Second Impressions — PoP (2008) Combat

Based on my love of these two Prince of Persia titles, and my generally favorable first impression of this one, the following hurts to say: I was wrong; the new game stinks.

Two things pop to mind. Don’t judge a game by its graphics. PoP is so f’ing gorgeous it hurts, and that makes me want to love it. But there’s nothing there to love. The other thing that pops into my mind? This is why reviewers should play a game, start-to-finish, before giving any sort of final review. If I had written a review based on my first impression, I might have called this one of the best games of the year. Now it’s becoming more forgettable by the moment.

So where do we start? You all know I like to break games down by the mechanics. And PoP is two things: combat and parkour. OK, sure, it’s combat and parkour in a semi-middle eastern setting with lots of teen-styled romance. But you’re only playing the combat and the parkour. OK?

Let’s start with combat.

It’s bad. There. I’m done. Haha!

OK, I’ll go on. The Sands of Time got combat so perfectly right. It was all timing and context based off of one button and a direction. Press forward and hit the attack button and you strike forward. Press the attack button again while pushing in the direction of the guy next to you, and you blend the follow-up to your first strike into a new attack. It all felt so fluid and simple — chaotic and masterful yet, somehow, leaving you feeling like you were controlling it. The two sequels weren’t so fun, but Assassin’s Creed was — and from what I understand PoP is using the Assassin’s Creed engine, leading me to believe Ubisoft is back on track.

But no. As right as combat was in the Sands of Time (and Assassin’s Creed), it’s just as wrong in PoP.

Unlike Sands of Time and Assassin’s Creed, combat is all one-on-one. On the surface, I’m fine with that. I love one-on-one. I like change. I’ve got an open mind. And hey, Street Fighter is a legendary game series that I’ve put more quarters into than any other arcade game. I still play Street Fighter now and then.

But this is no Street Fighter. Here, combat basically boils down to you hitting [X] to strike, and then getting deflected — leaving you momentarily stunned. Then the opponent pulls off a 5- to 10-hit combo that you really can’t break up. Most of your opponent’s dwarf you in size, both in terms of height and reach. So they can hit you from quite far away, further minimizing your opportunities to return the favor. As a result, you spend a lot of time during every fight blocking. And apparently, this is what you should be doing since the game encourages you to hold [RT] (the block button) in its informational pop-ups, lets you move more quickly while blocking, and even has your tag-along Elika telling you to make sure that you’re holding your blocks and staying patient.

The combat areas can be just small enough, at times, that there will be occasions when you swing at your opponent, get blocked, go into blocking mode, and then take your 5-10 hits until you’re pressed up against a wall or a ledge. At that point, the boss will grab you and fling you in the other direction — sometimes going right back into another string of attacks and pushing you to the opposite boundary.

When they finally take a breather, you lunge close to your opponent, hoping to get there before he does something, and — you swing, they block, and it all repeats. This has been my experience for a great majority of the game’s fighting. It’s enough to make you pull your hair out. It is awful, awful, awful. I hate it. And it’s making me want to stop playing. In fact, the further into the game I get, the worse the combat gets, and the more I wonder why I’m still playing.

They are some deviations, of course, to watching the same string of 5- to 10-hit attacks thrown at you while you hope to get off a sequence of your own.

Instead of swinging with your sword, you can have Elika attack with her magic while you stand back. And that works sometimes and does some damage, but if she gets hit while attacking, she’s down until you can stand near her and wake her up — which is hard to do when the opponent is knocking you around the level and otherwise forcing you in every direction but the one you want to go. After a while, I lose track of where she is and then just wait until the opponent accidentally throws me near her body so I can wake her up.

Aside form Elika, you can also grab foes with your giant wolverine hand but you have to get pretty close to make it work — and if you get too close, the opponent throws you back. And even when you do get it right, all you can do is toss the opponent up in the air and then either hit it with a single sword strike or toss it. Not much of a combat sequence for this game. I really don’t use the attack often except when —

To further add strategy and excitement to the fighting (no, not really) you’re told that the enemy has gone into a state (that sounds funny… do they go all a-tizzy?), a state which can only be disrupted by performing a specific attack. In other words, get in close and use your glove, or use that sword strike so it can get blocked and result in a long string of attacks against you — because no other attack will have any effect.

And let me say right here that it would be really nice if the opponent shifted to a more obvious version of the color of the button you’re supposed to be using. I mean, it seems like they get a slightly reddish hue when you have to use the red [B] button for your glove, and a slightly bluish hue when you’re supposed to use the blue [X] button to swing your sword. But then they go black when you have to use the [Y] button, and it’s kind of hard to tell pure black from black-with-a-slight-hue. I usually get the proper attack wrong the first time. Sometimes I’m not sure if I got it right, but the monster goes back to a normal color, so whatever.

Opponents can also do other dastardly things, such as frequently blackening your screen so that you can see nothing (yay) for a few seconds, or force you to endure an endless supply of the same three QTEs (quick-time events).

QTEs? A character may stand on her hands and lunge her feet at you in the form of a front flip. There’ll be a quick moment where you will see, say, [B] on the screen. Press [B] quickly enough and you kick at your opponent in the back and knock her off balance. Miss and she grabs you with her feet and tosses you back behind her. Successfully breaking up these attacks doesn’t seem to matter since you don’t have health. Whether you succeed or fail, you’re going to watch a scripted animation.

Sometimes when you fail, though, it’ll transition into a press-a-button-or-the-opponent-gets-some-health-back moment. And those are critical! The fights are agonizingly long as it is; you do not not want these boring fights to drag on longer than they have to. Fortunately, the developers must have realized this too because you get more time to make these button presses than you do for the aforementioned attack sequences.

My best combat strategy, right now, is to wait until the opponent tries to strike me, and then try to time my block so that I can deflect his attack instead. There seems to be a little lag, though, and the opponents don’t strike with even pacing — so this is easier said than done. I usually take a half-dozen hits or more before I get a proper deflection (again, it’s a good thing you don’t have health). But when my opponent is successfully dazed by a block, and if I’m not blocked in my attack, I like to go for the [X], [X], [X] sequence with a [Y], [Y], [Y] to finish it off – or maybe start it with an [A], [X], [X] instead. That’ll go for about 10% of the opponent’s health and makes for a somewhat satisfying, albeit repetitive, animation sequence.

(I just read around on-line and apparently, anoher good sequence is [Y] followed by [B] (or, Elika followed by the glove attack to throw them up in the air). Once they are in the air, one poster wrote, go for [X], [Y], [Y], [X] (sword, Elika, Elika, sword). I may switch to this exclusively, if only to get away from the deflected attacks.)

Then you can block for a few minutes and make sure to hit the right button, or not, to watch some more fighting videos before you get another round off.

The bottom line? If you like moving around, lots of parrying and counter-strikes, and fluid, fast-paced combat, PoP is not for you. If you like endless blocking and the same four animation sequences ad nauseum (yes, I actually got sick to my stomach today. OK, it was from something I ate, but that’s a coincidence I’m not willing to pass up) spilling across a ten-minute fight while hoping the fight will just be over with, then have I got just the game for you!

When a game does two things — fighting and parkour — it’s not a good sign when one of those two is very, very bad. But the parkour is better. Right? Right? Well, stay tuned for my next update.

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