Archives for posts with tag: impressions


As you may know, last Tuesday saw the release of the Xbox One X, Microsoft’s second bite at the current generation cherry which aims to redress the power balance seen between the base PlayStation 4 and Xbox One since they released back in November 2013. As the Xbox One has been my primary platform this gen, I decided to pick one up, and you can check out our unboxing of the ‘Project Scorpio’ edition console over on A Game with Chums.

Having bought a 4K television in the middle of last year, I’ve been waiting for this console to push some ultra high definition content to it; I have previously borrowed an Xbox One S for a few days, and found myself wowed by Warcraft: The Beginning in 4K/HDR, but I was really looking forward to seeing how games fared on the new system, especially favourites like Halo 5: Guardians, which uses dynamic scaling on original hardware, sometimes reaching as low as 1152×810. Even unpatched, the game should run at a full 1920×1080 at all times, plus receive forced 16x anisotropic filtering, cleaning up textures at oblique angles and making the game just look better all around.

Fortunately though, Halo 5 was one of the (many!) games slated to be updated for the One X, with many patches dropping before the new console even went on sale. In the week running up to release, I had a good handful of my games updated and ready to go on my external hard drive; I just needed to plug it into my new console and get going.

Obviously, being a massive Halo fan, Halo 5 was the first game I wanted to try when my system arrived, and the results were immediately obvious. The game just looks so clean now. It still uses dynamic scaling, but now both the upper and lower bounds are far, far higher. Texture filtering has also been improved, and though the core assets are untouched, the fact that resolution and filtering are so much better just means you can see far more detail than you ever could before – even down to tiny incidental text on weapon models. Halo 5: Guardians was always a pretty game, if a bit blurry. On Xbox One X, it looks spectacular, and I can’t wait to see what 343 can do with Halo 6 on the new machine.

The next game I wanted to check out was Gears of War 4. Honestly, I thought this game looked absolutely ridiculous on the base Xbox One, so I was intrigued to see how The Coalition would update it for the new machine. The answer, apart from a much higher rendering resolution of course, is higher resolution textures. The game already offered HDR if you had an Xbox One S (and I did try it out on that console when I borrowed it – it looked great), but the higher fidelity textures are the real standout here. With the game looking so crisp and clean at 4K, the upgraded texture work really shines, and the game looks absolutely phenomenal. Every time I load the game up, it drops my jaw.

Gears 4 already looked fantastic though, and the game that has impressed me the most so far, offering the biggest leap from base hardware to One X, has to be Dishonoured 2. Just look at the image at the top of this piece, a screenshot I took of the Dreadful Wale’s engine room – it could pass for a bullshot! The textures and materials look spectacular, and there’s not even a hint of aliasing.

Dishonoured 2 is another title that has received upgraded textures, and the difference is immediately apparent. Everything seems to have been improved, from geometry to textures to skin shaders; just take a look at our video below, where you can immediately see the upgrade in texture work on the door behind Captain Mayhew. Then pay attention to the Captain herself, who looks far more detailed than she ever did before. Where her face seemed a little flat on the Xbox One, you can now make out creases, scars and freckles in her skin.

It’s a massive upgrade. When Arkane announced Dishonoured 2, I was extremely excited for it, and watched all the footage the Lyon-based studio put out. I thought it looked wonderful. But when my Xbox One copy turned up, I was a little underwhelmed by it, visually. The excellent art design shone through of course, but it didn’t look great on the console. One Xbox One X it looks like the same game on a different generation of hardware, the leap is that big. In fact, it looks so good that, after recording the above video, I decided to shelve my One X-enhanced Gears of War 4 playthrough to play this instead, finally getting around to my high chaos Corvo run (I previously did a zero kill Emily playthrough).

It’s safe to say that I’m incredibly happy with my purchase, especially as I already had the TV for it. Now I can play console games in the highest fidelity and watch some more UHD blu rays. And that’s without even mentioning how small and quiet the machine is, or what it can do for backwards compatible Xbox 360 games. This thing is an absolute monster, and I can’t wait to see what developers can do with it going forward.

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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.

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.

Drew and Thuban
Since its unveiling at E3 2014, gamers have wondered just what kind of game Platinum’s Xbox One exclusive would be. Until recently, all we had to go on was a pretty-but-cryptic CGI announcement trailer that did little to describe the kind of things we’d be doing in-game. At Gamescom last week, we finally got our answer.

If people had been expecting a character action game, perhaps they were a touch disappointed. But if there’s one thing you can say about Platinum’s output, it’s that they don’t much like repeating themselves, so it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise to discover that, with Scalebound, the Osaka-based team are treading fairly virgin soil.

In a six-minute demo at Microsoft’s Gamescom press conference, we got to see Hideki Kamiya’s new action RPG, starring some guy and a massive dragon. That guy, Drew, has somehow been transplanted to a fantasy world that bears more than a passing resemblance to Avatar‘s Pandora – all floating islands and cascading waterfalls – and finds himself bonded to an enormous dragon called Thuban. Perhaps as a consequence of this, he also has a scaly, claw-tipped arm.

The world Drew finds himself in, Draconis, is sustained by an energy source called The Pulse. Much like its inspiration, it pervades and links all living things, though hopefully there will be no sign of any midichlorians. It’s this force (sorry) that links Drew and his dragon, the last of its kind in Draconis, and one cannot survive without the other; should Thuban fall in battle, so will Drew. Thus, the player will often find themselves playing as much of a support role as an offensive one, backing up his draconic buddy with heals while Thuban goes claw-to-claw with enormous monsters, like the Gamescom demo’s titanic mantis.

This is still a Platinum game though, and there’ll still be plenty of hacking and slashing for Drew to take part in. In the first combat encounter against a group of plate-mail-armoured knights, you’d be forgiven for being reminded of Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy XV, except there’s an angry dragon beside you instead of three impeccably-coiffed bros. Combat looks to be somewhat pared back compared to the usual Platinum extravaganzas, but it still looks tight and responsive, if not massively flashy and over the top. Drew flashes into combat with wide, arcing sword swipes, stopping to defend himself with his shield, and while there is no crafting mechanic in Scalebound, there are other weapons to be found, such as a bow, a spear, and an enormous greatsword that would make Cloud Strife blush. As well as standard blades and bows, you’ll also be able to find weapons with innate elemental properties, which should further extend Drew’s utility against Draconis’ oversized menagerie. Using his scaled dragon arm, Drew can also tether himself to larger enemies, clambering aboard them to deal large amounts of damage, and maybe even sever a gigantic limb in the process. And if he feels like he’s not quite pulling his weight in battle next to Thuban, Drew can also draw upon that Pulse energy to clad himself in thick, scaled armour, dialling up his speed and damage output in the process.

Thuban will act independently for the most part, though the player can direct his attention to certain enemies and structures that might be in need of some attention from a big stompy dragon. Thuban can also be heavily personalised, from armour, horns and offensive tail-blades to the elemental effect of his breath; need to hit some ungodly, building-sized nightmare creature with a frigid blast of ice, rather than the more traditional flaming dragon-breath? No problem, you can make that happen. But in order to build up Thuban, you’ll need to gather gems from defeated enemies. These gems are only available if you land the killing blow as Drew, so while you could easily rely on Thuban to wipe out fodder enemies in one hit rather than wade into battle yourself, you’ll miss out on an opportunity to develop your dragon. Platinum really wants you to strike a fine balance between the pair, and they really want you to feel a connection to your own, personalised vision of Thuban. “The more you invest in that dragon and in your relationship with that dragon, the more that dragon becomes yours,” says Creative Director JP Kellams.

And what of the world of Draconis itself? Media have been quick to call Scalebound an open-world RPG, but it’s not a term that Platinum themselves are using, preferring to call the game ‘non-linear’, while also promising that the game-world will be vast – it’s going to have to be to accommodate Thuban and some of the larger creatures we’ve seen. While the team won’t be drawn on the openness of the game’s world, they are promising many different villages and towns across Draconis, each with their own personal look. In one of their ‘First’ articles, IGN were treated to views of a “village that stretches off into the distance.” Hopefully, if the world is big enough, we’ll be able to fly Thuban between these outposts of civilisation.

The same article states that Drew and Thuban will have to gain new skills in order to fully traverse and explore Draconis, which perhaps brings to mind a gear- or skill-gated progression system; could Scalebound be a post-Okami Kamiya taking another crack at the Zelda formula, perhaps? From the sounds of it, rather than levelling up, Drew will gain skill points based on his actions and his performance: ““If you heal your dragon, or execute other supportive role-type actions, you’ll be able to earn skill points, ” Kamiya explains. “By motivating the player to participate in actions and behaviours that are meaningful, it will… help you progress further”. Drew can also extend his earning potential by chaining kills together, adding a bonus onto the skill points he has already gained: “If you’re successful at consecutively defeating the enemies, the longer that chain will last,” says Kamiya.

scalebound

But if all this focus on skill points, gems and customisation gives you cause to worry about the action side of things, fear not; Platinum aren’t about to let their hard-earned reputation slide. “Even though I know we’ve been emphasising that this is an action RPG, because I need to get that message across – I hope you agree that we know how to make action games,” Kamiya told IGN. “We know how the responsiveness of a move is what really differentiates our games from other action games. That’s what’s so special about our games, whether it’s Bayonetta or my previous title Devil May Cry. So one thing that’s not going to change is that how great it feels when Drew is in battle. You’re not going to feel like it’s worse than what we’ve done before. The sort of intuitiveness and the response to the action that Drew is taking? That will remain at the quality that’s always defined our action games.”

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.

FFXV party Duscae garage

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.