Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

Before getting distracted by Alpha Protocol, I played through the Prince of Persia: the Forgotten Sands.

As far as my interest in the franchise, I loved the Sands of Time (and beat it at least three times) but only somewhat enjoyed Warrior Within (I probably would have liked Warrior Within more had the ending not soured the experience for me). I missed the Two Thrones (one day I may catch up with it, but, based on Warrior Within, I may not) but played the awful Prince of Persia (2008). That game soured me on the franchise and I assumed the developers had no interest in creating a game with content more similar to the Sands of Time — that is, more thoughtful puzzles and less “press B to proceed through level.”

However, now that I’ve played the Forgotten Sands I can say that my faith in the franchise is restored. Not that I give scores, but comparatively speaking I’d put the original Prince of Persia (I played it in 1992, but it was first released in 1989) and the Sands of Time at the top of the mountain. The Forgotten Sands would be about three-quarters of the way, maybe a little higher, up toward the peak.

What did I like?

  • It was much closer to the Sands of Time in terms of puzzle-based platformer action. When you enter a new area you have to look around, figure out where you want to end up and then follow along backward from there to try to figure out how to get there. The Sands of Time relished in challenging the player to unlock the route. The Forgotten Sands makes it slightly easier to figure out where you need to go, but slightly harder to get there because manual dexterity is much higher in demand (there are many sequences where you must manage the coordination to jump through a water fall, freeze the water immediately after you pass through so that you can land on another waterfall, run up the waterfall, jump back through the prior waterfall by unfreezing and then freezing it again, and so forth). I’m more a fan of the prior, but I did really enjoy the latter — albeit with some “occasional” frustration-based profanity. And speaking of puzzles, there were more puzzles in this one than in the Sands of Time — and I was glad for that.
  • I know we’re talking about a game where you can run up walls and chop up the undead, but the bits in PoP (2008) where you were flying or doing crazy double-jumps by swinging from your partner irked me. The Forgotten Sands moves the franchise back a step or two closer toward reality. A step or two, people. You’re still fighting the undead and running up walls and, now, freezing water falls, but it’s at a level of realism I like for the franchise.
  • As you progress through the game, you gain levels in a way that is similar to RPGs. Each time you gain a level you earn a point which you can use to unlock or improve your abilities. You could focus on the strength of your sword or your overall health or a power derived from the elements (fire, water, earth, and air). I thought this, along with the return of the old-familiar power of turning back time, was a great inclusion.
  • I don’t often make much more than a passing comment on the graphics of any given game, so I won’t go on with this point, but it did look really nice. A lot of the scenes reminded me of the Sands of Time — but to a much higher degree of fidelity, like going from VHS to DVD (despite not liking Pop (2008), I’d say, graphically speaking, that title would carry the Blu-ray comparison). And the ending, where you’re kinda/sorta surfing along chunks of stone that are being carried by a sand storm? Pretty impressive. Speaking of engine comparisons between the two titles, I think the camera also struck me as a good bit better than the camera in the Sands of Time as well.
  • A lot of games with in-game collectibles toss a bazillion items into the world and it becomes a huge grind to find them all — a grind usually not worth pushing through. The Forgotten Sands did a good job of tipping you off that a sarcophagus was nearby, and only gave you about 21 or so to bother with, and as a result I enjoyed trying to collect them all — which I did, though acquiring the last few presented quite the challenge. You earned a good bit of experience by following through with the challenging, which also made it worth the effort.
  • Finally, I enjoyed the two bonus challenges. I played through each of them after beating the game and found they elevated my skill with the game to a new level. In fact, I got so hooked on them that I had originally intended to load them up just to see what they offered, but ended up playing through the two challenges many times over the course of a couple hours.

What didn’t I like?

  • There isn’t a lot I didn’t like with the Forgotten Sands, and there’s nothing I outright hated. Instead, this is more a list of things that could have been better.
  • The fights against very large creatures frustrating. It was difficult to consistently strike my targets’ legs while dodging their attacks. Additionally, they spin on an axis and push you to the side as they spin. Sometimes you get stuck between their legs (which makes the fight easier since they can’t hit you). It did not feel as refined as many of the other elements in the game. The good news is that there weren’t a lot of these sequences and you could power through them without too much bother.
  • The combat system is only fair. It’s slightly better than the Sands of Time which, when I first played it, I thought was really good — but many games have improved combat since then and besides, as I’ve said before, I’m now forever spoiled by the superior Batman: Arkham Asylum.
  • The game is short, maybe in the 10 hour range. Personally, I can definitely get behind a short game that’s well-designed and free of time-wasting filler as the Forgotten Sands is. But paying $60 bucks for a game, as many do, may leave one feeling ripped off. Fortunately, the game has been out a while so if you’re going to play it based on this write-up I doubt you’ll be spending more than half of the original $60.

One last comment, I read through several reviews and many of them said they liked the game but felt like it was too much of a rehash of the Sands of Time. After subjecting myself to Prince of Persia (2008), I have to say that an updated rehash of the Sands of Time is not a bad thing — especially if that’s the biggest criticism with the title.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

I’m at about the 70% mark in regard to completing the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a game I decided to re-play after finishing the more recent Prince of Persia (2008). I’ve mentioned that I’m loving the older version much more so than the recent version, but that doesn’t mean the older version is a perfect game. Before anyone thinks that I’m incapable of criticizing a good game, let me take a moment to discuss a few of the areas that definitely could have been better in the Sands of Time.

(By the way, even though I haven’t finished the game, yet, this is going to be my last post on PoP as I am anxious to move on to writing about the Force Unleashed, a game I started playing today.)

PoP

PoP

The Camera: This is probably the biggest flaw in the Sands of Time. Basically, the camera follows close behind you and, using a camera mesh, tries to dodge out of the way of any obstacles in the area. As you move through the game, however, the camera shifts to more cinematic views, or views that highlight areas in a specific way to clue you in about the puzzles. For example, you might move into an alleyway of sorts — and the camera will zoom out and pan up, so that you can see there is a ledge at the top of the alley, cluing you in that you need to climb up the walls to the ledge above. Sometimes, though, the camera zooms out so far it’s hard to make out details (even on a big screen, HDTV — let alone the more common SDTVs of the original Xbox’s day). And what you need to see might actually be off camera. Yes, you can shift into a first-person view to scan the area, but you don’t always realize you’re looking for an off-camera clue. This results in some of the puzzles becoming more frustrating than they need to be. Some might say it’s making the puzzles more cheap rather than more difficult.

The Art: Let me start this comment by saying that when I say that the art if flawed, I mean it exclusively in the context of what I was just talking about — the puzzles. More specifically, let’s say you’re dangling from a rope. There appears to be two directions you can swing. Both lead to small alcoves. There appears to be nothing in the alcoves but due to camera difficulties, you’re not quite certain. It took you some effort to get to this location, and a 50/50 isn’t exactly what you’re looking for. Worse, what if neither of these alcoves are where you need to go? That’s when you realize (if you’re patient and observant and maybe lucky), that there’s a third option. There’s a nearby rope dangling from the ceiling to which you can leap. The problem, though, is that the rope blends in with light streaming down from the ceiling. I’m not saying there needs to be a glowing arrow pointing at the rope, but it seems to me that swinging from one rope to the next isn’t much of a puzzle, and hiding the rope is more of a cheap tactic than a clever puzzle.

PoP

PoP

Sound Balancing: Oh. My. God. The sound balancing is awful. Just awful. There are a lot of games that use 3D sound when they should be using 2D sound, and this is one of them. Be more clear? OK. Let’s say you’re in a room where you need to figure out where to go and how to get there. The camera has shifted to an interesting new angle to provide (or obscure) clues. But then! Farrah says, “You need to –” and then you can’t hear the rest because her character is so far away from the in-game “microphone”. You frantically rotate the camera or switch to first-person mode, and it works. She’s loud-and-clear now. Unfortunately, it’s too late. You missed her clue. You’re going it alone. Frustration. There’s a sequence I just got past where you’re re-directing rays of light with mirrors and crystals. Thankfully, the puzzle was pretty obvious — because this was a great example where I heard her talking for about 20 seconds but couldn’t make out a single word. Maybe I should have checked if there was a sub-titles option. But the fault still lies with using 3D sound when the audio designer should have set that dialogue as 2D, ensuring I could hear it loud-and-clear from any location.

The Combat: Oh my! The combat? Wasn’t I just saying in the prior post that combat is amazing? OK, let’s slow down a moment. I’m not saying the combat is broken. It’s superficially flawed. Many opponents hold their block so well that the most efficient way to get past their defenses is to back up against the wall and spring off of it, performing a flying dive at the foe. Only one opponent I’ve come across has been able to block this attack so, unfortunately, many of my fights consist of me performing this feat. I’m of the mind that combat works best in a rock-paper-scissors format. The system, here, is to flank you with opponents because they are at their most dangerous when you are surrounded. This forces you to focus on movement and evasion, which is likely how the designers want you to go through combats. But when one attack always works, the system breaks down. That said, I can’t help but almost feel the need to apologize for my comment because I am having so much fun with the fighting and tend to resist the “best attack” for other attacks that look better and are more fun. Still, this is a flaw. The game should force you use different tactics and not let you cheap opponents out.

And now I’m going to break the train of criticism by bringing up a few things that I liked but didn’t mention earlier.

PoP

The Music: The music itself is fine. I don’t know a lot about Persian music so I can’t say if it’s “correct” but it fits with my idea of the theme and I like it. But what’s more, it’s not constant. During a lot of puzzles, I find that the music turns off. In a lot of games you get these endless loops that exacerbate the frustration of failing to see how to solve a puzzle. But during one chunk where I couldn’t figure out where to go next, I realized I had been playing in silence. Not only did that silence save my mind, but it also added to the atmosphere. It evokes a loneliness that works well as I play without Farrah by my side.

The Pace: The new Prince of Persia advertised itself as a much quicker game, smoothly transitioning from encounter to encounter. It is indeed. So is the Sands of Time slow? Yes, actually. But it’s a good thing, for me. I find myself, frequently, standing in a room looking around in first-person mode trying to determine what my next option is. In many platformer/puzzle games, you see the goal and then work your way backward from there to create your route. Or you keep following the road until it eventually syncs up with the goal or you get stuck, and try to work it out from there. But in Sands of Time, you often cannot see where you need to get to, and it looks like there are multiple places to start from where you are. I like this. It’s very thoughtful. It’s a different kind of game, of course, but I appreciate it. By the way, slow does not mean lacking in tension.

The Balancing: So how do we get the tension high in a slower-paced game? Easy. We raise the difficulty level. I’m finding that any one-on-one fight in the Sands of Time is easy. Fighting a half-dozen opponents, even, is easy. But fighting a half-dozen at the same time? That’s a little more tricky. And what about fighting a half-dozen at a time en route to a fight against twenty or thirty in total — which is more often the case in Sands of Time? Now we’re talking tough. Sure, you might only take a shot here or there, each causing a small amount of damage. But they add up. Sure, you can use the dagger to slow time or rewind time or freeze opponents or even outright annihilate a dozen foes, but you can only use it so many times. And I’m finding that at the end of each fight, I’m usually spent and have barely gotten past it. That’s perfect balancing. And it’s not just combat. The platforming works the same way, too. There are hidden sand fountains scattered about the levels that re-fill your dagger and give you a small bonus. As you run into spikes or fall into a pit or miss-time your jump, you rewind time to correct the course — which means using up your sand. Again, it’s often at the moment that I have run out of sand and am worrying that I’m going to die and trying to play even more carefully that I find a new fountain and can take a breath of relief. Perfect balancing.

PoP

PoP

The Puzzles: I’ve touched on it a few times already, but the designers have put together quite the collection of challenging, fun puzzles. Yes, sometimes that means hiding a dangling rope in a stream of light, but at other times there are more creative puzzles — such as not letting the player climb a wall while wet so you have to find a way to drain water first or to use crates that you can climb up on. I would never think that I could get stuck as many times as I have in a game of this type, and for that I am thankful.

Farrah: She helps you during fights by stunning opponents, setting them up for easy chops that leads to kills. She points out little clues regarding the puzzles (when you can hear her). She accidentally shoots you with an arrow in the back or watches you take a tumble and then asks if you’re OK — as if she cares and is worried. And she helps you get through puzzles by crawling through cracks in the walls and pulling levers for you. She comes across more as a partner than a game mechanic. She doesn’t communicate much with the Prince, but I dig how the Prince reflects (via an inner monologue) and analyzes her word choices and comments. I get more of a sense that these two are falling for one another than I often get while playing through a game’s romance.

OK, so the point of this post was to focus on the bad — but even then I end up rolling back to the good. What can I say? It’s a good game and it leaves me feeling positive about its design choices. If only they could all be as well done.

PoP: Sands of Time vs Prince of Persia (2008)

Spikes!

Spikes!

After finishing the 2008 edition of Prince of Persia I decided to pop the Sands of Time into the Xbox 360 to see if my memories of that game’s greatness were erroneous.

As I grabbed for the case, I flipped it over to glance at the box and saw a scene where the Prince was running past a spike trap. Spike traps! Every Prince of Persia had spike traps. When you think PoP, you think spike traps. Where were they in the new edition? How did I forget about them?

Moving on, I started the game up and went through the opening movies. Once the game started (nice transition from movie-to-game as you dive through a hole in the wall and then start up within that level), I found myself working over the perimeter of a castle, trying to sneak in to steal a treasure. I fought a few guards along the way and did a little parkour.

My first thoughts were about how fun combat is. Opponents can accidentally hit one another — and you can steer that behavior. Let a guy lunge at you and then run up the chest of an adjacent opponent, flip over backward behind the both of them while the first errantly strikes the second. Then spring board off a nearby wall to dive through both of them with your sword extended. Opponents wait and circle, trying to hit at your from behind — but otherwise giving you plenty of opportunity to attack instead of making you focus on defending.

The Prince, fighting

The Prince, fighting

Once you’ve got the dagger of time, most of your opponents are humanoid monsters that keep returning to life until you use your dagger to drain them. This adds a bit of fun complexity since you might be surrounded by a half-dozen foes and not have a chance to strike a fallen foe to finish them off.

As for the parkour, I’m finding the biggest difference between the two games is that in the Sands of Time I spend more time looking around the level trying to figure out what I can climb and how to use it to get where I need to go. For example, I’m in a large bedroom — staring at a hole in a wall 20 or 30 feet up. What’s the best way to get there? It’s much more puzzle-like in that sense, and slower paced. In the new PoP, you don’t have those moments. You’re quickly running from Point A-to-Point B, looking fast-and-sexy. If speed was the only difference, I could understand differences of opinion (though I would prefer the former) in preference. But in new PoP, you’re not spending much time figuring out the specifics or worrying about reacting with perfect timing to new obstacles. So the primary factor is involvement. In Sands of Time, you feel involved.

To satisfy your exploration urges, in lieu of light nodes Sands of Time offers secret sand tanks to empower your dagger and magic fountains to extend your health. The dagger powers are already more impressive, in regard to game play, than the magic plates of the new Prince. For example, I now have the ability to slow down time or a specific opponent. It’s quite impressive to knock a guy back and watch him fall in slow motion while you continue on at full speed, or to watch a ramp withdraw in slow motion while you leap and barely grab the edge. And if I take a vicious hit and lose half my health, I can go back a few seconds before the hit, and opt to block instead. Of course, with only four sand tanks I have strategy to consider.

Princess Farah

Princess Farah

Then there are the puzzles. Here, I think we’re even. I liked the one puzzle I’ve come across in Sands of Time so far. I manipulated a moon-cycle machine to power the defenses of the castle I’m trying to escape — to help protect those within from the monsters. Puzzles in PoP (2008) worked about as well. For example, on one stage I rotated pools to allow water to flow through to a specific holding tank that, when filled, would unlock a gate that blocked my path.

I’ll end this observation on the differences by commenting on the love interest. In PoP (2008), Elika is your partner. She blocks you from death, talks to you throughout, shares animations with you, and is necessary to travel throughout the game’s levels via her double-jumps. Despite all of that, I never really cared about her. Meanwhile, in Sands of Time, we have Farah. I’ve come across her a few times early in the game, but could never quite meet up with her. It added a bit of the chase and mystery to her character. It made me curious about her. Now, I’m not suggesting that I could only enjoy a character you have to chase; I’ve heard (and want to try!) Ico does a great job of connecting you with a character that you spend the entire game escorting through the levels. I only made the comment to point out Sands of Time seems to do more with less.

Wrap-Up: Prince of Persia

I had originally written a lengthy post about the ending but this is already feeling like a dead horse, so I think I will instead add a few quick thoughts and move forward to new games.

The Prince

The Prince

  • I know it’s a common gameplay gimmick, but how does a guy (Elika’s father) you fought early on and beat, then later on and beat, become ridiculously tougher for the end of the game fight? And it looks like you have to fight him a fourth time in the “Epilogue” DLC (which I will not be purchasing). I’m sure he’s quite impossible by then.
  • Speaking of dragging things out, after beating the father and activating the Fertile Ground to banish Ahriman, I thought I was done. Nope. You have to activate three Fertile Grounds. That leaves you feeling like you’re doing the same thing three times. Why? It felt dragged out. So much of this game is bad repetition.
  • And then there’s the part where you have to chop down four trees after you’ve beat the game and seen the credits. Couldn’t that have been a cutscene? There wasn’t any challenge associated with it. Why give the player the option to control the action when there is no action? Or choice?
  • And speaking of chopping down trees, do you know why you chop down the trees? Elika sacrificed herself to vanquish Ahriman. But then the Prince, for some reason, decides it’s a good idea to reset all that he and Elika accomplished in the game and un-vanquish Ahriman. Ugh! What a waste of time!
  • The guardian (one of the bosses) fights were poorly implemented puzzle fights that, like the rest of the game, had the potential for fun. You are supposed to push *him* back to the edge and knock him over (more often, he pushes you back). This could have worked well with combat and QTEs mixed together like you might see in God of War, but I couldn’t budge him. So my solution was to move back to the edge myself, let him grab me and fling me over his shoulder toward the middle of the stage, and then lunge at him to push him back since I only had to knock him back a single step that way. Similarly, during another section with a room you want to collapse on him I moved back to the faulty supports and let him bash me into them.
  • A lot of people seem to have really appreciated Elika — both as a character and part of the story, and as a game play mechanic. But as one reviewer wrote in disagreement, games have long allowed you to double-jump; Elika managing that double-jump for you doesn’t add much. I agree. The dagger from Sands of Time felt more fully realized as a twist on a game mechanic. I appreciated the in-game animations — the Prince catching Elika or putting her on his back or changing positions with her on a tight beam — but I never cared for her. To be honest, I kept waiting for a twist — to find out she was Ormazd or maybe something evil. But, no.
Elika

Elika

All in all, I feel like this is a great looking game with great level design and great animation and music that sticks in your head — that missed out on so much opportunity. It could have been fun. And, to be honest, early on, for the first hour or two, it was fun. Running around the levels was fun. Collecting the lights was fun. Exploring the map was fun. Even the combat was briefly fun — in the first fight against the father. (OK, spamming [LT] to talk to Elika was always lame.)

My problem is that as the game goes on into hour three/four/five/etc., it doesn’t advance or evolve. If it’s a plate, hit [Y]. If it’s a ring, hit [B]. And if there’s a hole to jump over, hit [A]. That’s it. From start-to-finish, it never changes in any way. They don’t shake it up, so to speak. It’s more of the same and it gets old. And the more you stare at the repetition, the more you see the flaws — which inspired all of my posts on this game.

I went to metacritic.com to see the collected reviews of the title and am surprised to see the top review is a perfect score and, of the top 20 reviews, all feature a grade of 90 or better. I can see enjoying parts of the game, I understand having different opinions, but I don’t get how such a large number of reviewers could have scored it so highly and given it so much praise. It just doesn’t seem… critical. Or maybe they wrote their reviews after playing for the first hour.

All right, I’ve said enough. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is on its way. Stay tuned!

More on: Prince of Persia (2008) QTEs

I know I’ve already talked about the QTEs (quick time event) in PoP (Prince of Persia), but let me take a moment to elaborate a little.

Shenmue

Shenmue

First of all, I have enjoyed several games that employed QTE elements. Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy) was one of my favorite games. And the upcoming Heavy Rain looks even better. I have only played the first God of War, but I had a lot of fun with that game. I intend to grab No More Heroes at some point in the near future. Same for Saints Row 2. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is actually on the way. (I beat Shenmue but that wasn’t one of my favorites.)

So why am I so critical of PoP’s somewhat frequent use of QTE?

For one, I feel carried back to Dragon’s Lair. There is no gameplay. There are just properly-timed button presses. For another, the sequences are too long.

Let’s talk about that second point for a moment. Near the end of the game there was a stage where I had to go through a sequence of QTEs that involved many button presses. Run up a wall, touch a magic plate, fly through the air dodging obstacles along the way (by pressing up/down/left/right at the correct time), land against the side of a wall, run to a ring, use that to get to the next plate (by hitting [B] to grab the ring at the right time), climb up the wall (steering left or right to dodge obstacles) until you reach the next plate, and so on. If at any point in this sequence you make a mistake, you go back to the beginning of the sequence and try again.

Simon

Simon

Now, in terms of frustration, we’re not exactly talking on the same level as GTA IV and their “You made a mistake so we are teleporting you back to your house where you will be forced to drive across an entire game world to get back to the start of the mission — a mission which starts by telling you to drive back to your house” system, since you’re only going back to the start of the sequence. And we’re not even talking frustration in terms of difficulty since, really, you’re going to ace a lot of these types of sequences on your first try. But seriously? I feel more like I’m playing the little electronic Simon game than Prince of Persia. And every time I do make a mistake, I watch the action on screen while thinking “Was it [RED] or [YELLOW] that I’m supposed to hit next?”

And that brings us to the first point, the game play, during these QTEs. Where is it? Watching a video, as Prince of Persia more often than not is, where you occasionally have to press a button to keep the movie playing is tedious. And not game play. I want to feel involved in the game. I want to feel like my choices and decisions are what’s driving the experience. When I’m pressing a button on cue, I only feel like I’m responding to a trigger, as if the game is asking me “Are you still awake?”

Sid Meier has a great definition of game play. He says it’s “[a] series of interesting choices.” In PoP, you’re choice is to keep watching the game play itself, or to try again. That isn’t interesting.

Dahaka

Dahaka

Final comment, I was thinking back on the older PoP titles and I remembered that, in PoP: Warrior Within, there was a sequence at the end of stages where you were chased by a creature (Dahaka) you couldn’t fight and had to escape. This meant navigating through somewhat familiar areas — but much more quickly than you may have otherwise traveled through them.

I think that’s probably as close to QTEs that this series should have gone. In those sequences, there were usually a couple ways to proceed and your skill impacted how dangerously close the monster came to your heels as you fled. And even then it was a little annoying because, if you failed and had to re-try, you realized everything is nearly identical and a little memorization went a long way.

So all in all, our moral of the day is that QTEs are a mechanic that can work or not, as with any. But in PoP, it did not work. Here’s hoping they ditch it or minimize it for any upcoming sequels or related titles (Assassin’s Creed 2).

Second Impressions — PoP (2008) Additional Thoughts

I’ve already slammed the two major mechanics of this game — the combat and the parkour. What’s left? Here’s a list of stuff that’s crossed my mind as I’ve played, a list both good and bad.

  • Every once in a while I get enough cotton balls to necessitate a return to the temple so Elika can get a new power. But her new power, apparently, is unlocking new game areas. She can also use new magic plates, but this only lets us… access new game areas. Hm. :\ I was hoping for something more fun.
  • I have to say, again, that the game looks great. Beautiful. Cartoon-like. Incredible. Amazing. Such smooth animations. Brilliant colors. Great view distance. Perfect view distance, to be honest. If I could make 100 different games, I would want them all to look like this one.
  • And I also have to say the camera is great. Not perfect. No camera is perfect. I had a moment where my view of the fight I was in was obstructed by the ceiling. But those moments are rare. In a game where you’re running around and changing direction and moving quickly, and you can not only see the beauty of the levels but also see your character and exactly what you’re character is doing and where he needs to go — that’s a good camera.
  • Speaking of, the controls are pretty good, too. I don’t have too much problem managing my character. This is kind of surprising to me because it seems like they are contextually based. And what I mean by that is that if my character is running left-to-right but then the camera shifts so I’m running right-to-left, the game, I should have to change the direction I’m pointing. Or, if I do change, and the game was expecting me to hold the direction, that might lead to a problem too. But both are accommodated for. The only problem I had was when I was in a vertical chute trying to climb upward. Every time I tried to jump up, because of the angle, my character would jump off the ledge to the left. Again, those are rare moments.
  • I do have a slight problem with some of the art clues. I was hanging from a ledge and noticed a platform below me. I stuck my clawed hand to the wall and slid down to — and through — the platform, and died. Woops. Bad artist. Another time, there were some withered vines on the wall and they looked like lo-res textures so I figured that meant to stay away from them. But no, they were where I needed to go. And then there are the times where I drop down and stand on a ledge, only to throw my arm up and have Elika whisk me back to the start.
  • I knew I had to go there, by the way, because of Elika’s compass power. Dumb name for an ability, but super useful. I really appreciate it and use it very frequently. I wish the past Persia’s had that one!
  • Dialogue strikes me as Harrison Ford out of Indiana Jones or Star Wars. He’s full of quips and never takes anything seriously. For example, the Prince makes the comment, after fighting the Princess’ angry father, “Next time you want to win your daughter back, try a pony. The apocalypse isn’t cutting it.” Or “I’ve lost my donkey, I fell down a cliff, and had a rock drop on my head. I’m not in a good mood.” That’s fine and dandy. Very Disney. But when the Prince doesn’t let his guard down or show any sincerity, I do wonder why the Princess is falling for him.
  • Speaking of the dialogue, have I mentioned what an awful idea their dialogue system is? No? Then let’s mention it! As critical story hubs, like just after beating an opponent, there’s a little pop-up that says, “Press [LT] or [LB] to talk to Elika.” You do, and she says a line or two. Then you do it again and there’s another line or two. The end result is that you spam [LT] and/or [LB] until they start repeating themselves or making comments about the grassy fields. I’d much rather have a scene that I would watch (or skip) instead of having this faux-interactive exposition.
  • Speaking of the dialogue, again, every line or two that you evoke is its own stand-alone bit. So sometimes, we get incongruities like the Prince saying “I’m not going to die” and the Princess starting the next bit with “You’re not going to die.”
  • The worst bug I’ve found so far was completely random and I don’t think I could repeat it. I jumped down from a ledge and hit [LT] to fire a dialogue. I think that must have frozen Elika in place, back up where I had jumped from. I spun around a few times to see if she would pop to my location, and she finally did — but she was frozen in a pose and stuck to the wall. From there, I tried to jump across a ledge and used [Y] to double my jump. It’s supposed to make her appear, catch me, and then fling me farther. I played the animations as if she was there, but I saw nothing. It was strange but corrected itself a moment later.
  • Another bug, I had a combat fall out of sync in regard to the animations. I threw my gloved-arm up in the air, and then brought it down fast. A moment later, the opponent flew up into the air and then was slammed down. Again, it corrected itself after a few moments. Still strange. Or there was the time I had to turn two separate cranks to get through a puzzle. The Prince isn’t strong enough to turn the crank on his own, so he gets the Princess to help. Except — every time I ran over to the crank on the right, the Princess would stay by the crank on the left for a few seconds, then pop over to the other crank. I can only guess she could not figure out how to pathfind over to my location — but this happened every time I used that crank.

After these last three posts about PoP, some might wonder why I’m still playing. As sad as it sounds, I like how it looks. I feel invested into the story and want to see how it plays out. Predictable ending or not, it’s still fun to see the details along the way. And I like collecting the white fuzzies while unrealistically, QTE parkour-ing my way around the levels. The fighting is frustrating, but now that I’ve looked up some online strategies, I am curious to see if they will make a difference. Plus, PoP isn’t supposed to be a very long game so I can’t imagine that there’s much left to it. Or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment. Hey, I’ve written more words about this game than the past few I’ve played, so maybe that along was worth the purchase price.

Second Impressions — PoP (2008) Parkour

Parkour, the fine art of getting from point A to point B in the least efficient, but coolest looking, manner. Why take the stairs up to the second floor of the tower when you can scale up the exterior wall?! Hells yes.

And in regard to parkour, just like with the fighting, Sands of Time and Assassin’s Creed did it perfectly. Assassin’s Creed was a little more realistic, but both were believable. Or, like I said in the first impression post, they looked cool enough to be just about believable.

And I think that’s important to a degree (a small degree) because it affects how you think about the character. I don’t want to give off the impression that I dislike the parkour mechanic because of the level of realism, but I do want to say that if I’m watching a guy take three steps along a wall before jumping to a far ledge, I’m holding my breath and thinking how amazing it is that he pulled it off.

But in PoP (Prince of Persia), the realism is so far gone that I find myself caring less. I mean, seriously, you are running, upside down, along the ceiling — using a giant wolverine glove and an occasional ring hanging from the ceiling to keep you aloft. Or you’re running along a wall on the left, jumping to the parallel wall to the right as you lose speed and momentum, re-gaining both to take another half-dozen steps before grabbing one of those rings to, somehow, again re-gain your momentum to take another half-dozen steps, and then ending it by jumping back to the left wall with another burst of momentum for yet more steps and a final jump to the ledge at the end of the run. It doesn’t have quite the same level of tension to know you can effectively disregard gravity.

What? You think that’s disregarding gravity? Well, wait until you’re flying. Yes, flying. There are chunks of the game where you run up a wall, stick to the wall and a magic plate while Elika follows you, grab her hand to pull her up to you while you’re still sticking in place, and then kick away from the magic plate to fly around the level. From there, you proceed through various QTEs (quick-time elements). That is, she flies so unnecessarily close to a wall that you have to duck to prevent getting beheaded, or she flies so close to a cage that you have to swing her to the left so you don’t smash into it.

But you never just fly straight to where you want to go. You fly 10 feet away from the next target. That way, you fly into the wall 10 feet away, and then somehow run to the left or right, or up the wall, to get to that next plate, so you can pull Elika to you and go another round. Or you get dumped in mid-air, 10 feet away, forcing her to catch you in mid-air and act as one of those aforementioned rings, giving you the momentum to keep on trucking and hit the wall.

The less said about the flying, the better — so let’s get back to walking on the ceiling. And the moments where Elika catches you in mid-air and then throws you so you get double your jumping distance. (She’s strong enough to catch you and throw you, but you have to carry her around on your back while you cling to vines, or pull her up to ledges.)

Everything I’ve said so far is kind of negative but… well, I’m not going to say the parkour, despite the lacking level of realism, is great or even good. Ultimately, it feels too much like you’re watching a bunch of scripted, unrealistic animation sequences. Repeatedly. And the more you recognize the sequences, the more quickly you react to the QTEs. You’re running along a wall and — quick, there’s a ring. Press [B]! OK, good job, but there’s a pit in front of you. Press [X] to jump it! Now the screen is going gray. It means you’re falling. Hit [Y] to have Elika catch you and throw you farther. Whew! You did it. You pressed the exact button you needed to press at just the right time. Or, close to the right time. You just have to get it close. Kind of close. Close-ish.

Making it feel more QTE-like, if you fail to press any of these buttons at the right time, or close enough to the right time, you get to re-play the entire sequence until you do them all properly. No deviation at all. Press the right combo and you get to see… the next animation sequence. Whee. If you contrast that with, say, Assassin’s Creed, you see something that felt, to me, much different. In AC, you were trying to find the right spot to start a climb, and then figure out the best way to get to another point. Sometimes you were doing this while guards were following up after you and grabbing your feet, or archers were shooting at you from nearby embankments. There was never a feeling of press the right button at the right time to keep playing. It felt more like an actual game system.

But anyway, moving on…

There are two stages to the parkour in PoP.

The first stage has you running along walls to get to the light fountains where you fight your opponents. And then, after you win the fights, the second stage features little white puff balls appearing throughout the level for you to collect.

I kind of have a thing for collecting stuff, so the second stage works more into my typical style of gaming. Plus, some of the light nodes are hard to get to — which results in actual challenge, or something kind of resembling it, even if it’s the kind of challenge of deciding where to go to get the necessary animation sequence to start. Sure, the animation sequences feel repetitive — are repetitive, I mean — but when you find a new node at the end of your run, or a dozen of them, it’s a moment of rare pleasure for this game where you’ll find yourself sarcastically quipping, “I only need 200 more of these things? Awesome.”

Another post, another bottom line: I mentioned while playing that if there were no fighting in this game, or if the fighting were at least tolerable, I’d probably be enjoying myself more and paying less attention to the QTEs. Maybe when I try some new combat combinations, I’ll get through the combat more quickly and be less frustrated. Maybe then I’ll enjoy the game more. But right now, as bad as the combat is, it’s dragging the parkour down with it.

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.

Assassin's Creed 2 – In Venice?

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed was one of my favorite games of 2007. It mixed Prince of Persia (one of my favorite series) with end of the world conspiracy theories in a real-world setting. I might even say I liked it better than PoP; while there’s something great to be said of leaping through PoP’s obstacle course-like levels, the idea of pulling out the perfect assassination and then parkour-ing away from guards before they can trap you in is just a little more thrilling.

And that’s why I’m so excitedly following the rumor mill for Assassin’s Creed 2. Today, we hear a rumor about the storyline and setting.

Reader James tells us that the focus testing he saw places the next Assassin’s Creed in Venice, Italy, and that “disguises were also said to play a part in this game.” The Carnival of Venice sure sounds like a good fit to us—plenty of undercover opportunities to stab portly bad guys in the neck and a visual style that’s far removed from the previous game’s setting.

Read on for more details. [link: Kotaku.com]

Disguises? Ooh! I’m intrigued. Sounds like they could be borrowing from Hitman – and that’s definitely a good thing. As for the setting, I don’t have an opinion on it one way or the other. I had originally thought that the game would either take place in South America or China – based on clues in the original game (CVG has a brilliant write-up on working through the complexities of Assasins Creed’s story – [link: CVG.com]) – but I wondered how that would work with the parkour movement. Venice, on the other hand, that makes a bit more sense.

I just hope water isn’t instantly fatal as it was in the original.

My First Impressions on Assassin's Creed

Last night I checked the mail and spotted my recently-ordered copy of Assassin’s Creed. Woo hoo! So when I woke up today, I spent a few moments debating whether to go for a third day with GTA IV or to give the new game a try. Since GTA IV wasn’t compelling me to play, I popped in Assassin’s Creed.

Wow. Just… wow. The only thing I can say is that if I knew Assassin’s Creed was this good, I would have bought it new the day it came out instead of waiting this long for a discount copy. Trust me, I will finish Assassin’s Creed before GTA IV gets a third day of play.

First thought? Whoa! It’s like Prince of Persia (and I believe the two games share the same developer), but times ten! It’s next-gen! It’s got all the fun of acrobatics and fighting that Prince of Persia has (especially the Sands of Time), but so much else in there to make it feel like a real technological evolution.

Before playing, I heard the game featured a simplistic formula: climb a tower, look around, jump down, kill somebody, run away, and repeat. That’s a huge over-simplification, but in a sense it’s kind of fitting. Like I said, the fun of Prince of Persia came from the acrobatics and the fighting. You leap from ledge-to-ledge, solving the puzzle of the map – and in-between you get to fight some baddies. At the end of a level, you fight a boss – and then you repeat the process. The game is made great by giving you plenty of opportunity to show how well you can manage these two mechanics.

Well, first, going back a step, let me explain what the game is outside of the play mechanics themselves.

It’s the area around Jerusalem and Damascus (and another city I can’t remember off-hand) around the time of the crusades, and your a member of a group intent on bringing about peace by (the rather extreme measure of) assassinating those who lead the largest disruptions to it.

You’ve been told that you have targets to kill – but you only know where they are (i.e. the major cities, or, more specifically, for example, the poor district of Damascus). It’s your job to eavesdrop on conversations, intimidate suspects, and pick-pocket people in the region for clues to find out who the target is.

You don’t spend all of your time in the cities. Sometimes you’re traveling from one to another, and sometimes you’re just stopping in-between to explore. The spaces in-between feature some fairly open world to run around in with little establishments scattered about. The establishments give you the opportunity to fight some guards, climb a tower to map out the region, and also pick up some of the hidden, optional flags or take out some of the Knight Templars (tougher, one-on-one fights) – all to keep you in shape and having fun until your next city adventure. As a side note, even though it’s more fun than a side note would imply, you get to use a horse for quicker travel (and you can even fight from horseback) in these open areas.

Back to the cities and advancing the story, once you have an idea as to who to go after, you report your findings to the Assassin’s Bureau for approval. When you have approval, your job is pretty straight-forward: take out your target and escape to safety.

However, there’s more to it than just that. The first city I hit was blocked off by guards, so the first puzzle was to figure out how to get into the city. Once inside, I had to get the clues but there were other things going on within. And kind of like GTA, finding those other things stems from exploration.

It starts with climbing. There are various towers around the city to climb. The first district I hit had nine towers, I think. Scaling the towers and mapping the region helps you figure out where other mini-missions are, gives you a sense of the area, helps you plan out your assassination, and is also a fun endeavor on its own. Climbing is, essentially, guiding your character from handhold-to-handhold, but in typical Prince of Persia fashion the thrill comes from doing something simple with the controller and watching your character do something amazing – and realize you’re controlling it.

And it’s not just climbing up towers that gives you this sense of acrobatic mastery. It’s also exploring the city horizontally, primarily from the rooftops. It’s pretty cool to watch your character leap from window ledge-to-roof, balance across a beam, and then land on another roof where you have to hurdle obstacles – and realize you’re controlling it. It’s also cool to occasionally hear citizens commenting on your acrobatics if they happen to spot you – wondering if they actually saw someone, or telling themselves that they’ve seen everything now.

As you explore, you’ll come across the other towers and the aforementioned evidence gathering routines, but you’ll also get a chance to take part in the other major game mechanic, combat – which, as far as the cities go, generally takes place because you drew too much attention to yourself, went somewhere you should not have, or because you decided to make a daring attempt to rescue a citizen from persecution.

A rescue usually requires a fight with five or six guards at once. And let me just say that combat is amazing. Again, much like Prince of Persia, there’s just something awesome about pulling off a crazy array of moves and feeling like everything went down exactly the way you wanted – even though you just hit a few buttons. See? Game control doesn’t have to be complicated to be fun (I’m looking at you, God of War)! Assassin’s Creed lets you use one button to block, another button to attack, and the analog stick to tell your character in which direction to block or attack. That’s all you need.

And, just like Prince of Persia, the game grows with you, letting you add to your arsenal of attacks in both power and flair – but maintaining control simplicity. That is, you learn, for example, that you can hold down the attack button to do a more powerful attack, that you can tap the attack button just as your character hits his target to get a second (or more, if you continue to time your hits right) quick strike, or hit the defense and attack buttons at the same time just before an opponent swings at you to do a counter-strike. These attacks, and the others that you discover, definitely add to the growth. I’m guessing that by the end, I’m going to look like a ballerina-style death machine.

After you’ve won your fight against the guards and saved the citizen, it’s time to clear out of the area while guards flood in to investigate the aftermath and look for suspects. You can use nearby friendlies to help you hide or disguise yourself, or just to get you back to the rooftops for a quick escape.

It’s only my first day with Assassin’s Creed and I feel like I’m completing gushing, but I absolutely hated turning it off and can’t wait to get back to it. I know the reviews suggested it gets old for some (I’ll save those comments until I finish the game), but right now it’s so new, so fun, and I’m so excited to play more. I really hate to bash on GTA IV because I’m sure I’ll eventually get into it and love it, but I wish I was feeling about GTA IV from the start half as much as I’m feeling toward Assassin’s Creed, or GTA III, Vice City, or San Andreas. :