Monday, 12 April 2010

Videogame Review: Prince of Persia

(Originally written for IGN)
Okay, I'm gonna get this out of the way first; this game is gorgeous. The cell-shaded wonderland that this game conjures is jaw-dropping from the moment you start playing until the moment you finish. The Assassin's Creed engine has shown once again how well it can create sensational graphics, and the art direction is probably the best I've seen all year. The animation is smooth and natural looking, even when performing the most outlandish feats. The soundtrack compliments this perfectly; epic orchestral deluges which create a magnificent atmosphere.

Shame about everything else.

I'm a huge fan of the previous generation of this franchise; the fast, fluid platforming and combat that allowed instant usability but much room for experimentation and the likeable, fleshed out characters. On top of this, the sands of time system allowed challenge in the puzzles themselves and allowed the game to be forgiving yet tense and reliant on skill; I often found myself grasping for the rewind button in games I played afterwards. This Prince of Persia has replaced all of these with idiotic, uninspired gameplay mechanics which actively detract from the game.

First off, the platforming, while the strongest point of the game, is flawed on a few very basic levels. Firstly, the nimbleness and speed of the original prince's freerunning is usurped by leaden wall-scrambling and repetitive tasks which become dull after not much time. The new prince's parkour stuff is controled solely by the jump button, and the lack of a freerun button grates; the game misinterprets your commands sometimes, which, while uncommon, can sour your opinion of it given the life-or-death situations this occurs in.

Well, I say "life-or-death", but that's a slight misstatement. You cannot die in this game. You see, at all times you're accompanied by Elika, an obligatorily busty mage/sidekick/annoyingly-forced-feeling love interest who saves you whenever you're in a potentially deadly situation and transports you back to the last safe place. An obvious attempt to recreate the brilliant sands of time rewind function of the original trilogy, this system couldn't have missed the point more if they'd actively tried. Whereas the rewind allowed you to correct mistakes as they happened, never breaking flow and allowing for quick resuming of gameplay should you misstep, the new system drags you back to the beginning of the section and forces you to do what you just did again. Considering that some sections can be very challenging to finish, relying on a painfully unforgiving game engine, that "again" often becomes "again and again and again and again and again". In a game where instant death is this close at all times, this means that the pace of the game remains sluggish and dull.

Speaking of sluggish and dull, remember when you first powered up the largely-underrated PoP: Warrior Within and found that the awkward combat of PoP: Sands of Time had been replaced with a slick, fun and at-all-times badass system which flatters the player's every button press with sheer awesomeness? Me too. Unfortunately Ubisoft don't, and have instead put in place a hugely frustrating mess of a combat system which never fails to infuriate. Fighting in this game is entirely based on duels. Or rather, on quick-time events. You see, the block button in this game seems to be less about defense and more about holding your sword differently if you think it looks cooler. All the enemies have unblockable moves which they use with gleeful frequency, relying on the kind of reflex test which punish the player whenever possible. And since you don't have a health bar, whether you are hit by a blockable attack or block it will still merely result in slight knock-back, all in all making you wonder why they bothered with blocking at all when they could have been dealing with the animation issues. The Prince is robbed of all his agility and speed during these fights, choosing instead to either plod around like a retarded tortoise or utilise an evading system which doesn't actually evade attacks.

To top it off, all enemies, including horribly overused bosses, initially use the same tactics and to an extent the same moves, resulting in total monotony. When one boss started to use a DIFFERENT TACTIC, where they'd go into a stance where only one type of attack is effective, I almost cheered. Then they all started using it. And it would have become dull too, until they changed the one-attack to the Elika attack. You see, Elika is also used in combat by lobbing her at the enemy, or at least can be. I never did if I could avoid it. The attack has a delay while she leaps onto your shoulders, and this should, for the sake of balance, be okay, were she a ranged weapon, as a launched attack bloody well should be. She's not; in fact despite being able to fly, she is incredibly fussy about how far away you have to be from the enemy to use her. This means that that delay, when used in a close-range attack, makes her damn near useless. To top it all off, she can be attacked while attacking, which disables her for a while (read: about fifteen seconds, more if you're too far away, and this feature retains the truly mystifying definition of "too far away"). In a boss fight where this is a compulsory attack, the term "dick move" feels somewhat inadequate.

And the motivation for enduring this crap should be the story. The generic, predictable story; evil force spreads across land, generic grizzled badass takes it upon himself to somehow stop it. Even the "twist" is about as unexpected as gravity. The characters are terrible; Elika in particular is utterly schizophrenic; bitchy (possibly meant to be seen as a strong female character, which reveals so much about Ubisoft's idea of independant women) at first, then without warning flirty and vulnerable is a way so shoehorned in for the sake of romance that it's painful. The prince himself is best described as an utter dick, without the redeeming qualities of the equally arrogant original prince. The bosses are the only ones with character, character which remains agonizingly unexplored. The voice acting is jarringly done by none-more-yank americans, something which blighted Assassin's Creed despite only one character possessing it; here they ALL do, which, when combined with the horrible performances and terrible writing, throws you out of the experience every time a character opens his or her mouth.

I appreciate that I've compared this too much to the old games - it's still bad on its own merits - but it is very obviously trying to be PoP: Sands of Time. The "corruption" takes the place of the Sands, the visuals try to be like it, and Elika is like a completely unlikeable Farah. They even give you unlockable skins to make the main characters resemble SoT Prince and Farah, which felt a little like demanding that a new girlfriend gets the same haircut and clothes as your ex. They're claiming to have moved away from the originals, but don't have the guts to follow through with it.

This is a bad game. Not really bad, but below average in a way that a big-budget game has no right to be.

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