Looking through some archives I realized that it has been 13 years since the original Prince of Persia revolutionized gaming and was an instant hit. Prince of Persia 2 – The Shadow and the Flame was bigger, better and the graphics were some of the best at that time. This was also the first time that a narrator that actually SPOKE was used in a game. I still remember my jaw drop when my speakers came to life, putting out more than just generic sound...
In 1997 Prince of Persia 3D was released, an attempt to renew the series by introducing new elements like the third dimension. Let’s face it, it wasn’t the worst game of all times, but it wasn’t really good either. After POP3D it seemed that the legacy had vanished. But (at least some) companies are smarter than actually dropping a promising brand only because there was one unsuccessful title. And so the Prince returned...
Can a game actually be too good to be true? Having played hundreds and hundreds of different games over the years (no I’m not exaggerating, people often DO tell me to get a life though), there was only a handful that overwhelmed me so much that I just couldn’t stop playing no matter how late the hour nor the work I should be doing. I heard good things about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and from the screens and our preview of the PS2 version I knew that I could like it, but after completing the game in less than 48 hours I knew that saying “I liked the game” would be an understatement. Ladies and gentlemen, dear readers – let me present you my personal Game of the Year.
Time is like an ocean in a storm. You may wonder who I am, and why I say this; Sit down, and I will tell you a tale like none that you have ever heard...
This time “Prince” ( it is an unwritten law of the series that you never actually learn his name) is actually of noble blood, not a nobody from a distant land that fought his way out of a dark palace dungeon and eventually conquered the heart of the local princess by means of defeating the evil Vizier that threatened her life and the future of her kingdom. “Prince” is the son of the king of Persia making him – can you guess it?
Young “Prince” accompanies his father to pay a visit to the allied kingdom of Azad, but on their way they are also looking for fame and riches. And so, when the traitorous Vizier of India approaches them, offering that he will open the gates of the capital for them and allow them and their troops to loot the infamous treasure chambers of the Maharaja of India, they both quickly accept. “Prince”, wanting to prove himself is one of the first to rush into the city's palace grounds. And here our adventure begins.
The prince of graphics
The graphical presentation is one of the best I have ever seen, and I admit that I’m not surprised that the developers stated more than once that this about as much as they can realize in the game, especially because this is a multi-platform project. But if this is the best, I have no problem with more similarly well looking titles coming this way. Not only UbiSoft's Montreal studio's developers put their experience of working on Splinter Cell to good use, but they've even surpassed themselves.
Sheer numbers are already a good way of expressing how detailed e.g. the animations and characters are. The prince himself consists of over 1800 polygons and over 750 different animations – way to go, as the original Prince of Persia had a character consisting out of 1 Polygon, with only 100 different animations. At the same time it must be said that AA/AF really makes the game shine on the PC – it truly is the most beautiful version among all, and surprisingly (as long as your system meets the recommended requirements) the game performs admirably, and with no framerate loss, which was noticeable in some of the console versions of the game. Only slight fault I've noticed throughout the whole game involved the camera work, which was somewhat too sensitive. Nevertheless, it's excusable with this being a multi-platform project – especially that it wasn't as annoying in most other console ports.
People that fear that – since we spend most of our playing time in a palace again – the levels can become repetitive can relax – the developers had more than one interesting idea. Various tracts of the palace feature different kinds of architecture, giant halls and libraries, baths and underground caves with gigantic waterfalls and stalactites to climb and stalagmites to impale yourself one, many outdoor levels including vast garden areas, a beastarium, and of course the inescapable visit to the dungeons of the palace. Not one place and not one room look the same, and you will never have the feeling that any of the level designers allowed their work to be sloppy.
A symphony of athletics
Finding your way through the besieged city you will learn the basic and most of the advanced moves you are capable off. Besides running, jumping, climbing ladders and of course grapping ledges, our well trained prince is capable of many more things you shouldn’t try at home.
First of all he can run up walls. If the top of an obstacle is just out of reach, you can use this ability to gain some extra height and grab the ledge. While still running up the wall (let's call this action “walling” from now on – for obvious reasons) you may also decide to jump off the wall, possibly reaching prior unreachable places in mid-air of the now higher and wider jump.
A variation of the same skill is running sideways on walls. This way large gaps – of course either bottomless or filled with unfriendly looking spikes – can be crossed. Again, it is possible, and at times necessary, to jump off the wall while “walling” on it in order to reach a place on the other side.
Other obstacles and situations the prince can master include climbing pillars and jumping from pillar to pillar on a crumbled colonnade, or swinging from rope to rope, or from pole to pole like a champion on the horizontal bar, or balancing on narrow walls. All of the above is of course explained and trained too.
Most of these techniques sound complex, but they are easy to control, and after only a little training most complex situation involving jumping from wall to wall, or crossing a gap “walling” one side of the room and while half way across the room jumping off the wall to grab a ledge, will become all natural to you. It helps that the controls are rather intuitive, and are well adapted for the PC. Pretty much the only “inevitable” thing that the game “borrows” from its console “cousins” is the somewhat repetitive bashing of the attack button...
Storm of blades
Of course our prince is not only capable of winning most athletic competitions one can think of, but he is also an extra ordinary swordsman. Again, you have access to several techniques, although the control schemes remain simple all the way. You have one basic attack that the prince will automatically chain into powerful combos whenever possible. The jump button makes fighting more interesting because of the numerous ways it can be used during a fight. When moving away from an enemy prince can do a somersault, backflip, or a similar move in order to pull back from the confrontation for the moment. At the same time if jumping “at” an enemy, prince will try to vault the enemy, making him an easier target to finish once and for all. And finally, if you are near a wall and press jump AND attack together, he will do a powerful attack which consists of jumping off the wall, which gives him some extra power, which in turn gives him a chance of tumbling an enemy over. Although beware that while vaulting an enemy and doing a wall attack are powerful techniques that will give you an instant advantage over your enemy, there are hardly any enemies on which BOTH techniques will work. If you chose the wrong technique, the enemy will likely be able to fend off your attack and then YOU will find yourself in a worse situation!
While learning making use of our “natural” abilities, we and Prince will finally have reached the treasure vault, and now the Maharaja’s most valued treasure, the dagger of time lies before us. If the Prince would known how much grief and sorrow his exploration would cause, he would leave the dagger where it is, but time is something man cannot wind back. Or can he?
The Sands of Time
Time travel and the paradox caused by it were covered in countless games, but somehow I don’t remember a single game that made use of the most obvious possibility of having power over time itself. No I’m not talking about scoring with chicks, I mean why not rewind time to prevent something bad from happening to you? If we speak in long terms, there were games that gave you the chance of e.g. preventing your own death, but did you ever have the chance to do this in a jump’n’run game? One the other hand, you are maybe one of these few players that never dropped into a bottomless pit while still pressing the “grab” button and screaming “But I pressed it! But I pressed it!”...
The dagger allows the prince to do exactly what we all always hoped for. The dagger stores the so called “Sands of Time”, a mysterious substance that gives the one that can control it the possibility to change the flow of time. Your dagger has a given number of Sand Tanks allowing you to REWIND time at almost ANY point during the game. The last 10 seconds are always memorized and can be rewinded at the cost of one sand tank. Of course you CAN’T rewind ten seconds with the first tank, an additional ten seconds with the second, and so on – the dagger always needs some time to charge up again, and if your last usage of the dagger was less then ten seconds ago, you can only go back this far.
This power alone would make your dagger a valuable ally, and the game stand out yet again, but there is STILL more...
Don’t trust a traitor
The Vizier that betrayed the Maharaja quickly joins your ranks after your troops have razed the city, and you continue your journey to Azad, taking most of the riches of India with you, including India’s most beautiful girls for the harem of your ally and a mysterious hour glass, obviously of magic origin because it is full of glowing sand. As the hour glass is presented to the king of Azad, the question what mysterious powers the hour glass contains arises, and the Vizier is quick to explain everything - if opened with the Dagger of Time that our young Prince now wields it will grant unspeakable powers. Our Prince is willing to do as asked, but unwillingly he has given the Vizier what he was hoping for in the first place. The dagger unleashes the Sands of Time imprisoned within the hour glass, and around our prince everyone but himself, the evil Vizier, and a young slave girl from India turn to sand. The Vizier demands the dagger from our Prince, but the unchanneled power of the sand causes the throne room to crumble. The Prince can hardly escape before the passage collapses behind him, and the only person that is able to escape besides himself is the mysterious slave girl...
Star Wars, Sand People and Prince of Persia
The level in India was only the introduction, and only now the real game begins. And if you thought the enemies were too easy until now... Well, you asked for it.
The Sand of Time has a terrible effect on the palace’s population. Everyone that gets in contact with the magic sand is transformed into an inhuman abomination, no matter if male or female, nor human or animal. These Sand creatures are fierce fighters, and our prince soon recognizes that no matter how many times he slays them they always stand up again. Help arrives when the mysterious slave girl reappears and gives our prince the hint to “to use the dagger”. In fact our prince will from now on always fight using the dagger as a side arm. Soon he finds out that the dagger in fact is the only way to put these former human creatures to eternal rest. Once slain, before they have the chance to regenerate, he can use his dagger to “take their sand”, thus absorbing their essence, the one thing that makes them immortal, and refilling the sand containers of the dagger at the same time.
Now that we have a “secure” income of sand, we can again rewind time, and as we collect more of the precious yet mischievous substance we will learn additional moves and combos. The two most interesting among these are the ability to freeze a single enemy solid, and make him an easier target or – although this comes at the cost of ALL your sand containers – the so called Mega Freeze, that will not only stop every single enemy in range, but will also give you lightning fast speed boost at the same time.
The battles are balanced and hardly ever unfair – after all you can almost always rewind time to even the odds – although sometimes a little lengthy, since the enemies respawn. That on the other hand has the advantage that you'll never have to fight too many enemies at once. Not that 6 or more of the sand creatures aren’t a challenge already...
This Prince is King among Games
I said it before and I will say it again: Prince of Persia is the one single game I enjoyed the most this year. The graphics, the music (regular readers know that I’m not all that into music, yet THIS soundtrack is a definite buy if released), the level design, the fighting, the jumping, the story – I can’t think of a single thing that leaves behind anything else but a good impression. The PC version of the game enhances the graphics even further (which alone might justify getting it for the PC), although some camera problems are inevitable (but the $10 cheaper - comparing to console versions - price tag might make it all sweeter). But as I was saying, if this isn’t Game of the Year material, I don’t know what is.