Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
1st Jul 2003 | 16:23
Anthony Holden straps on a turban and discovers one of the biggest surprise hits of this year's E3
Time heals all wounds, so they say, and while my three-legged dog might have something to say about that, it's an aphorism that Ubi Soft is taking very seriously with its new 3D adventure, Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time.
For a start, the French developer is hoping the figurative sands of time have settled sufficiently over the shambles that was Prince Of Persia 3D (Red Orb's misguided attempt to update the game in 1999), trusting we'll forget that betrayal and remember only why we loved the series in the first place.
But beyond this, time - always an important factor in the Prince Of Persia games - is simply key to survival in The Sands Of Time. We're not talking about a time limit to complete the thing (as in the original), but a slew of cool ways in which you can manipulate, stretch and turn back time, giving you an all-important edge in the game's pitfall-strewn environments. Level designer Jean-Christophe explains.
"In the beginning of the game you break a magical hourglass and unleash the sands of time, and your quest will be to undo what you've done. Collecting the sands of time will allow you to do different kinds of special acts like rewinding time, which is useful if you die or fall off an edge - you just rewind to a few seconds earlier and keep playing. You can also slow down time, freeze your enemies during combat - they'll be put in another time dimension and you'll be able to kill them more easily, as well as sometimes see the near future, which lets us give the players some hints about what's coming up."
If I Could Find A Way...
It's a simple device to be sure, but one that has a huge impact on the action. Apart from looking cool when you kick it in, the rewind function alone makes the frustration of falling off a difficult platform at the tiniest of missteps virtually disappear, and also allows the designers to make the platforming action much more complex and interesting. Of course, your time powers are not infinite - you only collect sand and therefore temporal powers by slaying enemies with a special dagger - so you still need to watch your step.
As cool as the temporal abilities are, however, it's not just about playing with time. As in any Prince Of Persia game, the acrobatic capacities of your character are paramount, and luckily in this case you're a veritable Jackie Chan. Not only can you do all the things you'd expect from a modern platform adventure - climbing, jumping, hanging, rolling, etc - but you have one or two brilliant and novel moves, such as running on walls, vertically and horizontally. All you have to do is get up a bit of steam, run at a wall and press an action key, and the prince will traverse a shallow arc across a stretch of wall, or even run straight up a few steps and grab an otherwise inaccessible lip. You can even spring off the wall at any point, making for some interesting leaps of faith to reach new areas.
Combat is even more impressive. Special fighting moves allow the prince to dodge and roll like Zelda's Link, or do a handspring off an enemy's head, stabbing them in the back on the way down. In combination with the Matrix-like slo-mo effects and the ability to freeze enemies, it makes for some spectacular results.
"We tried to find an interesting combat system," says Jean-Christophe. "It's centred around multi-enemy fights - you just pick one enemy, push in that direction and you lock on to them. Push in another direction and you'll switch - it's very simple."
Another intriguing part of the game that wasn't shown at E3 is the existence of a secondary character - and love interest - who helps the prince perform different actions throughout the game. Jean-Christophe elaborates: "The story is much more complex than just collecting sand or saving a princess. You have to find the hourglass that you broke and restore the sands of time, but you will be helped in this duty, during puzzles for example, by an Indian princess. But in fact you stole her father's treasure, so she's also an antagonist."
Where You Go, ICO
Impressively, almost the whole game is set within one single, consistent palace environment. Much like the sublime Ico (the innovative PS2 platformer), you can see the entire palace if you get the right angle, and note areas you've already been to or are yet to visit. It's all dynamically loading, with no levels, and offers a brilliant sense of scale and grandeur.
Indeed, the entire game has a certain logic and beauty to it that left us truly impressed at E3. It's definitely more a console game than a PC one, but one that's so articulate and inventive, and so effectively recalls its classic predecessor, that it really can't be overlooked.