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Prince of Persia Hands-on

17 November 2008

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to take a trip out to San Francisco this past week to check out Ubisoft Montreal’s latest installment in the Prince of Persia franchise. Despite the popularity of the Sands of Time trilogy, a lot of gamers remained skeptical about the new direction Ben Mattes and the development team are taking with this next-gen iteration.

Throwing aside the combat mechanics of the past, introducing a new side-kick for The Prince and creating somewhat of an open world are just some of the changes gamers can expect to see from Prince of Persia. As the holiday season line-up slowly draws to a close, Prince of Persia signals the culmination of what has undoubtedly been the most impressive slew of software releases in gaming history.

The preview build on display started us off on a tutorial level. This particular area takes off just after The Prince has lost his trusty mule, fortune and way through the sandstorm-filled desert. Luckily, he happens upon a Princess being chased down by royal guards. This, of course, is Elika, whom as many of you already know serves as The Prince’s new sidekick and saviour. While she is a key component to the storyline, Elika serves as your guide, keeper and partner in order to successfully progress through the adventure ahead.

At first, I was very skeptical in regards to Elika and her role in the title. The obvious problem is the ability she has to prevent you from ever dying. Though this was one of my main concerns coming into the preview, I can say with confidence that Elika’s abilities are a fresh breath of air and still leave Prince of Persia a challenging experience. While she does have the talent to stop you from plummeting to your death, Elika works her magic in a way that feels more like a “quick-load checkpoint” than anything else. Of course, the best part about her is the fact she never gets in your way. She always seems to be there when you need her most, but never gives off the feeling as though she’s slowing you down. On top of this key component, Elika is also handy in combat and aids you in jumping greater distances. This is all done through a simplistic control scheme that gives the title a distinctly casual, user-friendly tone.

There are five key buttons that you utilize in order to progress quickly through the story. Square allows you to make swift, accurate sword attacks. Circle enables the usage of your gauntlet glove, thus giving you the added touch of tossing your foe high into the air. The X button, however, allows you to perform eye-popping, aerial assaults. Triangle is used to activate certain elements of play. These can range from special abilities to utilizing the cure wells to replenish Fertile Grounds. Finally, R2 is mainly utilized to block incoming attacks and aid in the opportunity to make a counter-attack against your enemy.

These five buttons are your path to becoming a capable fighter and explorer throughout the world of Prince of Persia. Casual gamers may not get the full experience out of the fighting mechanics, but hardcore players wanting to create massive combos that deliver “oohs and ahs” from onlookers should have no trouble getting to grips with the action. Of course, this is only made possible through the changes Ubisoft Montreal has made to the combat system in general.

Chances are if you’re a Prince of Persia fan, you’re used to holding off hordes of enemies at any given time. However, Producer Ben Mattes informed me that this wasn’t the direction in which the team wanted to take the franchise. While paying homage to God of War as the king of this combat style, Mattes described how the development team wanted to create their own unique combat system instead of going the same way as the aforementioned God of War, as well as Devil May Cry. The end result of this decision is a positive one to say the least. I had the chance to talk with Thomas Delbuguet (game designer) about this change and how it would alter the playing experiences for older fans of the series and he was very precise on the direction he created for the title.

Instead of swarms of enemies, Prince of Persia players can expect one-on-one combat that feels like you’re in complete control of the outcome of each fight. The choreography of each battle gives off the faint impression that you’re working with QTE-based events reminiscent of the God of War franchise. As such, battles are highly cinematic and engaging for the user as you eagerly await the next attack in a long line of destructive combos. Elika isn’t shy in contributing her own muscle in battle either, with players able to take advantage of her magical prowess at the push of a button. If you happen to get the timing just right with each press of the button, you can link move after move from Elika that helps push your enemy to the brink of defeat. Once you master these elements, you’re able to enjoy tremendous takedowns that can bring back some fond memories from Shadows of the Colossus.

One of the more interesting aspects Prince of Persia has to offer is the progressively adaptive AI, which works to provide a sufficient challenge regardless of the player’s experience. I can verify from my own experience that as I got better with the fighting system, the game still felt challenging and I still often needed Elika to help me out. This also put to rest one of my main concerns, namely being unable to die in battle. While some gamers may find this hard to believe, Elika saving you from death during battle has its setbacks as well. Rather than the enemy retaining their damaged life gauge, it is instead refilled to full strength, resulting in a rematch between yourself and your opponent.

Of course, Price of Persia is as much a platformer as it is a hack and slash, delivering an explosive, fluid action-adventure experience filled to the brim with daring acrobatics and precarious edge hopping. Fortunately, this latest installment is no exception to that rule, and may very well surpass the offerings of its predecessors. If you happened to have play Mirror’s Edge, you’ve already somewhat experienced what I’m talking about in a smaller sense. Prince of Persia takes momentum and speed into account when you’re making your way through each stage. If you’re capable of reaching certain platforms quick enough, you can prevent enemies spawning from the darkness and strike them down before they materialize.

If I had to choose a single word to describe the platforming aspect of this game, it would undoubtedly be “fluid.” Everything connects seamlessly and elegantly, from the transition of a wall run to a ledge grab, or nailing a back jump to sliding down a platform and grabbing hold of a hanging pillar. This also applies to the lack of load times during play outside of firing up the base game area (loads only take place when you transport from place to place) helping to immerse users within the game world without interruption.

Once you’ve jumped, grabbed and ran your way to the very end of each corrupted region of the game, you’re only objective left is to cure that area. Curing an area involving finding a patch of fertile ground in which Elika stands on in order to suck the corruption from the world around her. This looks more beautiful with each stage you progress to. Watching the dark and gloomy atmosphere turn into a beautiful utopia is nothing short of breathtaking. Once the area is cured, Light Seeds are going to sprout out through the region in order for you to accumulate. The Light Seeds function as currency in the world of Prince of Persia. Gather enough and you’re able to unlock new powers and abilities for Elika. Fortunately, this adds a ton of replay value for those completionists out there as the only way to collect all the Seeds is to go back over areas later on once you’ve unlocked newer powers.

Thankfully, the development team have spared no expense in regards to crafting a sprawling, hugely captivating world for gamers to explore. While Delbuquet couldn’t let me in on some of the goodies scattered across the world, he did inform me that there are little hints and secrets that gamers are going to want to go out and find. Something else fans of the franchise may find pleasing is the ability to learn more about the characters through exploration by being able to hear random passers conversations around the mountain tops and other various areas.

Graphically, Prince of Persia delivers a new form of art yet to be seen in the gaming industry. Labelled  “illustrative art,” Prince of Persia’s visuals provide far too much detail to be classified simply as “cell shaded”. The intricacies of Elika and The Prince’s clothing are far more than I expected. Zooming into either character, you can literally see each individual stitching within their clothing. Combined with the meticulously crafted backdrops, you’re left with a simply indescribable atmosphere that’ll have you stopped in your tracks, gawping at your surroundings in awe.

Elsewhere, Nolan North heads an amazing voice cast alongside his good real-life friend, Kari Wahlgren. North, as many PlayStation 3 owners already know, previously lent his voice to Uncharted’s beloved rogue protagonist, Nathan Drake. I’ll go on record and declare that his voice performance in Prince of Persia can and will rival that of Drakes. Something you may be able to notice from playing Prince of Persia, is the chemistry between North and Wahlgren is very evident when they’re talking in-game as Elika and The Prince. You can really feel the level of comfort these two actors have with one another - a rarity in today's industry to say the least.

When push comes to shove, a lot of people are going to be somewhat embarrassed that this title was not on their radar from day one. With such strong games like LittleBigPlanet, Fallout 3, Dead Space and Resistance 2 releasing over the last couple of months, Prince of Persia is undoubtedly the sleeper hit of the year with no competition in that regard. If I could pick one game that perfectly wraps up such a wonderful season of gaming, Prince of Persia delivers in unrivalled fashion.


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