Sunday 20 October 2013

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Square Enix recently relaunched «Final Fantasy XIV», in an effort to grab a bigger piece of the lucrative MMORPG pie. This marks their third throw of the gauntlet into this arena, but despite being the preeminent maker of traditional RPGs, their online offerings have so far been met with only moderate enthusiasm by fans of the genre.

Their first attempts were orchestrated by Squaresoft veteran Hiromichi Tanaka, perhaps best known as the producer of classics like «Secret of Mana» and «Chrono Cross».

After playing «EverQuest» in the late 90s, he was inspired to make a «Final Fantasy» which focused primarily on player interactions.

This resulted in «Final Fantasy XI Online», which was released in Japan on May 16, 2002. It was brought across the pond to the US the following year, and to Europe the year after that.

It was however quickly eclipsed by «World of Warcraft».

The main reason for this was likely that «Final Fantasy XI» was very much an "old-school" MMORPG, where teamwork was mandatory in order to advance. It was also a little bit too reminiscent of «EverQuest» for its own good. But It was not without merit, and has so far been the biggest financial success in the Square Enix portfolio, due to its dedicated and sufficiently large player base providing steady income from subscription fees.

However, it never quite reached the astronomical heights as the more popular and player friendly «World of Warcraft». «Final Fantasy XIV» was meant to change that, and was originally released on september 22, 2010 in order to beat «World of Warcraft: Cataclysm» to market. This was likely too soon, as the release was an incoherent and unfinished mess, almost universally reviled by critics and fans alike.

Due to its less than stellar reception, the reigns of the project was yanked from Tanaka's hands and given to the somewhat younger Naoki Yoshida before the year was over. Yoshida and his team have since been working hard to turn the game into something worthy of the «Final Fantasy» name, and have practically rebuilt the game from scratch. The result is «Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn».

Friday 3 May 2013

Purple Haze

«Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon» serves up VHS era nostalgia by the bucket for those of us who remember the eighties as a purple neon haze.

It is the first game I have seen fit to pre-order based on the awesomeness of its cover art design.

This is a game which definitively doesn't take itself too seriously. It might be appropriate to call it a spoof on eighties action B-movies like «Eliminators», but based on the amount of enthusiasm and care which has been channeled into the project, I am rather leaning towards tribute.

Ubisoft even convinced Michael Biehn, co-star of «The Terminator» and «Aliens» to voice the main character. Also, it has 16-Bit era pixel-art cut-scenes and fluorescent dinosaurs who shoot LASERS! What's not to like :)

Of special note is the soundtrack, composed by Australian duo Power Glove who has managed to create a truly inspired synth-based soundtrack of the kind you rarely find anymore.

The tracks generally have a thematic resemblance to compositions from legendary movie composer Vangelis.

Particularly the main theme has a strong «Blade Runner» vibe to it. Other tracks like «Blood Dragon Theme (Reprise)» invoke the sonic imagery of Harold Faltermeyer with a dash of Jean Michel Jarre. Brilliant stuff.

Tuesday 30 April 2013

Realism in gaming

I had an epiphany a few years into the 7th console generation. I found that I was no longer particularly fond of video games. This surprised me, as I had loved gaming ever since the early eighties and games had up to this point kept getting better as they evolved.

At the time, I had a clunky, big and somewhat noisy initial model Playstation 3. This was the one which was still backwards compatible with older Playstation titles, and I found that instead of enjoying new games on it, I primarily used it to watch movies or replay older Playstation games.

I initially figured that this probably meant I was getting too old to be a gamer. I had often suspected the day would eventually come, and that what still kept me around was likely just nostalgia.

As it turned out though, I was just playing the wrong games.

I had made the mistake of attributing my disenchantment with contemporary titles to internal factors, instead of the real issue, which was that most games at the time just weren’t very good.

This was the age of the “realistic" first or third person shooter, where realism mostly meant that level designers had to use a lot of grey or brown assets.

Fortunately, games like: «Braid» and «Geometry Wars» (which I discovered quite late), with their colourful and completely unrealistic play-fields rekindled my passion for gaming again. As it turns out, I like my games to not be "realistic".

Wednesday 3 April 2013

BattleBlock Theater

UPDATE (06.03.2014): The release of «BattleBlock Theater» on Steam was accompanied by an additional trailer, just as awesome and hilarious as the original one. 

Wednesday 27 March 2013

The Sega Dreamcast

Sega released its Dreamcast console in November 1998. Its lifespan in the market was relatively short, and it was Sega's last console before they pulled out of the home entertainment hardware industry. It did however have great games, and was in many ways ahead of its time. 

Upon release, things were looking great for the Dreamcast. Demand was so high that Sega had problems filling pre-orders both at the Japanese launch in 1998 and the US launch the year after. At one point, the Dreamcast even outsold the Nintendo 64, which was the second most popular console at the time. Sony's Playstation however, was the one to beat.

Saturday 9 March 2013

Final Fantasy XI, Part 3 - The magical world of Vana'diel

It all began with a stone, Or so the legend says. In ages past, a sentient jewel, enormous and beautiful banished the darkness. Its many-colored light filled the world with life and brought forth mighty Gods. Bathed in that light, the world entered an age of bliss. Until, after a time, the Gods fell into slumber. That world was called: Vana'diel.

When you start your adventuring career in «Final Fantasy XI», the lands pictured in the beautiful map at the head of this article will be your initial stomping grounds. The map, drawn by long time «Final Fantasy» conceptual designer Yoshitaka Amano, depicts the so called middle lands of Vana'diel, which consist of the continents of Quon and Mindartia

Saturday 23 February 2013

A Realm Reborn: Final Fantasy XIV Benchmark

The first benchmark demo for Square Enix's reboot of «Final Fantasy XIV» was made available to the public yesterday. «Final Fantasy XIV» was originally released in 2010 to less than stellar reviews, and the reboot is due to start its beta testing phase in a few days. Is this second attempt going to be able to redeem the «Final Fantasy Online» name? It is still a little early to say, but based on the demo, I am cautiously optimistic.

The «Final Fantasy Online» games have traditionally had at least one of these benchmarks available as part of their promotional material ever since the early days of «Final Fantasy XI». In fact, it was a benchmark demo which eventually sold me on that particular game (have a look at the video at the bottom of this article to see the footage in question).

Compared to the benchmark that accompanied the abysmal original release of «Final Fantasy XIV», which basically was just a copy of the game's rather drab and boring intro sequence, this new one is a proverbial firework of locations, monsters, characters and special effects.

Monday 18 February 2013

Eye of the Beholder

«Eye of the Beholder» box art by Jeff Easley
As the eighties were ending, Metallica raged about the nature of freedom in their song «Eye of the Beholder». A role-playing video game (RPG) with the same name came out a few years later. Even though the two had little in common, role-playing games and metal went hand in hand in those days. As such, the title may have lured quite a few role-playing metal-heads to try the game out. 

The game «Eye of the beholder» from 1990 is a grid based RPG with a first person perspective. It is not the first game in this genre. That honor belongs to «Dungeon Master» from 1987, which in many ways was a much more revolutionary game.

«Eye of the Beholder» is however the game most people think about when they reminisce about old first person RPGs on computers. Likely because it was totally awesomez.

Winning formula

The game is based on the rule system from the tabletop role-playing game «Advanced Dungeons & Dragons», which the year before had been released in a new, polished and user friendly second edition.

It also had respectable pedigree. Westwood, the developers, might have yet to make a proper name for themselves, but the publisher was Strategic Simulations Inc (SSI), whom were established heroes of the computer RPG scene due to their «Gold Box» series of games. This series, which started with «Pool of Radiance», was also based on «Advanced Dungeons & Dragons».

Saturday 12 January 2013

Final Fantasy XI, Part 2 - Adventurers of Vana'diel

The playable races of Final Fantasy XI, from left to right: TaruTaru (Male and Female), Galka, Elvaan (Male and Female),
Mithra and Humes (Male and Female).
«Final Fantasy XI» is set in the world of Vana'diel. As an adventurer of Vana'diel, you live a highly subsidized existence. For instance, one of your perks is free housing courtesy of your starting city. You also get to stay in rent-a-rooms in other cities, ironically without having to pay rent. Adventurer perks further include housekeeping in the form of a Moogle, a tiny bat-winged plush-demon who is somehow always waiting for you wherever you are staying, having already brought with it all your stuff. This adorable creature is as such more magically potent than any monster you will encounter on your adventures, and is therefore potentially the most dangerous creature in the world.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Is the «Piston» Steam Box a viable gaming PC?

The much anticipated Steam Box is finally revealed at the International Consumer Electronics Show 2013 in Las Vegas. It is named «Piston» which is actually quite clever, as pistons are important parts in a steam engine, and are presumably also on speaking terms with other mechanical components like valves.

The question is: Will it be any good? More specifically, is it possible to pack a gaming PC into the small form factor of Valve and Xi3's rather snug looking design prototype? The answer depends on how you define the term gaming PC.