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Prince of Persia Producer Talks Reboot's Non-linear Gameplay, Illustrative Art Style

by Aaron Linde, May 28, 2008 11:00am PDT

It's a whole new world for the Prince, and a whole new prince. The debut of Ubisoft's stylized Prince of Persia reboot undoubtedly led many to recall the introduction of Nintendo's cel-shaded Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, after which a smiling Shigeru Miyamoto was the target of a previously unseen brand of gamer vitriol for altering the direction of the hallowed adventure series with its cartoon-like graphics.

But in an era populated by games sporting the "next-gen color palette" of grays and browns, this new, colorful Prince might seem a breath of fresh air for many exhausted by console offerings in recent years. But as Prince of Persia producer Ben Mattes explained at Ubisoft's UbiDays event, the new of the new Prince of Persia goes far beyond a new look.

"Two and a half years ago, we knew we were using the Anvil technology [from Assassin's Creed]," Mattes said. "We knew that it was suited for large, open worlds with pretty animations and so on. We knew we wanted to keep the brand pillars, like the running and jumping and flipping and fighting."

"That's basically it. With everything else, we wanted to allow ourselves the freedom of doing new stuff. We didn't want to have the shackles of the previous Prince from the previous story of the previous Sands of Time gameplay mechanic, which we felt was beginning to get a little repetitive."

Mattes went on to explain that unlike previous Prince titles which the producer described as "games on a rail"the new game would embrace the best of both linear and non-linear gameplay, adopting the guided and choreographed experiences in key areas while allowing the player the freedoms of exploration in the title's massive world.

Speaking on the game's art style, Mattes noted that the new Prince represents a break from the more reality-focused art direction, now handily managed by Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series.

"We wanted it to feel like a playable illustration," Mattes stated. "We want it to feel like the concept art has been directly brought to life in an interactive way in this game so you have that sensation almost as if you were playing an illustration."

"Prince of Persia has always been in the realm of fantasy, and for a variety of reasons--not the least of which is that Assassin's Creed did realistic action-adventure really well--we said 'that's fine, let them take realistic, we're really going to embrace the fact that we have this fantasy universe' in terms of environments."

But unlike Nintendo's Wind Waker and several other games in years past which have embraced the toon-like cel-shading style, Mattes affirmed that Prince of Persia's art style is anything but, black lines be damned.

"Our world is very, very detailed, every bit as detailed as Assassin's Creed. If we were to turn off all of the graphics options and post-effects and the filters that allow us to have this illustrative feel, the world would be every bit as detailed as Assassin's Creed in terms of textures, models, and so on."

Combat in the new Prince of Persia ditches the notion of battling angry mobs of five-plus enemies at once in favor of a more personal, more intense and duel-focused orientation of action. In this way, every encounter is a challenge, rather than simply another block in the road to the next big boss fight.

Mattes said that the design for the revamped combat system took inspiration from many duel-oriented sources such as the film The Princess Bride, Namco's Soul Calibur, and even Square Enix's fan service CG film romp Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children.

"Advent Children was a really good example because it was these very dramatic fights with very dramatic camera angles, freezing and popping and almost Matrix-cam kind of stuff. We wanted all that drama in a fully interactive combat system--this isn't a system powered by quick-time events."

Another retooling in a long list of revamps for the new Prince of Persia comes in the form of Elika, a companion who joins the Prince early in his adventure. Mattes emphasized that she was 100% controlled by the AI in most circumstances, just to make sure that she's in the right place at the right time--beyond that, Elika is most certainly a support character, ready and able to be called in to assist the player at a moment's notice.

In the heat of a battle, the player can bring Elika into the fight with the press of a button to use her magic skills to throw the enemy off guard, allowing the Prince a more devastating range of attacks to take the foe down. Once it's over, she simply gets out of the way.

"She's never going to take an initiative that's so drastic that you'll regret it," Mattes explained. "She's there to support to main player."

After a brief teaser trailer showcasing the game's stylish combat and new "illustrative" art style, I pinned Mattes down for a couple of questions -- namely, why the leap wasn't taken to bring Elika's role in the game into a fully-fledged cooperative play scheme, as many other traditionally single-player titles--such as Capcom's Resident Evil 5--have incorporated.

"Our official answer on that one is that there's no announced plans for now, but it's something we're considering and looking into. It's not the focus because Prince of Persia has always been about single player," Mattes told me. "Obviously a game like this that has that element of choreography that really emphasizes every step, every move -- nailing that in terms of co-op would be a significant challenge. It's in our horizon, it's in the realm of possibility that we're investigating, but there's nothing formally announced yet."

When asked about the possibility of downloadable content afforded by the game's open world and non-linear level structure, the producer said it was something that Ubisoft was looking into, but no official plans have yet been made. Mattes also assured me that the game's duel-centric combat focus would be accompanied by a diverse line-up of enemies.

"We took the approach of 'better, not more' across our game in general," he remarked. "One area where that comes to play is how combat works, so obviously the fact that we're focusing on the battle against a single enemy is because we believe the fight against that one enemy is every bit as dramatic and rewarding as fifteen fights against cannon fodder. There certainly is enemy diversity."

Sadly, the title was not available for hands-on demonstration at the UbiDays event--Prince of Persia's playable debut is scheduled for this year's E3, with the game's release due in the following holiday season. Expect more on the revamped and rebooted Prince of Persia in the coming months.