If I was going to make a movie about the Prince of Persia, I probably wouldn't need Donnie Darko, that mega-fox lady everyone really fancies and loads of olde time armour. Instead, my film would be set in the first years of the 21st century, and it would be about a team of game designers who had the misfortune to create something almost perfect, which they could then, driven by the need for innovation, never quite find again. (Granted, this movie probably wouldn't make very much money, but on the plus side you wouldn't have to insure many camels to get through principal photography.)
Ever since Sands of Time, looking forward to a new Prince of Persia game has been a bit like waiting at the school gates for your alcoholic stepfather to come and take you home: you never quite know who's going to turn up. Will it be the elegant dreamer, the stubbly emo misanthrope, or will it - my analogy falls down at this point - be Nolan North?
With Forgotten Sands, it's hard to tell for the first few minutes. The game may exist in a promising and newly excavated gap between Sands and The Warrior Within, but it kicks off in thunderously bombastic fashion, dumping you into a disappointingly murky castle besieged by a demonic army. The latest preview build fires up with a few seconds in which you get to see huge monsters trashing distant courtyards, before you're thrown into a full-on brawl against some rattly skeleton types. It's a worrying suggestion, in other words, that Ubisoft might have invited the wrong Prince back. You know, the one who drinks.
Combat ramps up the number of enemies you'll be facing and offers you a decent sword attack, good for creating space and bludgeoning the undead, but while it's enjoyable enough it's hardly playing to the series' strengths. As coloured orbs fly through the air and unspeakable ghouls are abruptly unheaded, the whole thing feels a bit like a stodgier God of War - as if Kratos had decided that it might be a super good idea to eat a few dozen Battenberg cakes before having it out with Zeus.
One thing Kratos couldn't do, however, was rewind time whenever he made a tit of himself. With The Forgotten Sands, the series' best skill makes a return, and it's a pleasure to see it safe and sound and living a rich, full life on the right bumper - often the location of choice for a standout feature in this hardware generation. Not only will rewind get you out of scrapes if you perform a sprightly leap over a parapet when you're meant to be giving some shambling relic a good shoeing, it's a welcome reminder that, at his best, the Prince always had more on his mind than simple violence anyway.
He still does, thankfully. With the horde dispatched, the camera pulls back to reveal a lavish and intricate vertical space: a vaulted chamber filled with ledges, pillars and hanging beams. It's impossible to take in the cut-scene's sinuous sweeps and arcs without planning a route in your mind, and the next few minutes present a delightful shuffling of old memories, as you wall-jump, backflip, run and swing your way from one chamber to the next, racing along plasterwork, sliding down tapestries and ducking whirling blades.
It's a joy to discover that old skills haven't been entirely eroded by the airport travelator approach to gymnastics pioneered by the 2008 reboot, and, after a few duff jumps - blame the camera, eh? - and a few wonky handsprings into the abyss, the new Prince of Persia is delivering on the franchise's core skill: making chubby men sat on sofas, possibly eating Cheese Strings, feel like svelte ninja ballerinas, unbound by all the laws of physics except for the one that makes your hair flop about in a sultry fashion.
Sure, Ubisoft's not afraid to break things up with the odd clockwork puzzle, and it occasionally drops you down into a little enemy-riddled arena tucked in amongst the finials and rooftops. That's a small price to pay, however, especially when you discover that you can hop onto the heads of some enemies in an undeniably cheerful manner before goring them through the fontanel. Combat's brisk when it chooses to erupt, and the animations are pretty enough, but in the Prince's world swordplay can still feel a bit like the ironing: it's something you have to get out of the way before you can focus on things you really want to do.
The first half hour or so of the latest build makes a convincing case that Forgotten Sands will have little trouble delivering on the basics, then, which means the designers are relying on the newly-minted elemental powers to add a bit of variety. Variety, eh? This is where the game experiments with the formula, and that is generally the point - much as with that unfortunate German molecular chef who thought he could do a Heston Blumenthal - where it blows its own hands off.
As the name suggests, there are four elemental powers, based around the themes of earth, wind, fire and water. (Clearly nobody at Ubisoft knows that there are actually five elements, the last one being Milla Jovovich.) All are upgradeable throughout the course of the game, and most of them feature offensive and traversal-based uses, by the looks of it. In the preview code, only two are available, however: the ability to freeze water, and the ability to perform a nippy kind of dash.
Happily, they're both crackers. Dash is the easiest to master, providing a targeted double-jump that allows you to zip out of the air and head straight for a distant enemy. It's useful in a fight, but it's also interesting to see the way that Ubisoft's designers fold it into the gymnastics too, allowing you specific moments where you can essentially cover twice as much distance as normal.
Freezing water seems to have far more elaborate uses, with a squeeze of the trigger transforming any nearby liquid into something far more solid for a few vital seconds. Spurts become swing-bars, fountains become pillars, and waterfalls can be turned into walls - but only briefly, and you have to time things perfectly to take into account the subsequent recharge period.
Used in increasingly devious ways - it gets genuinely mind-melting when spurts start popping up and bubbling back down, and when water columns are threaded in alongside stone pillars - the freeze skill is there to add an element of split-second timing to the platforming. It's a brilliantly nasty idea, and tailor-made for a game that gives you a limited facility to replay your last few moves instantaneously when you seriously screw things up.
Tying the Prince's new powers into the part of the game that was already pretty good seems like a smart move, allowing Ubisoft to ratchet up the platforming complexity hand-in-hand with the spectacle. It will be interesting to get a sense of how the while thing plays once you're topped up with all four skills, however - whether you'll feel empowered, or confused.
Until we get a chance to sit down with the finished game, then, Forgotten Sands is looking quietly promising. Although the dreamsome, bloomy world of the Sands of Time may have been buried beneath repetitive stonework, and although that game's aloof aristocrat has been replaced with a stubbly pretty-boy who gives off the impression that, really, all he's after is a decent role in Cats, there's enough here to suggest that the spirit of the series' best game has survived in some capacity. Recent failures have been struck from the account, but the dim victories of the past have not been entirely forgotten.
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 21st June, with a PC version to follow.