Top Ten Games of 2013

2013 was a great year to gaming!

One Last Farewell to the Ouya

Cya, wouldn't wanna OUYA!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII Is The Most Beautiful Game Ever Made

Never before has there been such a game that is as polarized as Final Fantasy XIII. There are people who despise it and consider it an insult to the franchise while there are others who simply like it or even love it for what it is--a straight forward tactical adventure game. While I may be one of the few that fall in the "between" category, there is one thing I truly did enjoy about the game that few games touch upon: presentation. I can say with confidence that Final Fantasy XIII is the most beautiful game I have ever played, but before I tell you why, I think it's best to start from the beginning. 

It was  2005 and Sony was prepping the world for the reveal of its next gen console--The Playstation 3. Rumours were leaking that the Playstation 3 would be able to produce photo-realistic graphics and a processor that would put even the highest-end PC to shame. It wasn't until May 16 (E3 2005) when people really got to see what the fuss was about....


The Killzone 2 trailer really dropped a lot jaws that morning. It also quickly became infamous for  deceiving viewers into believing it was an actual game running on a PS3, when all long it was a pre-rendered cutscene . Of course, I knew it was fake the moment I laid eyes on it, but try convincing that to my Sony fanboy friends *ahem*--I digress. That wasn't all that Sony showed us that day. Just before everyone thought the tech demo reel was over, in came the one that lit up the most fires in everyone's heart.

 Cool! When's this coming out? Ohhh.... :(

The Final Fantasy 7: we wanna make a remake, but we won't, so here's a trailer instead trailer (AKA tech demo) showed us the possibilities of what a Final Fantasy title could look like on a PS3. And damn son, that shit's hot! From this moment on, people began setting expectations on how the next big Final Fantasy game will look like on the system. They weren't thinking about gameplay, music, or anything as much as the graphics. Well, careful what you wish for, I guess?  

By next year (E3 2006), Sony began rolling out some previews of games that will appear on their next gen platform. Some quick mentions are: Devil May Cry 4, Resident Evil 5, Final Fantasy 13, Final Fantasy Versus 13...woa, wait! What?! That's right, two Final Fantasy games, one to take place in  a beautiful world of light while the other in a modern surreal world of darkness.  

Cool! So when's Versus coming out? Ohooo :( 

While Versus 13 info was absent (sort of still is) 13 was more than ready to show us what it has to offer. A female heroine, trains, guns that transform, and a battle system that took our imagination to a whole new level of confusing.

This brings back memories...
Unfortunately, Square pushed the hype button way to early causing all the fans to stay in "dream mode" which is always a bad thing. Square was actually building this game on a whole new in-house "Light" engine (later dubbed Crystal Tools) that would produce realistic facial animations, create smooth transitions between cutscene and gameplay, and other stuff. Three years later, Square finally realized that they had to get their act together and started going into overdrive mode. They eventually had to take staff members from other projects just to get this game out the door. It seems that after nearly four years of development, the team still had to pull in major crunch time. This game seemed like it was going to be big.

Well, it turned out big alright, a big disappointment. No towns? Linear paths? Half the game is a tutorial? Side quests that only involved monster hunting? What the hell?! These were all the raging comments that kept creeping out all over the internet. Since I was on my last semister of Uni, I couldn't spare any time to sit and play, so I waited until summer as I  braced myself for some major disappointments. Although I did find many, I still enjoyed the journey and absolutely fell in love with it's presentation. 

I'm usually not a big sucker for graphics. At first glance I go wow and then I start noticing the edges. I don't typically enjoy playing games that try to be too realistic, and at the end of the day it's not going to be perfect, so to me it's a waste of time. Instead, I love seeing things that captivate the human imagination and make them feel convincing - after all, games are meant to be compelling and no better way to show that then by being creative. 

Let's look at Crysis for example, while the game showed tremendous detail, in the end it doesn't make me feel anything special. That's because, to me, it's trying to be real, and only ends up looking good. Eventually, there will be a game that will out match Crysis in its realism, then everyone will forget about Crysis. If devs want people to remember how their game looked, they will need to create a unique or at least interesting atheistic. For example, I would pick Wind Waker's atheistic over Twilight Princess's any day. If you still have no idea what I am talking about or what to know more, then watch this.

Final Fantasy XIII is truly a wonderful looking thing. I can't recall the last time I played a game that made me stare at all the details. Every single location has something different to show you: crystallized fire, a jungle that is wrapped in machines, a beatutiful city built on a landscape, snowy ruins, a giant mechanical airship, a waterfall cave, a beach house, a city in the sky...I can go on and on and these are things that I remember from playing it two years ago! But why do I care so much? I mean these ideas aren't exactly original. That's because Final Fantasy XIII does an amazing job of making it look really really convincing. 

It wasn't until I reached the Archylte Steppe when I really suspended my disbelief. That moment of walking in the open field and seeing all the monsters, with Cocoon in the distance and Lightning's cape flapping about--this is when I felt that I was in a fantasy world. A world that seemed real. 

Absolutely breathtaking...

The character models looked stunning and I have to admit, this is Nomura's best work. All of them show different personality and have a great colour theme (no overuse of belts!). Of course  this is without mentioning the dazzling magic (particle) effects,  and animations (except that horrible jumping one). The facial animation in particular were just stunning. While Square did not have L.A. Noire face capture technology, they certainly did an amazing job giving the characters...character. one scene in particular showed Lightning twitching her face and grunting in a manner that looked believable--something the people at BioWare have yet to master. 

Cry more, please...

What compliments the beautiful visuals is the beautiful sound track. This is quite easily my second favourite Final Fantasy OST. It offered a lot of great tunes and mixes of synth, jazz, rock, electronica, and orchestra. Similar to Flower, this is a game that tried to blend visual with audio to give us a real thematic experience. Dust to dust, however, was the stood out the most. If you want to check out the album then make sure to visit the iTunes section here

While the game flourished in it's beauty department, it certainly lacked in its other places. A huge chunk of the game forced us down narrow paths, the gameplay was repetitive with barely any room to rest. While I enjoyed the combat system, it still needed some heavy fine tuning. The story can be very convoluting, although I liked the idea of making the real villain fate and not some super pope, but I don't think a lot of people got that.  

I believe these developers had one main vision: to create a beautiful world; a world of light. They managed to bring that beauty to life with Final Fantasy XIII, but unfortunately, that beauty came at a price. 

Episode 2: Game Piracy in the Arab world and how it can be a good thing...

Episode 2 discusses piracy and how it shaped the gaming in the Arab world and, "can piracy also be a good thing?" Find out in today's smoking red hot velvet episode! Make sure to sound off your opinions in the comments below.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Why Assassin's Creed is the closest representation of Arabs in videogames

Let's face it, Arabs aren't exactly popular in the hero department. They've come across multiple roles in games, movies, and books. But more than often they tend to fall under the same stereotype of "I am a terrorist! Fear me, infidel!". Let's just think of how Arabs get treated in general when it comes to any story. Sure we have One thousand and One nights but this essentially came from the Arab world, I am talking about the roles that writers give Arabs when creating a plot. Let's see,  we have: terrorist, terrorist, poor man, terrorist, black market salesman, terrorist, sidekick (okay, Laurence of Arabia is one of those exceptions), evil ruler, terrorist, evil man with a golden lamp, terrorist, and a man who we feel sorry for because he ran into Indiana Jones 


Games have also fallen under this department from Call of Duty to basically most modern setting FPS games. In fact, there are moments when games tend to go the extra mile...

I have to admit. This looks pretty fun in a retarded way. 

After 9/11, I honestly thought we would never hear the end of it and will forever be labeled as "the bad guys". I can't really blame them, I mean from a business stand point it was the perfect opportunity to cash in on the "let's beat up the terrorist to make our selves feel better" idea. But it was not all bad, we did eventually get an amazing game that involved Arab culture.

Sands of time is a game that I truly adore. It felt fresh with it's time reversing sword play, and it looked and sounded great. The level design in particular spoke to me with it's cloth, rugs, towers, and sand monsters...well, maybe not the last one. It was also a success spawning 3 more games (The Forgotten Sands shall remain forgotten) and a not so bad movie. Neat! 

But it wasn't until 2007 when I got to experience the closest representation of Arabs in videogames to date. 

Say what you will about it's repetitive gameplay and glitches, but this game offered what no other AAA game offered at the time: culture. It was one of those games that I can look past it's faults, because it was just appealing and new. In fact, it was so new that this game felt like a premature birth with it's ideas there but not ready to take on the world. So, what made this game so unique in terms of culture? Well, for one, it treated Arabs like normal people. 

The People

They walk about their own business, they dressed normally, and would get pissed if you shoved them. Sure the game lacked proper AI, but the illusion was there. Those people also had different religions and beliefs. If you go to Damascus you will hear them on the streets preaching about Islam and Salah Al-Deen, if you go to Acre you will see them preaching about Christianity and the crusade. The way Altair reacted towards them also felt natural. He would squeeze between them when it got crowded, guards would try to tackle him when trying to run away, and everyone would question why he is running or climbing. 

The Setting 

The level design for Assassin's Creed is what really immersed me the most. I remember the first time I reached Damascus and was blown away by it's scale, "I could actually climb all these buildings?" was the first question that popped in my head. What made it even better was the way Altair adapted to his surrounding, gone were the days of Tomb Raider and aligning your jump, this game took care of that annoyance and made you feel like a stunt double for Tom Cruise in MI2. Game mechanics aside, the Arabic setting gave it that edge. Due to constant humidity and hot weather, many mosques and Arab buildings used edges and holes and never relied on a straight sleek path.

I have a sudden urge to climb something.

The developers knew this and took full advantage of it. The setting made climbing more fun and quicker. Ubisoft also took strong note not to offend any Muslims by not showing any Quran text on mosques and instead have blurry text. In fact, during my Game Development studies in Canada, I met with one of the developers in Montreal. Their main goal was to capture as much culture as possible without offending anyone and I think they did a great job. 

Aside from it's buildings, the game did other things that made you feel like you were in an ancient Arab world. Such as: rugs, wooden carvings, the market place, and bukhoor. The game also did a fantastic job making them sound all real. 

The Weapons

While visiting the studio, I also got the opportunity to visit their sound room. Ubisoft actually had a room full of antique weapons where they stashed authentic Arabic swords. The sound clips you hear when fighting with a sword or blade was actually made from the real thing. The sound team made sure to get the proper weapon for the proper sound clip which I really admire. 

The Story 

Belief is a very serious topics for Arabs and Altair managed to capture that Arab side of him who once believes in something will be willing to die for it. He showed determination, focus, and looked like a serious bad ass while doing it. He was also an Arab born in Syria making him one of the only few game characters and possibly the only main character that is Arab. 

I also have to make a point regarding the controversial plot that people always ask while playing Assassin's Creed. Why did they add Desmond? Why am I using this machine? Why can't it all be in the past? Before jumping in shock, I stepped back and realized that this was actually a very interesting and smart move. The developers now had a choice, and didn't need to focus on Altair. They can actually expand the story and stretch it out to form a universe. For example, Altair showed us a man who would sacrifice his life for The Creed (the guy cut his finger for crying out loud) while Edzio was a man out for revenge and was previously a playboy/troublemaker. These are practically two opposite characters but are linked. I mean, imagine if you were to play Assassin's Creed 2 without Desmond, the story would feel jarring and broken. By using Desmond as a link , we can explore different cultures that are not limited to Altair's timeline. 

American Revolution? Count me in...

Assassin's Creed is a franchise that wants you to explore different cultures. Organized Assassin's originally started in the Arab world so it only makes sense that the first game would take place there.What we didn't expect is how serious Ubisoft would take in the culture aspect. Rarely does a game present Arabs in such a nature. The people, the setting, the weapons, the story-- they all fall together naturally. It gives us Arabs something we can relate to and feel comfortable playing knowing that we are not misused or labeled as something that contradicts our way of life. I'm glad the PoP team at Ubisoft are aware of this and will continue to treat other cultures the same way so that we may explore them as intended.