Archives for category: Impressions

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Western Hatsune Miku fans would surely be celebrating this week, if only they could tear themselves away from the newest rhythm game in the Project DIVA series.

Released in Japan last June, those of us outside the Land of the Rising Sun never thought we’d see the game released in our territories. Thankfully Sega surprised us all late last year, announcing that Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Future Tone would be dancing its way westward in the new year. Earlier this week, it finally arrived on PS4.

If you’re familiar with the Project DIVA rhythm games that have previously graced the PlayStation 3, 4 and Vita (and prior to that, in Japan only, the PSP and arcades), then you’ll feel right at home here, as you hit notes in time while Miku and her Vocaloid pals sing and dance their digital hearts out. Future Tone itself is a port of 2013’s Japanese arcade release Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Arcade Future Tone, and can be found on the PlayStation Store as a free, base-game download with two songs, as well as two paid add-on packs – Colourful Tone and Future Sound – which each contain over a hundred songs. The packs are £24.99 a pop, or you can grab a bundle containing everything for a more than reasonable £44.99. That will net you 220 songs, as well as hundreds of modules (outfits) and accessories for all six Vocaloids.

While Future Tone is definitely a Project DIVA game, its mechanics do differ a little from the console series. First off, the positives: scratch notes are no more! I was never a fan of these, as I thought they just served to make stretches of a song a bit boring and lacking in challenge. Here, they’re replaced by directional slide notes, which would be activated via a touch panel on the arcade machine. On PS4, you can play these either via L1/R1 or tilting either stick in the displayed direction. These feel more interactive than scratch notes ever did, and come in a couple of different types – short slides that basically only require a press of a shoulder button or a flick of an analogue stick, or lengthier slides that require a hold. I prefer to use the stick for these, as they feel more tactile.

Slide notes

Hold notes are also different. In Future Tone, they have no tail to denote their length, and there’s actually no requirement to hold them at all; if you want, you can just tap them like a normal note marker and move on without fear of damaging your combo, but holding will add to your score quite substantially, especially if you can get a multi-note hold going.

Speaking of multi-note inputs, these are also different, and it’s here where Future Tone provides most of its challenge, at least to me. These new linked notes task you with tapping or holding two different inputs at once; think the arrow notes from the Project DIVA series, except in Future Tone you’ll often need to hit two different buttons – rather than, say, up and triangle, you might have to hit X and O. Sometimes you’ll have to hit three or four buttons at the same time, and these really do take some getting used to as there’s nothing like them in the previous games. You can of course (indeed, should) use d-pad inputs as well as the face buttons, but still, these are always the bits where my runs fall apart as I try to make sense of what I’m seeing on the screen in the split-second I have to respond, panic, and subsequently flub a whole section. Go me!

While the most recent title, Project DIVA X, was a bit of a letdown, Future Tone represents a massive improvement simply by pruning the fluff of past games. The Project DIVA series has long offered some light simulation/relationship elements, such as building friendships with the Vocaloids and buying gifts for them to display in their rooms, but Future Tone sweeps all of this aside in favour of simply presenting the player with over 200 songs to play, all unlocked from the start. It’s just a pure rhythm game with tons and tons of content, and it’s exactly what I wanted the next game in the series to be. If I have any complaints, it’s that while you can create custom playlists, you can’t actually play through them – the game only allows you to watch them as music videos, which is nice (and any snapshots you take here will also show up during the game’s brief loading screens), but seems oddly restrictive – and there’s no Matryoshka, though as there’s no GUMI in Future Tone, it’s an understandable omission.

mikugongetchoo

If you’ve ever been curious about these games but never jumped in, now is the perfect time. Quite honestly, Project DIVA Future Tone is the ultimate Miku game. It may not have every song, but you’ll be hard pressed to feel let down by the song list. The only question is where does the series go from here? It’d be a little disappointing to go back to smaller releases after this hefty offering, so my hope is that this game will serve as an evolving platform going forward, with Sega adding songs new and old to the game over time. And maybe even GUMI, too.

It’s also another sign that Sega might be starting to wake up to their fans outside of Japan. Releasing the best Miku game ever is a hell of a strong start to the year, a year in which we’re also going to be seeing Yakuzas 0 and Kiwami, Valkyria Revolution, a couple of new Sonic titles and more. It’s also coming hot on the heels of the news that Sega has registered websites related to HD remasters of Shenmue, so it seems there are reasons for fans to be cheerful after all.

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.

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.

Oh, not that guy again
Since its release last October, Halo 5: Guardians has seen excellent post-launch support from developer 343 industries. New modes, maps and customisation items have been coming at a decent clip, and all for free, subsidised by the entirely optional REQ system. Later this summer, we’ll be getting a meaty new update in the form of Warzone Firefight, though players can get a quick look at the new mode in this weekend’s beta.

Warzone Firefight isn’t quite the same wave-based survival mode we knew and loved from ODST and Reach. Gone is the ability to simply sit and play for hours with a group of friends; Warzone Firefight is built on the foundation of Warzone, the new-for-Halo 5 PvPvE mode that sees the battle escalating as the REQ level climbs, and so it goes with this new co-operative PvE experience. Eight players take on five waves of increasingly-difficult objectives, with each having a time limit of five minutes – fail to complete your objective in time, and it’s game over. These goals are pulled from a pool of differently-weighted objectives that the game selects for your team of Spartans as the match unfolds – you might be tasked with eliminating a large number of jackals in one round, and then with defending a base against a hundred invaders in the next. In the final round, you’ll have to face off against the new Mythic-tier bosses, with upgraded health and abilities.

For the beta, Warzone Firefight is only playable on Escape from ARC, and it feels like a good map for it, funnelling players through the large map’s various structures to get to their objectives. At first, it can seem a bit chaotic, with your goals appearing in different places all over the vast map, but after a few games you’ll learn where to head when you see that objective marker pop up in the lower-right corner of the screen. And speaking of those objectives, it soon becomes clear that there is quite a diverse set of them on offer; even the final round isn’t set, with a fight against three Warden Eternals sometimes being replaced with a pitched battle against four Serpent Hunters in one of the game’s Home bases. Not all objectives are created equal however, and you’ll find you’ll have an easier time of it in round three if you’re facing off against a pair of Knight Marshalls, rather than defending the Garage against dozens upon dozens of tooled-up Prometheans.

Warzone Firefight

You might want to do things the hard way though. The main complaint I have with Warzone Firefight right now is that matches feel a touch too short. The maximum time you can spend in one match is, theoretically, 25 minutes, and that’s if you’re just managing to complete your objectives. Often, you’ll fly through the early rounds in a couple of minutes and finish the five rounds well under the twenty-minute mark. It’s a far cry from the endlessly-tweakable Firefight in Reach, which you could play for hours on end if you so wished. Of course, with this being more score-attack focused, it makes sense that the matches don’t last all day, but quite often it feels like it’s over before it’s really begun – certainly in your early games, as you get to grips with the mode.

That’s not to say the challenge isn’t there, however. Enemies in Warzone Firefight hit hard and fast, and there are a lot of them. Perhaps it’s simply an effect of the pressure to score high in a short amount of time making me play more recklessly, but they feel slightly north of Heroic difficulty. Handily, REQ energy seems to build quite fast, so by the time you’re a few rounds in you should be able to bring out some powerful SAWs or Railguns to help you deal with the masses of tough enemies. By the time you’ve used all the ammo, you’re a decent way back to earning another one.

One thing that does irk me somewhat is the spawns. Should you die, you’ll generally be quite some way from the fight when you get back into the game. I understand that you need to be able to spawn in a safe place, but it often means you have to hoof it across the map, potentially missing out on a chunk of the round, which will obviously affect your score. This can be especially tough if you’re defending the Garage in round three, as you’ll spawn in the tunnel opposite, and with tough enemies between you and the base and phaetons patrolling the skies, it’s possible to get pinned down in the tunnel for too long.

Warzone Firefight is also the best way to show off your custom Spartan armour and colours

Warzone Firefight is also the best way to show off your custom Spartan armour and colours

But this is a beta, and 343 are running it months in advance of launch so that player feedback can be taken into account, much like the game’s original Arena multiplayer beta that hit almost a year before the full game landed – things can and will be tweaked between now and release. For my part, I’d quite like to see Warzone Firefight given its own playlist, with a bunch of different varieties to choose from. Or at least one more, maybe with ten rounds rather than five, and with multiple objectives per round, as is already the case with the current offering’s final round, which tasks you with two waves of boss battles. Even better would be to open it up to customs and allow players to tweak to their hearts content. I’d love a co-op mode where I can just sit with a bunch of chums and shoot grunts in the face for an hour or two. And honestly? I want more objectives like ‘defend the garage’. It shows Warzone Firefight at its manic, nailbiting best, the screen alive with dozens of enemies and explosions, the air thick with lead and laser.

As things stand though, it’s still fantastic fun, and it gives players a better chance at seeing what all those REQs actually do, without the fear of being immediately ganked after spawning with a legendary rocket launcher, as so often happens in Warzone. For someone like me, who only plays Warzone once or twice a week, it’s exciting to know I’ll soon have a new mode that allows me to get some use out of all those high-powered cards that I rarely get the chance to bring out. And the fact that it includes matchmaking means you can play it even when your friends are busy.

The beta runs until Monday, so make sure to jump in-game and try out Firefight while you can. There’s no specific date as yet for when the mode will launch in full, but it’s expected some time in the summer. Until then, get some games in, and be sure to get yourself over to Waypoint to let the developers hear your feedback.

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.

Announced at Square Enix’s Uncovered Final Fantasy XV event in Los Angeles, Brotherhood is a five-part anime miniseries that leads into the main game. We’d heard rumours of both a CG film and a new demo to be unveiled, both of which came true, but apparently no one saw this coming, so it was a surprise to say the least. In my write-up of that event, I talked about how Square Enix seems to be extremely bullish about Final Fantasy XV‘s prospects – creating a cross-media sub-series right off the bat surely signifies their confidence in the game’s success.

Brotherhood focuses on Noctis and his three chums Ignis, Gladio and Prompto and aims to give fans a closer look at these four young men and the bonds of friendship between them. Fans have long questioned whether they’ll be able to get behind these characters, pointing out that they look like a Korean boy band in matching clothing, so hopefully we’ll be able to get a good feel for them over the five episodes. With the first eleven-minute episode available to watch now, we decided to take a look.

warpstrike

The series begins with a short flash-back scene, in which we see a young Noctis, bloodied and seemingly at death’s door thanks to an enormous sword-wielding snake monster. Luckily, he is saved by his father, King Regis, who appears with his glittering Phantom Swords and engages the beast. We soon join an adult Noctis, asleep in the Regalia as he and his friends make their way to Caem, and we learn that they’re on the run from Niflheim’s forces in the wake of the empire’s defeat of the Kingdom of Lucis and occupation of the Royal City. It seems that Noctis and his party were on their way to his impending wedding to Tenebrae’s Lunafreya Nox Fleuret when the Empire attacked, meaning they were out of the city when it fell. The Empire has told the world that all members of Lucis’ royal famiy were killed during the fighting, and they’re now hunting Noctis to make that lie a reality, sending Magitek soldiers to track him down.

As the four friends stop at a diner to grab some food, we sense that they’re at ease with one another, comfortable in each other’s presence despite Noctis’ royal blood. Ignis is a little stiffer than the rest, which is to be expected from his position as Noctis’ royal advisor, but Prompto – constantly hyperactive, taking pictures and wanting to play games – and Gladio – more laid back, confident – seem to enjoy engaging in a little friendly teasing when it comes to the Prince. Noctis himself is portrayed as a little immature; he’s rather unwilling to talk to his friends about his betrothed, Luna, and refuses to eat the salad in his burger, which both Gladio and Ignis gently chastise him for as he carefully extracts pieces of lettuce and tomato and discards them on poor Ignis’ plate. Given the circumstances he finds himself in, I’m sure we’ll see Noctis grow and mature somewhat across the following four episodes, though going by what we’ve seen of the game so far I wouldn’t be surprised to see him retain a hint of childish petulance.

Oh, Noctis...

Oh, Noctis…

Near the episode’s conclusion we’re treated to a nice battle scene, as Noctis and friends try to break through an imperial roadblock, and it’s a nicely-drawn scene, if a bit lacking in peril. It manages to showcase a number of Noctis’ abilities from the game, like his now-iconic Warp Strike, which he uses to stab a Magitek soldier in the head from extreme distance, as well as some of his other weaponry that materialises out of thin air and his almost ethereal dodging of enemy attacks. At one point we even see Noctis use Tempest, a wide-arcing Zweihander technique that you can use in last year’s Episode Duscae playable demo. For their part, the Empire’s Magitek soldiers don’t appear to pose much of a threat; they’re slow to react to Noctis and friends’ assault, and slow-moving and ineffective when they do.

These guys are pretty damn lethal in Episode Duscae, adept at punishing your mistakes and soaking up a ton of damage, but here they’re simply fodder: as the battle rages on, it becomes clear the empire have set a trap for our heroes. As a dropship thunders into the scene, dropping a reinforced metal crate onto the battlefield, out comes – you guessed it – that very same monster that nearly killed young Noctis years earlier. Consumed with anger, Noct charges the creature, sword in hand, and our first episode of Brotherhood ends on a cliffhanger.

It’s a good start to the series, with decent animation courtesy of A-1 Pictures, the studio behind Sword Art Online and Blue Exorcist. It does a good job of setting up our protagonists, offering a decent bit of interplay between them despite its brevity, and it’s nice to see that they’re all distinct enough to want to get to know them better. We have four more episodes to look forward to before the game releases, and it’ll be interesting to see how it leads into Final Fantasy XV itself. I’m certainly eager to find out. You can watch episode 1 of Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV below.