If we could turn back time, we'd rewind to Christmas 2003. That way, we could eat Mark's Christmas dinner again, because it was fantabulous. Also: we could play Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time all over again, and it would all be new. Right now, it's getting old. We've finished it so many times that we've started naming the walls. "Hello Frank, how's the creeper?" we'll be heard exclaiming as we scamper improbably along a sheer rock surface, flecks of sand wafting past us in the air like some sort of angelic dandruff, occasionally calling upon that celebrated Dagger of Time to undo a mistimed jump. Where once the enormous rooms that had to be navigated via a carefully aligned network of ledges, pillars, platforms and switches filled us with wonder and curiosity, now they simply represent well-worn routines that, much as we enjoy performing them, are all too familiar. Oh, to be able to play it again without knowing it.
Of course, it's what we're not saying there that you should pay attention to. Basically, that Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, which came out a year later, isn't a game we hold in such high regard. Too much darkness, too much fighting, too many guitars, too many punishing little sorties into "bonus" dead-ends obfuscating what might've been a neatly organised pathway to progress... With Prince of Persia 3, the team has listened closely to feedback and hopes to have hit on a middle ground that acknowledges what worked in Warrior Within - and, in spite of our feelings, it'd be churlish to suggest that nothing did - while building upon the lessons learned from the first game. So how's that working out for them then?
Well, we've only seen it so far, but to sum it up our impression: it sort of is, and it sort of isn't. One of the new elements, the stealthy killing stuff, is a good illustration of this. Now, killing things in Prince of Persia has always been a bit of an issue - in the first game, we only managed to stave off madness by exploiting the unbalanced wall-attack move that knocked enemies down with one blow; in the second, the reinvented combat just distracted us from the dissection of immense platform puzzles. Although the "free form fighting" system is still in place here, POP3's speed kills give us the chance to use stealth to avoid direct confrontation in a lot of areas - by adding a vicious kill-climax to satisfyingly fluid platform elements. And that's got to better than fisticuffs breaking up the fun.
We've seen several examples of this. The most common sees the Prince wall-running and then leaping onto an unwary sentry, fatally wounding him as he lands - to put it nicely. In another area, he ran along a wall, planted his blade firmly in a crevice, leapt to an adjacent ledge, and then concealed himself upon it as a guard stalked around on the balcony just below; the Prince having clumsily startled a few nearby birds (must be the beard), the guard became alert, but then, as he lowered his defences again, the Prince was able to silently expose himself to land the killer blow. In still another example, the Prince wall-ran and leapt into a narrow gap between two walls, spreading his legs to support himself like Sam Fisher does in Splinter Cell, gradually easing his way down, grabbing a chain and then lowering himself to finish off the guard patrolling below without ever having to worry about getting involved in sword-to-sword combat. In a sense, it mixes the apparently-obligatory killing with platform-puzzling. It's like another cog to turn, albeit slowly.
Mind you, the violence still feels like an odd thing to emphasise. And it's telling that throughout our presentation the real reasons for our love of The Sands of Time weren't really touched upon by our guide. Huge, unhurried puzzles that require careful thought and consideration to untangle don't obviously marry themselves to the anxiety of concealing yourself from stronger enemies - and they weren't the focus of the marketing pitch as much as the speed kills were, so it was hard to see how it all worked in concert. But we're optimistic, if only because there is evidence that the developer has been trying to re-inject the series with some of the things that justified that marvellous rewind-time mechanic in the first place, even if they weren't bullet-pointed for us.
Babylon, for a start, seems like a good choice of setting to achieve this. Here you'll be able to explore the rooftops and gardens - all the while a ruined city smoulders invitingly in the background, full of things to monkey around on. If speed-killing helps re-focus the game on that sense of exploration, of untangling complex pathways, then we'll be glad of its inclusion.
However, stylistically it's pretty clear that this game is closer to Warrior Within than The Sands of Time, which may also be a sign of what to expect. Ubisoft considers this the concluding part of a trilogy, so the tale being told picks up from the end of Warrior Within and the Prince is still angry, and that game's sense of darkness is sustained by the introduction of the Dark Prince. This one doesn't want to buy you flowers. The nasty version of the regular Prince (not that he was particularly likable in the last instalment anyway) is brought forth whenever you encounter fire, and with him come slightly different abilities. Instead of a sword, for example, he has a chain attached to his arm with small blades jutting out of it, allowing him to reach areas the Prince cannot by using it as an Indy Jones-style whip, and also allowing him to carve people up in different ways. His stealth kills, for example, include one where he leaps from a wall to literally pull the head off a guard, another where he hooks him from above and basically hangs him, and still another where he swings round an upright pole clothes-lining heads clean from shoulders. Frankly, he doesn't seem to like heads.
Technically speaking, it's all been assembled with the expected level of improvement. Environments are very detailed for a game developed primarily for PS2, with plenty of well-captured animation routines (grisly though they are), far more convincing texture work and the same sprawling vistas that, in all probability, you'll be able to explore to quite a healthy degree given time. We're also quite impressed by the amount of incidental detail that's gone into one of the less obvious and most frenzied additions to the game: the chariot-racing.
Now, we probably don't need to point out that we raised an eyebrow when this one came up, but in fairness it does look quite enjoyable. Having pinched someone's ride, the Prince rockets through the streets, dodging countless obstacles and picking his pathways carefully, constantly tussling with rival chariots - which, as illustrated in one satisfyingly emphatic example, don't do particularly well when you nudge them off course as the pair of you approach a narrow archway. Enemies will leap onto your ride sometimes, giving you another thing to worry about. As the section we watched concluded, with the Prince hurtling through a narrowing gap, the game transitioned neatly into a cut-scene that saw him flying through the air and landing neatly - chariot by now in ruins - and composing himself to wander off. What a guy.
Our demo of the game ended with a sequence involving a huge boss - a gladiator with no lower jaw, about ten times the size of the Prince, who apparently had to be clambered up to be dispatched. Fair enough, we thought, but we do hope that the Prince's head for heights isn't limited to showpieces.
So then, we're sitting on the fence for now. We dearly hope that POP3 will manage to build upon or at least emulate some of The Sands of Time's biggest successes - the menagerie, the palace bedrooms, the gardens, the ascent to the tower, the other brilliant and memorable bits - but only time will tell on that one. Heh, time. [Oh yoooou! - Ed] So far, POP3 looks like a sequel that will give the gamers who helped make Warrior Within a bigger seller than The Sands of Time what they want. But, while it may not take us back to the Maharajah's palace in spirit, it's not just paying lip service to it. We're screwing up our faces a bit at the idea of Farah returning with voice acting from the Asian lass out of Footballer's Wives, but we're also stroking our chins with interest at the possibilities for a Prince who can now wall-run, stick his dagger in to hang on, straddle narrow gaps, plant his sword in a banner to descend to the ground, swing from ledges and platforms and flagpoles and wind it all back and start again.
We'll let you know how it all falls into place closer to release.
Prince of Persia 3 is due out on PS2, Xbox, Cube and PC in time for Christmas.