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Looking Back: Prince of Persia and Dead Space

Posted by deckard47 on October 5, 2009

[What it doesn’t say is this: in which I froth at the mouth with rage, instigated by the secret, not-quite-official as of yet delay of Alpha Protocol. For those of us (let’s be nice and call us misguided fools) who pre-ordered the game (on Steam, no less!), that’s a slap in the face. I’m fine with companies bumping back release dates. Just don’t do it when your game is less than a month out. That’s a shitty move.]

As a salve for these recent wounds, I’ve been playing my two favorite games of last year, Prince of Persia and Dead Space. I’ve written about both in great detail before, and it’s obvious I really like them both. It’s interesting to play them both again simultaneously (as I did not, last Winter), and ruminate (because I don’t reflect, or think, or anything like that. I ruminate, for reals) on how I feel about both, the second time round.

Obviously, they both look better. Despite PoP and ATI trying to screw me over by not letting me watch cutscenes (and not showing me the menus!), they’re both working perfectly now, and they both look great. Yes, on a nice big screen that is sitting right in front of me, the seems and imperfections stand out a bit more. But it’s a welcome price to pay for tighter controls (much more important in Dead Space, fast loads, and amazing visuals.

The surprise comes in the form of how I feel about the two. I blasted through Prince of Persia in as few hours as possible (allowing for my clinically diagnosed need to collect almost all of the light seeds), and I loved every bit of it (even the so-so add-on content). I started out absolutely enthralled by Dead Space, but annoying enemies that couldn’t be killed and really obvious, bad design eventually slowed my progress to a crawl.

Playing the two again, both games reveal themselves for what they truly are. As before, Dead Space‘s opening and first 4-5 hours are absolutely amazing. Even the invincible boss guy is easily handled with mouse and keyboard. The zero-G fight with the tentacle boss in hydroponics is still a whole lot of fun. The problem is, the way the game forced you to do things is way too obvious. It’s frustratingly obvious. I hate it when I walk into an area I’ve already explored, and a dumb guy stands on the other side of special impenetrable glass and tells me all about how humans need to “evolve” past merely “surviving,” how we are merely one step on a journey toward true perfection (read: super-powered invincible asshole monsters). It’s annoying, because to make us listen to this badly written asshole talk, they lock all of the doors. In retaliation, I turn off the sound and walking around making funny noises in my big boots.

Then, he stops talking at me, and they let me out of the room into the med-bay. There, before I can escape, the bad guy “locks me in” and the invincible guy shows up with a bunch of normal enemies. I’m fine with monster closets that pretend to be rooms. I’m fine with the whole “kill the guys until the quarantine is lifted” thing. What I’m not fine with is the fact that after I waste tons of health and ammo on an annoying enemy who can’t die, my worthless teammate informs me that “she’s finally disabled the lock on the doors!” Great. Thanks. Luckily for me, I can am forced to return through this area 5 minutes later, and I get to evade the invinco-asshole again.

This isn’t good game design. Please tell me people don’t think this is “fun.” Is it designed to be hideously, ludically in line with the plot and tone (the game is about running and fighting and hiding, so we make you fight a guy who is so tough you always have to run in fear from him, except when you uselessly have to fight him?)? If it is, it pisses me the hell off. It makes a fun game grueling and boring, yet terribly difficult. It is in no way good, fun, or compelling. It comes off as lazy and casually dismissive.

Yet I still love it. Those damn zero-G fights, upgradeable guns and armor, and excellent battles. Maybe I’ll get it out of my system this time. Oh, and the next time I’m locked in a room for no reason but to piss me off by locking me in a room… I will write about it on my blog. Beware.

So. Prince of Persia. Playthrough #2. What do we think?

The Prince and Elika are still well written.

On a side note, even the ending, which is kind of a dick move on the Prince’s part, is well-written, until he [Game end/Epilogue Spoiler… Kinda] starts telling Elika he totally didn’t mean to unleash the end of the world, and is surprised she’s a bit ticked off at him [End Spoiler]. By the way, if you haven’t beaten it yet, please. Stop reading. Go play it now. Seriously.

Anyway, they’re well written. Going from Dead Space to this is kind of depressing. I mean, in Dead Space I have to listen to Scientists With Heavy Accents lecture me on humanity’s temporary, flawed existence, and laud the benefits of Totally Evil Mutants. 20 years too late, and badly done.

In Prince of Persia, the Prince and Elika debate whether or not storytelling and imagination are good for people (come on, that gets it a gold star, right there), whether or not it is important to trust people, and whether or not it is important to believe in something besides yourself. And (sorry, y’all) it’s done in a relatively intelligent, mature way (aside from those priestess jokes), unlike certain huge, bloated franchises obsessed with their own self-importance. They even have a well-written exchange where they play I-Spy! They have sexual tension/dialogue that isn’t a) horridly prurient, b)too badly written, or c)too sexist. It’s like they’re actual people!

The acrobatics are still fun, easy, and full of momentum. That’s the best way I can think of to put it. Sands of Time had absolutely no momentum. When you messed up, you’d rewind time, or reload. Here, Elika saves you, and you flow back into the puzzle. Here, every jump, wall-run, and slide is chained together. It’s almost like a just-barely-choreographed enough skateboarding game. It’s more about getting into the flow of the platforming (especially in the later, more lengthy platforming sequences) than it is about timing tricky jumps and sudden environmental obstacles (which, lest we forget, are incredibly damn annoying).

The combat is still concerned with combining 4 basic attacks, using a counter/attack mechanic as the base combat system. Enemy resistances and tactics change the combat up (you need to use the gauntlet, you need to use Elika’s magic, etc.), but mostly it’s the same thing. And it’s fun! It really is. It’s not too hard, it furthers your reliance/trust/friendship with Elika, and it looks amazing.

Which reminds me. Every single part of this game is designed, to some extent, to make you rely on and care for Elika. Alyx is the next best at eliciting this kind of response, but she’s not nearly as interesting from a story/gameplay perspective. Elika is the fulcrum around which the entire plot revolves, secretly and overtly, and she is also the person who makes all of you actions, all of your victories, possible. Without her there would be no plot, no game, and you would die, over and over. I can’t stress how important this is (I think, although I guess I can’t prove) to the essence of this game. It is about successfully carrying out beautiful acrobatic acts, exploring beautiful landscapes, and coming to rely on, care for, and understand a person. Without Elika the game would be another silly game about a dude Prince bent (for no particular reason) on saving a land by killing lots of things in it.

Elika is (and I think this is one of the great, secret ironies of last year’s video games) the person with whom we identify. She’s not a bald, gruff asshole, she isn’t a blank slate like Michael Thornton, and she isn’t a brash frat boy like our dear Prince. She is mature, smart, and burdened with terrible knowledge and responsibility. The Prince may enable her actions, thoughts, and decisions to a very minor degree, but he is mostly there as sounding board for her character’s narrative development. As many detractors have pointed out, the Prince does nothing that Elika couldn’t do. This of course brings up an obvious point: this could have been the Princess of Persia (if you ignore the terribly important brand recognition), and it would have been just as good. I think I’ve written much of this before, but it bares restating: Elika is one of the best written, acted, and realized characters I have ever seen in a game, regardless of how people deride the game and her presence in it, or the way in which her terrible decision is invalidated by our hulking Prince. She also does more to make gamers connect with a fictional character than most other characters I’ve experienced in a game.

Playing this game again, I’m stunned by the mild (because that is what it was, 80% and all) reaction that met the game upon its release. I’m amazed that a game as coldly, tonelessly acted and implemented (and written!) as Fallout 3 was neck-and-neck with Grand Theft Auto IV (choice words for GTA IV: racist, sexist, and homophobic in an attempt to be “satirical,” while hilariously missing out on the definition of “satire.” Go read some Austin, or talk to a high schooler. Oh, and crappy cover system and aiming, no matter what people said) for Game of the Year Awards last year. It’s depressing. So I’m calling it now: Prince of Persia 08, game of the year in ’09. Why? because even though I’ll love Dragon Age, tolerate/enjoy Modern Warfare 2, and play amazing co-op rounds of Borderlands, this game deserves better than everyone gave it (even my beloved RPS guys weren’t fans).

I need to take a break. Maybe play some Prince of Persia?

[PS: the first line originally read “in which I froth at the moth.” That’s brilliant. A name for my new band, maybe?]

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