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Preview: 'Final Fantasy XIII'

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Expectations for Final Fantasy XIII are huge. While the arrival of a new release in Square Enix's premier franchise is always an anticipated event, this is different. It's been teased for four years, in the works for much longer, and will be debuting simultaneously on two systems – a first for the series. It's also a return to a more traditional combat system after several real-time outings that divided its loyal fanbase. It will be the company's biggest release for years and, very soon, the long wait will be over.

Although the last few releases rubbished away any semblance of a decent story to focus on new combat and exploration systems, XIII is sure to balance that disparity with cut-scene heavy progression. Taking place in two distinct worlds, Cocoon is a sky-dwelling settlement that is separated from the dangerous and primitive realm of Pulse below, and one that is blessed by God-like creatures called fal-Cie who protect its citizens. Of course, things soon go wrong.

The arrival of an evil fal-Cie from Pulse sends the city spiralling into chaos, bestowing citizens with cursed magical talents and resigning them to fate worse than death (Monster transformation or permanent crystallisation, take your pick). The opening scenes have a strong whiff of VII about them: Cocoon is a technologically advanced place filled with darkened skyways and glaring lights, and once our resistance group heroes are caught up in events and become cursed themselves, they flee the city to avoid execution and ultimately try to resolve their doomed fates.

A major source of controversy from initial Japanese impressions is the game's linearity. In many ways, this is a valid point: jumping in and out of save states throughout the first 12 or so hours showed us that each area had a clear route to follow, with little if any branching to speak of. In some cases, especially in the very opening hours, this would constitute a literal straight path between one cutscene to the next. Those who have played previous FF titles know the series has never been an open-ended adventure, but players should be warned that the opening chapters are incredibly straightforward and particularly story-driven.

Naturally, these linear sections are padded out with combat. Many will be pleased to hear that random encounters are no more, where enemies will roam the environment of their own accord, allowing you to tackle them head-on, flank for an initiative bonus or avoid completely. The latter option is entirely possible, even in these tight sections, letting you pick and choose your battles every step of the way. It's an approach many role-playing titles have adopted for years, and one that completely works despite the return of some of the series' more traditional elements.

Once you encounter an enemy you'll warp to a familiar battle screen with practically non-existent loading times. The ATB (active time battle) gauge will once again dictate how often you can make a move, but is now divided up into multiple slots. Moves can consume different quantities – melee attacks will use a single bar, whereas magic or skill takes two or three - allowing you to combine and unleash a variety of moves in a single turn. Chaining attacks can often render enemies to a critical status, making them far easier to finish off, but a compromise is that these longer, complicated combos leave you open to attack while you wait for the gauge to fill.

The most radical change are Paradigms, which is an evolution of the Gambit setup from XII. It was a contentious but extremely dynamic system that allowed you to automatically decide how your party would react to specific situations. By and large, the idea remains the same: you only control a single character, and you influence how your squad behaves by changing formation (or Paradigm) with a tap of a trigger button. If a Malboro unleashes a particular nasty status attack, for example, you can go defensive for a few turns, buffering up your party members and throwing out a few potions, before getting back into the thick of things.

Each class – whether it be the offensive Commando or the self-explanatory Medic – behave on their own accord and can be slotted formations of your choosing, licensing you to react to any kind of situation. It's essentially a streamlined and more instantaneous version of what the Gambit system offered, permitting you to change your strategy without having to break away from combat. Of course, you can still micro-manage your formations from inside the menu and each class is developed through a level-free system not unlike the Sphere Grid of old, letting you tweak specific stats as to your choosing. It's faster and easier, but still rich in customisation.

The division between Cocoon and Pulse isn't just story-deep, either. After individually battling their way through the city, they'll eventually reunite in Pulse, where the prior linearity quickly disappears. One particular point saw us explore a vast open field, far bigger than any environment in previous instalments, populated with packs of wolves and towering prehistoric beasts. Here is where you'll find side-missions – not too different from the mark system of XII - pitting you against rare monsters for bounty and experience. It's at this point in the game where preparing Paradigms really begins to pay off, with foes that can bait and switch powerful attacks in an instant. The developers told us that over half of all bosses will feature in these missions – many of which are tougher than the final boss - so those worrying that the game will consist of a showreel of cutscenes can look forward to some challenging side-content.

It's also the most accessible Final Fantasy title to date. If you are defeated, you're simply dropped back on the map from where you encountered the battle, allowing you to tool up and try again or pursue other interests. For those who don't want to go knee-deep with the battle system, you can choose the 'Auto Battle' option that automatically fills in your ATB gauge with preferential attacks. And if you discover a particular combination of moves that work, tapping right on the selection screen will replay the last known attack. Coupled with dropping random encounters entirely, it's a game that has learned the foibles of the past for a more friendly experience.

And how does it hold up on both systems? We played both 360 and PS3 versions of the title and thankfully found little difference between the two. Visually, the PS3 version was a little more crisp – but that might have been attributed to the setup of the station we played it on – while load times remained the same for either console. (Battles took around two seconds to begin, and depending on your saved position, between five and 15 seconds from starting menu to playing the game.) Specific details won't emerge until retail copies arrive, but by and large both systems offer the same experience. So it's now a question of preference; disc swapping or Blu-ray? Achievements or Trophies?

We came away from the game with nothing short of very positive impressions and a surprising wave of nostalgia. It's very much a return to the story-focused, stylised narrative pattern that the series adopted in its PlayStation heyday, and finely merges traditional combat with choice features from the recent spell of real-time outings. How the linearity and emphasis on story will impact the pacing is still uncertain, but we can guarantee that this isn't a dumbed-down, sterile adventure that early impressions suggested. Final Fantasy is back, and needless to say we're counting down the days until release.

Final Fantasy XIII will be released on March 9 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

> Click here to read our FFXIII interview with Square Enix

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