Critically, Prince of Persia was one of the most universally acclaimed games of recent years, but getting you lot to buy it was a tougher job than it probably should have been. Without a recognisable licence attached to it, most gamers played safe and chose to ignore it and plump for the big names instead. Fine, buy inferior games then, see if we care! Hopefully the deafening applause that The Sands Of Time received will awaken the slumbering audience when the sequel lands later this autumn - ditto Beyond Good & Evil if there's any justice in the world. And in the run up to the game's release, Ubisoft kindly allowed us an hour or so to look at the game in action in the company of the game's producer Yannis Mallot, who took time out of his busy schedule to show off all manner of cool new additions to the game, including a much improved fighting system, time travel, bigger levels, a darker art direction and - believe it or not - better visuals all round. Could it scoop game of the year for the second year running? Read on...
Eurogamer: What's the purpose at start of the game, when you're on a ship?
Yannis Mallot: The Prince is trying to stay alive as long as possible, and has to head for where the Sands of Time are being kept long enough in the past before even the creation of them.
Eurogamer: How many moves has the Prince got in total?
Yannis Mallot: It's almost incalculable, because it depends on do you do a wall attack, do you do a rebound attack. What I do know is that we have 12, 14 finishing moves, but that's not counting all the different moves you have.
Eurogamer: Will you still start each level with a glimpse of what you're supposed to do?
Yannis Mallot: We're aware that this was a pretty cool story telling technique, and we're trying to come up with the same concept with a different realisation. The Prince travels to the past; not for 10 seconds anymore, but for centuries. There is one thing we don't want the player to do is sit around watching cinematics, so it's short memorable Hollywood moments in terms of camera placement. Our goal is in cinematic moments to keep the player as in control Interactive Cinematics.
Eurogamer: Tell us about these 'Interactive Cinematics'.
Yannis Mallot: Interactive cinematics are basically showing an event that occurs, or dialogue, but still leaving the control to the player. This means you have playable moments even when there's a dialogue - it's totally immersive. We don't want the player not to play - we do want them to find out about the story in full, but we want him to play.
Eurogamer: Where does the game take place?
Yannis Mallot: He awakes on a strange island, where the main part of the game will happen. It will be pretty much a huge castle, called the Castle of Time, where most of the game will happen. It's huge. But location is one thing, but location is only one dimension in space-time. As I told you, the Prince will be able to travel back in time for centuries. The cool thing about that is that each and every action the Prince does in the past will actually impact the level design of the new future when he goes back to the present, which means, for example, in the past he's blocked in a room or can't access anywhere, etc, and finally he finds a time warp which allows him to go back and do some stuff which will change the level design of the map.
Eurogamer: Tell us about the Freeform Fighting System.
Yannis Mallot: We call it the Freeform Fighting System because I can use pretty much whatever is around me to fight. You also have secondary weapons now, and the way our secondary weapons are designed is exactly the same concept in Lord Of The Rings for the Orcs weapons, you know, they're kind of cheap, they're made quickly.
The cool thing in gameplay in PoP2 for the secondary weapons is they don't last that long, so we encourage players to get new stuff as often as possible. When the Prince is surrounded by enemies, he has some powerful attacks available to him. As soon as he has two weapons in his hands he can enter this dual weapon fighting mode, which is pretty devastating for enemies. I can throw weapons too, then I stun the enemy, and we have kept the famous counter move from the original. When the enemy has its back to me, I can perform the Strangulation move, one of the most powerful in the game. This is adding depth, and at the same time I kill the guy and then get to take his weapon.
Eurogamer: Do you still collect the Sands of Time?
Yannis Mallot: Yes, you do, but you know what? We've been thinking about that, and we came to the conclusion where collecting sands after you killed enemies in The Sands Of Time was a duty, and then it was not cool. What the Prince has kept, on the other hand, is the medallion, and he now has the medallion as part of his leather armour, and the medallion is doing the job for him, and in terms of gameplay it leaves the player to do the fun stuff. So, I see your question coming - we still have sand powers, time powers in the game, but also we have given depth to the Time powers. We also use in-game cinematics to introduce new moves. Each time we show you a new move, it's going to be playable somewhere, and that's very cool.
Eurogamer: Are you just playing as the Prince all the time?
Yannis Mallot: Erm... I cannot tell you anything about that.
Eurogamer: I'll take that as a no then! How many boss characters will there be in the game?
Yannis Mallot: We'll have at least three boss characters, but that doesn't take into consideration some of the bigger guys, who aren't [although evidently look like bosses].
Eurogamer: How big do you think the game will be in comparison to the original?
Yannis Mallot: In terms of original gameplay, meaning the first time the player takes that challenge, we expect the game to be as long as The Sands Of Time. That doesn't take into consideration all the revisits the Prince have going back and forth in time. For example, because we create new level design challenge and new gameplay, we can definitely add a good three to four hours [compared] to the original Sands Of Time gameplay.
Eurogamer: Technically, are you doing anything new? Is it the same game engine before? Have you improved it much?
Yannis Mallot: That's the same Jade engine. We had a meeting with the Sony people themselves and they said, "You know what? The PS2 capabilities are here and your game is here" [motions hands to the same level], so we thought there's no way we can improve that. But the first thing we did on the PoP2 project was to put a five or six man engineer team together to try and look at the engine and see if, indeed, it could not be improved. And as a matter of fact, those guys came back and optimised the engine by 25 per cent. So this is 25 per cent more space for rooms, more texture, bigger maps, new special effect, and this is really really impressive when you see the size of the maps and all the new stuff.
Eurogamer: How many frames per second are you running at?
Yannis Mallot: 30. And that's a decision we made, because we could have tried to go for 60, but I don't think we have the kind of game that requires 60 frames per second. We're not a racing game, you know, we're not that fast action, but going for 30, we can allow ourselves much more in terms of computing power to display more stuff. We have increased our lightmap capabilities so that the design and all the art direction looks deeper. We have also, as you may have seen, changed radically the art direction to go darker to go more mature in terms of art meaning we have changed the filter we have removed this rendering in the Sands Of Time where colours are washed, edges are rounded, that was giving this very pretty kind of look, we're going for a truer environment.
Eurogamer: Has the animation system been improved?
Yannis Mallot: We have improved the blending of the animation system - blending is combining two different animations, so for example when I was grabbing the crate I was putting my sword back in. In all different games you are not able to do both at the same time, for example Tomb Raider you have to get your sword back in first and then grab the crate; with our blending system we're actually doing both at the same time. It's a little detail, but it's in the detail that we see the realisation of the game.
Eurogamer: Are you making much more use of the Xbox than before?
Yannis Mallot: Yes, of course. We inherited a stable engine [when we started development], so we could work fast. Actually the Jade engine was made for Beyond Good & Evil by Michel Ancel's team a... long time ago. In Sands Of Time production, I actually sent five engineers in September 2001, and then in November they took the last code job of Beyond Good & Evil, and we only needed one code job after that because we made so many customisations on the engine for our game such as rewinding, light maps, blending and all that stuff, so after we had two separate engines. The dynamic lighting on the PlayStation 2 is colour sensitive, meaning the Prince will reflect yellow colour if the light source is yellow. The Xbox is much more impressive in terms of visuals, with things like heat effect and normal mapping and proper dynamic lighting.
Eurogamer: Are you doing any Xbox Live downloads at all?
Yannis Mallot: We do have Xbox Live modes. We have two modes actually - the first one being what we call the Time Attack, which in our opinion totally fits with the core gameplay of Sands Of Time. Time Attack will feature sequences of gameplay that you have to do perfectly, not losing any seconds, not using any extra turns round the pole, and then combined with the stats feature of the Xbox Live we're going to be able to rank people and each time you enter the PoP community you say, 'okay I want to challenge this person on the charts'; what you do then is download his ghost when he made the sequence of gameplay, and then you fight against his ghost, and if you win, it's your turn to upload your own ghost, and stuff like that.
The other mode is Survival mode, which design fits more with the storyline. As I said, it's not a question of will the Prince die, or how will he die, it's a question of how long will he stay alive, so the Survival mode will just be combined with the stats; how many enemies did you kill before getting killed yourself, how many finishing moves had you used and stuff like that.
Eurogamer: Will there be any new modes in the other versions?
Yannis Mallot: GameCube will feature a specific rendering system optimization, water effect, heat effect, physics effect, which match pretty much what you can do on Xbox.
Eurogamer: Will you be doing the link up with the GBA again?
Yannis Mallot: I don't know. I guess, but I don't know, unfortunately.
Prince Of Persia 2 will be released simultaneously on PS2, Xbox, PC, GameCube and GBA in November. Look out for hands-on first impressions closer to the game's release.