Prince of Persia First Impressions

Ubisoft Montreal has taken a classic franchise from the shelf and dusted it down and is preparing it for its next-gen debut.

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We recently caught up with the Prince of Persia development team to see how the game, which has remained a well-hidden secret until recently, has been developing. The fourth game in the series following 2003's The Sands of Time, Prince of Persia has been in development for more than two years and is coming close to seeing the light of day, with a launch planned for the second half of this year. Ubisoft Montreal is developing the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC versions, with Ubisoft Morocco handling the DS version. We sat down with Ben Mattes and Jean-Christophe Guyot, the game's producer and creative director respectively, to see the new prince in action on the Xbox 360.

Visually, Prince of Persia is looking quite promising, which should come as no surprise given that it uses the same engine as Ubisoft's other recent period piece and 2007 holiday hit, Assassin's Creed. However, the game marks an artistic departure from what has gone before, with the team opting for what it refers to as an "illustrated" style. While the team has attempted to distance the technique from the cel-shaded approach taken by games such as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Viewtiful Joe, the graphics do bear some resemblance--although they're certainly not cel-shaded to quite the extent of the graphics in either of those games.

A mix between the stylised look of cel-shaded games and ones that aim for realism, Prince of Persia's unique aesthetic makes for a refreshing change. There are subtle graphical effects too, including black ash that seems to float in midair (perhaps serving as a visual clue to the corruption that exists), dust blowing across the landscape, and light bloom effects, all of which help reinforce the environment's dark, forbidding, and corrupted nature.

Prince of Persia's illustrative look is a departure from the series and comes as a welcome change.
Prince of Persia's illustrative look is a departure from the series and comes as a welcome change.

The events in Prince of Persia occur in a completely separate timeline from the Sands of Time trilogy, with an altogether new prince making his debut--except this time, he's not a prince from the get-go. The new character that you play as is described as an adventurer searching for riches, who, through the course of the story, becomes a prince. Inspirations for the character have been drawn from Sinbad the Sailor, Han Solo, and even Lo "Dark Cloud," the desert bandit from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The story is also loosely based on Persian mythology and the twin gods Ormazd (read: good) and Ahriman (read: bad). It seems that something's amiss with the Tree of Life--which holds the power of life and death--and an evil corruption is spreading across the land. Throughout your quest you'll need to heal the world one area at a time by destroying enemies that serve as a manifestation of that corruption, thereby ridding the land of it.

You'll also be accompanied by an attractive young lady named Elika, the last descendant of the guardians of the Tree of Life and apparently inspired by Keira Knightley's character in Pirates of the Caribbean. Elika has grown up within the walled garden that protects the tree from the outside world and therefore has led a rather sheltered life until now. While Elika serves as a storyteller, she'll also assist you in combat, acrobatic moves, and puzzle-solving.

Elika becomes your companion early on in the game, and while you won't control her directly, there is a context-sensitive button that's assigned to her and at your disposal during the game. For instance, you might be able to pull off a move midfight by throwing her over your shoulders into attackers or use her during the more acrobatic parts of the game to help you climb the more difficult ledges. She'll also respond automatically on some occasions, switching places with you while scaling a vertical cliff, for example. Despite the fact that she is human, she can't die or be killed in the game.

Keira, erm, I mean Elika, will assist you throughout your Persian adventure.
Keira, erm, I mean Elika, will assist you throughout your Persian adventure.

The enemies you'll encounter in Prince of Persia represent physical manifestations of the corruption. They're neither human nor mechanical but instead are a result of the gooey, organic corruption coagulating into adversaries, which, unlike in previous games where you fought multiple enemies at once, now have to be taken out one at a time.

The majority of the game's action takes place in outdoor environments. You'll explore canyons, cliffs, and many other natural structures that you're able to scale. You'll also find yourself indoors at times, with corridors and sheltered bridges mixing things up a bit. Highcastle, one of the regions we saw, was dominated by--you guessed it--a castle set high above the corrupted landscape.

The series has always had elements of acrobatics, puzzle-solving, and combat. However, on this outing the prince will have to rely more heavily on acrobatics to advance through the game. That isn't to say there won't be any adversaries or any puzzles to solve, but the emphasis will be more on exploration and using the prince's abilities to reach new areas. Standard Prince of Persia moves are back, but the prince also now sports a glowing, metallic glove that will allow you to perform an array of new moves, including the Grip Fall--a move that gives you a second chance in instances where you might otherwise have plunged to an untimely death.

The game has a partly open-ended structure, in that the order in which you explore each area is completely up to you. However, the path to each objective will still be linear. The developers didn't elaborate, but we were told that the order in which you complete the objectives will also have an effect on gameplay.

The game's world is divided into dark and light areas, which represent the two states of cursed land and healed land. One of the major objectives in one of the regions we saw was represented by a beam of light that extended high into the sky. When we came close to reaching the healing ground from which it emitted, we were confronted by a huge beastly creature called a hunter. After a short fight he was disposed of, and we were then ready to step into the light, presumably to vanquish corruption from the region, yet unfortunately for us, it was at this point that the demonstration drew to a close.

Prince of Persia will be making its way to the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, and DS later this year. Stay tuned for more coverage of the game.

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