Reviewed by Lucien
Dec 8th 2003
Introduction:Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the latest incarnation of the classic computer game that was originally released in 1984. After a few shaky moments (*cough* Prince of Persia 3D *cough*), the series is back and stronger than ever.
The Game:The gameplay in Prince of Persia is just amazing. It takes a few minutes to get used to all the camera angles and fully controlling your character, but after the introductory level, you'll be dashing about and running across walls like you've been doing it for years. And that's a good thing, because there's plenty of need for you to take these risks.
The story of POP is somewhat standard (i.e.--save the world), and doesn't evolve too much. After the introductory level you pretty much know what you have to do, the rest of the game is just about getting it done. But what distinguishes this title is both the way the story is told, and the relationship between your character and the princess Farah The banter between the two is well executed and, in addition to being quite funny at moments, gives the game a sense of progression. Starting from the introduction, the whole game develops as a story being told by the Prince. An innovative use of this method of storytelling is that it neatly explains your ability to die and still continue. If you die while jumping a gap the reload screen appears and you hear the Prince say, "No, no, no...I made the jump across the bridge."
Fortunately for all involved, the reload screen will rarely appear due to another ingenious and much-talked about feature: the Dagger of Time. The best and most used attribute of the Dagger is the ability to rewind time up to ten seconds. Not only does this allow you to literally cheat death, but it gives you a freedom to explore your surroundings. Not sure how to get up to that ledge? You can pretty much try anything, as this takes away a lot of the frustration associated with platform games. In addition to reversing time, the dagger can also freeze individual enemies, slow down time, or freeze all enemies for a few seconds.
That's not to say the Dagger can be used an infinite amount of times. Each use of the Dagger requires either a sand tank or a power tank which can be recharged by killing enemies. In the beginning, you only have a few tanks, but through the course of the game you can expand the amount of charges the Dagger can carry.
All the aforementioned features would be wasted if Prince of Persia didn't play so well. Take away the Dagger of Time, the plot, and the character interaction, and you're still left with an excellent game that's just fun to play. The Prince is not only armed with a sword, but with an athletic ability that rivals an Olympic gymnast. He can jump across chasms, roll out of harm's way, shimmy along ledges, jump from column to column, and run along walls, to name a few. And the brilliant part is that it's effortless to do. The control scheme is so simple that friends who don't play videogames can still play with ease.
For much of the game princess Farah accompanies you as you advance through the palace. But far from being a tag-along, she plays a large part in helping you advance through each area. Apparently anorexic, she can squeeze through cracks in walls to help flip an unreachable switch or open doors that you can't. While all her puzzle-solving actions are scripted, it's quite nice complete a puzzle through the use of teamwork.
A pivotal feature of any 3rd person game is the camera, and POP deals with that problem very nicely. The standard camera is controlled by the right analog stick and is not tethered to the Prince's back, giving you an easy time of looking around. It's not perfect, however, as it will get stuck a in few places, particularly in cramped quarters. But most of the time the camera is not a problem. Besides the regular camera, you can switch to a first person perspective to help get your bearings and focus on certain areas, although you can't move in this mode. The final camera is one that zooms out to helps to see where you are in relation to everything else. Overall, between these 3 views, I had no problems seeing where I needed to go.
Combat in POP is deceptively uncomplicated. Nearly all battles have you fighting multiple enemies at once, but controlling the Prince is very straightforward. The Prince automatically locks on to an enemy within a certain range. This means you'll always be attacking something and not swinging at thin air. It's also easy to switch to a different enemy in the middle of an attack; it's even necessary as a way to keep all those evildoers off you. In addition, you can launch off a nearby wall to strike at your enemies or vault over them to slash from behind. Not content to just help solve puzzles, Farah will use her bow to help you in battle, although you must protect her. But unlike most games you won't have to baby-sit Farah through fights. She's very capable with her bow, and I've lost count of how many times her bowshots disrupted an enemy as it was about to strike me. She'll also attack any enemy that's near her, really only needing help if two or more gang up on her, which is pretty rare.
The level design is also well executed. Usually upon entering a new zone the camera will pan around and show where you are and where need to be. It's really quite astounding, as many times it seems impossible to get there, but a few tree limbs and well timed jumps later you'll be advancing to the next area. The puzzles and traps never get old and rarely get frustrating due to another innovation at save points. Each time you save your game, a brief vision appears showing you what's coming up. Many times it contains key points to help you get through the next area, and occasionally will show a glimpse of the distant future. At any point when you're stuck, a simple trip back to the save point will usually give a nudge in the right direction.
Not everything is rosy, however. For hardcore gamers Prince of Persia might be a little too easy. That's not to say it's lacking in challenge, but with no difficulty slider for the combat and judicious use of the Dagger, veterans of platformers will rarely die (although that's not necessarily a bad thing). It's also a little on the short side, taking an average of 10 hours to complete. Replay value is also limited to literally replaying it. You can unlock the original Prince of Persia and POP 2, but that does little to assuage the feeling of wanting more.
Although not exactly a key feature of the gameplay, but something worth mentioning is that there are no loading times while playing. None. The only loads you'll hit are when going into a full motion video sequence or loading from a save point. The game moves from area to area without a hitch, fully immersing you in the Arabic world.
One potential misconception about the game is that the box is marked as "Online Enabled." All this means is that you can connect to Xbox Live and keep an eye on your friends list while playing. There's no actual multiplayer or downloadable content.
Graphics & Sound:Breathtaking is the best word to describe the graphics. The characters themselves don't have the highest polygon count, but their animations are beautiful. The transitions from one into another are seamless and make watching the Prince almost as fun as playing. They used over 750 animations on the Prince, and it shows. Enemies come in a nice variety, from lithe harem women to hulking soldiers. Because each looks so distinct, you'll soon learn which enemies are vulnerable to which tactics. The surroundings are equally impressive. Hallways, rooms, balconies, etc., all faithfully reproduce the look and feel of the ancient Middle-East. Towards the end of the game you must climb the outside of a fantastically tall tower. Shimmying across a bar as your feet dangle seemingly in the clouds is something that can't be felt from a screenshot.
The sound is equally superb. All the voice-acting is excellent, and at no point was I taken out of the game because of bad delivery or script-writing. The effects are spot-on and really help immerse you. A great touch is how the sound changes depending on your location. Being inside a large hall causes everything to echo, including voices, while outside will sound completely different. It's a nuance that adds much, and shows the effort that when into the game. Also well done is the soundtrack: it's shockingly good. Combining Eastern flavors with modern rock, the music is a worthy addition. The only complaint is that it only plays during combat, and with such a strong sound, it would've been nice to hear it throughout the game.
Innovation:The most obvious newfangled idea is the Dagger of Time. As mentioned above, the ability to rewind time takes away a large part of the frustration involved with most platformers. Another frustration-reliever are the visions that occur at save points. They show just enough to help, but won't go step by step through an area. It's also quite possible to play through the game with only seeing a few loading screens. Not only is that impressive, it's something that should be attempted with other games. It's great to play a game that doesn't become redundant despite having to do similar actions all throughout. This is a credit to the great level design, where the later stages in many other games seem rushed and all too familiar. Another nice feature is the ability to use 3 completely different camera angles: you'll never be unsure of your surroundings.
Mojo:Where to begin? Prince of Persia is videogame mojo manifested into a solid object. The plot, while not overly complicated, ends in a very, very cool manner. Almost like a book or movie would. It literally made me say, "Oh, cool." The relationship between the Prince and Farah is one of the high points of the game, and makes the parts when they're separated feel a little empty. Nothing like a sarcastic comment from the Prince to lighten up the mood. This might be the first time that I've ever wanted to hear more of a videogame's soundtrack. It's impressive when the music adds to the game, but when I actually want to hear more of it? That's scary.
Lowdown:Prince of Persia is a game that you can't put down. You'll save your game with the intention of going to eat/sleep/whatever, and decide to take a peek at the next trap or area. Three hours later you're still sitting there working on the latest puzzle. It's rare that a game can draw you in and keep you like that, but POP is that kind of rarity.
Gameplay: 9, Graphics/Sound: 10, Innovation: 10, Mojo: 10. Final: 10
GOTY AWARD: BEST ACTION GAME OF 2003