Reviewed: December 30, 2003
Released: November 18, 2003
Without a doubt, one of the highlights of the 2003 E3 show had to be the running demo for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time at the Ubisoft booth. Featuring some of the best graphics, original gameplay, and stunning music and sound of any game being shown, this title was drawing in huge crowds, and rightly so – we’ve been waiting almost 15 years for the Prince to make his triumphant return.
Anyone old enough to have been playing PC games back in 1989 might remember the groundbreaking original Prince of Persia from Broderbund Software. The main thing that stuck with me over the years about that title was it was the “very first” title to use digital sound effects. Prior to the original Prince, games were using FM synthesized effects and Adlib sound cards ruled the day. In fact, that was how I started playing the game. But then one of the “rich” guys in the frat house got this new sound card called a “SoundBlaster” that combined FM music and digitized effects. The difference was night and day – Adlib was out; SoundBlaster was in, and Prince of Persia became the showcase title on my 386 PC. Well, enough of the history lesson unless you want to hear about how Wing Commander forced me to buy my first Roland MT-32.
In the past 15 years the Prince has returned for two official sequels and while Prince of Persia 3D was dismissed by many gamers and most critics as an ill-fated Tomb Raider knockoff, I thought it was immensely fun and is still one of my favorite “older” action games. But nothing could have prepared me for the pure genius and inspired gameplay that Sands of Time was going to offer. Not only is this a shining example of “how to make a sequel”, it’s just great game design and hopefully a model that will be imitated and improved upon for years to come.
It takes a great crew to make a great game and Ubisoft has assembled some top talent including the original creator of the series, Jordan Mechner, along with many of the designers responsible for games like Splinter Cell. When you lock this much talent in a room for a couple of years you are bound to get something as good as Sands of Time.
The first thing that needs substantial praise is the presentation style of this game. From the opening movie to the closing credits, Sands of Time is presented in a self-narrated storytelling style making it seem like you and the Prince are kicking back while you listen to him spin a tale of his past exploits. When you save a game he says “I’ll start the story from here next time”, and if you die he says, “No…no…that’s not the way it happened.”
And what a great story it is. We start off with the Prince and his father working with the treacherous Vizier to raid the Maharajah’s palace. Everyone has their own agenda. The father is looking for riches, the Prince is looking to prove himself, and the Vizier is trying to get his hands on the Sands of Time and an ancient dagger that will offer him immortality. Things go awry when the Prince is allowed to keep the dagger and the Sands of Time are presented as a gift to the neighboring Sultan.
The scheming Vizier manages to get the Prince to use the dagger with the Sands of Time, releasing the magical sand and instantly turning everyone into horrible monsters, well, almost everyone. The Prince along with a beautiful and cunning Princess must work together to return the Sands of Time and restore the kingdom.
Sands of Time is pure action gameplay broken down into a few main components that are seamlessly integrated into the flowing narrative. You will fight endless hordes of hideous monsters, avoid countless traps, and solve some deviously clever puzzles, but at no time does the game ever get repetitive or caught up in any of those clichéd elements associated with the genre.
A big part of this is that the gameplay is continuously evolving throughout the adventure. The prince is constantly learning new moves, fighting tactics, and discovering new weapons and ways to manipulate time. Using the magical dagger, the Prince has the ability to slow, speed-up, freeze, and rewind time. While this is the signature feature of the gameplay it is handled in such a way that it never becomes the focus but merely a tool to aid in you against overwhelming odds, much like the Bullet Time feature in Max Payne.
The ability to rewind time is perhaps the most beneficial of all the time shifting features. This is basically your “oops…lemme try that again” system where if you make a bad jump, attack the wrong guy, get skewered by some spikes or chewed up by a saw blade you can squeeze the trigger and rewind before the point of indiscretion and try again. The number of times you can use this feature is determined by the number of sand tanks on your dagger. Only when you are out of sand must you reload your last save.
As you explore the expansive worlds of this game you will come across numerous patches of sand. Some are obvious and some are tucked away so well they could almost be considered “secrets”. For every eight Sand Clouds you absorb with your dagger you earn a new tank and each tank allows you one time shift. Also, as you absorb sand you will earn Power Tanks. These are what grant you the various time shifting powers.
The powers of time include Revival (rewind), Delay (slow motion), Restraint (freeze time), and Destiny (visions). You’ll learn to use all of these powers to your advantage in some of the best combat action ever experienced in a 3D adventure game.
Most of the monsters you encounter in this game are hideous mutations of the original population, now possessed by the Sands of Time. The only way to kill them is to deliver a fatal blow and suck the sand out of them. This becomes significantly more difficult as the monsters get bigger, smarter, and harder to hit. You will have to use all of your acrobatic and time shifting abilities to deliver these sand sucking fatal blows.
Control is fluid and so intuitive it becomes second nature before the end of the first level. Before I get into the combat I need to cover the basics like the Prince’s ability to run along walls, balance on beams, bounce-jump between opposing walls, and swing and flip from countless trapeze-like poles. You can also hang and shimmy from ledges and jump between vertical poles, climb ladders, and climb and swing on ropes. Naturally, all of these elements come into play numerous times within the game and it’s understandable (and expected) that the designers have created entire levels to exploit these moves.
I must also compliment the designers on the directional control that is orientated with the camera. There were numerous instances where I was making dangerous leaps between poles or back flipping from a ledge to trapeze and all that was needed was a button press combined with a directional press toward the target object. Even if the Prince wasn’t ready for such a jump he would pivot around (on his own) then make the requested leap. It allowed for smooth and very fast jumping sequences without all the tiny corrections normally required between each jump.
Combat is the model of perfection. Since you are often outnumbered you can keep pressing the attack button combined with the directional stick and the Prince will attack in that direction the best way possible. He may strike with a sword in the facing direction and kick the monster behind him then cartwheel to the side and plant his dagger into a fallen body to absorb the sand. You have a limited time after a monster falls to retrieve the sand from the body or they will reanimate and attack. You are free to use any available time shifting modes during combat provided you have enough time built up in the dagger. This can allow you to slow or speed up time giving you an incredible advantage in combat.
The end result is a tight instinctual control scheme that allows you to create intense action sequences with minimal button use. Later in the game the monsters get smarter and start to block and dodge and you will have to use advanced tactics like somersaulting over them and doing backstab attacks or launching yourself from a wall to knock an enemy down and striking a quick fatal blow. Eventually, you can freeze multiple enemies and they will float, momentarily suspended in time and space until you deliver the final disintegrating blow or the effect wears off.
Combat is arranged in an almost arena-like structure where you enter a room and are forced to fight off a pre-determined amount of monsters. When they are all dead you are rewarded with some victory music and a quick movie of the prince sheathing his blade. A save point usually appears and you might get to solve a puzzle or navigate some traps that lead to the next “arena” where it begins anew.
One of the best parts about the way Sands of Time plays is that is uses all of the trademark elements of the original game and seamlessly brings them into the world of 3D. The fluid sword fighting and combat is only a portion of the gameplay. There is a world full of fiendishly clever traps and devices that the Prince must avoid. These include swinging spiked logs, jaws of death, moving saw blades, spinning spiked poles, spike-filled pits, and rotating scimitar blades. In some twisted irony, you are often forced to “activate” the very traps that want to slice you to ribbons just to open a door, usually on a strict timer, and then quickly navigate these sequences of traps like a lethal obstacle course.
The final gameplay element of Sands of Time are the puzzles, and while none of these will overload your brain, they are quite challenging. The first puzzle requires you to raise, lower, and rotate a circular platform to pickup and insert rods into four slots at the top level. It requires a bit of thinking but there is a diagram that allows you to figure it all out before you ever start. Other puzzles include a couple of light reflecting areas where you must position mirrors to create a path of light to a designated source. The best part about these puzzles is that they are totally interactive and require you to move around and work with the environment to solve them.
During your adventure you will meet and eventually team up with the Princess. She has her own agenda regarding the dagger but for much of the game she will work with the Prince to get through the levels. She is able to slip through cracks (a feat that is the source for ongoing banter) and reach areas the Prince cannot, and in some levels you work with her to push and pull a sequence of switches. You never get to actually control the Princess, but her scripted actions make her a major part of the game. She can even hold her own in light combat, but later in the game protecting the Princess will become a serious and challenging priority.
Naturally, health is an important issue, but rather than scattering healing potions around the levels you only need to drink from any water source – even bathwater from the bathhouse will heal you. For those of you who like to uncover every last secret there are plenty of cracked walls and alternate paths that lead to a mystical realm where you can drink from a magic fountain that heals you and also increases your life bar. Only the most diehard explorer will discover the one secret wall in the entire game that leads to the unlockable Prince of Persia 2 game.
I would be remiss if I didn’t cover the ingenious save system. There are magical columns of light scattered all over the levels that allow you to save your game. These points are numerous and strategically placed after major battles or lengthy jumping puzzles, so you will never have to replay a significant portion of the game. The game also auto-checkpoints at key locations, so if you do die you often get to start even later than your last save, but these “soft-saves” aren’t recorded if you quit the game.
The most interesting aspect of the save system is the Visions you will receive when you enter the column of light. If you pay attention to these black and white montages you will be able to glimpse actual clues and tactics for upcoming portions of the next level. While knowledge of the future isn’t necessary to complete the game it is certainly a nice feature, and you can even repeat the visions.
Combining elements and technology from Splinter Cell, Sands of Time is without a doubt one of the most visually impressive titles ever released on any system. The levels are huge in all three dimensions. Some levels will have you climbing for what seems like hours and as the ground slowly disappears below your trepidation for each new jump become greater and greater.
The environments are brought to life with scripted events and some of the most evil and deadly traps ever integrated into a game. Each new passage leads to a new room or area and a new breathtaking vista and adventure. You explore the depths of the palace, the exterior courtyards, a zoo, a bathhouse, a barracks, a cavernous subterranean level with cascading falls, and much more. The levels all flow together naturally and work within the context of the story. Nothing seems out of place or forced, which is unheard of these days.
Subtle visual effects add ultra-realism to this fantasy world. There are wonderful lighting effects that create deep shadows and brilliant ray casting through windows. Fabric flows and wraps around the Prince as he moves through curtains. Ledges crack and crumble and poles bend and warp as the Prince swings and vaults from one to the next and dust trickles from the straining joints. Some effects leap off the screen like the amazing blurring effects when time shifting or the bright orange glows from the enemies as they disintegrate much like the vampires in Buffy and Blade. The water effects are also very well done including ripple reflections on the walls.
Character models and animation are stunning. The actual models aren’t terribly sophisticated but the artists have made up for the lack of polygons with incredible textures and clothing that drape off the figures and looks totally realistic. When these characters start to move it is with a degree of sophistication unlike anything ever seen before. The Prince leans when he turns and he skids to a stop. He must build momentum, either going from a walk to a run or when swinging around poles. His jumps and back flips and flawless and his wall-launched diving tackles look like they were mo-capped. Physics and weight have a definite presence in this game.
The camera is just as perfect as the rest of the game. During my entire adventure there was only one short combat segment on a rising elevator where my view was momentary blocked by a hanging curtain. Some areas and puzzles encouraged the use of the first-person view mode. In this view you are unable to move. The other camera is the Landscape View and this pulls the camera out to a predetermined location that gives you a wide angle of the area. You are free to move about in this view and it is especially useful in some of the puzzle-solving areas where you have to configure light beams or line up a tricky jump.
Sands of Time runs in 480p Progressive Scan mode but sadly lacks any widescreen support. The game also manages to maintain an almost flawless 30fps except for a few combat segments that included multiple enemies in complex portions of a level with sophisticated lighting effects. Even so, when you are attacking three monsters and once and back flipping across the room to suck the sandy soul from a demonic creature you won’t have time to notice.
If a game ever deserved its own soundtrack this is the one. I could listen to the enchanting music from Sands of Time until the end of time. Everything has a distinct Middle Eastern flavor that smacks of Arabian Nights, even when the music kicks into a more contemporary techno riff during combat. It’s really exciting stuff and adds greatly to the overall experience.
The voice acting is not only very professional but charming, witty, and just a pleasure to listen to. There is a lot of self-narration by the Prince that includes him talking to himself for the benefit of the gamer. Once he meets and starts to fall in love with the Princess there is a lot of humorous banter between the two and plenty of introspective musings when they are apart. Listening to the Prince trying to rationalize his feelings while running and jumping through deadly dungeons is a totally unique experience.
Sound effects are as diverse and fanciful as the gameplay and visuals. Everything from the groans of the monsters to the clash of swords or the subtle crumbling of stone ledges is crystal clear and flawlessly positioned in 3D space in an incredible Dolby Digital surround mix. There is a realistic warping of sound when time shifting so all environmental noises, music, and sound effects speed up and slow down appropriately.
Sands of Time is available on all consoles (even the GBA) and the PC, and to enhance the game and give each system’s owner their own bragging rights, each version has something unique added to it with the exception of the PC. I’ll cover and compare all these features in our Versus review, but the Xbox does offer the biggest bang with the inclusion of both the original Prince of Persia and Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame as unlockable bonuses along with limited Xbox Live support.
If you have Xbox Live the game will let everyone on your Friends List know you are playing and available to be contacted to play something else. There is no online multiplayer, so don’t get excited. As for the two bonus retro games, while they are certainly commendable additions they are admittedly primitive by today’s standards and probably won’t appeal to most modern gamers. They also don’t play that well with the game controller, so even if you are intrigued enough to try one or both you will likely get frustrated before you finish.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a substantial game and clocks in at 15-20 hours of quality gameplay. Even though the in-game timer said it took me 12:42 for my first trip I know I spent nearly 20 hours. On subsequent replays on the other consoles and the PC I was able to shave this time down to a record 8:24 on the PC, but that was my fourth time through the game and I knew it really well.
Regardless of which system you own this is a game that should be in everyone’s gaming library. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a landmark achievement in game design starting with the addictively fun core gameplay, instinctive controls, then rounding out the package with gorgeous visuals, stunning special effects, and professional sound work.
Sands of Time is aptly named since this title is going to go down in history as one of gaming’s crowning achievements. Much like the original game is still held in high regard, expect to be hearing this title mentioned 15 years from now, as Prince of Persia is the new reigning king and the new benchmark whereby all other games will be measured.