Eurogamer posted the first major comparisons between the English PS3 and English Xbox 360 versions of Final Fantasy XIII. There are many noticeable differences, especially in the CGI and action oriented in-game cutscenes. According to Square Enix they would be compressed to fit on 3 dual layer DVD’s while the PS3 version would have uncompressed CGI and cutscenes.
You can read the lengthy article after the break and you can check the source itself for additional screenshots and footage.
Eurogamer: “Face-Off: Final Fantasy XIII” (3 pages)
The rumours are true. Final Fantasy XIII on Xbox 360 isn’t anywhere near as impressive as it is on PlayStation 3. The real kicker is that it’s a lot worse than it should have been.
Square Enix’s latest epic – 4.5 years in the making – follows on the basic principles established by all of its PlayStation predecessors in combining an excellent 3D engine along with vast amounts of pre-rendered CG. This presented two very difficult issues for the developers tasked with porting an already mature PS3 work-in-progress over to the Xbox 360.
Firstly, the Crystal Tools engine needed to be translated across to the Microsoft platform. Secondly, the team had to find a way to compress over 32GB of CG to fit within the confines of three Xbox 360 DVDs – squeezed already by a copy protection mechanism that limits available space to a meagre 6.8GB, less than the storage potential of both PlayStation 2 and Wii.
The sheer idea of porting over a massive Blu-ray game like this onto the Xbox 360 seems like lunacy, but the good news from a conversion perspective is that the game itself is extremely linear. The core basis of the majority of the game is in negotiating very limited environments with just a few branching routes, following a yellow arrow to get to your next destination and fighting a myriad bunch of enemies as you do it.
Very rarely are you asked to return to previous locations – with just one chapter in the game dedicated to the sort of free-roaming JPRG gameplay for which Final Fantasy is renowned.
That being the case, while you can install all three discs to hard drive for a seamless experience, there really is little point over and above the convenience and noise-reduction elements. Disc-swapping on Xbox 360 is kept to an absolute minimum and has next to no impact on the experience of playing Final Fantasy XIII.
Ironically then, one of the main concerns about the conversion proves to be of little consequence at all. Unfortunately, the other niggling worries are of far greater significance.
Built from the ground upwards with an eye towards the storage limitation of the disc, and with the different architectures of the two HD consoles firmly in mind, Square Enix would have stood a good chance of getting the game looking pretty much like-for-like on both platforms. However, by just about every measurable criteria, it seems that the Xbox 360 version of Final Fantasy XIII is a quick port where the existing PS3 material has been very roughly manhandled and bludgeoned into shape in order to work on the Microsoft console.
First up, let’s talk about the Crystal Tools engine. Square mentioned in an interview with the Dutch Official PlayStation Magazine that a "new engine" had to be coded up for Xbox 360, but it seems to look and act very much like the PS3 one, with just a couple of very noticeable differences.
Let’s talk about the resolution then. A smattering of European and US-based websites have published pre-release Xbox 360 shots, showing a considerable drop in definition with some galleries exhibiting a somewhat washed-out look. The problem with drawing conclusions from media-derived assets is that there’s little transparency in what tech they use to take their shots. Some grabs even appeared to have mouse pointers on them, indicating that some sort of PC "print screen" function was used in their making.
However, experienced eyes out there know a legit shot when they see one, and soon the Xbox 360 version was being reported as 1024×576, with 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing. This is up against native 720p on the original PlayStation 3 version, again with the same 2x level of MSAA, representing a fairly enormous drop of around a third of the overall resolution. So, are the stories about a reduced resolution on FFXIII 360 true? You betcha.
For those curious about how we can be so certain, the principles of pixel-counting are pretty much foolproof. On a 720p game, a diagonal line 20 pixels in height will have 20 distinct steps from top to bottom. When you look at FFXIII, there clearly only 16. So… (16/20) x 720 gives you a vertical resolution of 576 pixels. The same principles – and indeed ratios, in this case – apply to the other axis, giving horizontal resolution of 1024 pixels. The only slight confusion here could come from the HUD, which is rendered at normal 720p resolution before being overlaid on top of the 576p image. This has been standard practice for many years now with sub-HD titles, and FFXIII is no different.
So sub-HD and 1024×576 it is then. Now, with careful handling and superior texture filtering, sub-HD stands a very good chance of competing with native 720p – as Tekken 6 demonstrates. However, Namco’s game is pretty much unique in being the only console title running at a lower resolution that looks demonstrably sharper than when it’s running at 720p.
Unfortunately, the resolution reduction here seems to be all about converting across the PS3 engine as quickly and easily as possible, and that means accessing as much of the console’s power with the lowest amount of aggravation. That being the case, it looks as though Square Enix was keen to maintain the entire framebuffer within the Xbox 360’s 10MB eDRAM for optimum processing speed without the need to "tile" multiples of that 10MB into main RAM.
Mirroring PS3 resolution and anti-aliasing would require two tiles, introducing potential performance bottlenecks on elements that occupy both tiles. This isn’t really an issue for most cross-platform developers (Fallout 3 and DiRT 2, for example, use three tiles to accommodate superior 4x MSAA), but the only plausible explanation here is that Square Enix had issues getting Crystal Tools working on 360 and down-scaled the framebuffer as a result of that.
So, with a focus on footage generated just by Crystal Tools itself, let’s take a look at how the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of Final Fantasy XIII measure up to one another. Remember to use the full-screen button to get HD resolution, or else use the EGTV link for a larger, more useful window. Alternatively, peruse this colossal comparison gallery of over 50 shots.
"Adequate but a touch disappointing" best sums up the Xbox 360 version. Fine edges lose precision, and while the effect is mitigated thanks to the MSAA along with the multitude of post processing effects the engine has at its disposal, the fact is that the lack of resolution can make the 360 build look sub-par. The clean CG look of the PS3 game in motion is unduly compromised, and while it’s still a handsome enough title on Xbox 360, it lacks the pristine presentation of its sibling.
It could have been worse though. As you may have noticed in the movie, the quality of the scaling when watching the game in motion isn’t bad at all.
The thing is, running in that single tile of eDRAM, Square-Enix has almost limitless bandwidth and enormous levels of fill-rate at its disposal. So it is extremely disappointing to note that the alpha-to-coverage interlace-style effect on the characters’ hair remains in the Xbox 360 game.
Introduced on PS3 presumably in order to address the bandwidth deficiency of the RSX, the fact that it has been retained on Xbox 360 in a scenario where this effect should have been easily replaced with a more conventional alpha test technique for handling transparencies is frankly puzzling.
More than that, as the alpha-to-coverage effect is now rendered at sub-HD resolutions, the process of resizing it to 720p makes it look a whole lot worse. This is where the initial "grainy" reports of the 360 build probably originated from. Below is a closer look at the phenomenon in effect.
Note that while the characters’ hair is the most obvious effect of the alpha-to-coverage, you can see that it is also deployed where transparency is required in some of the backgrounds. Here the sub-HD effect blends away some of the problem, but causes an unattractive, shifting shimmering as a consequence.
To get a closer look at the effect without the need for video, here are a couple of choice shots showing the extent of the impact to overall image quality on both platforms.
Despite notable improvements over the initial demo code, Final Fantasy XIII on PlayStation 3 still had a few performance weaknesses in its final Japanese retail rendition and these have been carried over to the UK launch code too. The Crystal Tools engine seems to have issues rendering several characters simultaneously, especially if the protagonists are close-up when presumably the highest LOD models are being displayed. Additionally, the full-resolution alpha buffers used for the likes of particle effects could also cause issues – pretty impactful in the demo code, much improved in the retail release.
We previously speculated that this would be less of an issue on the Xbox 360 and it turns out we were right. But of course, bearing in mind the big resolution reduction, if there wasn’t some kind of performance benefit, we’d be pretty shocked.
To illustrate the improvements Xbox 360 brings to the table such as they are, here’s a selection of clips put through frame-rate analysis. You’ll see that while both versions can drop frames, it is the Xbox 360 version that is undoubtedly smoother on average. Minimum frame-rate is 26FPS on 360, and 20FPS on PS3. It’s interesting to note that the character close-ups are seemingly no problem for the 360: 30FPS is maintained while PS3 struggles.
So, with the actual gameplay addressed, let’s get the thorny issue of the video sequences out of the way. Personally I’m a firm advocate of playing games rather than watching them, and in this respect Final Fantasy’s method of divorcing narrative from gameplay leaves me cold. But clearly they’re a core part of what Final Fantasy is and what the colossal fanbase expects from the game, and bearing in mind how intrinsically linked this element of the package is to the storage space issue, it’s an important part of the analysis.
The sad truth is that Square Enix’s solution for transitioning the 32GB of CG video to DVD is unfortunately rather poor. A "one size fits all" encoding technique appears to have been used to compress the assets. Now, assuming the company also did this for PS3, this strategy can work fairly well: throw enough bandwidth at any image and the picture quality will hold up. Bearing in mind that FFXIII occupies more space for its videos than many commercial Blu-ray movies, this is perhaps not surprising.
What about 360 then? Comparing the two versions running in 720p mode, we see that sometimes the reduced bandwidth encoding manages to perform fairly well in comparison:
In these shots, typically the colour range is fairly static or muted, and the talking heads style of presentation is made for efficient video encoding: there’s plenty of re-usable image data from one frame that can be carried over to the next. The quality of the image – while still clearly reduced – can look fairly decent.
Unfortunately, when any particular scene ramps up the motion, the encoding solution Square has employed collapses horribly. Detail disappears in a sea of macroblocking and banding, while the PS3 version remains pretty close to pristine thanks to the incredible amount of bandwidth (and thus video information) available.
While the shots here look pretty poor, seeing the whole picture really amplifies the effect still further. Markedly so in fact, and we’ve got a comparison gallery to prove it.
The tragedy here is that the CG is a core part of the presentation in FFXIII and it seems to be the case that the company has paid little attention to the poor quality of the final assets on the Xbox 360 version. The Microsoft XDK ships with a VC1 decoder, giving it the ability to playback video files encoded using technology supported by Blu-ray discs and players. Indeed, movie pirates out there get excellent quality VC1 encodes of Blu-ray movies that manage to fit onto a dual-layer DVD and run from the Xbox 360 dashboard.
Decent encoding takes time and effort, but the results can look good – even on challenging material. Combine this with the fact that the game doesn’t need the 1080p-sized video the PS3 version boasts, and we have the ways and means with which to attack the compression issue from two different angles.
Square-Enix has bought in the Bink compression system for FFXIII on 360 and its failure in high-motion, colourful scenes does suggest a constant bitrate is being used as opposed to variable bandwidth that allocates more data to maintaining image quality on more complex scenes.
This failure is compounded by the fact that Square-Enix hasn’t even made full use of all the disk space it has available. Around 1GB of storage is left empty on discs one and two of FFXIII, and you have to wonder why all that empty space couldn’t have been repurposed for higher bandwidth encoding. Perhaps it’s because of the background loading taking place while the cut-scenes play out, but regardless, the hit to quality using Bink is often unacceptably bad.
Perhaps Square Enix might like to take some cues from the movie industry: top-tier studios employ compressionists whose sole job it is to make movie encodes look as good as they can possibly be within the confines of the disc space available. The parallel is not without some merit: the same encoding tools Microsoft developed for Blu-ray and HD-DVD movie compression might even be deployed for exactly this kind of thing, assuming that the 360’s VC1 decoder is up to scratch.
Failing that, there are any number of h264 decoders out there that could be licensed and ported to the Microsoft console. The bottom line is that if FMV is so crucial to your game, and the storage on offer is limited, care needs to be taken so that every byte of available space makes a difference.
The results in Final Fantasy XIII aren’t up to snuff – frankly, the encoding looks amateurish. To give some idea of how this all fares in motion, here’s the final comparison video, showing the same scenes from FFXIII running on Xbox 360 and on PS3, in 720p mode.
So, occasionally fine, sometimes grim: a statement that effectively sums up how much of Final Fantasy XIII looks on Xbox 360 when compared to the PlayStation 3 game, meaning that if you own both consoles, there really is only one choice when it comes to the purchasing decision.
But bearing in mind that Oli Welsh’s Eurogamer review is based on the superior PS3 build, commentary for those who only own an Xbox 360 is probably worthwhile. In this respect, Final Fantasy XIII is clearly still a worthwhile experience, despite the resolution drop and the frequently awful cut-scene quality. In terms of basic content, story, and core functionality, it’s all there.
Despite the cutbacks, the in-game graphics are still attractive, the gameplay is fundamentally the same as the PS3 version and it’s clearly a cut-above much of the other JPRG fare available on the console. That being the case, despite falling short in direct comparison with its PS3 sibling it’s still a decent game, though I daresay that the retooling of the formula into a more linear experience with obvious cutbacks in the exploration element is likely to frustrate many of the core fanbase.
However, with Crystal Tools set to become the in-house engine for future Square products, you can help but hope for more time to be spent improving the Xbox 360 rendition of the engine, and if the company wants to rely so much on streamed video sequences, clearly there are some very obvious lessons to be learned from the Final Fantasy XIII experience.