Summary: In the last article, Alan examined the approach each console used for its technology. In this article, he reviews two flagship games for the PS2, Gamecube, and XBox, and explores how these exclusive titles define each console's personality.
When you compare different products, it usually makes sense to compare the products with an identical set of benchmarks. For video cards, you can’t benchmark Unreal for one card and Quake 3 for another and then somehow compare the framerates. For cars, comparing lap times from two different tracks is meaningless. With consoles, it’s different.
Since 1999, every forward-looking PlayStation 2 article mentioned the triad of Sony’s Gran Turismo 3, Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 2, and Square’s Final Fantasy X. These are the games exclusive to the PlayStation 2 and would suppress those who would dare question the power of the PS2. These would be the games that would stun the world with not just graphics but next-generation gameplay. So we’ve been told. Two years after the Japanese launch of the PS2, all three games have shipped. Gran Turismo 3 lived up to the hype, offering cutting edge graphics and great gameplay to any fan of cars and driving, but the question is if Final Fantasy X and the extremely hyped Metal Gear Solid 2 can keep the PS2 momentum going strong.
Like FF7 before it, having Final Fantasy X exclusive to the PlayStation 2 secured Sony an early international lead in this console war. FFX is probably directly responsible for millions of PS2’s sold. In Japan alone, FFX sold almost 2 million copies in the first week and Square predicts worldwide sales of 10 million copies after all is said and done. Though Final Fantasy X did not receive the same amount of hype as Metal Gear Solid 2 did, we still had enormous expectations for the game. After playing, we now realize just how important Final Fantasy X is for the whole genre.
There will be those who lament the loss of the “classic Square era” when things were simpler with a truly “fantasy” setting, when the characters where like noble knights on a quest as opposed to the teenagers in tropical worlds of Final Fantasy X. While the old-school RPGs from Square are good, the new direction of Final Fantasy X is one with significant promise as well. The western tradition of Arthurian fantasy is one that has become so familiar to us that it no longer seems unusual or fantastic. For this game, Square crafted an imaginary world with stronger Eastern influences. The result is an international world where even the player is unable to predict what setting will come next, where things truly do seem exotic and foreign and yet have traces of familiarity. Just in case you’re worried that an Asian influenced storyline is one that may be difficult to appreciate, it’s useful to remember that according to George Lucas himself, Star Wars: A New Hope is largely adapted and inspired from Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress.
SIDEBAR: Rumors that saltwater/reef aquariums are impossibly difficult are just rumors.
Graphically, Final Fantasy X is both very good and very poor at the same time. The texture aliasing (shimmering) and polygonal aliasing are both evident and initially distracting, flaws of the PS2 hardware. In-game character animation seems imprecise and unrealistic as compared to the motion-captured FMV. Yet, when your character stops moving (hence removing the shimmering), FFX begins to look like a masterpiece. The backgrounds done in full 3D are exceptionally detailed with stylized trees that have polygonal leaves. Facial animation is used to convey emotion. Motion blur is well executed and used sparingly during battles. Depth-of-field effects are implemented widely, although the effect isn’t as clean as it could be, marred by a lack of a blurring (on the DOF) and significant edge-aliasing. Despite the occasional appearance of an upgraded PSone engine, the real beauty of the game is found in its art as opposed to graphics. The environments draw you into the exotic world of Spira and its tropical and evergreen forests, deserts, plains, and mountains. Despite technical flaws, FFX is one of the best visual experiences on the PS2.
The pre-rendered CG also deserves mention. Although it is no longer fashionable to use FMV, Final Fantasy X’s cut scenes are inseparable from the game. Console RPGs are the medium of a novelist, a cinematographer, and director -- watching the game is part of playing the game. Those who would vehemently disagree probably wouldn’t enjoy any game in this genre. That said, the FMV in FFX impresses with jaw-dropping detail and fluidity. Imagine the quality of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within with more interesting characters. Final Fantasy X contains full voice acting for the main characters and most of the important non-playable characters as well. Although FFX’s voice acting isn’t bad at all, it’s not as good as other games. Even so, you grow to enjoy the characters and end up ignoring the sometimes artificial delivery – a tribute to strength of FFX’s story.
In addition to the narrative/exploration portion of the game, FFX has a completely redesigned turn-based battle system. Although only three characters fight at any given time, they can tag in and out of battles at any given time. This seemingly trivial feature makes a big difference in strategy because each of your characters has their own strengths and weaknesses, so continuous management and planning is required. Repetitive battles can be a barrier for RPG novices; however, FFX goes a very long way to keep things interesting and enjoyable.
As one of the three big-budget PS2 games, Final Fantasy X came with high expectations. In development since 1999, and given Square’s history, most journalists including ourselves believed that Square’s investment would put Final Fantasy X at the peak of the PS2 graphics competition. This was our oversight. After spending so much time with the game, it is clear that the effort was put not simply into the graphics, but into the production as a whole. Even with its technical blemishes, Final Fantasy X is undoubtedly one of the best RPGs ever designed, one that not only can be appreciated by an RPG fan, but one that can be appreciated by all.
SIDEBAR: When you’re young, your heartbeat fluctuates when you inhale and exhale due to minute changes in oxygen concentrations. You lose this ability slowly as you age.
Some of you might be tempted to skip this section of the article. Maybe you think you already got your share of MGS2 coverage a month ago. While you’ve probably read reviews and articles about MGS2 at other magazines and websites, you’ve probably also read that Metal Gear Solid 2 couldn’t be hyped any further, and we just proved that’s simply not true. However it’s also the excessive hype surrounding MGS2 that makes it so difficult to talk about.
Playing a movie
If Final Fantasy X was the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” of games, Metal Gear Solid 2 is “The Rock” meets X-Files. Metal Gear Solid 2 is the action movie meets videogame concept done right. There are other games with a strong cinematic feel, however Metal Gear Solid 2’s is filled with Hollywood-like editing and cinematography, top-notch voice acting, melodramatic sequences in slow-motion, plenty of explosions, plenty of plot holes, and some of the best parts being in the trailer. Don’t make any mistake though; it’s still a good game.
In MGS2, your character has been given a multitude of new moves such as using enemies as human shields, hiding in lockers, dropping down on their head, and throwing empty clips to lure guards. The trailers featured many of these stunts but these moves are rarely used in the actual game. There is frequently no opportunity and never a necessity. The addition of the first-person perspective has destroyed the balance in MGS2 for veteran FPS players. Sneaking around takes on less of an emphasis since the first person targeting allows you to subdue your opponents from so far away with consistent headshots. You can force yourself to avoid offensive attacks and play the game in stealth. However this doesn’t come naturally, a flaw of the level design and scripting. Ultimately, the gameplay falls slightly behind the original Metal Gear Solid in terms of “tactical espionage action.”
The storyline of MGS2 is less of an action movie than it is a mystery or conspiracy thriller, a marked change from the trailers. What you think you know is true and false will be challenged throughout the game, confirmed, rebuked, and then confirmed again. MGS2 has more fakes, reversals, surprises and characters with ulterior motives than any other game. Most importantly, the player is fooled most of the time and it is IMPOSSIBLE to predict the ending up until the very last point. In addition, the story can be read from multiple levels which has led to threads on console message boards with a thousand posts. This shift away from a more direct story makes the game less satisfying to finish since there are too many unresolved issues and plot holes. What’s noteworthy is how the game plays you along the way. If you don’t expect an action movie, the tortuous path the story takes is very interesting.
Graphically MGS2 is one of the best looking games on any system. Characters are richly modeled and move accurately. On top of the polygonal detail, MGS2 features gorgeous environmental effects. MGS2 is, like FFX, a game that will be most appreciated by those who agree that watching cut scenes is as important as playing the game. Actual gameplay accounts for perhaps 60% of game time, voice-acted CODEC messages (text screens) are responsible for as much as 10-15% of the game, and real-time cinemas filling the rest. These real-time cinemas are designed with the best of Hollywood techniques. The camera is almost always in motion with paths that seem to have been chosen with great care rather than just relaying on a handful of key frames. The attention to good cinematography doesn’t stop at just the camera work, but also the position of characters in a scene, lighting, Harry-Gregson Williams music, and editing. The graphics are further refined through careful use of motion and depth-of-field blur that not only looks great, but is judiciously used. The excitement you had after watching the E3 trailers are just a sample of what Konami’s team has to offer in this section.
The original Metal Gear Solid is famous for its innovative gameplay, movie-like presentation, and magnificent voice acting. While Metal Gear Solid 2 stumbles a bit in the gameplay, it maintains the strong voice acting and takes videogames to a new level in terms of Hollywood action-movie style cinematography. Even the most vocal detractors of the game’s story are looking forward to MGS3 where the storyline is expected to return to its original path. The world’s greatest game it is not, but it’s a fun 11 hours to spend.
SIDEBAR: Widescreen cut scenes are a great way to transparently reduce memory requirements and essentially improve graphics performance for free.
Been there, done that
As one of the first games announced for the GameCube, Rogue Leader received great press coverage throughout its development as what would probably be the last hurrah for the “Classic Trilogy” for some time, a welcome solace after Jar-Jar. Adding to the hype was Factor5, the most vocal proponents of the Gamecube’s hardware power, presenting the game as if it would be the best graphics ever produced. Early screenshots looked great, and Rogue Leader was the first Gamecube game I wanted to play and I eagerly anticipated its release. I realize now that I could have already played Rogue Leader three years ago in Rogue Squadron PC.
Apples and apple-pears
The game pales in comparison to the original X-Wing for the PC. Though marketed as a flight sim, X-Wing was trivially more complex but ultimately more rewarding. “But Alan! That’s not a fair comparison, you’re comparing two different types of games.” True, one game is the type that’s fun to play and one is the type gets old after an hour.
In the previous article, we mentioned that Flipper’s “GeForce made faster and cheaper” seemed like a good idea if it were not for exotic flexible T&L systems. Likewise, Rogue Squadron was a very good-looking game when it came out. Rogue Squadron with higher resolution S3TC textures and more advanced multi-texturing effects such as bump-mapping and more polygons sounds like a good idea as well. However, we’ve come to expect more and I was ultimately disappointed with the graphics of Rogue Leader and stale gameplay.
If you’re a die-hard Star Wars or Rogue Squadron fan then Rogue Leader is a game you might want to look into as it is still the best looking Star Wars game currently available. For the rest of us, you should pass on Rogue Leader, leaving it just for a rental or saving money for the DVDs of the Original Trilogy coming out later this year.
SIDEBAR: I have the Original Trilogy on LaserDisc and a THX certified Episode IV. This was back in the day when THX mastering meant a lot and only cool people knew what widescreen was.
The best way to describe Super Smash Brothers:Melee is a kid-friendly Dead or Alive 3 with a better single player experience. Like DOA3, or a good party game, the game can be as fun to watch as it is to play and it is to play. The graphics, while simple at times given the nature of characters, are very clean and appealing and make use of high polygon gouraud shaded characters and specular highlights. Style counts a lot in the game and you’ll be penalized points for repeating the same move over and over...making the game less repetitive. The controls are very intuitive with two attack buttons, modified by the directional pad, a jump button, a rarely used block button, and a button for dropping weapons. In addition to being easy to pick up, SSB:M also features 4-player simultaneous fights making it an ideal party game that can satisfy all.
How it differs
The gameplay does not involve a traditional health bar. While each attack weakens your opponent, the round isn’t complete when their damage has reached 100%. The goal is to knock your opponents off the level rather than knock them out. Fresh opponents may be able to jump (or fly) back when near the edge, but as players grow weaker, physical attacks push them farther away from center stage, making it more difficult to recover. At 60% damage, you may be at risk of losing when near the edge of the levels. However, it may take 200% damage before you’re knocked out if you always loiter near the middle of the stage. Despite the wide variety of characters, character balance is very good due in part to this system, but also because no individual move is actually that powerful no matter how cool it looks.
The single player mode includes a new Adventure mode in which you have to navigate a side scrolling level of sorts before reaching the actual battle. It’s more like a bonus stage than anything else, however it’s a nice diversion to the regular battles. The Mushroom Kingdom’s Mario-esque level is probably the most memorable, but each has its own unique flavor.
With the Xbox being the system with the latest graphics hardware, it’s interesting to note that the best game for the Xbox is the one with the most framerate stutters. Graphics flaws aside for a moment, a quick visit to our sister-site Gamers.com has the ZD staff giving it a perfect 10/10 and a user rating of 9.2. Just what makes Halo so impressive? Good level design/storytelling and good gameplay. As we mentioned in our earlier Xbox article, weapon balance is well executed in Halo, where conscious decisions between using alien or marine weapons must be made, since marine weapons are different, not worse than alien technology. With the limitation of only being able to carry two weapons at any given time, you need to think about which style of weapon will be easier to find replacement ammo for and which will pack sufficient firepower. In addition to the solid gameplay, levels are expansive and well designed. It’s linear enough so that you know where to go, but not so linear that it feels restrictive. Combined with an engrossing narrative that’s well integrated with the game (an evolution of Half-Life), it’s not too hard to see why everyone’s gushing over Halo.
Dead or Alive 3
There’s not much more we can add to our discussion about DOA3 than what has been written in the Xbox Launch Overview. Dead or Alive 3 is one of the best looking games of any console, full of rich environments, high-polygon characters, and razor sharp images with only minimal aliasing. From one perspective, DOA3 is a tech demo for the Xbox, showing off the easy programming environment and rich texturing abilities of the system. Tecmo’s Team Ninja has created one of the best Xbox games on their first attempt. In terms of gameplay, DOA3 doesn’t have any of the strategy or skill required in other fighters such as Capcom vs. SNK or Tekken Tag Tournament. You play Dead or Alive 3 the same reason you watch kung fu movies such as Iron Monkey. No one ever doubts that the good guys will win. It’s just a question of what crazy moves will make their way into a particular battle. Dead or Alive 3 has that same performance and visual feast of a good kung-fu movie.
In choosing the games to look into for this article, we simply picked the games that had the most buzz. There are other great games for each system; however, as we alluded to on the first page, looking at these games seems to reveal a certain characteristic about the console.
Both Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid 2 are heavily story-oriented. Taking a step back, this seems to be a characteristic of PS2 games with greater proportion than you might expect. We mentioned Ace Combat 04 already, but games like Grand Theft Auto 3 and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance also attempt to tell a “grand” storyline. Grand Theft Auto 3 is actually the first game in its series with a coherent storyline and AC04 is the first US Ace Combat with a story. Sony promised “Hollywood in your home,” and indeed many of the exclusive titles for the PS2 seem to be concentrated on storytelling.
On the GameCube, we have games which are very easy to pick up and play for 15 minutes. With Rogue Leader, simplicity has led to repetitiveness, but with Super Smash Bros. Melee, the simple interface and control do not damper the game at all. The other popular exclusive titles such as Super Monkey Ball, Luigi’s Mansion, or Wave Race all seem to fit with this description of simple but fun. Nintendo was quick to point out that the GameCube was not designed to be a multi-purpose entertainment hub with extravagant budgets for games, but a console with good games.
Though Microsoft would later spend time to point out that Xbox was also “games first” console to deflect any “it’s a PC” comments, Microsoft’s earliest words were that Bill Gates told the engineers that they had to develop a console at least three times as powerful as anything else out there. Look to the games on the Xbox at you’ll see that most of the games have great graphics. This has more to do with the hardware capabilities than content fitting a personality, however it’s worthwhile to notice how the popular exclusive Xbox games (PGR, Halo, DOA3, Munch’s Oddysee) don’t seem to have as much of a binding gameplay element other than nice graphics.
We’ve conveniently picked examples fitting our needs and there are more than a few exceptions. Gran Turismo 3 doesn’t have a storyline. Resident Evil for the GameCube is neither easy to pick up and play for 15 minutes nor is it gameplay-over-story. Halo itself is a game that has elements of all three stereotypes. However, the way a console is perceived by the public directly affects its sales.
The Dreamcast had great titles from every genre, however Sega focused its advertising on niche games such as Space Channel 5 and Shenmue, making it seem “too hardcore” for the masses. Accordingly, despite unanimous praise for the system in the print and online press, the average individual did not see the Dreamcast as something he should get.
the console war with thunder.
Where is the lightning?
SIDEBAR: What do you think of all the console software? Sound off!
|© Copyright 2003 FS Media, Inc.|