Some thought Ubisoft's beautiful Prince of Persia reboot, released in the tail end of 2008, was a disappointment. I loved it. It combined truly gorgeous visuals with effortlessly simple gameplay. The removal of death rubbed a few people up the wrong way, but it allowed the game world to be created in a way that rewarded free exploration and a slightly carefree approach to platforming. You didn't have to worry about being returned to an annoyingly far-back checkpoint, meaning you could concentrate on enjoying the stunning world Ubisoft had created. It even did away with much of the combat seen in previous titles. Sales are the be all and end all, though, so perhaps it's no surprise to find The Forgotten Sands looking and feeling a lot like the The Two Thrones and Warrior Within.
This return to what came before the 2008 game is a personal disappointment, so I was keen to see if a work in progress build of the Xbox 360 version could convince me the right decision was made. After a few hours putting it through its paces it's clear that Ubisoft has put together a more action-heavy title, but it has retained much of the platforming, even if you're likely to die frequently as you attempt to find the right path through the puzzle-like environments.
Combat is vastly different to what we saw in the last game. Whereas PoP 2008 used a counter-based combat system, which saw the Prince blocking enemy attacks, then going in with his own strikes, here it's a more basic hack 'n' slash formula. You can slash enemies with one button, kick with another and also roll to evade attacks. It doesn't feel as fluid as something like God of War or Dante's Inferno, but it works well enough. You'll face off against large groups of enemies, which is something you simply didn't do in the previous game. Nasties big and small will be coming at you at the same time, but thankfully you don't just have to rely on your armed combat skills. The Prince has access to special magic abilities including temporary rock armour and a devastating whirlwind attack.
Even PoP 2008 haters will see that the platforming in The Forgotten Sands isn't as slick or free-flowing, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, this might be music to the ears of anyone who felt the acrobatics in the cel-shaded adventure were essentially on-rails, with the player simply having to press forward and jump at the right time, but others may well find it feels a tad clumsy by comparison. Traversing the environments is a much more deliberate, considered affair now, even though many of the objects (ledges, large poles) are the same. How it ends up feeling by the end of the adventure may well determine the success of the game as a whole.
As well as being able to rewind time to undo mistakes (nothing new for the Prince of Persia series), you're now able to control water, freezing it in time to make it completely solid for a short period. The use here is fairly obvious: a water shoot becomes a pole to swing on, a mini stream from above becomes a vertical pole to climb, and you get the idea. In the first few hours of the preview build there's little more to the water mechanic than this, but presumably it'll be used in more exciting and interesting ways as the story progresses and the basics have been learnt. Early on, the same is true of the puzzles, which seem entirely of the "move levers to position cogs" type. Hopefully things will get trickier later on.
I still believe that 2008's Prince of Persia is one of the most spectacular looking games ever made, full of incredible locations, stunning animation and superb use of colour. The Forgotten Sands is going to look great for different reasons. For one, it's not nearly as vibrant. It's a more subdued looking game, but the world you're playing in still has great sights and some wonderful use of lighting. The Prince is wonderfully detailed, too, surely being one of the most impressive in-game character models seen to date, although, dare I say it, I happen to miss Nolan 'Nathan Drake' North in the lead role. He has great hair too.
Without wanting to sound too much like the PoP 2008 fanboy that I am, The Forgotten Sands also feels a little lonely. The relationship between the Prince and love interest Elika was brilliant, not only in terms of story but gameplay too. More than anything it gave a sense of camaraderie. She was always there and even helped out during combat. There's nothing like this, at least so far, in The Forgotten Sands. I've only scratched the surface of the adventure, but so far the environments, despite featuring more enemies at any time than in the 2008 game, feel quite empty - something I never felt when Elika was at my side.
Anyone fearful that this will end up being a quickly botched together cash-in to coincide with this summer's blockbuster movie needn't worry though; despite my disappointment that Ubisoft didn't go for a direct sequel to the previous game, there's no denying that The Forgotten Sands is going to be a highly polished, entertaining action adventure on its release. It might not be as original as the Prince's previous outing, but if you're one of the many fans who turned their noses up at that, this is probably exactly what you're after.
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and PSP on May 21. A PC version will follow.