Few cross-platform games of recent times have disappointed as much as Square-Enix's Xbox 360 version of Final Fantasy 13 which underwhelmed with sub-HD visuals, awful video quality and an inconsistent performance level. We expected better from the publisher and it looks as though the new sequel - just weeks away from release - is set to address a bulk of these issues.
We first saw Final Fantasy 13-2 on the showfloor at last year's Eurogamer Expo. The two versions of the game on display during the event looked very, very close, and last week's PSN/Xbox Live demo release gave us our first opportunity to analyse the new game in greater depth and to see if our initial impressions stood up to a more rigorous tech analysis.
There are few surprises with the PlayStation 3 version of the demo. From a technical perspective, FF13-2 picks up right where its predecessor left off: the game still renders at a native 720p resolution with 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing (MSAA) applied, with a distinct aesthetic that's as much about the impressive post-processing effects work as it is about the undeniable quality of the core art assets. Final Fantasy 13-2 may look soft in places, but the lighting, blending and blurring create an impressive, easy-on-the-eye experience that dazzles with a battery of beautiful lighting effects - an extension of the style we saw deployed in the game's predecessor.
Indeed, there's very much a sense that from a technological point of view, the core engine hasn't been tweaked much at all on PlayStation 3, just that the developers are more confident with in how to make use of its capabilities. However, some of the things we would have liked to have seen fixed - such as the interlace-style 'alpha to coverage' effect on the hair of the main characters haven't been addressed. Clearly the tech team at Square-Enix had bigger issues on its mind, such as improving the lacklustre nature of the Xbox 360 engine port.
"Xbox 360 owners can take encouragement from the fact that the long list of visual issues we had with Final Fantasy 13 appears to have been comprehensively addressed with this sequel."
Based on what we've seen in the demo release, 360 owners can take encouragement from the fact that the long list of visual issues we had with the last game appears to have been comprehensively addressed with this sequel. The 1024x576 native rendering resolution from FF13 has gone, replaced with the same native 1280x720 2x MSAA set-up that PlayStation 3 owners enjoy. While the quality of the scaling in the last game was actually OK, the effect on the 'alpha to coverage' hair looked particularly dodgy, and the switch to native res addresses that, along with some of the more obvious issues with the "jaggies".
Less serious graphical defects that impacted the FF13 on Xbox 360 have also been fixed. The off-set shadow bias issue - which saw shadows submerged into textures and only partially visible - has also been fixed, for example. Indeed, aside from a slight difference in colour representation, the Xbox 360 version is now a very close match for its PlayStation 3 sibling - something you can check out for yourself in this 55-shot Final Fantasy 13-2 PS3/Xbox 360 comparison gallery.
But what of performance? The resolution deficiency on Xbox 360 did at least allow for the game to run more smoothly overall in the more linear 'corridor' levels (though falling apart somewhat in the more open chapters), so we were interested to see how the jump to native res with MSAA - with the inevitable need to tile the framebuffer from eDRAM to main memory - would impact frame-rate. The demo proves to be useful here, as the initial battle against the mighty hand of Atlus provides an excellent stress test for the engine.
"The Japanese version of FF13 weighs in at 7.75GB of data overall on Xbox 360, whereas the PS3 Blu-ray version utilises around 14GB of the 25GB available on a single-layer BD."
In the demo at least, basic traversal and combat seems to be very close to a locked 30 frames per second on both platforms but this selection of action - taken from the beginning of the demo - clearly presents challenges to both consoles. It's not often that we see the same scenes impacting performance simultaneously on both machines, but that's definitely what's happening here and it's clearly PlayStation 3 owners that benefit from smoother performance overall.
Of course, right now we only have access to the demo code and if there's one thing we learned from the FF13 experience it's that conclusions can change on a per-level basis, so we're really looking forward to putting the final versions of the game to the test. Curiously, the final code ships on just one Xbox 360 DVD rather than the three that were required to house FF13. We're told that the Japanese version (which is already available) weighs in at 7.75GB of data overall on Xbox 360, whereas the PS3 Blu-ray version utilises around 14GB of the 25GB available on a single-layer BD.
What this tells us is that FF13-2 is far less reliant on streaming video from the disc, preferring to utilise the engine itself to play out the cinematic sequences - this is a much more space-efficient way of doing things and a measure of how much more confident Square-Enix is in its engine this time around. But is the gulf in disc size just down to movie utilisation? Apparently not.
We're told that the disc structure of both versions is much the same, allowing for direct comparisons. A movie folder accounts for 1.64GB of data on PS3 (down from around 32GB on FF13, which tells its own story), while the 360 equivalent is just 188MB, indicating that while video sequences are sparse on the new game, they'll almost certainly look a whole lot better on the Sony console. However, this still doesn't account for the majority of the difference in data utilisation, which is centred on level assets. Uncompressed audio could may make a difference - but we'll be reserving judgement here until we've had a chance to get an extended playtest on both versions.
Final Fantasy 13-2 is due for release in North America on January 31 with the UK game arriving on February 3. We'll have full Face-Off coverage closer to release.
Update: Some new information on the cinematics was sent to us from Twitter user miladesn, who explains that further movie files - about 8GB in total - are embedded in the level data, explaining the disc size difference. The files utilise variable bitrate encoding of 20-30mbps, with ATRACPlus 5.1 audio using 512kbps.