Man, Ubisoft knows how to party. For their Prince of Persia preview event, they booked the Ana Mandara lounge at Ghiradelli Square, hired an acrobat troupe and henna tattoo artists, and crammed half a dozen hookah pipes onto the balcony section. There was also an open bar, a spread of Middle Eastern-themed food, and a monster sound system. (Assassin's Creed producer Jade Raymond led the charge onto the dance floor).
In the face of all this glamor and poshness, the game itself almost got upstaged. Only about five stations were set up for demoing the latest build of Prince of Persia - and some of them were even using the old E3 demo build. Luckily, it was easy to get my hands on the game during the acrobat show, when everyone was watching the spectacle instead of waiting in line.
The Prince of Persia series has never failed me when it comes to man-candy, even if it got a bit emo from time to time. This new next-gen outing might be the exception: no once during any of the three levels I played did his shirt get torn off. According to producer Ben Mattes, the Prince is modeled after Han Solo, so there might be hope for sex appeal yet.
Another striking difference with this Prince of Persia is the lack of time-rewinding; instead we have Elika, a woman who saves you whenever you do something stupid. The opportunities for doing stupid things start presenting themselves almost as soon as you meet her, conveniently enough. It all starts with releasing the world's greatest evil from the Tree of Life (although technically, that's not your fault). After the evil named Ahriman gets loose from the Tree, you spend the rest of the game exploring the non-linear world with Elika, cleansing ears and collecting Life Seeds so she can bring the Tree back to life.
From there, it's all endless ledges, cliffs, slides and vine-covered walls for you to fall off of - plus some pretty hardcore enemies you have to beat with specific combos. I wasn't too thrilled about this, but that's because I'm a button-masher at heart and quicktime events are the bane of my gaming existence. The combo system seems like it'd be easy once you get the hang of it: the enemy glows blue when you need to use your sword attacks, turns black when you need to use Elika's magic for a combo, and hunches over in an odd way when the game wants you to use the Prince's gauntlet attack to throw the enemy.
Timing is a big part of combat in Prince of Persia - if you take a swing at an enemy when you're out of range, or they block your attack, the screen with flash white and you've got to mash down on the block button at exactly the right moment if you don't want to get skewered. It might have been the build I was playing on, but the bad guys seemed entirely too capable of blocking attacks. Between them and the long-jumps, I'd be dying all over the place if not for Elika.
Prince of Persia is supposed to be more sandbox-ish this time around, but since I was stuck with the old E3 build, it's hard to say if you really can go anywhere on the map whenever you want, since only one area was available for play. The world map looks like a giant henna tattoo with four spiral branches. At the base, there are four coloured circles that represent each of the four abilities the Prince will learn throughout the game: red for Rebound, blue for Grapple, green for Dash and yellow for "Cool Flying Stuff" (the PR guy walking me through the game didn't know what the "official" name for that was). To start questing, you select one of the colours and then watch the rest of the map for any level circles that light up with the corresponding colour. Move the cursor over one of them and click X (or A, depending on which console you're playing), to set your path. When you close the world map, Elika will now know which direction to head in - she'll show you with a magical burst of light if you tap Triangle (Y, whatever).
I'm pleased with what Ubisoft has done with Elika's partner AI. She never once got in the way; I didn't have to babysit her at all, and if she ever did fall behind, all I had to do was press a button and she'd magically turn up right beside me. She can get knocked out during combat, but that'll be your fault for using the wrong combo. Elika will recover slowly on her own, or faster if you go over to help her. If by chance you get her knocked out during a fight and then are injured to the point of death, she'll magically recover, heal you, and then the enemy will go back to full health so you can start the fight all over again. All in all, it's not that different from the concept of time-rewinding - and Elika's the sexier option, besides. (I'll have to wait and see if the sexual tension between her and the Prince is anything worth watching - there wasn't a lot going on in the early levels of the game besides the occasional "Let me carry you," hug.)
Prince of Persia is out on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 December 2. Here's the swag report:
1 T-shirt that might actually fit me
1 Puzzle ball I will never be able to solve