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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Microsoft's Final Fantasy: Xbox as king of RPGs.

Few at this stage would argue that Halo won the battle of bleeding hearts and severed minds that was the console FPS war, and Xbox Live is indisputably superior to PS2 Online, even if the subscription figures don't do it justice.

Rather like Final Fantasy's unyielding Sephiroth, Microsoft keeps popping up with even more hit points and even more devastating attacks, tightening its grip on console market share and genre supremacy.

And yet despite its inconceivable wealth and apparently limitless ambition, Microsoft still manages to trip over its heavy armour and leave the backdoor open from time to time, and that's one reason why even the most ardent Xbox evangelist would have a hard time calling it the best platform for an RPG fan.

But like all good villains, Microsoft can adapt. That's why they're backing Fable, True Fantasy Live, Knights of the Old Republic, and a little role-player from Climax called Sudeki.

The future's bright

Climax may not be best known for its RPG skills, but few lucky enough to be sent the current preview code doing the rounds would question its potential. The world of Sudeki is utterly gorgeous, with visuals that push the Xbox so hard that it currently topples below 30 frames per second in several areas.

The preview code we first saw at E3 and have since spent many hours examining around the office consists of three sections; a bit of dungeon-based hackandslash, a boss fight, and the exploration of a small seaside village.

Of the three areas, the exploration section is the one most likely to send your jaw flopping to the floor like an anvil. Keen to emphasise the game's good looks, Climax first takes you on a breathtaking flyby of New Brightwater, zooming along the seafront past a huge airship, up to the top of a lighthouse and then along some creaky looking docks, past a spluttering fountain and up into the hills where your charges, two officers in the Illumina Guard on a mission to retrieve the wayward princess Ailish, are waiting. Very nice, you think, it looks smooth like Jak & Daxter, and there's no loss of detail as far as the eye can see. Very nice for a CG demo.

Only it isn't CG, as you rapidly come to realise when you stroll down the hilly path, watching your hero's pointy armour, broadsword and kicking legs shadowed effortlessly on the ground, as shafts of light and fluttering blossom punctuate your dark silhouette from above a canopy of trees.

Gaming's blonde bombshell

Turn right off the path and you'll find yourself in a small graveyard, overshadowed spottily by neighbouring foliage and its here that you first encounter Climax's morbid sense of humour whilst examining gravestones. "Here lies our cat Mao Mao - he was a bad cat and we're glad he's dead." "Hamble Frankson. I told you I was ill." Enough of that then and we're off into New Brightwater proper, and the first stop is the fountain in the town square, spraying water as beautiful particle effects. Moving closer, the hero Tal disturbs some white, dove-like gulls, who promptly evacuate with startled haste and flopping feathers to the nearest rooftop. They'll return when you walk away. Probably to take a dump on your car, given our knowledge of the hated gull.

It being such a hot day, with the sun low in the sky and the shadows already growing long, it seems like a nice time to head down to the waters lapping at the dock and have a word with some fishermen, but not before we've marvelled at the gloriously detailed airship, bobbing from side to side as its propellers and massive bellows creak gently above the glassy water. We smash a few crates in classic item-gathering style, trying to moderate our frothing lust for Sudeki by reminding ourselves that it's just an RPG, but it isn't long before we've scampered over a little bridge and up to the lighthouse, where we stand in the lush, knee-high and unkempt grass and marvel at the village below us, spinning the camera on end and gasping as the luscious, vibrant township is still standing on each subsequent rotation.

Back to earth

When Square makes those awe-inspiring cut sequences, this is what it wants its game world to look like. Lord only knows why it's shunning the Xbox - perhaps it's because a few of its artists have already left for Climax? Whatever, Square has got some catching up to do. Graphically, Sudeki's environments are literally second to none on the RPG stage. Not even the most extravagant PC production can beat this right now, and we were impressed even during a trade show that played host to the revolutionary Half-Life 2.

At the moment though, the game's beautiful visuals are its defining aspect. Delving into familiar conversation trees, even with the odd spot of witty, non-American voiced dialogue; running up against walls like a busy young lady on a treadmill staring at VH1; and mapping potions to the different arrows on the D-pad, is enough to remind you that this is a pretty 'safe' RPG by design. Solving the village's mysteries, like the absence of the lighthouse bulb, is done by saying everything to everyone, and then perhaps using Elco's gimmicky jetpack to zoom from one carefully predefined dockside perch to a treasure-chest laden island just beyond.

And while New Brightwater is a glorious example of the game's attention to environmental detail, with sumptuous texturing, rounded, flawless detail and beautiful lighting, the character designs and models still struck us as spindly and rather forgettable. Needless to say they're so detailed you'd need a magnifying glass to pick out the seams, but they could do with some imagination. Just a thought.

Climaxed too soon?

In terms of gameplay, combat is the main area that Sudeki takes a few steps in its own direction. Ostensibly real-time and driven by Phantasy Star-alike hackandslash attacks, players can slow things down to a sub-Bullet Time crawl by pulling up the inventory, giving you adequate but not limitless time to pick from a range of magical attacks, which can be strung together with those of other party members assuming you have the right magical resources. These attacks once again emphasise the game's visual prowess, summoning immense, fiery, translucent avatars who strike down into the ground in slow motion with magical swords, sending shockwaves through battered enemies, while you retain camera control enough to spin round their attacks going "cor!" Clearly Climax wanted to shove the freedom gifted by the Xbox hardware in its competitors' faces with that frivolous inclusion.

Like the combat, the boss fight, against a mechanical, laser-spitting guardian with a "weak spot" to exploit when it drops its shields to attack, has an equally familiar feel to it, but we get the impression that he's a small fish in a big ocean. After all, why show off your finest nasty in an early press demo? If he's an example of the lower end of the scale, we can't wait to see the other extreme.

But are enemies that spawn other enemies, chained magical attacks and lots of shield and sword-juggling in close quarters really enough to give Sudeki the individuality it clearly aspires to? Perhaps not, but with a glorious graphics engine, decent handling of character growth and a suitably engaging narrative, it could be one of the finest RPGs in a long time when it's finished, and along with BioWare's reportedly excellent KOTOR and Big Blue Box's ambitious Fable, more than capable of converting yet more gamers - not to mention RPG developers - to the Xbox cause.