E3 2012. Thursday 7th, 11.13 am. We're in Square Enix's hidden E3 demo room watching Final Fantasy Agni's Philosophy, a next-gen tech demo that offers a tantalising glimpse at the future of games. We're desperate to tap our CVG colleague on the sleeve, and suppressing a giant cheesy grin. Are you seeing this? Is this even possible? Can PS4 or Xbox 720 games *really* look this good?
It sounds ludicrous, but Square Enix's stunning, five minute, real-time demo is *so* fantastic, that even Ubisoft's E3-defining Watch Dogs looks tame by comparison. You may have seen HD screens, or leaked footage, but seeing images of this quality manipulated live is something *else*. On face value, it's 'only' on a par with, say, Final Fantasy The Spirits Within, or the CGI scenes in Mass Effect 3, but seeing the developers spin the camera around in real time, while shuffling through effects, dares us to dream of the potential of PS4 and Xbox 720.
It's essentially vintage Final Fantasy. A camera pans over a dusty cityscape, as an ultra detailed jeep rolls by, the background fizzing with detail - including a horse, scorching sun and rippling flags. The camera pauses on an old man's face - which looks incredibly life-like - before rushing inside a temple. Hooded priests are performing a ritual, as particles fizz everywhere. Suddenly, they're attacked by robed assassins wielding guns, one of whom reveals herself as a classic FF-style heroine.
Much shooting later, and she's healing her wounds using enchanted liquid stored in a soft drink bottle, before being rescued by a dragon. Look, we didn't say it was a victory for common sense.
The amazing part is when Square Enix replay the demo, pausing at key points to twist the camera around the car, or pause on the old man's beard. A debug menu allows them to grow, twist and colour the beard in real-time, increasing its wiriness and density. We zoom in on 100,000 flying insects, all composed on polygon meshes, and the GPU is calculating all of their trajectories. We're also shown the real time demo in split screen next to a pre-rendered, classic FF, CGI version of the same events. The CGI version offers richer contrast, and more subtle smoke, but it's *so* marginal, you can barely tell the difference.
Square Enix reveal the demo is running on PC, but won't reveal its exact specs - they imply the GPU is in line with current top-end PC processors, but the RAM demands are pretty high. We ask if its been designed with current, work-in-progress, next-gen console specs in mind, or whether Square Enix are daring the platform holders to match their ambitions - the answer tends to the latter.
Square's intention, they confirm, is to tell the world that the company, and Final Fantasy, have a bright future. The project is being handled by a studio called Luminous, with Producer / CTO Yoshihisa Hashimoto, Lead Artist Akira Iwata and Creative Director Takeshi Nozue, who are all present during our demo.
Most amazingly, the company suggest their next-gen tech allows games of this quality to be produced without a potentially ruinous, and expensive, swelling of development team sizes. They suggest you could produced a FFXIII-style game with this level of visuals using existing teams. In disbelief, we ask if it would be possible to create a third person action game like Uncharted with these visuals, and are greeted by nodding; only with the caveat that it will depend on the developer's ambitions and their game system. We're told it will be compatible with all game types, including RPG, FPS and third person.