Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC - Xbox 360 version reviewed
Few gaming series can boast about even one title that helps redefine a genre. Fewer still can lay claim to two. With the latest installment, Prince of Persia comes pretty damn close to doing it for a third time. Some might not like the new direction while others will pick holes in the execution, but you can't say that this is a series that lacks ambition.
The original Prince of Persia took the 2D platform game, added realistic and (for the time) cinematic animation, and developed the sort of tricks, traps and puzzles that games like Tomb Raider would later rely on. Then, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time made the formula work in 3D, with a beautifully realistic control system and a superbly implemented time control feature that, in a flash, made Tomb Raider and its clones seem fiddly, dated and frustrating. The new Prince of Persia takes this to a whole new level. In a way, this does for the platform-action game what Fable II did for the action RPG. It's a game that bends over backwards to accommodate and entertain even the most casual gamers, yet doesn't do so at the expense of those of us who'd consider ourselves enthusiasts. And while it's doing all this, it delivers one of the most magical game experiences you'll have had all year.
Rebooting the franchise from scratch, as Ubisoft has done, turns out to have been a smart move. Throwing out the old Prince, the old visual style and much of the old control system has given Ubisoft the freedom to re-imagine everything and create a game where every element works like a cog in a beautifully engineered piece of clockwork.
The cel-shaded visuals are hardly revolutionary, but the combination of huge draw distances, sumptuous lighting, incredible architecture and fantastic character detail makes for arguably their strongest implementation yet; imagine Disney's Aladdin reworked by WETA and Studio Ghibli and you might get some idea. In stills it can look slightly odd or artificial. In full, fluid motion it's absolutely gorgeous.
The hero's animation is beautifully smooth, but then you could say the same thing about the control system. Where the controls in the Sands of Time trilogy grew increasingly complex, here all the wall-running, jumping and clambering is stripped back to simple presses of the A, B and right trigger with the emphasis more on timing than precision fingerwork. At first, more experienced gamers might actually find this counter-intuitive - I kept on pressing more buttons than I needed to in the first hour of play, and so kept falling to my doom. After a while, however, you settle into the game's rhythm, and when you do it's totally exhilarating. Prince of Persia doesn't quite match the extreme adrenaline rush of the best sequences from Mirror's Edge, but the actual flow of action from platform to pole to wall to slide to platform is much less stop/start. This is a game that just feels right.