Anticipation has been running high for Ubisoft's upcoming Prince of Persia game ever since the publisher took the wraps off the game at this year's E3. The game's stunning graphics, fluid animation, and innovative gameplay showed undeniable promise. The months since the game's debut have offered glimpses of different aspects of the game, but we haven't had the opportunity to get our hands on a proper preview version of it until now. We have now had the chance to spend some time with the PlayStation 2 version of the game to see if the Prince's next adventure is shaping up to be as good as we hoped.
The Prince of Persia series started in 1989 on home computers, back in the days when sprites ruled the world on IBM PCs, Commodore 64s, and Apple IIs. The series sprang from the mind of Jordan Mechner, a lover of adventure films whose inquisitive mind led him and a tiny group to see how much animation they could actually cram into a character's movement, given the limited technology available at the time. The result was a game that crept onto all major platforms in the years that followed and left a lasting impression on the action adventure genre--an impression that has influenced quite a few games since then. Later on, there were a few 2D and 3D sequels and follow-ups, but they never really captured the cool sense of discovery of the original.
However, as luck would have it, the Prince's fortunes have taken a turn for the better, thanks to a collaboration between Mechner and Ubisoft's Montreal studio, which has resulted in the slick new game that debuted at E3. The latest chapter in the Prince's adventures tells a tale that actually predates the story told in the first Prince of Persia. The main character is a young prince who is having one of the worst days of his life. Following a very successful round of conquering and pillaging with his father, the prince stops by a neighboring kingdom to pay a courtesy call to the local ruler's castle and share some of the recently acquired wealth. Unfortunately the machinations of a bitter vizier end up leading the prince to unwittingly unleash the power of the sands of time, whose container happened to be part of the recently pillaged loot. Now, while you might think that releasing some magic sand wouldn't be so bad, it turns out that the sand's power transformed everything, giving a decidedly unflattering makeover to anyone and anything near it. As "luck" would have it, the Prince is spared the sandy fate, because of a magical dagger he took from the loot, and he sets out to make everything right.
Luck is a relative term for our unfortunate prince, since he has been spared his sandy fate only to find himself squaring off against a small army of sand creatures. To add insult to injury, in the chaos that ensued after the sand's release, the castle's defenses were activated, and the massive structure has turned into a deathtrap. Despite all the aforementioned unpleasantness, the prince has gained some nifty powers--from the mystic sands--to beef up his mortal abilities. He'll be able to warp time for a variety of different effects and gain helpful visions of the future. Another perk is a bit of assistance from Farra, a princess from the looted kingdom (from which the prince first acquired the sands of time) who was brought along with the other valuables. Much like the prince, she was spared a sandy makeover due to an object in her possession, in this case, an amulet. Though it's hardly a match made in heaven, especially considering how the prince treated her, the two form an unlikely alliance that becomes a key point of the plot.
Prince of Persia's rich story unfolds via a fairly linear structure that sends you on a journey through the massive castle on a quest to return the sands to their container and fix the enormous mess. You'll explore the castle and look for ways to access new areas without being killed in some horrible way. Fans of the original Prince of Persia games will be pleased to see the return of a few old threats and the addition of some annoying new ones. Your time in the game will be split between fighting sand creatures, solving puzzles, and exploring the castle. Though these daunting tasks don't seem to faze the prince, it's not exactly a cakewalk. We expect the game to give many players a headache as they're forced to use parts of their brains that they may never have used before.
The prince's amazing acrobatic abilities provide him incredible freedom of movement--he can leap great heights and swing across ledges and handholds, and he can even run up the sides of completely vertical walls. After playing through some of the game's levels, we found that once we were used to this freedom of movement, we had to use these abilities to solve puzzles using an entirely different way of thinking than what we've come to expect from action adventure games. Pushing crates and collecting keycards won't let the prince scale the wall of a ruined tower--he must use his acrobatic skills. The castle itself and its various traps pose a very real threat to your health, from all three dimensions. Death can come from just about any direction, and it usually does, but, at the same time, once you start thinking about your surroundings and how to use them, the game really seems to open up.
The graphics in the game are, not surprisingly, looking extremely sharp. The game has gotten progressively better looking as development on it has progressed. The prince hasn't changed too drastically, although we noticed a bit more subtle animation on his hair and clothing. This doesn't seem to be the only subtle graphical element that's being added; new lighting and particle effects also make the game look even better than before. These new graphical elements are impressive, not only because they look so good on the PlayStation 2, but also because of the way they highlight the game's level design and environments. The best example of this is the landscape view that you can switch to during the game. While the camera angle lets you take in the game's highly detailed and impressive-looking vistas, it also becomes crucial in solving many of the puzzles. If you come to an area that is seemingly impassable, you'll often get clues on how to get where you need to go by switching to the landscape camera.
The game even sounds good at this point, though not perfect. The voice acting is good so far, though it could probably stand a bit more polish, and hopefully the developer will smooth this out. The sound effects in the game seem good, and they seem especially satisfying during combat. The music seems like one of the best aspects of the preview version of Prince of Persia, and it complements the visuals and gameplay nicely.
Based on what we've seen, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time seems to be coming together very well. The game is shaping up to offer an engaging experience and a pretty complete package in terms of graphics, sound, and innovative gameplay. We're especially pleased to see that the developers appear to be doing a great job with what is usually a very difficult task: updating a classic game with new graphics and gameplay while remaining true to the spirit of the original game. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is currently scheduled to ship later this year.