Prince of Persia – U Played it Dude!


img_wp_pop4_prince (Medium)

Jump out by breaking a window & fall in front of a palace guard. Whip your sword and kill the guard. Run and jump from one roof to another, killing more guards to finally drop down to a place where you have to start running again and jump on to a ship to escape…

Yup, you guessed it right! This is Prince of Persia II: A game we have all played or heard about. In the days of Dangerous Dave, Pac-Man & Mario, Prince of Persia seemed like a visit to wonderland.

And this time it’s bigger than ever as the new ‘PoP’ IV is on its way for a release. It is a completely new chapter in the Prince of Persia universe and it introduces a new gameplay style, and a new graphic design to the Prince of Persia series.

Prince of Persia was always going to be a tricky series to reboot for the current gen. Any game franchise so cultishly loved and specific in approach to its genre automatically sets off alarm bells whenever changes need to be made. But three games down, PoP did indeed need renovating in order to avoid the onset of staleness. Such a fate would be a tragedy for such a fresh and individual set of games. But has Ubisoft made the right decisions along the way? Weeeeeell…


First things first. Those gorgeous ‘hand-painted’ graphics you’ve seen? They look fantastic in-game. Often these things have a habit of falling short once they’re implemented into actual, controllable, moving gameplay, but PoP’s visual overhaul consistently, abjectly refuses to not look great. The animation is as slick as ever, especially during the Prince’s interactions with new co-op NPC Elika. Seeing her jump in to throw our acrobatic hero over wide crevasses and assist him during seamless combat combos is like watching the finest circus trapeze act you could possibly imagine.

And it’s not just the obvious set-piece moves that impress. The little incidental animations that Ubi Montreal have included whenever the two characters, for example, pass each other when hanging from a ledge or climbing a cliff face are impressive, subtle and functional all at the same time. For once, we have a co-op character we won’t be screaming at to get out of the way every five minutes. Or at all, in fact.


As for Elika herself, she’s a great addition to the PoP gameplay mechanics. Her implementation is a carefully planned tightrope walk, doing a great job of freshening up the gameplay we all love without ever breaking the winning formula. Although a separate character from the Prince, she essentially works as an extension of him. Her trapeze throw operates just like a double-jump. Throwing her magical attacks into battle is just like using an extra weapon button. And her ability to save the Prince from two-dimensional plummeting deaths is basically just an automatic version of the old Sands of Time rewind function.

So far then, good times all round. But you’re intelligent people. You know there’s a "But" coming, so let’s just get on with it, shall we?

The fact is, in trying to make PoP more accessible to new players, it seems that Ubi might have muddied the game’s identity somewhat. For starters, while all the running, jumping, flipping, swinging gameplay is here in swathes, the newly simplified controls don’t necessarily do it any favors. By making things context sensitive, Ubi might have made the gameplay a little less daunting for casuals, but we can’t shake the nagging feeling that some of the precision and finesse of the earlier games’ control is now missing.


Wall runs now kick in automatically when the Prince jumps towards a vertical surface. Aim dead on and he’ll run straight up; go in at an angle and he’ll run along it. The problem with context sensitive controls is that however well used they are, the game is still essentially guessing what you want it to do. In a game requiring the kind of precise control that PoP does, although not the car crash it could have been, the approach definitely leads to running and jumping in undesirable random directions from time to time. It’s not game-breaking, but it does feel fluffy and uncomfortable after playing the previous games.

That fluffiness is compounded by the simplification of some of the platforming mechanics. Building swing momentum on a pole to make a long jump now isn’t necessary, or even possible. Instead, a canned swing animation kicks in when the jump button is pressed, which always leads to a standard length leap. There’s no need to balance on planks and narrow platforms either. When landing on one, the Prince now comes to a dead stop, frozen and unable to do anything but jump ahead to the next one when the button is pressed again. And with significantly long timing windows for control inputs, jumps can be pre-loaded in mid-air before the next platform is even reached.


While smoothing the flow of the game and showing off the Prince’s animations beautifully, this does all rather lend the feel that the game is playing itself a good portion of the time. In fact sometimes it even feels like it’s all just a case of pointing the Prince in the desired direction and hammering A until he gets where you want him.

The new combat system is a more welcome change, but definitely an acquired taste. Now based entirely around one-on-one duels, Ubisoft’s claims that it harks back to the original 2D game’s fighting are entirely accurate. You’ll circle your opponent in 3D space, but dealing damage is all about edging forward while maintaining a defensive stance, and waiting for an attack window to open up before starting a combo. Enemies are very defensive, and a blocked hit will often leave the Prince wide open to attack. Fortunately, parrying is fairly easy to pick up once you learn the timing, and leads to a nicely tactical to-and-fro dynamic in battle.


There’s a slow, deliberate pace to fighting this time around, and that’s something that’s going to take some players a while to accept, especially after the dynamic freeform combat of Warrior Within. But it’s worth sticking with, as although it never provides the same kind of frantic thrills, when played with skill and practice it can be really rather satisfying. But again, thanks to some very generous attack input windows, the longer battles sometimes have a tendency to feel like extended QTEs. The fixed camera angle for combos doesn’t help the interactive cut-scene feel either.

At the moment it’s tricky to know who Ubisoft is aiming the new Prince of Persia at. The simplified controls and platforming mechanics imply the expanded casual market, but the fact that everything is still based around the traditionally hardcore PoP model is likely to scare away the Wii Sports brigade regardless. Similarly, the occasional difficulty spike around boss fights is a little at odds with that philosophy.


The levels we’ve played so far have been relatively simple affairs, mostly consisting of moving in a single direction via wall-runs and swing jumps. We’ve been told that the finished game will include PoP’s more complex, indoor platforming conundrums, and that can only be welcome news to hardcore players. But will those epic feats prove off-putting to casual players regardless of the new controls?

Right now, the game could go either way. With stunning production design and refreshed gameplay, it could be end up bringing the Prince of Persia magic to hardcore and casual camp alike. And for that, we could only praise it. But depending on how well balanced its approach turns out to be, it may fail through trying to please everybody at the same time. We’re quietly hopeful, but we need to play more. Watch, as ever, this space.

~ by Ayan on November 3, 2008.

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