One of the surprise hits of E3 2003, the game industry's annual trade show, was Ubisoft's take on an old, mostly forgotten about franchise. Prince of Persia: The Sands of time wowed the press with its tight controls, unique moves, like the wall run, and of course, the ability to turn back time. The game received high marks, and was reasonably well-received, and now, to no one's surprise, it has spawned a sequel. Prince of Persia: Warrior Within features a darker prince with some new moves, a more mature theme, and yes, some of the most out of place music you'll ever hear in a game. Unfortunately, these changes do little to make Warrior Within enjoyable, and its repetitive fighting, frustrating camera, countless cheap deaths, and mundane gameplay make this prince feel more like a pauper.
It seems that things didn't turn out that well for the prince after the first game, as right off, he finds himself running from his inevitable death, which comes in the form of a creature called the Dahaka. It seems the Empress of Time is none too pleased by his manipulation of the sands of time, and has sent Dahaka to kill the prince. Despite being told he can't stop his demise, the prince heads off to try and change his destiny. When you first take the controls, the prince is commanding a ship in the midst of a rough storm, when all of the sudden, a phantom ship pulls alongside, and its crew of creatures boards the prince's vessel. After losing the battle, the prince awakens on a beach on the Island of Time, his crew dead and his ship destroyed. From this point on, you'll take the prince through the past and the present in an effort to make sure there's a Prince of Persia 3.
The overall theme of Warrior Within is much darker than the original game, and this holds true for the prince as well. He's a bit angry this time around, and his character design and actions reflect this rage. The basic gameplay remains the same – go into a room, watch the camera pan around, figure out how to get from point A to point B, fight some bad guys, avoid some traps, and then repeat; there's not a whole lot new here. Since you play in both the past and the present, there is lots of backtracking, though it isn't quite as bad as it could be, since the castle is slightly different in each period. If there was a game to compare it to, it would be ICO, but with more frustrating gameplay, and less endearing characters.
Ubisoft promised all sorts of things when discussing PoP: WW's combat, but they sure failed to deliver the goods. Once again, combat is generally nothing more than smashing buttons and jumping around trying to avoid the relentless minions that want your blood on their hands. Sure there are combos, and you can pick up and wield two different weapons at the same time, but you rarely need to use any special moves, and the whole "two weapon" system is quite pointless. It's not long before you realize the easiest way to deal with the enemies is to toss them off of one of the game's plentiful ledges, and then it's the same thing over and over again.
One of the game's unique elements is how it allows you to control time in a variety of ways. Many of these abilities are back from the original, but there are some new additions to the mix, like the ability to take out a group of bad guys with a single button press. Even the ability to control time isn't all that interesting anymore, as countless games have used bullet time, or some similar gimmick in the last two years.
The ability to shift time is certainly one of the game's strengths, but it's also one of the developer's biggest crutches. Just because you can undue three of your deaths by rewinding time, doesn't give the developers carte blanche with cheap deaths – or maybe it does. The solution to a bad camera should be to fix it, not let me try the jump three times until I learn to compensate for the awful camera angle. After beating a boss, you shouldn't have to rewind a death that occurred while you were desperately searching for a save point; the save point should be right after the boss.
As mentioned earlier, Warrior Within has a much darker tone than Sands of Time, and the game's visuals are a big part of this new direction, which earned the game an "M" rating. The prince looks meaner, there's more blood, and there's no shortage of bad guys getting chopped in half. The prince has a ton of smoothly animated moves, all of which transition from one to the next seamlessly. When everything falls into place, and you get a good camera angle in an interesting room, it's a blast to jump, spin, leap, and flip your way around from ledge to ledge, but those occurrences are rare.
The castle, where most of the game takes place is very detailed, and has a distinctive look for both the past and present. In the past, the castle is well lit, and in pristine condition, while in the present, it's very dark, the walls are crumbling, and it's overrun by vines. It's nothing innovative, but it gets the job done just fine.
The game does have a few visual problems; the main two being the camera and an erratic framerate. The camera can be manipulated in a variety of ways, including a first-person view mode, but there are still countless times where you can't see exactly where you need to go. There's a map feature that should help you with this, but to say it's not very handy would be an understatement. The framerate isn't as smooth as it should be, which is probably due to the game being developed for three systems, while trying to make a holiday deadline, but excuses don't fix the choppiness, so we're stuck with it.
If there's one thing everyone can agree on, it's that this game's music is horrible. Oh to be a fly on the wall when the soundtrack was approved:
Executive #1 "So, I was thinking that even though this game takes place in ancient times, and you know, in a castle, that maybe we could add lots of guitars or something? I know this is a stretch, but we'll add these loud drums and heavy bass lines too. You know how the kids like that Rock and Roll. We gotta be hip."
Executive #2 "Add a Godsmack song in there, and I'm sold. Also, let's have the prince spout out tough sounding catch phrases, like "You bitch!" and stuff like that. We have got to be edgy, like that Chappelle guy."
That might not have been how it happened, but it's the only explanation I could come up with for the travesty that is the soundtrack. The lame catchphrases not only plague the prince but the other characters as well, which is yet another reason to turn the sound off.
When it's all said and done, PoP: Warrior Within is the latest sequel to fail to improve upon, or even live up to the standards of the previous game. Many of the additions feel like things that they didn't have time to add to the last game, and the whole experience feels uninspired. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but Warrior Within is one big letdown.