Prince Of Persia: Forgotten Sands
From the combined might of Jake Gyllenhaal and Jerry Bruckheimer…
This could be the most dubious sequel ever made. The clamour surrounding the rapid release of Left 4 Dead 2 was a timely reminder of how sensitive gamers can be when they sense a cash-in. Indeed, despite a nearly unblemished record of great products and unwavering dedication to its community, we imagine Valve has taken copious notes on what-not-to-do when it comes to putting out a sequel, even if the excellent final product did silence its critics.
Yet proximity to the series’ last release is only a part of what makes Prince Of Persia: The Forgotten Sands so ambiguous. Certainly, we never imagined having to contemplate another sequel a little more than a year after the entire franchise received a successful, if somewhat divisive, reboot. Similarly, we couldn’t have foreseen that this sequel would actually be to a game released in 2003, The Sands Of Time, which has received two sequels already. What’s more, this sequel primarily exists to tie into a Hollywood adaptation of The Sands Of Time, so it needs to be both the same as and different to a game we played to death seven years ago.
It’s the icing on a cake that could just as easily be made of mud as chocolate, so we turned to Graham Jennings, the game’s producer, to satisfy our curiosity. “The idea for this game is that it’s essentially the sequel to Sands Of Time on next-gen [consoles], so it fits in between The Sands Of Time and The Warrior Within,” Jennings explains. “If you imagine a next-gen version or sequel to that, that’s where we’re going at the minute, in terms of look and feel as well. So the way it plays and the level base very much fits in with that first trilogy.”
Sadly, breezily placing The Forgotten Sands between The Sands Of Time and The Warrior Within is the sort of revisionist history we can’t ignore. There are almost certainly people out there waiting for this game because of a deep respect for Jake Gyllenhaal and Jerry Bruckheimer, but if you have this magazine in your grip you’re probably not one of them. The fact is that The Warrior Within was criticised on its release for being a stylistic departure from The Sands Of Time – the Arabian Nights seen through the prism of a My Chemical Romance music video – and as impassioned gamers, we only care about how Ubisoft intends to address this dichotomy.
“I’d say it’s definitely nowhere near as dark as The Warrior Within was, but maybe slightly heavier than The Sands Of Time was,” says Jennings, without really saying anything at all. “It’s maybe somewhere between the two points, but it isn’t a dark game as such.” In that sense, the game’s key point of visual inspiration might actually be the film, which has already developed a hybrid of those two art styles – a genius move that allows Jake Gyllenhaal to brood for all the teenage girls, while retaining enough vibrant colour to appeal to a family audience. “The film was based on The Sands Of Time trilogy,” Jennings acknowledges, “so releasing a game at the same time, it makes sense to have a universe that is the same in both.”
For many, the reassurance that this won’t occupy the same ideological space as 2008’s Prince Of Persia – known as PoP from here on, lest our heads explode from the confusion – will be consolation enough. Not everybody appreciated the new direction taken by the reboot, and this has already been branded as a sort of digital apology for Ubisoft’s transgressions. According to Jennings, though, the two games were actually made “in parallel” for at least some of their development cycles, so The Forgotten Sands was never intended as a response to that game’s perceived strengths or weaknesses.
However, it’s clear that at least some of the criticism levelled at PoP was taken on board by the team. “People felt that sometimes, with Eleka, it was too easy, and the Prince couldn’t die,” says Jennings, somewhat reluctantly. “That partly pushed us to bring back the rewind function, so we had that feature instead. But, to some extent, yes, we’ve taken what people didn’t like and tried to fix some of those issues.”
We were fans of PoP, but it’s difficult to fault the return of The Sands Of Time trilogy’s celebrated time-manipulation mechanic. More to the point, Jennings tells us that this decision is emblematic of a broader return to the series’ previous gameplay values. “In The Sands Of Time there was more the explorative feel in the levels, where you could look and see where you wanted to go, and then you had to work to get there,” says Jennings. “It’s really more like that. I mean, there’s still plenty of flow and acrobatics, but you need to think more as to what you’re doing. Combat-side, we’ve gone back to the multiple enemies route, so there’s a lot more combat than in the previous game as well.”
Even those who liked Eleka’s ever-present hand catching the Prince whenever he fell will appreciate a rethink of PoP’s flawed one-on-one combat system. It broke the gameplay down into its constituent mechanics too cleanly, giving the impression of two different experiences rashly stitched together. “You’ll be fighting… we have up to 50 enemies at a time,” says Jennings, praising Assassin’s Creed’s Anvil engine for allowing such epic battles. “We have enemies of different sizes and different types. For the base guys who can be in a mass of, say, 40 or 50 guys, that combat’s about mobility… You can run and do acrobatics while you do combat, so these things are mixed together. But then there are bigger enemies, where you’ll need to use different strategies to beat them.”
That strategic element will be tied to the Prince’s new elemental powers, which will also be necessary to navigate the world. “The Prince can rewind again, which was obviously missing from the last game,” Jennings reminds us, “but then he has powers over fire, water and air as well… There will be a number of collectables around the levels based on enemies and things you find. They’ll act as a currency within an upgrade menu, from which you can then upgrade the powers to do different things.”
Precisely what those “different things” include is still unclear, and Jennings wasn’t prepared to offer too many examples of how the elemental powers will be implemented. Seasoned role-playing gamers will be familiar with enemies that have weaknesses linked to fire, water and air, and we expect that same basic idea to be at play in The Forgotten Sands. However, it’s the way these elements will bleed into the platforming that has the most potential to build on the experience laid out in The Sands Of Time.
“With the water [power], the Prince can freeze water-walls,” Jennings offers. “Imagine a waterfall, on the wall. He has the power to [create one] and wall-run on it. So we can make these dynamic levels with moving ingredients that we, in the case of water, can freeze and then use as objects.”
Our brains immediately alight to a series of painfully scripted sequences, where the Prince is confronted with puzzles that essentially solve themselves, but Jennings insists that the elemental powers will always be at the gamer’s whim. “No, it’s dynamic as we go,” he says. “All the flow of the levels is based on this, so there’ll be times when you have to run, then freeze to grab something, then you’ll have to jump and unfreeze to pass through to the next.”
After so much discussion, analysis and deliberation, it seems we should have a clearer idea about whether this game is a prospect to savour. Certainly, very few franchises have performed as consistently over an extended period of time as Prince Of Persia, but where the reboot at least presented us with completely new visual aesthetic and approach to gameplay, The Forgotten Sands’ motivations are more confused.
On the most fundamental level, it only exists because a film adaptation of The Sands Of Time is due for release in May, and Ubisoft can’t simply remake a seven year-old game. Furthermore, the need to insert its fiction somewhere in a timeline that resolved itself in 2005 has forced it to mimic two releases that will be very familiar to fans of the series. It’s an experiment that could pay off, but whereas we could be unreservedly excited about the 2008 reboot, The Forgotten Sands’ bizarre genesis demands caution. If, in four months’ time, Ubisoft presents us with a masterpiece, we’ll eat every one of these words.