The problem with trade shows is that while you get to play a lot of games, you don't get to play any of them for long. When it comes to simpler, more familiar titles like LocoRoco 2, this doesn't matter so much. In the case of games like Hula Wii, it's a mercy. But it's a real issue as far as the new Prince of Persia is concerned. It's less familiar than you might think and by no means simple.
So we discovered at this year's Tokyo Game Show, where we played through a half-hour demo led by producer Ben Mattes. After the time was up, we had more questions than answers.
They began to emerge during the game's opening sequence. The visuals are just as pretty as you've seen in the screenshots, but it's ruined the moment the characters open their mouths. Our hero may be wearing a load of scarves but he sounds no more Persian than Jamie Oliver, and would be better off calling himself the Prince of Canadia. His new sidekick, Elika, also sounds like she's from Montreal, though she's dressed like a mail-order bride from Minsk.
There's a bit of business with the prince and Elika and a donkey. The donkey is the only one capable of getting through a dialogue exchange without making a wisecrack. The prince says things like "Whoa". At one point he falls down a chasm, and you think he's going to say, "Oh, crap!", but perhaps that was too edgy, because it turns into, "Oh, cra-aaaaah!" On another occasion there's an allegedly comedic reference to 'Farah', which according to Mattes is "the extent of the connection with the previous Prince of Persia games". Fans may feel that's a shame, and wish for a (sands of) time when the prince was quieter, nobler and didn't say "aboot".
But perhaps it's aboot time we all moved on. Since the new Prince of Persia was announced, Ubisoft has been frank about its intention to take the series in a new direction. From the first moment you pick up the controller, it's clear that's what's happened. Walking around is different; the prince moves more slowly, with a heavier gait. He can pull off huge jumps and impressive acrobatic moves, but the pace is slower here too.
You control the prince using a new system that we're told was designed to be simpler and more intuitive. If you want to do a wall-run, for example, you no longer need to worry about pressing a second button. Just jump at the wall and the prince will run along it automatically - either vertically or horizontally, depending on which angle you made the jump from. Then just press the jump button again to eject from the run.
A bit of confidence is required to jump at a wall and trust the prince will run along it, especially when he doesn't seem to do this the first few tries. It took a little practice to work out how to get the angle right and build up confidence, but not much. There was a problem with one particular ledge where the prince kept dropping down and hanging instead of jumping off. This is the sort of niggly issue that final testing is designed to iron out, however. For the most part we were able to make the prince run, jump, climb posts and swing off poles without much difficulty - though perhaps without quite the same fast-paced fluidity as in the Sands of Time trilogy.
But it's in combat situations where the new Prince of Persia really stands apart. You have one button for sword-slashing and another for using your gauntlet, and you can combine button presses to pull off different kinds of attacks. So it's B to throw your enemy in the air, A to jump up after him and X to slash him to the ground on Xbox 360, for example. Nothing revolutionary there, but the twist is that combat takes place at a much slower pace. It's not just slower than in previous POP titles, but slower than in the vast majority of action games. There are no prizes for fast fingerwork here, as Mattes explains.
"You have quite a lot to unlearn in the combat system of this game. This is not a game that rewards button-mashing anywhere - not in acrobatics nor in combat. Button-mashers don't have fun until they unlearn to not mash the button," he says. "What we want, as a player experience, is sitting back, pressing the buttons more methodically and strategically, and therefore getting sucked into the flow of the game - rather than the aggressive, spastic button-mashing that other combat games sometimes feature."
As a seasoned button-masher, your graceless correspondent begins hammering out button combos. Just as Mattes warned, it doesn't work. So he tries to break it down further: "There's a large window of opportunity in between each button-press, and you don't ever need to press the button more than once. You can press B and literally wait almost a full second before you need to input the next key. See that freeze, that slowdown there? We have that in between every move."
We do our best to follow his instructions, but old habits die hard. There are moments where we can't resist the temptation to simply hammer away at the X button. This produces a flurry of slashes which, to be honest, seems to be at least as effective as B-wait-A-wait-X-wait. It's neither as spectacular or as satisfying though, and besides, we're only dealing tutorial level enemies at this point.
Mattes skips ahead to a later point in the game to show what happens when you're dealing with the big boys. Or rather, big boy, as you only ever face off with one enemy at a time in Prince of Persia. In this instance, it's the hulking great Hunter previously seen in the video on Eurogamer TV (skip ahead to 1m 40s).
The Hunter is capable of entering various "states" where it's impervious to certain attacks. "States serve multiple purposes," says Mattes. "They mix up combat and they are also a strategic thing; they help us make sure players aren't just button-mashing, doing the same combo over and over again." And that's not all: "The enemy will adopt states to intelligently counteract the type of attack you are favouring." So our X-hammering trick doesn't work for long; the Hunter enters a state where it's protected against sword attacks, and we're forced to try combos instead.
We fail. The action slows right down, the Hunter moves in for the kill and a big B button symbol appears on the screen. Being a veteran of quick-time events as well as button-mashing, we press B instinctively, and sure enough the prince rolls out of the path of the enemy's attack. Yes, Mattes confirms, the prince has survived. But there's a penalty to pay - the enemy has regained health. According to Mattes, the idea behind this is to stop players whittling the health of enemies down bit by bit.
It feels awfully quick-time eventy, though, and many gamers aren't keen on quick-time events. Isn't Mattes worried about this? "I'm a little surprised to hear you call it 'quick-time eventy,'" he says. Well, the action goes all slo-mo, and a big button symbol appears on the screen, and you've got a split-second to press the corresponding button, and if you don't something bad happens. "We do have quick-time events, for sure," says Mattes. "To tell you the truth we added those button symbols on the screen a couple of weeks ago, because people were having a really hard time understanding what button to press, based just off of the supporting means.
"I think your eye is being attracted to that button, but there's a lot of supporting information we use to explain to the player what they need to do in that particular situation." However, Mattes admits, "It wasn't enough, so we added the buttons."
If you don't want to see the button symbols, there's an option to turn them off. "But then you have to be able to recognise the animation, the sound effect, the visual cues, the filters, all of the other elements that combine to help you understand what particular button to press in that sequence," Mattes warns.
The other bad news for aggressive button-mashers is you won't get away with constant attacking - a good defence strategy is essential. In fact you're forced to adopt a defensive stance just to move around the floor at a decent pace. When the prince enters a combat situation he starts moving even more slowly than when he's walking normally; he only speeds up when he's adopting the block pose.
"There's a reason for that. Defence is extremely valuable in combat, and we need to teach people how valuable defence is in this combat system, because it's not in people's nature to fight defensively," says Mattes. "But this combat system is very generous towards a defensive style of gameplay. Some of the most advanced strategies in the game require a mastery of defence. We make the prince much faster, in terms of manoeuvring on the floor, when he's blocking than when he's in his default stance, to favour more defensive strategies."
If you're still having trouble, there's yet another strategy you can employ to take down enemies: Elika. You can command your sidekick to leap in and launch an attack with a single press of the Y button. It's a bit like having an extra weapon, and you can also chain her attacks together with your own. Elika's a helpful ally who's quick to respond to commands and never gets in the way.
She's also handy to have around when you're navigating levels. For example, pressing Y in the middle of a jump will make her take your hand and pull you to safety. If you're standing still, Y makes her release a glowing blue compass light that will trace out the path through the level for you. Purists might argue that the whole point of games like this should be working out the path from A to B for yourself, but you can always just ignore the compass power.
There are some issues, however, with how the prince and Elika interact. It comes back to the main problem with the opening cut-scene - the jarring inconsistencies between the beautiful, unique visual style, and the tired old script, storyline and relationships between characters. If Elika's so marvellously strong and acrobatic, why does the prince have to carry her on his back when climbing? Why does he end up carrying her in his arms during the opening sequence, while she simply remarks, "You really can put me down now"? You can't imagine Lara letting some bloke hoist her over his shoulder and prance about.
But Prince of Persia will by no means be the first or last videogame to feature rubbishy dialogue, and while it's easy to identify that sort of thing within half an hour (or the story - something about a "Tree of Life" and someone's Dad and "healing the fertile grounds to collect the light seeds then returning to the temple to purchase magic powers to unlock new areas"), the gameplay is a lot harder to judge.
The good news is that this is because it's so different to what you'd expect from the modern Prince of Persia series, and from action-adventure games in general. However, the question remains whether the shift towards strategy and slower-paced combat has been a wise decision, and we'll have to wait for longer than half an hour's play to figure that out.
Prince of Persia is due out for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on 5th December.