Category Archives: Ubisoft

#71: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Platform/Adventure Released: 2003 Developer: Ubisoft

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has been on my list of  ‘games to do’ since we started this blog, but seeing as the Prince of Persia film is coming out this week, now seems like a good time to cover it. By the way, doesn’t that film look absolutely terrible from the trailers? I don’t want to judge it before I see it, but I’d raise a quizzical eyebrow if it turned out to be a cinematic classic. Call me a cynic, but I’ve a feeling it will follow in the manured footsteps of  the many, many other video-game-to-film disasters – and seeing the dread name ‘Jerry Bruckheimer’ on the credits seals the deal.

I should mention at this point that I absolutely hated the original 1989 Prince of Persia game, despite its fancy rotoscoped animation – it was without doubt one of the most unerringly difficult and unendingly frustrating games I’ve ever played. I couldn’t see the point in creating such amazingly fluid animation when most of the gameplay involved creeping along at a snail’s pace while scanning the screen for barely visible traps. Then dying in said traps and starting all over again. And again. And again.

Thankfully Ubisoft picked up on this when they developed Sands of Time – not only was the game much more fluid, the addition of an ability to rewind time meant that frustrating level restarts (almost) became a thing of the past.

The rewind ability was a fantastic touch – it’s a shame it hasn’t been used more often. Who wants to click through various ‘Game Over’ screens when they die in a game? Surely it makes much more sense just to rewind back to the point at which you know you made a mistake and carry on playing. And another bonus of the rewind system is that it encourages you to experiment a little more – there’s nothing more frustrating than attempting a jump that you reckon you’ll just about make, then plummeting to your death because you were a few pixels short of a ledge (Tomb Raider, I’m looking at you). But in Sands of Time you’re free to experiment with impunity, and the game’s all the more fun because of it.

However, Sands of Time‘s biggest draw was its fluidity – Lara Croft suddenly looked like a creaky octogenarian when the acrobatic Prince arrived on the scene. The ‘wall run’ move – running along a vertical wall to clear a chasm – is one of the most satisfying inventions in videogame history, and not only does it look impressive, it’s incredibly easy to perform. The same is true of most of the game’s moves – from running up the body of an opponent and deftly flipping over his head to scampering up ledges like a monkey on uppers – and the excellent controls give you a sense of empowerment and connection with the main character that’s sadly lacking in most games.

It’s a shame the ‘Mystical Arabia’ look was all but abandoned for the subsequent two installments, which adopted a dark aesthetic that tarnished the feel somewhat, but I liked the cel-shaded 2008 reboot, even if it didn’t quite match up to Sands of Time. But regardless of the quality of the sequels, it’s interesting to see how the controls and animation of Sands of Time went on to be so influential (the wall run has since turned up in games from Assassin’s Creed to Mirror’s Edge – click here for a complete list). I wonder whether the film will prove to be so successful…

Lewis

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Filed under 2003, Adventure, Platform, Playstation 2, Ubisoft

#63: XIII

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: First Person Shooter Released: 2003 Developer: Ubisoft

OK, let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not saying that XIII is one of the greatest games of all time – in fact, it’s not even one of the greatest first person shooters of all time – but I enjoyed playing it immensely. The reason? The utterly sublime soundtrack.

Music and sound effects aren’t often what people single out when they praise a game, but a really good soundtrack can elevate any game beyond the ordinary – one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy Perfect Dark as much as  GoldenEye was that it lacked the aural finery of its spiritual predecessor (although as GoldenEye had a licensed soundtrack, perhaps that’s not the best example of musical creativity). The basic gameplay of XIII is fairly uninspired FPS fare, but the original score really draws you into the action.

Weapon noises are helpfully spelled out for the hard of hearing.

The music is obviously inspired by classic seventies action films such as Bullitt and The French Connection (listen to ‘The Big Chase’ here to see what I mean), and it reacts dynamically to what you’re doing on screen – open a door to a roomful of baddies and suddenly the bass kicks in and the hammond organ steps up a notch as the bullets go flying. One reviewer described the soundtrack as ‘jazzaphonic electronic tripped out funkuphoria‘ (try finding that section in HMV), and he’s certainly on the right track, if perhaps the victim of the NME disease of making up random meaningless but slightly cool-sounding words.

Headshots were accompanied by the appearance of three comic frames in the top-right corner of the screen, giving a snapshot of the immediate aftermath of your actions. A nice, but gruesome, touch.

The other major plus point was the plot – not something you often hear said about first person shooters. The game is based on a French graphic novel of the same name, and it’s a little like 24 in the sense that it revolves around a conspiracy to kill the president – the major difference being that the president’s already been assassinated before the game starts, so it’s more of a race to unravel the nefarious plans of those involved. Initially it borrows heavily from The Bourne Conspiracy (the novel of which was released a couple of years before the XIII graphic novel), with your character waking up on a beach with no memory of his past but with the key to a bank vault in his pocket. You’re rescued by a blonde female lifeguard in the classic Baywatch get-up, but almost as soon as she introduces herself she’s gunned down in cold blood by your unknown pursuers. I actually found this bit surprisingly affecting – there’s no shortage of shootings in most video games, but usually the characters on the receiving end are evil assassins/criminals/robots/ninjas…  it’s not often you witness the heartless killing of an innocent whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Like in the Bourne films, any weapon is deadly in your hands. Although in this case, a gun would definitely be preferred.

Other parts of the game are less successful – some of the level design is uninspired and the bosses in particular are badly thought out. For example, why does some random military general take several minutes longer than an average grunt to keel over under gunfire? Do they get some sort of armored undersuit on promotion? Also, I seem to remember the cel-shaded graphics didn’t go down too well on the game’s release – I think a lot of people were put off by the cartoony look at a time when most ‘serious’ first person shooters were moving towards realism. I admit that the cel-shading does seem an odd decision at first – and it really dates the game to that time in the early 2000s when cel-shading was all the rage – but I think it suits the overall feel quite well once you get used to it.

"Quick, get his wallet."

Still, despite XIII‘s shortcomings, the plot was good enough to keep me hooked to the end – and even made me buy another copy of the game. Frustratingly, a scratch developed on my first copy which meant it crashed about two-thirds of the way through, and I ended up scouring eBay for a working version just so I could find out what happened in the end. In fact, I enjoyed the story so much I’ve even got the original graphic novel on order…

But in the end, whenever I think about XIII, it’s not the intricate plot that pops into my head – it’s that ‘jazzaphonic’ seventies action film soundtrack. Have a listen for yourself:

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://www.armchairempire.com/)

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Filed under 2003, First Person Shooter, Playstation 2, Ubisoft