I’m sure everyone remembers the shitstorm that hit the Internet when Prince of Persia: Warrior Within was released two years ago. An unstoppable tide of criticism and disgust toward the game flowed for months, only getting worse when it ended up outselling The Sands of Time by leagues. (Thankfully, we were spared from having the Prince’s early game cry of “You Bitch!” become the next Internet trend.) However, the most curious thing about the criticism was that very few people ever made any sort of commentary on the actual gameplay. For all intents and purposes, it looked like angry nerds acting as immature and angsty as the kids that Warrior Within was trying to cater to (though that is not to say that I didn’t jump on the bandwagon for some period of time).
Somehow I broke out of that funk and got around to playing the game. I’m glad that I did. While it is certainly true that Warrior Within is chock full of violence, rage and Godsmack, it is also accurate to say that such things do not detract from the experience nearly as much as some have claimed. This is still a Prince of Persia game after all, meaning all of that amazing running and jumping hasn’t gone away. It is tough to say whether this is a superior game than Sands of Time, but at the very least it is a solid sequel that is far smarter than it looks at first glance.
Smarter because the team at Ubisoft realized that the modern PoP formula only has so much mileage to it. Sands of Time has some of the best platforming elements from this generation, but there are only so many ways that you can run along a wall and swing from a pole. This means that the platforming in WW will often feel familiar to those who played Sands of Time, but it isn’t a complete carbon copy. For one, it is much harder, often dishing out longer and nastier series of traps that require precision timing. The extra challenge also comes from the environments, which are much more formidable than before. Often times you will come across vast gaps, crumbling pillars and broken ledges, with nary a clue as where to go. You may think that getting across is impossible, until you spot that one leap or shimmy leads to another, and all of a sudden you’ve made it. The environments have a very natural flow and structure, such that it doesn’t always seem like certain leaps were measured out to be just right for the Prince (though there are still times when you’ll be thinking “if that switch were just two feet higher, he’d be really screwed….”).
Another new feature comes from the Dahaka, the beast that occasionally stalks the Prince. Since it can’t be killed, Dahaka encounters lead to elaborate chase scenes where you cannot at any moment stop to think, causing you to think on your feet and react quickly to the gauntlet of traps and platforms that you must navigate. Those who fail at these chase scenes may find them frustrating to a great degree, but they can also become some of the more exhilarating moments in the game should you complete them with little hassle. It also doubles to provide more “cinematic” gaming for the kids.
Now, to debunk some myths. Firstly, the environments aren’t all hallways full of rust and shades of brown. In fact, they sometimes show signs of brilliance. Some of the outdoor plazas have a scope and grandeur reminiscent of Ico, where large sections of the island can be seen without hindrance. It’s a shame there aren’t enough of these scenes, since the indoor areas can still be rather dark and depressing. There are still plenty of earth tones throughout, as well as an over reliance on greens and greys. Still, much prettier than I expected, and I hope these are signs of things to come from Ubisoft.
What I don’t want to see is more level recycling. Warrior Within takes place in two different times, and you will often have to travel through the same areas in both the past and the present. While there are some notable differences, more often than not it will feel like very familiar territory. This also indirectly leads to periods of backtracking that sit a razor’s edge. There’s always one correct way when you are backtracking, usually a main pathway from earlier. If you can find it on the first try it feels like a natural progression through the island, where areas you struggled in before can be bypassed, and the whole thing looks smaller and tamer than before. Go the wrong way, and you’ll be cursing up a storm, since the game gives you little in the way of clues as to the proper direction. I think I only took the wrong path once, but I can’t see everyone having such a painless experience (that one time made me quit the game for almost a week).
So what’s the real deal with all of the “mature” content? The first thing that came to mind when I learned about it during early previews was that it could work. I thought there was great potential for a darker, sophisticated tale of a desperate Prince fleeing from danger and trying to change his fate after the events in Sands of Time had backfired. The actual content shows that I was an optimistic fool. Warrior Within has got everything the “mass market gamer” could ask for. Plenty of blood and decapitation, healthy doses of TnA, and a Prince that screams angrily even when striking clay pots, while instrumental Godsmack drives you forward. From what I had initially heard, I half expected to see fountains of blood and constant streams of swearing while women pleasured themselves on statues.
In reality, the mature content is far tamer – and less frequent – than I would have thought. I can’t think of any way in which this content could severely detract from the experience. I personally hate Godsmack, but I still found the music to fit the tone of the game. The only marginally annoying feature is the slow motion effect that takes place during certain sword attacks, though it isn’t much more than glorified versions of some of the death animations found in Sands of Time. If the player can’t at least laugh this stuff off, then perhaps the problem isn’t really with the game (and if they look close enough, they may even find some hints of the old, noble Prince within parts of the story).
If the whole “mature and violent” angle of this game has affected anything, it is the combat. It is much, much more frequent this time around, to the point where you rarely enter a large room, much less a hallway, without drawing your sword (and since enemies regenerate, even that estimate is doubled). You’ll even have to fight some enemies while walking on a balance beam or running along a wall. Suffice to say that Warrior Within is an appropriate title, because this game wants your ass whooping quota to stay above five heads a minute for as long as possible.
To help in this endeavor, they’ve beefed up the combat system. You can now hold two weapons (this was made in the year of dual wielding after all), and a basic combo system is now in place that allows the prince to deal bigger damage and finish opponents off in rather brutal ways. It doesn’t work quite as advertised, however. The game claims that there are 60 weapons to use, allowing for “hundreds of different fighting styles”, yet each weapon only varies in speed and damage, not in actual move sets. There’s also the “Ninja Gaiden” problem, in that there is a small set of solid, effective moves that you will rely on to get the job done quickly and efficiently. Only, Ninja Gaiden has tough, intelligent enemies that require smarts and foresight to get an edge on. In WW, your foes aren’t so sharp. Fast, and even overwhelming sometimes, but rarely intelligent. Ultimately you shouldn’t have much trouble disposing of them using the same old tricks (the most you’ll have to do is damage them a bit first).
In small doses the combat would have provided some satisfying bouts of violence, but instead it becomes as repetitive and uninspiring as it was in Sands of Time, perhaps moreso; at the very least Sands of Time made battles quick and intuitive, as the Prince seemed more responsive to multi-directional combat in that one. The fact that you eventually become strong enough to decimate your enemies takes some of the sting out of it.
There are times when all the new elements work together, and Warrior Within becomes as good or better as Sands of Time. Then there are instances where it doesn’t feel any different at all. It provides enough of a challenge to please returning fans, while the familiar gameplay and mature themes will keep newcomers entertained without butchering the established formula. Ubisoft seems to have tried damn hard to please everyone with this one, and to a small extent they did. Don’t judge a book by its cover; give this one a go.
Christian wishes that water could replenish his health, because these wounds, they will not heal.