VII sequel Advent Children, and it focuses on the characters of Noctis’ father King Regis of Lucis, Noctis’ betrothed, Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, and the soldier Nyx, a member of the titular Kingsglaive, an elite unit commanded by King Regis as they try to push back Niflheim’s imperial army. In another show of confidence, the film will feature an all-star cast, with Sean Bean, Lena Headey and Aaron Paul starring as Regis, Luna and Nyx respectively, though it’s not yet clear whether these same actors will reprise their roles in the game itself (or whether Nyx will even appear in-game). It certainly doesn’t seem to be the case, going by the game’s latest trailer, in which Regis sports an American accent, but time will tell. Kingsglaive will be available to stream and download worldwide sometime this year, and you can see the trailer below.

And then there’s Justice Monsters Five, a minigame that appears and is playable within Final Fantasy XV. Existing within the game’s fiction – we see our heroes excitedly come across a table in a diner – Justice Monsters Five appears to be some kind of pinball/battling hybrid featuring iconic Final Fantasy monsters. Leading up to its unveiling, names like Tetra Master, Triple Triad, Blitzball and Chocobo Racing were bandied about, so we can assume that Justice Monsters Five will be the main minigame in Final Fantasy XV. But it won’t just exist inside the game of course, as it will be coming to iOS, Android and Windows 10 as a standalone app, so you can get your Justice Monsters Five fix on the go.

While there was quite a focus on the supplemental, expanded universe content during the Uncovered event, that’s not to say we didn’t get a good look at the game itself. Viewers were treated to a few short gameplay clips featuring things such as chocobo riding (chocobos can jump, glide, and even drift around corners), and driving in the party’s car, the Regalia. Of course, an open world game with driving wouldn’t be complete without radio stations, and Final Fantasy XV doesn’t disappoint here, offering a selection of classic Final Fantasy songs from across the franchise’s entire history to cruise along to – we heard short snippets of the overworld theme from the first Final Fantasy game, as well as Sunleth Waterscape from XIII. As a huge fan of Final Fantasy music this is something that will make me very happy indeed, and I can imagine driving around the world for hours just listening and humming along to some classic FF tunes.

While driving around, we also see a car stopped at the side of the road, its occupants trying to flag down help, and it’s suggested that this is an example of some of the side content we’ll be seeing in the full game. Following that was a short clip of the party in battle, mostly showing off stuff that you’ll be familiar with if you played Episode Duscae last spring, with the addition of a short look at magic as we see Noctis manage to scare off an enormous Behemoth by casting Blizzara. Then we’re treated to a brief glimpse of an absolutely titanic Titan, and at this point it’s worth remembering that the summons in this game are going to be insane. We also saw a clip showcasing some of the beautiful, sprawling environments that we’ll be visiting throughout the world of Final Fantasy XV, including our first in-game look at the gorgeous, Venice-inspired city of Altissia. Final Fantasy XV has long been billed as “a Fantasy based on Reality’, but fans of the fantastical need not worry that the game will appear mundane; there seems to be plenty of fantastical elements and environments in there to justify the name, and you can see the clip shown last night below, courtesy of Youtuber YongYea. Honestly, it’s worth watching for the music alone, which is stunningly beautiful.

Before our final surprise of the night, there was time for a couple more announcements. First heard in the opening trailer, the theme song for Final Fantasy XV is a lush, orchestral reimagining of Ben E. King’s Stand by Me, performed by Florence and the Machine. I must admit that I thought it sounded incredibly out of place when it suddenly began, halfway through that trailer, even if does seem like an obvious song choice for a story about four friends heading out on an uncertain journey. But I think it’s going to grow on me. Florence Welch’s powerful vocal performance certainly sells the emotion of the piece, and as the trailer goes on it seems to fit more and more. If Square Enix must insist on this kind of thing, at least it’s a much better choice than Leona Lewis’ My Hands was for Final Fantasy XIII.

Perhaps most exciting of all, however, was the announcement of a new demo. This one isn’t tied to a purchase, unlike the Episode Duscae demo that accompanied Final Fantasy Type-0 HD last year, so it’s available for everyone to try on both PS4 and Xbox One. Titled the ‘Platinum Demo’, it begins with a strange premise; you control kid Noctis as he journeys through a dream, guided by Carbuncle as he makes his way to the royal citadel, armed only with a toy sword and a squeaky hammer. It sounds odd, but the good thing is you don’t have to wait to find out just how weird it is, as the demo is live on both storefronts right now. I haven’t yet had a chance to play it myself, so, like with the Brotherhood anime, I’ll be writing up some impressions, complete with video, a little later, much like I did last year with Episode Duscae.

And so we were coming to the end of the Uncovered event, with Director Hajime Tabata taking to the stage to announce the release date that we all already knew. This didn’t mean the stream ended without a surprise, however; Tabata had recently teased that the team had determined how to include airship travel in the game, a core FF motif that has been essentially missing from the last few main series titles that fans really want back. At the very end of an epic, extended trailer, we see the party’s flash car sprout wings and take to the skies. If I’m being honest, I found it to be a little goofy, as the car begins to transform and a pair of wings fold out before it rather quickly takes off. Hopefully it’s just one method of transport – the same trailer shows the boys speeding across the water in a yacht, for instance.

Still, the thought of driving, boating and flying around this massive world is tantalising, and with all of last night’s announcements still ringing in the ears, today is a good day to be a Final Fantasy fan. Square Enix seem hugely confident about the prospects of this long-in-development epic and its chances at winning back the limelight and returning to the enormous, world-conquering franchise it used to be. And I for one cannot wait to dive right in and experience it. I’ll have to wait until September of course, but what’s another six months when you’ve been dreaming of it for ten years?

See the epic extended trailer for Final Fantasy XV, complete with flying transformer car, below.

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Since the somewhat mixed reception to Halo 4, developer 343 industries have been quietly working away to improve on everything fans disliked about their 2012 debut. From Halo 5: Guardians‘ showing at E3 this month though, you’d be hard-pressed to have noticed.

It’s safe to say Halo 5: Guardians had something of an underwhelming gameplay debut at Microsoft’s press conference. Our first glimpse at the game’s single-player campaign – a tightly-scripted, explosion-filled six-minute jaunt through the narrow environs of the Covenant-held world Sunaion – wasn’t quite the gameplay reveal fans were hoping for coming off the back of Halo 4. That game saw the franchise’s trademark wide-open level design and huge set-piece battles scaled back noticeably in favour of a much shinier presentation – a move which became one of the major points of contention with 343’s handling of the Halo IP, and a trend you could be forgiven for thinking they were continuing after Halo 5‘s E3 reveal.

Yet, as negative as some fans are towards 343’s stewardship of the series, this kind of focused, scripted demo was actually somewhat unexpected for fans. In the run up to E3, there had been plenty to get excited about, as the Microsoft studio began ramping up their marketing campaign with early live action trailers, ARGs and magazine blowouts setting the stage for what to expect from the next instalment in Microsoft’s premier exclusive franchise.

Whereas Halo 4 saw 343 extending Bungie’s pre-existing fiction to support their own, creating a ton of new extended universe material to lead up to – and out of – their first Halo game, Halo 5 sees them drawing from the entire canon to create what they hope will be the biggest, most ambitious title in the franchise yet. Reaching right back to the birth of the extended universe in the run-up to Halo 5‘s reveal at E3, a thirteen-part audio drama called Hunt the Truth explored the origins of the Master Chief and his fellow Spartan IIs while also laying down some foreshadowing with vague mentions of deep space anomalies and mysterious events happening in the fiercely independent, neglected outer colonies. The series also dealt with the idea that the Master Chief had gone rogue, a plot element introduced just before the start of Hunt the Truth with two excellent, opposing live-action trailers.

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With Hunt the Truth underway, fans were also treated to a small-scale ARG that teased the cover art for the game, and revealed something of a megaton for followers of the extended universe: the cover art featured Blue Team. It was later confirmed in a Game Informer cover feature that Chief would not only be accompanied by Blue Team during the events of the game, but they’d be playable in drop-in/drop-out four-player co-op. Fans have wanted to see fellow Spartan IIs Fred, Linda and Kelly appear in a Halo game since reading the first extended universe novel, The Fall of Reach, back in 2001; indeed, when Halo Reach first debuted at E3 in 2009 with the silhouettes of an entire squad of Spartans, many of us thought we’d finally see the in-game introduction of the Chief’s closest comrades. We’ve had to wait a long time, but we’re finally getting our wish. It’s surely a surprise to some fans that it’s actually 343 that’s making it happen.

This four-person squad mechanic also feeds into the expanded sense of scale we can expect to see in Halo 5: Guardians. Those Game Informer features, echoed in previews from other media outlets, made mention of environments that offer multiple different routes, enabling players to tackle objectives in a number of ways – combine this with the ability to order your teammates to attack specific targets, take up positions and activate objectives, and you can start to get some idea of the wider possibilities at play. If this all sounds just a little bit like Star Wars: Republic Commando, well, there’s a reason for that; Tim Longo, creative director on that game. now fulfils that same role on Halo 5, with his predecessor Josh Holmes stepping into the role of Studio Head. Halo has long been ripe with opportunity to take the base formula, which has at this point been polished to a perfect shine, and try to expand that in interesting ways – who remembers thinking Halo 4 might take some cues from Metroid Prime after 343 took on some ex-Retro staff? – and these squad mechanics, coupled with more intricate level design and some new movement abilities, feel like they should be a perfect fit for the series.

This also extends to Warzone, 343’s new large-scale multiplayer mode that hopes to encompass all aspects of the Halo sandbox. Warzone stands in stark contrast to last December’s Arena beta – if that four-map test suggested that 343 were focused on recapturing Halo‘s tight, competitive arena combat, Warzone is the developer pushing at the very boundaries of Halo‘s beautifully elastic sandbox. Played on environments four times larger than any previous Halo map, Warzone takes some cues from the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre and sees two teams of 12 Spartans battle it out to control strategic points on the map in an effort to weaken the opponent’s base, while also fighting off hostile AI, including spawning bosses that can either hold a spot on the map for themselves, forcing players to root them out to claim it for their team, or roam about the map – even in vehicles like a banshee.

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Players will also level up as the match progresses, gaining access to better weapons and vehicles as they go, escalating the mayhem, until, by the end of the round, the enormous maps are crawling with players, AI, power weapons and fleets of vehicles. It sounds like it’s throwing everything Halo, including the Infinity’s kitchen sink, into one insane, over the top, carnage-filled mode, and it looks like it’ll be an absolute blast.

All of which makes their decision to show that tightly controlled, linear story segment as our first (and, so far, only!) glimpse at Halo 5‘s single-player mode a little odd. Surely it’s the hardest of the hardcore that are going to watch E3 – the ones that have been following every little hint, every little breadcrumb, every cryptic tweet – the ones that are going to want to dive deep into the mechanics and systems at play? The reveal had the effect of feeling a little deflating after all the hype and build-up. To the casual observer, Halo 5 simply looked to be continuing 4‘s path towards a more linear experience.

So it was a surprisingly lightweight showing for what will be Microsoft’s biggest game of the year. However, that’s not to say there was nothing to glean from the six-minute segment. Right from the start, we’re introduced to Jameson Locke, long since confirmed as a second playable protagonist, and his team of Spartan IVs, which includes everyone’s favourite former ODST Eddie Buck. We know they’re tracking the Chief on a Covenant-held world with the help of the Arbiter, who, embroiled in a civil war with his fellow Elites, is attempting to crush the remnants of that crumbling civilization. We learn that there are two new enemies – the Forerunner aerial Unit called the Phaeton and the agile new Promethean Soldier. We also see a new Covenant weapon in the Plasma Caster, and, perhaps most importantly of all, we learn that the grunts speak English again!

More difficult to pick out is the ability to order your squad around. In the demo we see Locke instruct comms specialist Vale to analyse a discarded MA5 rifle, and later tell Buck to fire on an attacking Phaeton, but if you didn’t know you were able to manually issue orders in-game, it would be easy to assume these were simply scripted sequences. This is compounded by how narrow and scripted the demo is as a whole, and why it would have been so much more illustrative to have a developer on-stage to walk viewers through the various additions in Halo 5. Instead of giving the impression that we’re in for Halo 4 Part 2, they could have amplified that pre-reveal excitement and ridden it all the way to release.

Of course, there’s still a few months to go before launch, and those things that so excited fans prior to E3 are still there to look forward to. 343 industries have been saying all the right things in the lead up to the reveal, and we expected them to walk the walk at the biggest gaming event on the calendar. Gamescom is just around the corner, so here’s hoping we get an extended look at the game then. How about it, Microsoft?

The first thing you notice upon starting up Episode Duscae is ‘Somnus’. That beautiful old theme we’ve been hearing since the game’s very first reveal as Versus XIII plays over the title screen, yet something’s different. The vocals have been replaced by a violin, in a subtle move that seems to suggest that, while this is indeed the game we’ve all been waiting the better part of a decade to play, there are going to be some changes.

Of course, the most obvious of these changes, bar the name, is the shift in platform from PS3 to PS4 and Xbox One. The game was spectacularly thrust back into the limelight when it was announced for the new-gen platforms back at E3 2013 with an action-packed trailer that caused some to worry that their beloved jRPG franchise had gone all Uncharted. Episode Duscae then, is clearly a statement of intent.

Final Fantasy XV is set to be something of a shake up for the long-running series. After waking up to a phone alarm (this is a fantasy based on reality, after all), Noctis and his retinue stumble from the confines of their tent into the bright sunlight to see a huge, wide-open expanse laid before them. With the restrictive corridors of Final Fantasy XIII still fresh in our minds, it’s certainly something of a wow moment, and perhaps a sign from Square Enix that they’ve taken fan criticism over the last few years to heart.

Characters, too, seem to be offering something a bit different; while many found Lightning and co somewhat overbearing and melodramatic, Noctis and his friends – royal advisor Ignis, bodyguard Gladiolus and childhood friend Prompto – are all a little more restrained, at least in this playable slice. Rather than being a group of heroes thrust together through circumstance, these are people that are comfortable in each other’s company, and though some of the incidental dialogue borders on the inane (“What’s your plan if your glasses break?”, Noctis asks Ignis, who replies in his cut-glass accent, “I’ve got another pair.”), it helps to sell the idea of a group of friends on a road trip.

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Quite why they’re on that road trip isn’t made clear in Episode Duscae. It’s suggested that they’re searching for Titan, the iconic Earth-elemental summon, but before the episode starts the prince’s flash car breaks down and the party are forced to make camp in the wilds of Duscae while confusingly-underdressed mechanic Cindy repairs it. Of course, they’re going to have to pay their way, to the tune of 25,000 gil, and what better way than to take a bounty on an enormous behemoth called Deadeye? Unfortunately, Deadeye is not so easily slain. After searching the wilderness for signs of his passing, Noctis and his friends finally discover where the beast makes his lair, and set a plan to take him down. A plan that spectacularly fails, because of course it does. You’re going to need a bigger stick. Fortunately, you can find one, and the bearded man that wields it, in a deep, dark cavern in the woods.

Final Fantasy XV is only the second game in the main, single-player series not to use the Active Time Battle system since it was introduced in 1991’s Final Fantasy IV. Instead, what we have here is a real-time action-based system with configurable combos and switchable weapons. If that sounds like it’s closer to a button-mashing fighting game or character-action title, well, it’s not. In battle, you’ll generally be doing a whole lot of holding one button (X on Xbox One). This will perform a combo that you can personalise to a decent extent; Noctis has five blades and five different slots to put them in, and shifting them around will change up the combo that Noctis perfoms. The first slot is your opener, the weapon you start your combo with, while the next is Ravage. This will form the core of your attack combo, contributing most of your hits, and it’s here that you’ll find much of the flexibility; if you’re about to wade into a large, tightly-knit group of enemies, it might be a good idea to switch in the enormous Zweihander to hit multiple targets with wide-arcing sweeps, whereas if you’re facing off against a powerful single target, the spear Partisan is probably a better choice, with its higher damage and MP-leeching abilities.

You also have slots for Vanquish, which is what Noctis will perfom against a low-HP enemy on the brink of death, Counter, which determines the weapon used to hit back after a successful parry, and the last slot is reserved for jumping attacks – something you are unlikely to even use in Episode Duscae.

Each weapon also allows access to a special Technique, switchable via the d-pad and executed by the Y button, which consume a fairly large chunk of MP. These need to be used sparingly then, but offer an array of useful effects: the Buster Sword-like Zweihander allows you to use Tempest, hitting and flooring multiple targets, while Noctis’ Blood Sword offers Drain Blade, letting you leech some HP from a target – useful if you need a quick hit of health – soaking the prince in a fine mist of claret in the process. Partisan’s unique skill is Full Thrust, an absolutely beastly single-target, multiple-hit spear thrust, while the Dragon Lance will of course allow you to Jump, just like Kain Highwind or Freya Crescent. Most of these abilities require a bit of a time to spool up, meaning it’s easy to miss your target if you haven’t planned for its use. A big part of using Techniques is knowing when to throw one out; winding up a Full Thrust on a stunned opponent is always a good idea.

On paper, this all sounds a little ‘hold A to awesome’, but that’s a touch unfair in practise; there’s a fair bit more to think about than simply holding X to attack, and considering that, unlike the vast majority of games in the series, Final Fantasy XV gives you control over your own movement and positioning, you’re going to have to actively defend and evade enemy attacks – both those you’re going one-on-one with and any of their buddies nearby, who will absolutely not wait for you to finish what you’re doing before lunging in. Assassin’s Creed this is not. You’ve probably seen plenty of video of Noctis nimbly dodging and sidestepping out of the way of enemy attacks, and this is achieved by holding down a button to enter a defensive state. While defending, Noctis will auto-dodge most enemy strikes while also being able to parry and counter certain big attacks.

Remaining in this state isn’t an effective long-term strategy however, as your MP pool will continue to drain while you defend, and dropping to zero MP puts Noctis into ‘Stasis’, leaving him unable to defend, dodge or perform weapon techniques. It’s here where the ability to take cover begins to make sense; drop behind a nearby rock and both your HP and MP will begin to climb back up (and Ignis, loyal retainer that he is, will run over to guard you and try to keep enemies at bay). A more effective use of Noctis’ defensive abilities is to use his manual dodge, enabled by pressing the jump button while defending. This will also spend MP – ten per dodge – but, combined with the slightly-shonky lock-on, it’ll get you out of harm’s way and right where you need to be to continue your assault while also allowing you finer control over your MP resources.

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Even if you’re a dodging ninja, you are going to take damage occasionally, and there’s a mechanic at work here reminiscent of Final Fantasy XIII-2‘s wound damage. If a party member loses all HP, it’s not the end of the world; other members can run over and revive them as they stumble around, putting themselves at risk for a couple of seconds while the animation plays out. But should that character take another hit while in this state their total HP will be diminished, leaving them at a permanent disadvantage. It’s possible to get your HP bar shortened multiple times if you’re really unlucky (or just plain bad), and, at least in Episode Duscae, there’s no way to remedy this handicap – like XIII-2‘s wound potions – without resting at a campsite.

There are a couple of other things notable by their absence too, such as magic and party AI management – as things stand, Ignis, Gladio and Prompto will all just take care of themselves. For the final game, director Hajime Tabata and his team have promised both usable magic and something akin to Final Fantasy XII‘s gambits to enable fine control over the party’s actions – a welcome addition, considering that Noctis is now the only controllable character.

That’s not to say that Episode Duscae doesn’t offer some surprises though, and the first of these are the hidden Armiger weapons, old blades found throughout the region – one embedded in a rock, Excalibur-style, another deep within a cavern in the woods, and one more jammed into Deadeye’s shoulder. These blades unlock new functionality for Noctis; when we first gain control, he already holds one that allows him to manually dodge, as well as perform that nifty warpstrike we’ve seen in all the trailers, whereby Noctis flings his blade like a spear, teleporting to wherever it sticks a moment later. Other blades offer the ability to dramatically increase Noctis’ damage output and movement speed, swipe at enemies with those iconic ‘phantom swords’ while warping from target to target or sheath himself in a spinning shield of ghostly blades – all at the expense of rapidly draining mana, and all things we’ve seen teased in trailers going way back to that first 2006 reveal.

There’s a bigger, altogether more awe-inspiring surprise awaiting those that venture into the forests of Duscae, however. We’ve known for a while that summons are going to appear in some form – witness Titan’s appearance in the Jump Festa 2015 trailer, for instance – but in case you didn’t get the memo, Final Fantasy XV‘s summons are going to be insane. In case you’re in any doubt, after trekking through the aforementioned deep, dark cave, you’ll be able to summon Ramuh and rain lightning down on that pesky behemoth. Because, although it’s thrilling to go toe-to-toe with such an iconic Final Fantasy monster, facing up against Deadeye is like fighting one of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s High Dragons, except with double HP. You’re going to need help. And that help is glorious.

It’s rare that we get such a deep look at a big upcoming title, and while that’s exciting, there are caveats to this optimism. Combat is a huge part of a Final Fantasy game, and though it takes a couple of hours to really get a good feel for, it never really evolves from the start of the demo to the end – you’ll still be doing the same things at level forty that you were at level four, you’ll just be better at it. What happens instead is that as you become more familiar with enemy movements and attacks, you start to learn the best way to approach each combat situation. Your weapons play into this too; with Partisan in the main Ravage slot, you’ll tend towards separating enemies out and taking them on in single combat, whereas with Zweihander you can push your luck a bit more in a group. The battle system remained satisfying even after ten hours, but whether it will keep players captivated for the dozens of hours a Final Fantasy adventure tends to last remains to be seen. Hopefully, the addition of magic, new Techniques, party management and a wider pantheon of summons to call down should help to keep it fresh throughout.

And then there’s that open world. As liberating as it feels after the painfully linear Final Fantasy XIII, Duscae itself feels a little empty. It’s somewhat reminiscent of The Calm Lands or Archylte Steppe, a vast, verdant area of natural beauty, and though it leans towards realism, with its gas station, it’s smattering of shacks, roads and transmission towers, there are more fantastical touches, like the enormous rock arches and the now almost-iconic astral shard that pierces the land in the distance. As you explore, party members will point out things that may lead to a new sidequest, though these seem to be a bit lightweight at the moment; passing near a lakeside hut, Gladio called attention to something that began a quest to find the ‘Jewel of Alstor’. Following the waypoint, the party discovered a piece of ‘glacial magicite’ lying on the ground, and that was it: quest complete. No dialogue, no explanation. No context. What was the point of this quest, or indeed the magicite itself? No answer is forthcoming. With Episode Duscae being a taster of the full game however, it feels like these quests have been included simply to make the point that the final game will indeed have more to do than fight from point A to point B. Given the paucity of additional activities in the last single-player, numbered series title, that’s got to be a plus.

By the time Noctis, Ignis, Gladio and Prompto drive off into the sunset, you’re left feeling that Episode Duscae isn’t really a demo after all. And though it offers a representative look at what Square Enix want the final game to be like, it’d be unkind to call it a proof of concept; character animations are up there with the best, and what systems are present are highly playable and surprisingly polished. So it’s more of a sneak peek then, a promise of what to look forward to when Final Fantasy XV finally arrives. And now I’ve had glimpse, I can’t wait to see more. Please be excited.

Halo 5 victory bros
The Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta begins in earnest next Monday, but this past weekend members of the Xbox One dashboard preview were allowed a short peek past the curtain. We got to take a look at the content that will make up the first week of the three-week test: 4v4 arena multiplayer on two maps, Empire and Truth. Empire is a small, asymmetric map set either on Earth or a human-controlled colony, while Truth, a remake of Halo 2 classic Midship, offers a little more room to manoeuver.

What everyone really wants to know about however is how the game plays. Well, it plays like Halo. To anyone not particularly interested in Microsoft’s premier FPS series, that might seem like an obvious descriptor, but Halo fans will be sceptical after 343’s first turn at bat, 2012’s Halo 4, experimented with a few things – like loadouts and killstreak perks – from other shooters, in the process tarnishing that Halo feel that fans expect. Here, there’s no need to worry. Everyone starts with the same guns – the classic MA5 assault rifle and another take on the series’ iconic magnum – and other weapons are back on the maps as pickups, where they belong. Ordnance drops? They’re gone too. It’s pure arena slayer – fair starts for all, and map knowledge and control is paramount.

There are also no armour abilities – selectable, rechargeable power-ups introduced by Bungie in Reach and inherited by 343 in Halo 4 – which means you’ll no longer be facing off against an entire team of Armour Lock spammers. What replaces them in Halo 5: Guardians are Spartan Abilties, base skills that every player has access to right from the start. These are mainly abilities that enable you to get around the environment more fluidly, and I’ll talk about each in turn, starting with my favourite, the thruster pack.

Halo 5 thruster evade

This should be immediately recognisable to anyone who played Halo 4, as it’s essentially that game’s thruster pack armour ability, except made actually useful. It’s no longer a canned animation that takes you out into third person, and you can use it in mid-air without losing momentum. For the uninitiated, it does exactly what it says on the tin and gives you a short, sharp boost in whichever direction you’re moving. You can use it to back up or close distance quickly, or speed-strafe out of the way of an incoming sniper round perhaps. That may sound overpowered, but it’s balanced quite nicely.

First, remember that everyone can do it, which means they can match you move for move if so inclined, and if you’re trying to use it to get out of danger, you’d best have somewhere to go – boosting in a direction in the middle of an open room is likely just going to prolong the inevitable. Secondly, it requires a short cooldown, so don’t think you’ll be boosting all over the maps; if you’re going to use your thrusters to burst into an area, you need to have a plan, because you can’t just immediately fly back out if things get hairy.

I mentioned that you can use the thruster pack in mid-air, and this will ideally be combined with a bit of sprint momentum to move across the maps more quickly. Add to this another new skill, the ability to mantle up to higher ledges by holding the jump button – so long as you can physically reach them – and the result is a pleasing degree of extra mobility in what has always been a relatively mobile series. These two things in particular – thruster and clamber – feel like a very natural fit for the Halo formula; we’ve long been used to clambering all over the furniture in this series via skill jumps and the like, and these added extras slot in perfectly, allowing players to maximise the verticality that has always been a part of Halo multiplayer.

There are also a few other things your increased mobility allows you to do, such as a thruster-enabled shoulder charge melee attack that can quickly close distance and catch you unaware, and you can now slide by crouching during a sprint. Holding crouch when in the air also stabilises you, slowing your descent and maybe allowing you to fire off a killing blow if you’re chasing a weakened opponent. There’s also the Ground Pound ability, which allows you to get the drop on an unsuspecting enemy at the expense of hanging in the air for several seconds to charge it up. In a small arena game, it seems borderline suicidal, but I imagine it’ll come into its own on larger maps – it seems custom made for BTB, where you’ll have much more space to move around and catch opponents unaware.

Sprint has also seen some balancing. A lot of players hated the unlimited sprint in Halo 4, feeling that it served to stretch maps out and give people an easy way out of fights they probably shouldn’t have engaged in in the first place, and 343 have made a decent attempt to answer that criticism, too. You can sprint indefinitely if you wish, but your shields won’t recharge while you do, meaning that using it to get out of trouble carries a risk as you greatly lengthen the amount of time you remain vulnerable. Stop sprinting, and your shields will begin to refill. It’s a small yet smart way to allow faster movement while keeping it in check.

Focusing on Halo 2: Anniversary‘s more arena-based maps seems to have sharpened 343’s vision for Halo 5: Guardian‘s multiplayer, and it’s obvious that the team are aiming for the competitive circuit, at least where arena is concerned. Team mates automatically call out enemy positions, thrown grenades and power weapon respawns, which means it’s not absolutely necessary to be communicating with your team – a useful addition for a player like me that tends to play Halo multiplayer alone. Prior to playing, I imagined I’d find this off-putting, but in practice it gives me a greater awareness of the battlefield and allows me to be a more productive member of the team, even while playing solo.

Power weapon placements are also marked on your HUD, so everyone always knows where they are and when they’ll be back. This may seem somewhat antithetical to the accepted way of playing Halo – that is, to learn the maps through play – but it helps to keep everyone on an even keel, meaning your skill with weapons, grenades, melee and movement is what counts most.

Halo 5 Battle Rifle Scope

I do have a couple of complaints, however, and the main one is that automatic weapons seem quite overpowered in this build. It feels like they’ve had a substantial boost to both accuracy and range and my immediate gut feeling is that they need a bit of nerfing. If 343 wanted to make automatics viable (which seems to be the case, given that every game in the early access period was AR starts), they’ve certainly done that. But when an SMG beats out a battle rifle at mid-range – which happened to me on Truth – then they might have gone a touch too far. I wouldn’t like to see them completely neutered however, as it it’s quite nice to actually be effective with the trusty old MA5. A bit more fall-off in effective range will surely help.

My other complaint concerns something that had me very worried when the first glimpses of Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer appeared online, yet as it turns out, it’s a very small objection. It’s to do with the game’s new scope animation, which looks for all the world to be Call of Duty-style ‘aim down sights’. ‘ADS’ is something I am resolutely against seeing in Halo, and it’s probably the one thing the player-base can agree on. Thankfully, it’s pretty much just a cosmetic change, and serves the same mechanical purpose as scope zoom did in the previous games; movement remains unrestricted, meaning we can still strafe and jump unhindered as before, and de-scoping also makes a return, dropping you out of zoom should you take a hit. Just as important as freedom of movement is the fact that there’s no penalty to hip fire to force you into scope in order to be effective – precision weapons are as accurate as they always were, and scoping just gives you a bit of zoom. Many, including myself, had worried that the new mechanic would make the game feel too much like other shooters on the market, but in practice that just isn’t the case. It’s really just a new animation for a signature Halo mechanic, and the combat loop is still unmistakably Halo.

The only real difference with scoped weapons is the addition of extra screen furniture in the form of a physical scope, rather than the full-screen zoom we had before, and it’s this I take issue with. It’s not too bad with the Battle Rifle, as there isn’t much to get in the way, but when you zoom the DMR, the scope takes up quite a chunk of your field of vision, obscuring a decent amount of the scenery around what you’re scoping on. It clouds your peripheral vision more than ever before, even if it doesn’t particularly affect the way the game plays.

In the grand scheme of things though, and taking into account that this is a beta of a game a year out from release, these are both relatively minor issues considering how much the game feels like Halo to me. It feels like what Halo 4‘s multiplayer should have been, and I get the feeling that working on the more arena-focused Halo 2 for the recent Anniversary remaster has allowed 343 to remember Halo‘s core strengths – that is movement, teamwork and map control, along with the holy trinity of guns, grenades and melee. It’s maybe a touch faster, a bit more mobile, but, so far at least, Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer is Halo through and through. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the beta brings when it goes live on December 29th. Until then, you can enjoy 18 minutes of gameplay captured on my Xbox One.

inqgroup
It’s fair to say that in the run-up to release, many have approached Dragon Age: Inquisition with, at best, cautious optimism. Others of course, have been downright pessimistic, lingering memories of Dragon Age 2‘s more reductive ideas and restrictive world still playing on their minds.

Some of us have been less restrained than the rest however, so when the game popped up on Xbox One’s EA Access service I couldn’t help myself. Six hours of pre-release Dragon Age fun? Oh go on then. The only problem I had to contend with was what class/race combo I was going to roll. My Warden in Origins was a Dalish rogue, but my Hawke in Dragon Age 2 was a mage, and I had loved both. So I decided to try both, playing the first hour as an elven archer before restarting and eventually settling on a towering qunari mage (don’t call me saarebas!); I have to admit, witnessing every other character in the game craning their neck to look my Inquisitor in the eye was amusing. With that, it was into the game proper.

The first hour takes the form of a prologue dealing with the immediate aftermath of a magical catastrophe at the Temple of the Sacred Ashes in Haven. What was supposed to be a peace summit to end the conflict between mages and templars that began in Dragon Age 2 ends in the deaths of hundreds, with your player character the only survivor. You awake in chains, confused, and you’re soon heading out with Cassandra to attempt to close the Breach that hangs ominously in the sky, and hopefully save your own life into the bargain. Everyone assumes you’re the cause of the cataclysm, so it might be prudent to do something about that.

The prologue is fairly linear, and sees you travelling up frozen mountain paths, battling demons and closing smaller rifts as you head towards the now-ruined temple and the enormous hole torn in the heavens above it. You’re introduced to dwarven rogue Varric (who has thoughtfully brought Bianca along) and elven apostate Solas, and as we battled our way up the mountain, I was immediately reminded of the Sacred Ashes trailer for the original game. This short prologue feels like it gets closer to achieving what that trailer promised than the relevant quest in Origins ever did (sans dragon, obviously), and you’re travelling through the same part of the world, too. I can’t help but wonder if the call-back is intentional.

After fighting your way up the mountain, you reach a forward operating base where you’re afforded your first choice. You need to push onward to the Breach, but do you take a dangerous mountain pass where some of Cassandra’s soldiers have disappeared, hoping to discover their fate along the way, or do you charge through the valley with the bulk of the forces? Ultimately, both sections play out much the same; a small rift battle, and a run-in with an NPC – Cullen, if you storm the valley. Upon reaching your destination, Varric worriedly points out that the Temple is infested with primeval red lyrium, and as you attempt to prise open the rift in order to properly seal it, an enormous pride demon bursts from the Fade to stop you.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

It’s a great first boss battle, an arena-based affair with a huge boss to wear down, a few waves of adds to deal with, and that Fade rift that needs closing. It’s also a good time to get fully to grips with Inquisition’s combat, which neatly blends elements from both of its predecessors. Should you choose to play entirely in real-time, the game plays much like Dragon Age 2, though with auto-attack mapped to a hold of the right trigger rather than requiring constant bashing of the A button. You also have eight quickslots for your talents now instead of six, with the right bumper button added to the previous games’ X, Y and B slots. The left trigger now switches between sets of four talents.

Playing entirely in real-time however means ignoring Inquisition‘s tactical camera, resurrected from Origins‘ PC release and now available on all platforms. Fans of the console titles’ radial menu-based pause-and-play system may mourn its loss (with the radial menu, on left bumper, now offering simple commands like potions and party-hold), but really you’re trading up here. You can enter tac cam at any point during gameplay, which allows you to scan the battlefield before even getting into combat, scoping out enemy positions, strengths, weaknesses and immunities at a glance, and the overhead view makes it possible to inspect the terrain, making it easier to move ranged characters onto higher ground, perhaps, or position a tank in a chokepoint to draw enemies in. And if you’re playing as a mage, the tac cam is invaluable in making the most of your AoE spells.

Much has been made of the fact that mages in Dragon Age: Inquisition have no healing spells, but it’s really not an issue. You have a finite pool of healing potions, but they can be re-stocked at a camp, which you can fast-travel to from anywhere. Moreover, the focus here is on damage mitigation rather than heal-spamming; warriors can generate Guard, a second health bar that protects main health by soaking up some damage, while mages have an area-of-effect spell called Barrier that does much the same, albeit for a period of time. It means that it’s no longer absolutely necessary to have a mage in the party, and should help to encourage more flexible party composition.

After defeating the pride demon and halting the expansion of the breach, you’re hailed as the Herald of Andraste. After a brief 80s TV-style “gettin’-things-done” montage, the Inquisition is reborn and you’re off to the game’s first truly open area, The Hinterlands. A verdant, fertile stretch of land in the heart of Ferelden, the region and its people are under threat thanks to the conflict between mages and templars. The first time you open your map to see a vast expanse of icons littering the Hinterlands, it’s more than a little overwhelming; it can be difficult to figure out where your focus should be, and so you strike out with your party to explore the surroundings. Don’t go too far in one direction though, as you’ll likely get wrecked by a roving group of bandits or maybe even an ill-tempered bear or two.

The best idea seems to be to spiral outward from your starting area, filling in your map as you go and and establishing further camps in the wilderness that you can use to rest, refill your potion stocks and even fast travel between. Doing so also extends the Inquisition’s reach through an in-game currency called ‘Power’ that you will need to accrue in order to further the story and unlock more regions. There are landmarks to claim for your faction and quests to undertake are everywhere. A good few of these seem to take the form of the “kill x of y” template so beloved of MMOs, but if you get bored of monster-culling, there’s always something else to do, like hunting down mysterious magical shards, picking herbs for crafting, or even just exploring to find yet another pretty vista. There’s so much to do – after five hours, I had uncovered what appeared to be less than half of the map of the Hinterlands, and this is just one region out of about ten. This game will eat your life.

Dragon Age Inquisition Hinterlands Map

This was my map of The Hinterlands after five hours.

Dragon Age: Inquisition absolutely nails the sense of exploration that I have always felt the series was lacking; with the exception of the relatively-sprawling Korcari Wilds, Dragon Age: Origins was fairly narrow in its environmental design, and the smaller scale of Dragon Age 2‘s world is now legendary. Inquisition updates Dragon Age for a post-Skyrim world, though you’d be hard-pressed to call it a copy; while you can and will (and, more importantly, should) head off into the great unknown to discover what lurks in that dense forest or over that nearby hill, Inquisition‘s Thedas isn’t one large, contiguous landmass like Skyrim, but rather a number of large zones – again, that impression of an MMO comes to the fore – and though The Hinterlands is the only one I’ve seen so far it is absolutely rammed with all kinds of stuff to find and do, and positively dripping with detail. Just like in Skyrim, you’ll find yourself frequently side-tracked in the middle of a quest by some strange landmark that catches your magpie eye.

And this is to say nothing of the game’s visuals, which are splendid. Inquisition is absolutely drenched in colour, The Hinterlands coming across almost as a bright fairytale countryside, though torn with strife and infighting. Yet the fields and forests still teem with wildlife, some of which you’re going to have to hunt down to fulfil some of those aforementioned quests. In the snow-covered paths of the Frostback Mountains that make up the prologue, the sun glints off of the cracks in frozen-over streams and characters leave footprints in the snow as the powder kicked up by your party’s feet is carried away on the wind. The environment is so dense that after a couple of hours you’re given a search function (mapped to a click of the left stick) that subtly picks out nearby loot that might otherwise blend into the detail-rich scene. Codex entries and misplaced letters can be found all over the place, filling out the history of the region, and even landmarks inform you of their history when you claim them. You’ll stumble across mages and templars engaged in pitched battles, crafting materials will slowly grow back after you’ve passed through to harvest them, and heaven help you if, under-levelled, you wander into a surly bear’s territory. You get a sense of an environment that exists alongside you as much as it does for you, a world that could move on with or without your input.

After five hours, I can already see I’m going to lose weeks to Inquisition. BioWare has always made games that are reactive, but I’ve long wanted their settings to feel more like a real, sprawling world, rather than an interconnected set of places, and here the fantasy series feels like it’s really reaching to grasp its potential.

This is the most expansive Dragon Age has ever been, the most alive Thedas has ever felt.