Ubisoft invited us to a presentation of the upcoming Prince of Persia yesterday. LeFourbe and I were happy to comply so we took our camera gear with us and headed for Microsoft's loft in Paris. First impressions inside.
Just a small reminder before I start: we got to play Prince of Persia at the Micromania Gameshow last week but the playing conditions were not good enough for us to actually decide whether or not we liked the game. Hopefully, we got to try it a little longer for a whole afternoon and we can now tell you more about it.
Three years of work have been necessary for Ubisoft Montreal to create the new Prince of Persia. It's been a very bold project since it all started with only 8 people and ended with about 160. They took some great risks in terms of artistic direction and also in the way the game is built so the only question is: was it worth it?
I'll try not to get too carried away today - I can make it short I promise - as we should be able to offer you a very interesting interview of Ben Mattes, the game producer... Provided we don't run into the usual problems we seem to have when it comes to interviews. The idea behind Prince of Persia is to be very different from the previous trilogy and the original game and to get closer to the feeling of Arabian Nights, the book of One Thousand and One Nights. In the book, each chapter has its own story, its own hero and obviously its own villain. Basically it means that it does not really matter which chapter you read first as it's all part of the same story in the end. That's the idea they had in mind when making the game, wanting to find the right balance between puzzle solving and combats, wanting the game to simply be a new chapter in the Prince of Persia story.
One bold choice on Ubisoft's part is to have gone for a much more open world, hence a lot less linear one than in the previous titles. There are 5 different areas to explore - each with its own visual style and its own enemies - and you can pick up any of them right from the start. The choice is up to the player though it will not be possible to complete some of them unless you have first acquired the necessary magical power for Elika.
Elika, that's the second bet of the game. We can't deny that her character hasn't always been well-received by players on many forums worldwide but it's clearly one of the main innovations the team at Ubisoft wants to put forward. One thing should be said first: no, Elika does not oversimplify the gameplay and no, her presence - and the absence of game overs that goes with her - never ruins the sense of accomplishment that hardcore geeks want to feel when they play a game. You'll all see it for yourself in the interview - hopefully - but she is to be either a positive or a neutral component of the gameplay, depending on the situation. She's never intrusive and she will never be a burden you'll want to get rid of. Phew!
The combat system is also a great departure from the other games of the franchise as it focuses on one on one fights and it feels a lot more like a "real" fighting game. Again, the idea is to give a real sense of accomplishment when you beat an enemy, as if each fight, no matter how standard the foe is, becomes as intense as a boss fight. There is a total of 70 combos available, ranging from the lame 1 hit combo to a maximum of 14 hits combos. So the least you can say is you should be well-equipped to face the different monstrosities you will encounter. You won't unlock new moves as you progress into the game though: everything will be available at the beginning, which seems to make more sense for Ubisoft Montreal as they don't think it would have been particularly realistic to see a human character evolve that fast in the course of the story. There will be some kind of upgrade system however, through Elika and her powers that will make it possible to reach new areas. Mattes believes it makes more sense in a fantasy world to have that kind of magical upgrade system.
The artistic direction is also brand new with a visual style that is so particular you can't mistake it with another game. As far as I'm concerned, I just love it especially because the graphics are much more detailed than what you get in games using cel shading - the details on the clothes are just amazing for instance and the texture work is really well done. The lighting effects are also quite impressive, especially in the last part of the first boss battle we got to see. But not only is it a good looking game, the animations are also excellent, as you must have seen in the videos.
Gameplay-wise, once you get rid of some bad habits, like pressing A to haul yourself up a platform (here pressing up with the analogue stick will do the job), it is pretty easy to jump around everywhere. Be careful though, don't think the game makes it too easy, you still have to press the right buttons in the proper timing to succeed. If you forget to press B, you won't grab the next ring and fall to your death, if you don't jump at the right time, you're dead too and if you don't call Elika for a double jump when necessary, well... You get the picture. The game also rewards you for being fast and agile as you will be able to avoid some enemy encounters if you're skillful enough. Basically, the game asks you to collect as many orbs as you can because that's the "money" that will "buy" Elika's new powers so get ready for some real platforming action guys.
The last thing I want to mention is the soundtrack because that's something we really discovered yesterday - there was no sound at the MGS. I must say that, to my delight, the hard rock music from the Warrior Within is long gone and won't be back in the new Prince of Persia. Hopefully it's been locked up in some hourglass and buried somewhere in the desert. This time, we can enjoy about 110 minutes of symphonic music that will remind you of the best adventure movies you've seen. From what we could hear, I do think it adds a lot to the immersion process. There are some strong moments where the music is really there and brings a lot of emotions and these moments are often followed by quieter sequences where the music gets lighter. I found that they really did a great job and it's no wonder given that they spent more money on the sound design for this game than in the three previous games all together.
I will say no more, not even about the narrative and the storyline. You'll have to wait for the interview to learn more about that stuff. Suffice to say that I think it works well and that it's quite easy to become attached to the two main characters. So basically, we have a really positive feeling about that game and we're really looking forward to getting our hands on the final version in the weeks to come.