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Hands-On: The New Prince of Persia

Something old, something new in this franchise reboot for Ubisoft's mystical action adventure series.

Combat is a cinematic, one-on-one affair.
Combat is a cinematic, one-on-one affair.
Oddly, Ubisoft chose Tokyo Game Show as the place to let us get our hands on the new Prince of Persia for the first time. Everything about the demo was in Japanese, from the voiceovers to the on-screen prompts and control signage and, obviously, the instructions from the booth attendant. So you might say I had a slightly different experience with Prince of Persia than you will if you pick up the final version in a few weeks.

This was the same demo level Ubi showed back at E3, where the newly redesigned prince and his mystical female sidekick Elika have to navigate a series of cliffs and canyons in pursuit of a monstrous blade-wielding creature who is poisoning the land. The area is full of the kind of environmental effects you'd expect out of a Prince of Persia game, if you played any of the three recent ones (especially Sands of Time). Those include handholds, climbing poles, wall-running spots--all the little finely tuned level-design elements that let your inhumanly acrobatic dude leap and shimmy from one area to the next.

I expected this Prince to play just like the last ones, but there are some big differences. But first, there are a few similarities too, mainly in the controls. If you're climbing up a pole, you can rotate around it in 90-degree increments to angle your jump. Wall-running happens pretty much automatically when you jump into a section of wall that's flagged to allow that action. Jumping from one ledge to the next feels exactly the same. So the basic lexicon of environment navigation from the last three games is in place here.

This wasn't in the demo, but it looks pretty sweet.
This wasn't in the demo, but it looks pretty sweet.
The big difference is that the new game places surprisingly harsh demands on your timing. There were several spots where I landed from a jump to go unavoidably sliding down a sharp embankment that made me jump again at a specific moment, or else slide into the abyss to my doom. A lot of the ledges aren't quite in jumping range, either--you have to hit the jump button again at exactly the right moment to scramble up the sheer wall to grab hold, or else tumble into the pit. There are also jump pads scattered around some of the cliff faces that need a specifically timed button press to launch you into the sky to your next ledge. If you don't time that button right, down into the abyss you go. Perhaps you're noticing a theme here.

I was having trouble getting some of the jumps down, until the booth attendant--clearly frustrated by my inability to get it--started shouting "A-Y" at me. I got the hint and jumped with A, then hit Y at the apex of my jump, which made Elika teleport to my position in midair and do a kind of somersault fling move that gave me extra distance, allowing me to make it to the next ledge.

Performance anxiety thanks to my stern instructor wasn't helping any. Playing games at TGS is an interesting experience in itself, let me tell you. I find acting humble and hamming it up about my repeated failures to be an effective tactic.

The combat is also dramatically different from the previous trilogy. You only square off against a single enemy at once, and--at least in the case of the monster I was fighting--I was only able to use one attack button effectively at a time, based on the stance the enemy had assumed. If it was in its normal stance, I could attack with my sword using the X button. If it gathered some sort of dark energy around it, I had to hit Y to send Elika in with her magic. If it was taking a different stance, I had to use B to grab and throw it. So the combat seemed to revolve around memorizing which attack goes with which enemy stance, and seemed a little rote for that. The camera angles and animations looked pretty and cinematic, though.

It's certainly an attractive-looking game.
It's certainly an attractive-looking game.
One nice benefit of the one-enemy-at-a-time model is an automatic lock-on. The prince always faces that enemy, so you don't have to hold a shoulder button or anything to maintain the lock. That also makes it easier to dodge in different directions by leaping or rolling.

You've probably read before about how there's no dying, per se, in this game--instead, Elika comes in and saves you at the last second in a quick cutscene--but in gameplay terms, this simply acts as a more finely tuned checkpoint system. Basically, the last time you touched solid ground is where your checkpoint is. So if you miss a jump, in pops Elika to save you and you're back at the beginning of that jump again. If you die in combat, she pulls you back to recover yourself, and the enemy regains a bunch of health, effectively starting the fight over. I admit this system did give the flow of the game an expeditious feel, much more so than the traditional die-reload-return-to-checkpoint system of most action games.

This new Prince has a distinctly action-oriented flavor to it that makes it seem like more than just a retread of the last three games. And I applaud Ubi's decision to dispense with the Sands of Time milieu completely in favor of this new start for the franchise. But I want to see how this discrete area from the demo fits into the larger picture of the game world and storyline before passing real judgement. Game's out in early December, so we won't have to wait too long to find out.
Brad Shoemaker on Google+