Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cheap Thrills: Prince of Persia - The Sands of Time (2003)

After playing through the 2010 Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands recently, it only seemed proper to go back to an earlier entry in the series and play 2003's Prince of Persia - The Sands of Time on the PC.  Series creator Jordan Mechner was still involved at this time, contributing writing and story material to this Ubisoft title, and the agile-hero-and-spunky-heroine formula that continues to inform the series (and the 2010 movie) is in full bloom here.  I'm calling this one a cheap thrill because it's inexpensive these days -- at Amazon, or on Steam, or in its used console incarnations, it should be available for under $10.

I'm not going to spend much time discussing the gameplay -- suffice it to say that this one's a modern classic, doing a fine job of bringing the acrobatics and atmosphere of the original Prince of Persia into 3-D (after an earlier attempt with acceptable but mixed results.)  The plot is simply laid out -- an evil Vizier wants to control the sands of time for nefarious purposes, and our Prince must stop him with the help of a smart, mysterious and attractive princess.  (The Prince, like Nintendo's Link from the Legend of Zelda games, isn't necessarily the same person in each of the games -- they are tied together by style and environment, something fairly unique to video gaming as an art form.)  The climactic battle is not as difficult as some of the extended fights along the way -- most of the challenge involves getting to the final showdown, especially as the Prince (SPOILERS!)  is robbed of his time-rewinding dagger for the final leg of the game, heightening the stakes associated with each tricky jump.

What I want to talk about is the presentation of this game, from the perspective of someone playing it for the first time almost 8 years after its debut.  I tend to think of the 3-D era as having arrived with the Playstation in 1995, but comparing these later games, it's pretty clear that 3-D is still maturing as time goes on.  The technology changes aren't as obvious as they were in the 2-D era, when pixels were shrinking into ever-finer detail and color depth was improving with each hardware generation.  But there's a clear difference between the rough-hewn polygons and low-resolution textures of, say, the original Tomb Raider and Sands of Time -- its environment models are simply built but cleanly rendered and textured, and the Prince is fluidly animated and constructed intelligently, avoiding Lara Croft's retro boxiness.

The game still looks really nice today, running in higher resolution on modern PC's than would generally have been the case in 2003 -- this is clearly revealed by the Prince's pre-rendered "visions," shown as previews of the dangers ahead at save points.  The actual running game looks clean and sharp, while these bits of canned footage now look blocky and smeary and dull; it's a testament to the character and model designers that the game looks better at 1024x768 (the maximum supported resolution) than it did at 640x480 back in the day.

There's still a gap between the 2003 and 2010 Prince of Persia games, of course -- the newer title makes better use of shadows and lighting, dust and water, bump-mapping and comprehensive texturing, and the Prince's muscles and facial expressions are much more detailed.  The enemy sand soldiers are much more detailed and there are large monsters and environments, well beyond the capabilities of the 2003 engine and the hardware it was designed to run on. 

But there's a cleanliness to the vintage Sands of Time that makes a virtue of its relative spareness -- the levels are cleanly designed, with resource-intensive graphical effects applied only where they really count.  The Prince's outfit is simple and largely untextured, allowing for more polygons and a cleaner look that, again, has survived eight years of technology improvement quite nicely.

And yes, the game plays quite nicely too.  I spent a good 21 hours on it from beginning to end, over a month's time, and enjoyed every minute of it.  It's not a difficult game, but it's not easy either -- the learning curve derives its challenge from variety, not sheer rock-wall toughness, an approach conducive to the "one more try" school of video gaming, and one that appeals to my aging 43-year-old reflexes.  I only spent 15 hours on the more forgiving 2010 sequel, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, and I would chalk most of the time difference up to retries following the Prince's untimely death at my hands.  I should also note that the XBox 360 controller for Windows was a better tool than my old Logitech gamepad -- tricky sequential wall jumps proved much easier to pull off after I switched controllers about 33% of the way into the game.

Good stuff, this one, from an enduring series.

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