Archives for category: Next-gen

Switch console
I’m pretty excited about the Switch. I have to admit, I like the idea of a hybrid console quite a bit; while I love my home console blockbusters as much as the next person, I have a lot of admiration for my handhelds, because they offer games that either don’t see release on home console, or that just make sense to play on a smaller screen wherever you are. Games like Danganronpa, Steins;Gate and Bravely Default, and others like Rhythm Thief, Yomawari and Etrian Odyssey make systems like the Vita and 3DS worth owning, so the prospect of a machine that gives me both my handheld fix and Nintendo’s evergreen home console titles certainly excites.

Before the unveil, when rumours of a hybrid console were still just that, Nintendo moved to consolidate its handheld and home console teams, leading many to believe that their new machine would give gamers the best of both worlds in one box, offering a steady stream of typically home console-style titles and more traditional handheld fare, all in one place. Post-reveal however, the waters were muddied somewhat when Reggie Fils-Aimé, President of Nintendo of America, stated that the Switch would not serve as a replacement for the company’s current handheld, the 3DS. This statement was further strengthened when, during a Nintendo Direct stream for the Fire Emblem series, a new handheld-only title was announced.

Of course, it’s a good thing that Nintendo are continuing to support their 65 million-strong 3DS userbase, but the only thing I could think in the aftermath of that announcement was, “why couldn’t they put that on the Switch as well?”

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a ground-up remake of the Japan-only 1992 Famicon game Fire Emblem Gaiden, lands on the 3DS in May, just two months after the Switch itself hits store shelves supported by a pretty meagre launch line-up. Of course, by May, new Switch owners will also be able to get hold of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, a Game of the Year-style port of the Wii U kart racer, as well as, presumably, a handful of other games, such as Disgaea 5 and Puyo Puyo Tetris. And while there was also an announcement for a new, Switch-only Fire Emblem at that Direct presentation, it won’t see release until sometime next year. So it strikes me as a bit odd that Nintendo didn’t think to put Echoes out on both systems, giving gamers the choice of where (and how!) they want to play the game, while also bolstering the Switch line-up at the same time.

It seems to me that Nintendo have an opportunity here to both beef up their new console’s catalogue and transition gamers over from the 3DS, by releasing those handheld games – and I’m making the assumption here that Echoes won’t be the last ever game made for the 3DS – on the Switch too. One problem here could be price, as gamers aren’t likely to pay significantly more money for a game that they could just get on their existing 3DS, and pre-order pricing for Switch games is currently a bit out-there (Super Bomberman R for fifty quid, anyone?). What I’d like to see Nintendo do is to make the games available on the same day and, crucially, at the same price for both systems. I’d be perfectly happy to pay, say, £30 to play a Fire Emblem Echoes or a Link Between Worlds-style Zelda adventure on my Switch, filling the gaps between the likes of Splatoon 2 and Super Mario Odyssey.

Project Octopath Traveler, from the Bravely Default team, suggests we will see smaller-scale, traditionally handheld-style games on the system.

Project Octopath Traveler, from the Bravely Default team, suggests we will see smaller-scale, traditionally handheld-style games on the system.

This is a new concept for a games machine, one that can be used as either a handheld or a home console, so lets see it take advantage of that unique selling point and bring as many games into our hands as possible. Handhelds like the 3DS and Vita are overflowing with tons of little Japanese curios, visual novels, old-school jRPGs and rhythm-action games, and sadly, eventually those systems are going to be put out to pasture. I want the Switch to pick up that slack, to continue that legacy, while pushing up the minimum target spec, allowing for more technically-impressive handheld games while also bringing Nintendo’s stellar home console output right into my lap, all at the same time. I want to see Nintendo really embracing the handheld aspect of the Switch; I want to see it become a super-powered successor to the Vita and 3DS as much as it is a sequel to the Wii U, even if they do keep insisting its primarily a home console.

Because if they mean to support the Switch and the 3DS separately, we have to wonder why they ever bothered to merge their handheld and home console teams in the first place.

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Nintendo Switch
Nintendo have finally unveiled their next platform, and it’s called Nintendo Switch.

Coming next March, Nintendo debuted the machine in a three-minute lifestyle video this afternoon, and it seems the rumours were right. The Switch sees Nintendo merging their handheld and home console strategies into one flexible platform, with a tablet that you can either attach tiny controllers to and take on the go, or dock at home to connect to your television. The console uses 3DS-like cartridges for its games because, obviously, you aren’t going to want to take a wallet of optical discs with you when you’re out and about, and while handy, this would seem to be the death knell for physical backward compatibility.

We’re yet to see official specs for the system, but NVIDIA this afternoon revealed that the Switch is powered by a custom Tegra system-on-chip – an ARM part, and another detail that has long been rumoured. Given that we don’t know what this custom SoC actually is (both X1 and the upcoming X2 have been rumoured), it’s difficult to guess at how the Switch will perform – at least relative to the Wii U, as it’s unlikely to trouble either Xbox One or PS4 in performance. But more important than that, surely, are the games that the machine will run.

If the leaks and rumours have taken a bit of the surprise out of the console reveal, there was at least the unexpected appearance of the upcoming Skyrim remaster in the reveal trailer, as someone was shown playing Bethesda’s fantasy RPG on a plane, before returning home to dock the tablet and continue their adventure. Also present were Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon, two titles which have been rumoured to be getting ports to the new platform, as well as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, NBA 2k17 and a 3D Mario game. Nintendo have also announced a selection of the third party support the Switch will, hopefully, enjoy, which includes names like Telltale, Take Two, From Software and more. You can see a larger list on this handy slide.

So let’s talk a little more about the hardware. As above, we don’t have specs yet, but we can talk in a bit more detail about the ways in which you’ll play the Switch. The tablet comes with two small detachable controllers, each containing an analogue stick and a collection of face buttons. These ‘Joy-Cons’ can be used separately, with one in each hand, or attached to a controller-shaped unit called the Joy-Con Grip to create a more traditional, albeit odd-looking, controller option. The Joy Cons can also be used for multiplayer games, with each player using one, and then there’s the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller as a separate option.

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It’s an interesting strategy for sure, and I think it makes sense given Nintendo’s relative strengths; their handhelds have pretty much always outpaced their home consoles in sales, and it’s hard not to argue that the 3DS has enjoyed better third party support than the Wii U. Indeed, even in an apparently shrinking handheld market, the 3DS has managed almost 60 million sales, so it’s not a bad idea for Nintendo to make an attempt at unifying both of those markets. With the Switch being fully capable of handheld play, it’ll be interesting to see how long the company continue to support their current portable system, but if the Switch comes in at a reasonable price and gets the next mainline Pokémon game, it could do very well for itself indeed.

The Switch concept is unlikely to do much for those that have been clamouring for Nintendo to just release a simple, traditional home console free of gimmickry or new ideas, but as someone who plays handhelds quite a lot, I’m pretty optimistic about it. I love my Vita, but one of the reasons I was excited for it in the first place was the promise of console quality games on the go. While there’s still a ton of interesting games coming to that platform, the bigger budget titles have long since dried up. With Switch, the possibility has returned, and even if third party content does slow to a Wii U-style trickle, there’s still the promise of playing Nintendo’s own games, like Breath of the Wild, while you’re on the go.

For now, we’ll have to wait for hardware specs and launch pricing, but you can check out the unveil trailer below.

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With the recent release of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition for Xbox One, the maiden release from Microsoft’s Vancouver-based team The Coalition, one of the biggest franchises of the previous generation is back in the spotlight where it belongs.

First announced back at E3 in June, its stage presence in Microsoft’s keynote put to bed months of rumours that we’d be getting remasters of the entire series, along the lines of the Master Chief Collection. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition brings Delta Squad’s first adventure to Xbox One, with some extra bells and whistles and visuals rebuilt from the ground up.

Now nine years old, Gears of War was a graphical powerhouse when it burst onto Xbox 360 in 2006, but in the cold, harsh light of 2015 it’s surprising how rough around the edges the game now looks. For most people though, that’s not how the game lives in their memories, and that’s the problem The Coalition had to tackle with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. To that end, the team decided to keep the base geometry, AI scripting and source code – ensuring the game plays exactly as we remember it – while rebuilding absolutely everything else. Every single model and asset – over 3,000 of them – were rebuilt from the ground up for the Xbox One. That includes cutscenes, which have been re-framed, re-shot and re-mo-capped in their entirety, while five previously PC-exclusive chapters of the game – comprising roughly two hours of gameplay – that had to be excised from the original Xbox 360 release have been reinstated here. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is not so much a remaster as it is a remake.

It’s not just in the visual department that the new team want to make their mark, though. Back when Epic were first building Gears of War, they had no idea whether it would become a franchise, with sequels, merchandise, companion novels and the like. As the franchise evolved, so did the games, with Gears 3 in particular digging deep into the backstory and characters from the extended universe material. The Coalition wanted to draw some of those interconnecting lines back into the very birth of the series, though to preserve the game mostly as we remember it, they chose to go about it in fairly subtle ways; in a panel at this year’s SDCC, the team talked about some of their efforts to tie the original game more deeply into the wider world of Sera, mentioning a message scrawled in blood – “Welcome to the Slab” – in the opening prison level as an example of this – that prison wasn’t actually named until Karen Traviss’ 2008 novel Aspho Fields. Other touches are more overt, yet still hidden to a degree; collectible CoG tags now unlock pages from the series’ canon of comic books, that you can later read in the game’s menus.

Just as they did on the 360, Microsoft are looking to push Gears in a big way for the Xbox One. The difference this time is that they now own the IP, having acquired it last January from original developer Epic Games. It’s not often we hear of IP changing hands in this way, but Microsoft had to move to secure the exclusivity of one of their biggest franchises from the previous gen; Epic’s ex-president Mike Capps had previously indicated that he’d like to see the series hit PlayStation platforms, and not long after the acquisition, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney revealed to Polygon that the developer had no plans for a continuation: “Because we weren’t planning on building any more Gears games,” Sweeney said, “we were just going to let that sit on the shelf for a decade or more, in case it had any future value to us.”

Clearly, Microsoft had to do something to secure the future of Gears, a franchise that Xbox head honcho Phil Spencer has called “part of the soul of Xbox.” It’s worth remembering what an enormous impact Gears of War had last gen: for many, it was the first truly ‘next-gen’ moment of the 360/PS3 cycle, influencing future projects like Uncharted, before going on to sell more than 22 million units and break the billion-dollar mark in franchise sales. So while we don’t know how much the acquisition cost Microsoft, and we’re unlikely to ever find out, its value to the Xbox brand is clear.

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We do know that it effectively cost Microsoft a studio though, or at least that studio’s name and potential (read: non-Gears) output. The IP acquisition led to Black Tusk (itself formerly Microsoft Vancouver) changing their name to The Coalition (a reference to the in-universe Coalition of Ordered Governments) and taking on Gears of War exclusively; much like fellow first party teams 343 Industries (Halo) and Turn 10 (Forza), The Coalition will now become ‘The Gears Studio’. This has unfortunately led to the shelving of Black Tusk’s previous project, known only as Shangheist (and of which only a vague concept trailer was ever shown), which has given some cause to decry Microsoft’s strategy of tying their small number of first party teams to a single franchise. However, Microsoft’s strategy for new IP appears to be geared more towards creating and curating new franchises with third party partners (see Platinum with Scalebound, Remedy’s Quantum Break, and ReCore with Comcept and Armature, for instance), while building up top-tier teams to handle their most valuable assets. With Microsoft retaining those IPs, this could be a smart way to do business and increase the brand’s pool of properties, but we shall have to wait and see how such a strategy pans out over the coming years.

One thing’s for sure though: with veteran series producer Rod Fergusson at the helm, Gears of War looks to be in good hands indeed, and the team at The Coalition is using their experience rebuilding the first game as a learning experience for the future. Upon Fergusson’s arrival at Black Tusk, as it was still known then, he tasked the team with a week or two of nothing but playing Gears games, the idea being to bring everyone up to speed quickly and furnish the entire team with an intimate understanding of what makes the games tick. The Ultimate Edition of Gears of War thus serves a handful of different functions: not only does it fill a slot in Microsoft’s end-of-year blockbuster blitzkrieg, but it also gets a Gears game on Xbox One to let people know that the series will see a continuation. Most importantly for the future of the franchise, it serves as, in Fergusson’s words, “the perfect on-ramp” for the team to take the franchise forward with Gears of War 4.

And what of Gears 4? That game was also fully unveiled back at E3, with Fergusson rather surprisingly demoing a six-minute playable slice that introduced the characters of JD and Kait and the beautifully rendered, dark and creepy world they inhabit. Not much is known about the setting for the game – we’re assuming it’ll still take place on Sera, but there’s no indication what time period it’s set in, who these two new leads are, or even what it is they’re doing.

One thing we can discern is, perhaps, the tone of the game. Gears has never been anything other than a big summer blockbuster action game, but the first instalment definitely had some horror stylings to it – it was massively influenced by Resident Evil 4, after all. For all its pale snarling monsters, impossibly-proportioned soldiers and Cole Train “Woo!”s, it was, at times, a darkly atmospheric experience, as anyone who remembers the foreboding, rain-soaked Lethia Imulsion Facility can attest, and while the later games didn’t necessarily lose that atmosphere, they definitely leant more towards the all-out-war side of the Gears experience. Gears 4 seems to be heading back to that tone, with the demo showcasing two lone Gears tracking some elusive, deadly prey through a deserted town in the midst of a deafening storm, only to discover that some hideous organic growth has taken up residence in the absence of people.

Just what is going on in Gears 4 will be the subject of much speculation for fans of the series as we head towards its late 2016 release, but right now, all eyes are on The Coalition’s shiny rebuild of the game that started it all. It’s time to start flexing that active reload finger.

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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.

Noctis FFXV Episode Duscae

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.

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD limited edition
Nine years after it was unveiled at E3 2006 and four years after it saw a Japanese release, Final Fantasy Type-0 is finally available outside of the Land of the Rising Sun. Fans have been clamouring for the PSP spin-off, originally called Final Fantasy Agito XIII and conceived as part of Square-Enix’s Fabula Nova Crystallis mythos, ever since it became available for Sony’s PSP in Japan, and for a while it seemed as if it might never come. The PSP was pretty much dead in the west by 2011, and with the Vita stumbling out of the gate, it seemed almost a certainty that the handheld title would never escape its homeland.

Thankfully, Square-Enix thought up another plan: release the game on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as an HD re-release. This may seem a cynical choice, using a much-anticipated handheld title as a means to ensure a decent-sized audience for the real big hitter, Final Fantasy XV – even more so when you consider the free demo of XV that comes with first print copies of Type-0 HD. For my part, I’m just happy we’re getting a game I’ve been thinking about playing for nigh on a decade.

And so, I pre-ordered the limited edition. Because of course I did. The limited edition comes housed in a hard box adorned with gorgeous artwork from series’ veteran Yoshitaka Amano, with a slipcover displaying the game’s logo. So what’s in that box? Well, if you’ve paid any attention to the image at the top of this piece, you’ll have a good idea. There’s a hardbound artbook with tons of colourful art and renders – some of which look a little spoilery, so beware if you’re grabbing a copy this weekend. We also have a 200-page manga, with the first few pages in full colour – again, this looks like it might be a bit spoilery, so it’s going to be set aside until I’ve finished my first run through the game.

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD manga

We also have a handful of Ace’s weaponised tarot cards, with art depicting some of the game’s eidolons. These are bigger than your average cards, with a glossy finish to them, and you can see them all in the gallery at the bottom. Last but not least, there’s a beautiful golden steelbook covered in that same Amano artwork that adorns the presentation box. I think it’s probably the nicest steelbook I own, next to the one from the limited edition of The Last Story, and houses both the game and soundtrack selection discs (as well as, of course, a download code for Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae). The latter is reasonably generous for a selection disc, holding fourteen tracks from Takeharu Ishimoto’s remastered soundtrack for Type-0 HD, including the suitably epic new theme, ‘Utakata’. I own the original, three-disc soundtrack, so it’ll be interesting to see how the remastered version stacks up.

I’m pretty chuffed with this limited edition, even if I feel like I have to steer clear of some aspects of it for the time being – I’ve managed to stay relatively spoiler-free with regards to the story of Class Zero, so now would be a bad time to ruin it for myself. So now, all that remains is to get stuck in and play the game. Especially as my Episode Duscae code doesn’t yet work. And if you’re interested in that, come back in a few days, as I’ll have some thoughts (and video!) discussing it.

For more images of the Final Fantasy Type-0 HD limited edition, check out the gallery below.

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.