If you want to see some more of the Prince in action, check out a pair of new trailers we've uploaded for you today, demonstrating some of his devastating new combat techniques. Grab them both from Eurofiles - here and here.
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within is puzzling. Actually, it's not, and that's kind of the problem. There are lots of things about it that give us faith that Ubisoft Montreal knows exactly why the first game was good and how to replicate its success, and lots of signs that the things that weren't quite up to scratch have been violently scratchified in the intervening year with a pair of enormous twisty Persian blades. But we've seen countless videos, a palace-load of screenshots and now we've played a demo version for longer than it takes us to dash through the first one, and we've yet to wander into a room and have it engage our brains in the way we so enjoyed, or to stand in awe of a precision playground in the same way we did when we first stumbled into the library with Farah in tow.
It is our hope, of course, that this is merely a side effect of Ubisoft's marketing campaign, which is clearly focused on emphasising the game's newfound strength in areas that some gamers found frustrating or tedious (principally the combat), rather than a case of overcompensation, but it's certainly something that we feel the need to mention up front.
The Persian Rub
For the moment anyway the new 'freeform combat system' is the focus, and the demo version on display at Game Stars Live recently is focused more or less solely on the Prince's increasingly varied and visceral antics with his blade - and sometimes blades. Whereas the first game's fighting was rightly singled out by many as its only significant failing (at least until you realised that the wall attack was the best way to deal with more or less everything), Warrior Within gives the player countless gratifying options when faced with a clutch of enemies, and no longer separates combat elements into sections neatly book-ended by the Prince's drawing and sheathing his current sword. Now you're fighting rather a lot more often.
And fortunately there are rather a lot more things you can do. Combination moves are simple two or three button affairs that see the Prince leaping deftly onto his enemies shoulders and then slashing them as he leaps down, or hauling them over his shoulders and tossing them into the wall - or, if you're near a precipice, out of play altogether - and Ubi's claims that the game is a lot darker seem to be justified by the full scale increase in violence and gore alone. Whereas the first game wasn't particularly concerned with the ultra-violent (a few spike pits and stabbings notwithstanding), Warrior Within is full of brutal execution-style kills and buckets of claret.
The Prince regularly segued into brutal slow-motion finishing moves during our play session - grabbing an enemy's hand round his neck, choking him, then skewering him from behind and cutting his head off; or grabbing him round the neck and then cutting him in half at the waste; and there were a number of spinning decapitation moves on display. Now the Prince no longer has to stoop and gather an enemy's sand with his Dagger of Time for fear of a respawn, either (something the developers apparently decided was boring about the first game), so the action is fairly non-stop - the Prince regularly goes from swinging round a pole to leaping off walls and diving to earth with his blades carving through any flesh in his path, and there's almost no let-up until everyone's dead.
The Prince can also pick up a proper secondary weapon now, rather than just using his Dagger, and either throw it to inflict some damage, or make use of it in general fighting. A number of combos are dual-weapon-specific, and a particular twirl-on-the-spot job is ideal for cutting down enemy numbers in close quarters. Counter-attacks are pretty effective now too - holding the block button and then hammering the attack button as an enemy rounds off his meagre assault has the Prince spinning sideways through the air and slicing down hard, which is enough to knock virtually everyone off their feet, including boss characters.
Ah, bosses. Ubisoft was coy on the subject of bosses when we last spoke to producer Yannis Mallot, but with an increased emphasis on fighting it seemed fairly likely - and the demo proves it to be. The first of them is a young lady who might well have been parachuted in from Ninja Gaiden, and, although she's no bigger than the Prince, she does put up quite a fight - and we liked the little cutaway in-game bits where the pair's blades clashed and they exchanged banter. The real challenge though came at the end of another section inside the castle - which forms the main bulk of the game - when the Prince came up against what can only be described as a giant. He stomps around and doesn't take any damage at first - not until you start thinking about how to use the Prince's wall-clambering agility to target his soft bonce, anyway.
Aside from the combat, however, there wasn't a great deal else to learn about the Prince's adventures that we hadn't heard already. For those who've only been half-paying attention, the game picks up as the Prince journeys toward the Castle of Time, ever-pursued by a foul bunch of rogues who want to put him to the sword on account of his meddlings with the Sands of Time in the first game. Our Prince hasn't really learnt from his experience however, as he's still shifting time backwards to undo unfortunate pratfalls and the odd mistimed block, but he clearly reckons the answer to his problems lies in the Castle of Time.
As you might imagine, Ubisoft plans for us to spend a lot of time in the Castle - a good decision, we reckon, given how well the confines of the Maharajah's palace worked as a playground in the first game - but as with the first game there's a playable prologue to introduce you to various techniques, largely in terms of combat. This is set on the storm-racked ship you've no doubt seen in screenshots, and has the Prince dancing up and down the deck as enemies leap into play, the waves crush against the sides and masts and hull splinter and fracture. At one point the Prince has to navigate corridors below decks, as water comes rushing in from all angles, and graphically it's clearly as gorgeous as ever - better, in fact. It makes use of the same blur filter, and sand still hangs in the air, but the environment is more colourful, and better animation blending makes the game look a lot more rounded and cartoon-like. And even though we're told it's locked at 30 frames per second rather than the 60 of the original, that doesn't seem to be all that detrimental.
The camera still doesn't appear to be perfect, mind. We actually had quite a bit of trouble dealing with one of the boss characters as we scrambled to get out of his way (thank goodness for the tumble move, we thought), but the Sands of Time are still useful in undoing its mistakes, and the camera does switch to some fairly sensible positions where necessary - when leaping back and forward between opposing walls to reach a higher platform, for example. Along with the platform-leaping, we've also had to navigate nasty traps - racing over those rather annoying pop-up spikes whilst dodging twirling spike pillars at the same time - but other than that, a slide down a ladder and a couple of wall-switches, we've yet to encounter all of the acrobatics of the original (even wall-running, though it plainly is in there), and, more tellingly, we've yet to be taught any new tricks.
Whether the demo's particularly representative remains to be seen of course, but we reckon there's much more to see. If the Montreal development team can take the game as far ahead of its predecessor in terms of exploration and adventure as they're attempting with the combat system, then we should have nothing to worry about - and there are clearly some good ideas on the boil over in Canada. The Xbox Live modes, in particular - the speed-running Time Attack mode with downloadable ghosts, and the Survival option - are a nice idea, and the team's handling of boss encounters so far, and the Prince's now-expansive repertoire of moves, demonstrate that they're capable of making changes for the better.
The Prince is Right
Okay, so we're not completely sold on it yet. So far the combat has been the focus of Ubisoft's campaigning, and we reckon that's a bit odd, because surely the exploration and puzzle solving were what made the original game so spell-binding. That and the way it handled its characters over the course of the game - another cause for concern really, because Farah isn't involved now (for reasons which will be obvious to anybody who finished The Sands of Time), and the Prince is more rugged, moody and American-sounding, and not the well-spoken and frankly exotic lead we rather enjoyed empathising with in the original. He even says "bitch" at one point.
But, with that said, the success of the original game was no accident, and, with Jordan Mechner still involved, there's every reason to back Montreal to deliver a sequel that does more than just stand on the shoulders of its critically adored progenitor. Indeed, with any luck it'll swing back down and kick it overboard.
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within is due out on PS2, Xbox, Cube and PC this November.