Saturday, December 17, 2005

Happiness is a warm manatee

...Adica iar scriu despre jocuri, in caz ca nu sunteti familiari cu conceptul de mai sus. Aberez ? Posibil, dar nici pe departe atat de mult ca Printul Persiei, in cea de-a treia aparitie pe monitoarele noastre (folosesc pluralul seniorial, da, si pentru monitor), caci despre asta este de fapt vorba - Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones.

What quickly becomes obvious as you start playing the game is PoP theorem no. ?: The Lack Of A Sword Is Bad For The Main Character. In more ways than one, apparently. It extends to the world around him, too. What am I talking about ? Well, as the prince himself puts it, "why is it that every time disaster strikes I find myself without a proper blade ?", moments before picking some random knife from a table and deciding that it's the best choice for a main weapon. He might have a point, too, as every other sword, mace or axe seems to shatter in one or two hits - funny how the ancient Babylonians produced such flimsy weaponry. Soon after, the knife will be replaced by the Dagger of Time and that pretty much seals it - no more weapon upgrades for you. Sniff. It's not like it was one of the most exciting thing in the previous games, anyway. Oh wait, it was. Damn.
Having a dagger as a primary weapon changes the game quite a bit. The first thing you'll be introduced to is the speed kill. Which is not really speedy, but cool nonetheless. It involves "stealthily" (the stealth part is entirely automatic as long as you're behind an enemy. Why did they even keep the slow walk key ? it has NO USE WHATSOEVER) aproaching a foe and then watching the prince perform some really cool moves while slicing and dicing the helpless opponent, as long as you hit your fire button at the appropriate times of course (when the dagger flashes blue). Speed kills are cool and sometimes useful, and when you'll get two opponents at the same time with a double speed-kill you'll feel really good. Speed kills also have a special use in some situations, but we'll get to that later.
Unfortunatelly, although they are a good addition to the game, speed kills take the focus away from what was probably the best part of the previous game, Warrior Within - regular combat. Although the fighting system is pretty much unchanged, you never really need more than a few basic maneuvers, as the opponents are few and easily dispatchable. An interesting thing to notice is that since your main weapon is weak, you won't inflict much damage unless you hold something in your left hand. Another (somewhat) notable change is the absence of the strangling maneuver which previously spelled victory in almost any one-on-one fight, although combat is typically so simple that it hardly ever matters.
An exception from this comes only when the Dark Prince is around. Yes, it's time to be introduced to the Dark Side of the Prince. He only appears when the prince is extremely angry and has evil thoughts;put another way, at scripted moments that more often than not seem totally random. He is cool, BUT he has a big problem. A drinking one. You see, his health drops continuously, which is nothing we haven't seen before. But this time, you can die because of it. I was so shocked when it first happened that my mouth dropped for a full minute ! Fortunatelly, collecting sands of time fully restores your health. Even so, some of the Dark Prince moments turn into desperate rushes to the body of water that will turn you back to normal, which is a real annoyance. It's a shame, because the Dark Prince is really fun to play with, and is strictly better than the regular version when it comes to acrobatics (he has some extra moves). Oh, and if you are still wondering about the combat, it's like this: combat with the Dark Prince means being assaulted by huge waves of monsters that will take all your skill and expertise to defeat. Or would, if the Dark One wasn't so completely overpowered. Basically, all you have to do is input you favourite move over and over and watch the prince cut through them with blazing speed - and with the sands restoring your health, there's not much of a chance to actually die in combat, unless you fall off a ledge by mistake.
Other elements that are missing, combat-wise, are wall-run slashes and ledge fights. While the former were too difficult to time right and I'm glad they are gone, the latter were fun and are sorely missed (okay, it was just "jump, then slash", but it was still fun).

Okay, that's enought about the fights, let's move on to the arcade part. There are quite a few new moves in The Two Thrones, and they get most of the attention. Some of them involve using the dagger by sticking it into the new dagger-friendly environment items. The prince can also slide up and down (ok, he doesn't really "slide" when going up) between two parallel walls if they are close enough (a remarcably high occurence in the city of Babylon). You can finally climb on top of the swinging poles (it was really bugging me how you couldn't do that before). And the most ridiculous move of them all, that defies all the laws of physics and then some more, the diagonal jump off a "shutter" (no, really. I know we're talking about a world where wall-running is perfectly normal. This is worse). All the past moves are present too, although some are under-represented (changing what side of a ladder you're on, for example, appears only once - in the beginning, with a tutorial message teaching you how to do it :) ). And the Dark Prince's moves add a nice twist to it, although they are only around for short periods of time.
Trap-wise, there's three new traps - a huge jagged cutting half-wheel that pops from the ground, some new spikey half-cylinder that rotates in and out of walls or floors, and arrow shooters mounted in the walls. Of the older traps, the horizontal slashers only appear once or twice, just like the ground spikes (there's a fair share of spikey poles, sliding wheels and crushers, though). The trapped corridors that lead to life upgrades are still there, but they are shorter and easier than before.
But the totally new, all-arcade addition to the game is probably the one thing this series really didn't ever need - the chariot "racing" (it's not actually racing, it's more like trying to survive while wondering how to get off that machine of death). I wonder if the producers realised how high the difficulty level of that part of the game actually is - and I've run the game twice now. Since there are no brakes, and the horses will merrily run straight into a wall if you give them the chance, it's really easy to crash, and rewinding time sometimes doesn't help at all as you lose the moment and there's a high chance to crash again immediately. I seriously wish there was a way to skip the whole thing, as I play games to have FUN, not get annoyed (as a sidenote, "annoying" is the worst thing I could ever call a game; it's like, below 0), and the chariot part sure didn't help. You'll find yourself breathing with relief when these moments finally end (fortunatelly there's only two of them).

Speaking of high difficulty, we get to what's (arguably) the best part of the game, the boss fights. Boss fights in T2T involve more than just slashing at your enemy, usually requiring a mixture of acrobatics, regular combat and speed kills (sometimes all three of them). The bosses are usually very tough and you might have a hard time figuring out how to defeat them, but once you're past that point they're not that difficult anymore. However, the final battle is quite hard even if you know what to do, although it didn't seem as hard as the Dahaka fight from WW. And unfortunatelly, sometimes you don't get enough hints - a few more would have been useful, especially on the "easy" setting (I had a really hard time with one of the lass boss fights because you get the hint AFTER doing what you're supposed to do (!). It took a lot of tries to figure it out, so if you ever get there, ATTACK THE ONE WITH THE SWORD !). Nevertheless, the boss battles are mini-puzzles in themselves, they make you think and are very much fun once you figure them out, so they are definetly my favourite part of the game.

The sand powers are still around, and somewhat unchanged. There's the rewind, the slow motion, some power that I never used and another power that I never used. Not much a difference from before (there were some unusable powers in WW as well), but the Ravages of Time power is gone, and that one really came in handy at times.

Kaileena dies, Farah's back (and they both look different). Good or bad ? Maybe we should take a vote ;)

Okay, so now that I'm done with the good/neutral stuff, let's get down to business - and watch out, I'm not going easy on this game. If you didn't get it already (or if I didn't complain to you in person yet :D), I didn't like T2T much - not after Warrior Within anyway. I must admit that I had my doubts after reading some preview stuff (specifically the parts where they said what they are going to change), so it didn't really come as a shock, but still... it doesn't feel good. So in spirit of my usual "list" posts, here it goes:


(in no specific order; I intended to have them ordered, but can't really make up my mind about some of them)

1) The chariot races. 'Nuff said.
2) No more Dahaka - ok, this is more about me complaining than anything else. Of course there could be no Dahaka in T2T. But... really... it was the coolest opponent in recent memory... remember it ? The music... tentacles... black and white screen... the chase... Ahh, I miss my Dahaka. Sniff.
3) Speaking of which, the "bad guy" is totally horrible. Who in the world designed that thing ??? The original vizier from PoP: The Sands of Time was way better, and that one was totally lame as far as bosses go. (To be fair, the other bosses are somewhat better; at the very least, they have more personality than the random griffin that attacked you in WW)
4) One of the (many) things that hurt the feeling of the game is the simplistic death animations. Although the prince's killing moves remain the same, the opponents can no longer be decapitated, cut in half or sliced up the middle. They simply fall down and die. It totally sucks.
5) Speaking of which, there are also a numer of glitches related to animations, the most notable being that the "turning into the Dark Prince" animation seems severely out of context after some of the preceeding interludes (like when the prince looks down from a balcony, but then he is shown arriving from the hall he just came through and transforming)
6) The other main feeling-hoser is the change in music. Apparently some people (players, I mean) didn't like much the heavy metal used in WW (to be honest, why people would complain about heavy metal in video games is beyond me), so for the third part of the series the producers changed it to something... else. The results are incredibly bad. The fight music was... well... was there actually fight music in this game ? Really ? Hmm, must've been so uninteresting that I totally ignored it. Actually, I can only think of one track that I liked, which boosts the music score of this game (if I'd have to give one) to ZERO. The Stuart Chatwood tracks from SoT were MUCH better.
7) After the music, comes the graphics. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GRAPHICS ? SoT was quite impressive when it first came out. WW was stunning, and still is. It really makes you wonder how they managed to use the same engine to make a game that looks worse than its prequel. Some of the effects, especially the fire, look EXTREMELY bad.
8) Okay. I swear this is the last time I'm getting disapointed over a game's length. Yup, our darkest fear came true: T2T is SHORT. It's about as long as SoT, actually. I suppose that can't really be helped, since the game is totally linear, unlike in WW, where you went through it, then back again, then once more, and when you thought it was over you had to do it again as the Sand Wraith (was the wraith cool or what ? Much better in appearance than the Dark Prince IMO). But, you know... I can't shake this old habit of hoping... what can I say ? Sigh.
9) If you want to be spared some pain, set the speech volume to zero so you can't hear the characters speaking. The voice acting is totally horrible; I can only hope that the French version is (5x) better. What's worse, I know that the quality of the dialogues left to be desired ever since the first PoP game, but the lines of the previous games look like masterpieces when compared to some(most ?) of those of T2T. The prince also got a wacky inner voice that is apparently the Dark Prince, although it's still there when the prince turns into his dark form; I never knew whether to laugh or cry whenever I heard it. The only good part is the dead Kaileena (well, she IS the Empress of Time 'n all...) acting as the narrator, although more often than not what she does is justify the changes in the prince's behaviour. Which brings us to...
10) Probably the most important, at least as far as I'm concerned: the prince is not cool anymore. Yeah I know that he evolved and changed and whatnot, but he is still a total badass when it comes to fighting, and the whole doubting-my-choices-in-life thing just doesn't seem appropriate. For me, the "true" Prince will always be the one in the Warrior Within intro movie, the one that drew his blades to face the Dahaka.

Phew, I'm done. By all means, don't be put off by my ranting - the game is definetly worth playing and has some great moments. While it could've been better, it's a good enough ending to the series. And apparently a lot of people seem to like it, although I do expect my audience to be a bit more discerning ;). Besides, we'll always have Warrior Within and its Dahaka. So have fun playing your favourite PoP games !

-Chiller, riding a pretty cold manatee