Prince of Persia: Warrior Within

Review by Steerpike
January 2005

Joking Aside, We Actually Are Quite Close

Like me, my older brother is a writer, and a gamer. Together we're getting our father into the hobby, but I'm concerned, because so far Dad has been taking after my brother Marcus in matters of taste, and when it comes to gaming, Marcus is much more curmudgeonly than I. He didn't like Knights of the Old Republic ("too much moving around"). Or Thief ("too dark"). Or System Shock 2 ("too many monkeys"). Or Morrowind ("too much foliage collection"). Or Far Cry ("eh"). He is a joyless shell of a human, bereft of brightness and glee, churning with subsurface wrath. He has my pity.

However, his gloweringly lemonish surl, in addition to being endearing, does have one side benefit: when he recommends a game, it's a safe bet that you won't be disappointed. And so when he emailed me and said in no uncertain terms that I should pick up Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, I did so, and I was suitably impressed. Sands of Time is an amazing game. It is beautiful, hugely entertaining, and stuffed to the proverbial gills with thrilling play, snappy writing, and excellent voice work. Indeed, even on the PC with a mouse/keyboard combo—a control scheme for which it is not ideally suited—it managed to be one of the best PC games of 2003, selling nearly two million copies across all major platforms and very nearly toppling Knights of the Old Republic for the IGDA's Game of the Year award. As one can imagine, a sequel was in the cards.

However, in a maneuver of astounding dimwittedness, Ubisoft pretty much disbanded the PoPTeam studio responsible for Sands of Time and shifted the entire writing staff from the original over to work on the upcoming Prince of Persia movie. The new team totally rewrote the protagonist, recast the talented voice lead with a monotonous hack, cut a beloved supporting character entirely, and announced that, unlike the soft-edged dreaminess of its predecessor, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within would narrate like an action movie directed by Ingmar Bergman—that is, bloody and depressing. And rather than focus on the fiendish jumping puzzles that have been a Prince of Persia standby since Jordan Mechner originated the series for Broderbund in 1990, Warrior Within, while including the acrobatic conundra, would tilt the scales much more aggressively toward complex, combo-driven swordfighting.

Amazingly, these enormous foundational changes have resulted in a game that plays as well as, if not better than, The Sands of Time. It's nowhere near as original, clever, or well-written, nor is it remotely faithful to the Prince of Persia franchise; but the surprisingly elegant new combat system, rich graphics, action-packed pacing, and control improvements on the PC platform are without peer. Though Ubi made a heroic attempt to ruin it, Warrior Within manages to transcend more than a year of incompetence on the part of nearly everyone involved with its production. So despite the fact that I had serious doubts about this one, I'm no longer at all hesitant to award it our highest honor. Warrior Within is vastly different from Sands of Time, but it's still a great, great game.

The Dahaka. The What? The Dahaka. The What? The—

The Prince, as fans will recall, allowed himself to be tricked into unleashing the Sands of Time in the previous game by a Jafar-like vizier with dreams of controlling a world populated by sand-filled time zombies. Fortunately for us, though, a contrite Prince and his new girlfriend Farah managed to stuff the Sands back into the big magic hourglass where they belonged. The Prince also used his Sand-filled dagger to rewind the whole grubby affair and undo lots of damage that his actions had caused. Then he kissed Farah and went home to continue his princely activities.

Unfortunately, screwing around with time gets the attention of a huge black tentacle-horn-thing called the Dahaka, a sort of chronological library cop. It's dispatched to give the Prince some what-for, and our hero has to skip town before this new nemesis can eat him up. Thus begins the Prince's life on the lam, and by all accounts it's been a pretty unpleasant experience: every now and then the Dahaka will turn up and hurtle after him, getting a little closer every time. It would seem that only the Prince's death will bring normalcy back to the timeline.

Finally, weary of the chase, the Prince seeks advice from a smelly old man who lives in a tent, knowing that unhygienic desert hermits are full of oracular knowledge. Old Man tells him that his fate is preordained: the Dahaka will kill him, and nothing can change that. Thus the Prince conceives of a new plan. He'll travel to the source of all time, return to the past, and stop the creation of the Sands. If the Sands of Time never existed, he reasons, he won't have been able to use them to mess up the timeline, so the Dahaka will have no beef with him and will go home.

Problem is, the Dahaka's home is the Castle of Time on the Island of Time with the Empress of Time (yeah, I was serious when I said the game was written by talentless amateurs), so the Prince isn't there for much ... time before he hears familiar pounding footsteps behind him.

Being chased by a Dahaka makes you grumpy. At some point during his flight, the Prince managed to get some henna tattoos and a gothy new wardrobe. He also has blue eyes and an American accent now, like all Middle Easterners. He spouts moronic bad-dialogueisms like, "You will soon feel the edge of my blade!" Compare this to the wit of the admittedly somewhat foppish—but in a good way—Prince from Sands of Time and you'll see how brutally the new writers raped this character. Indeed, to call the writers of this game one-lobed idiots gives a bad name to one-lobed idiots; considering that Ubisoft basically terminated the extremely gifted original writing team, it says something about how much value the company places on fiction.

This says more. One of Ubi's head writers—uninvolved with Warrior Within—was recently asked if quality script writing was a fundamental part of elevating the art form of game development. His answer: "No."

You don't say.

In another move of staggering brilliance, the writers cut Farah from the story. The hilarious verbal repartee that these two bickering quasi-heroes shared ("I've never told that to anyone before," "I'm not surprised; it's the most childish thing I've ever heard") was one of the especially bright points in Sands of Time. It was pretty clear that the original writers intended both to be present in any sequels. Plus, Farah was one of the better-written female characters in gaming.

Instead, they introduced two of the most offensively drawn and poorly written new female characters ever conceived by male game developers who can't get laid. Doubt me? Check it. That costuming is pretty much accurate. Your new female nemesis Shahdee is even more shockingly uninspired than the rest of the story. In fact, I have little doubt that the small ... minded jackass responsible for Warrior Within's characters described Shahdee in one line in the design doc: "Shahdee is angry and wears a steel bikini cuz steel bikinis are sexy. And she's, like, hot, because hot chix totally dig my mad phat skillz." Kaileena, your mysterious seminude maybe-ally, another Middle Easterner with milky skin and green eyes, harbors her own share of poorly written malcontent. And of course the Empress of Time is a hot, barely clothed woman, perhaps intended as a personification of the proverbial hourglass figure (get it?). Warrior Within seriously exhibits some of the most offensively sexist portrayals of women in gaming that I've ever seen. I, a guy who is pro–hot woman, was offended. Ubi set the games biz back again by hiring Cro-Magnon retards to write the sequel to a hugely selling franchise resurrection. The player will not care at all about any of these "important" new characters.

Moreover, the Prince, a returning hero who was much-loved, is simply not a likable character in Warrior Within. He was a bit of a ponce in Sands of Time, sure, but let's remember that the man was also so genial he somehow managed to inspire Farah—who originally wanted to watch him die screaming—to fall in love with him. He also inspired players to like and identify with his character, a special challenge considering the setting of Sands of Time. Recall that it was the Prince's hubris that unleashed the Sands in the first place; that and his obsession with pleasing a father who was already quite obviously pleased with him. That would have destroyed the world had the Prince not been given the opportunity to temporally undo his own blunder. Arrogance is very difficult for an audience to forgive, and yet we did, because the Prince was likable. In Warrior Within, he is a sullen, spoiled, obnoxious, bullying caricature, and you won't give a damn if he lives or dies.

The acting, too, is godawful. The Prince sounds like he's from Wisconsin and delivers his lines with Award-of-Suck–winning blandness. Shahdee, Kaileena, even the grunt-intensive Dahaka are equally uninspired. Warrior Within pretty much screams "we were too cheap to hire good writers and actors, so we had Raoul from Accounting (the team is French-Canadian) write the script, and the guys who fill our Coke machines said the lines."

So the story is badly conceived and the characters are hideously written. Still, when it comes to a game, the gameplay is the really important factor, and Warrior Within has plenty of excellent gameplay.

It's a Reverse Swirl

I played the PC version of Warrior Within, so I can't really speak to any camera or control improvements among the assorted console versions. But my persistent gripes with Sands of Time for the PC were the clumsy perspectives and control issues that would so often cause me to fling myself into the void. While not eliminated altogether in Warrior Within, the keyboard and mouse controls are drastically improved.

The trick is that in most third-person games, the camera is locked to the character's back. That wouldn't work in PoP, where the camera needs freedom to wander, since you depend on its subjective field of view to see solutions to the diabolical jumping puzzles. However, an unlocked camera by nature introduces control issues, since the position of the camera—your perspective on the game world—is not a constant as relates to the position of your character. In a nutshell, "W" does not always mean forward.

The problem is all but fixed in Warrior Within. "W" means forward from the perspective of the camera, not the perspective of the Prince. Same with "A" and "S" and "D." Furthermore, the irritating "swoosh return" blocked-camera effect is gone from Warrior Within—the camera, controlled by the mouse, will simply not go to places where it would be blocked. While occasionally frustrating in tight spaces, it's much less vexing than the vertigo of a constantly realigning camera position.

I cannot say enough about the new and incredibly more complex combat system, for which I originally had very low hopes. I suck at Killer Instinct, and my brain is too small and stunted to remember or execute in a timely manner combos of the Up-Up-Left-Up-Left-Kick-Left-Left-Kick-Right-Up-Punch-Kick-Left-Duck-Kick-Left-Right-Left-Up-Kick-Left-Jump variety, and I feared Warrior Within would play like that: the demo certainly led me to believe it would. Yet Warrior Within allows you to carry out insanely complex fighting combos with a minimum of effort.

You could quite easily clamber over an enemy, breaking his neck as you go, snatch his dropped sword, run up the wall, flip backward, land in a blades-out helicopter twirl to lop off some heads, then somersault away from any retaliation and hurl your secondary weapon into an oncoming menace. Most importantly, you could do all that in a preplanned manner; the fighting system is so fluid and so easy to execute that you can carry out extraordinarily complex assaults against multiple targets with only a handful of well-timed clicks. It's because just a couple of buttons do a lot of stuff, depending on the context—where you are, where you're facing, what you've got, what's around, and so forth. Never will you feel so cool fighting hand to hand as when you're doing it in Warrior Within. You will need a responsive mouse with at least four comfortably placed buttons, but most gamers have that already.

Secondary weapons are a new addition, and one that I'd originally thought would add too much complexity to the fighting controls. But the elegance of the system overcomes that. Possession of a #2 weapon is quite unnecessary. Many gamers may avoid them, opting instead for the Prince's devastating strangulation and fatality maneuvers that can only be accomplished when he has a hand free. Others may snatch them up for use as long-range ordnance but not employ them much in close combat. Fighting in Warrior Within is so flat-out awesome that I wish they'd included an arena style of gameplay, with customizable environments and enemies.

Speaking as a person who hates jumping puzzles, it's odd that I love them so much in the Prince of Persia games. My grumbly brother, once a 3D animator, was originally drawn to Sands of Time because of the beautiful animations of the lead character when he executes solutions to these puzzles; the Prince has even more unique animations in this game. And though Warrior Within is much more combat-oriented and doesn't offer dilemmas even remotely as baffling as Sands of Time, they're still fun and engaging and make great use of the game engine's skeletal animation. Each animation is drawn by hand; there is no motion capture in Warrior Within. You'll run along walls, swing on ropes, slide pirate-style down curtains, and basically use everything in the environment as your own personal jungle gym. They've also integrated combat into the environment to a slightly greater degree, though puzzles and fighting are still kept largely separate.

Making a triumphant return are the Prince's powers of time control. Originally available through the auspices of his stolen dagger, apparently the Prince can now rewind and rework time just because he's so damn dark and grim and cool. He's like a chroniscient ancient Middle Eastern Trent Reznor. As usual, you need to have some Sand in your possession to make even the most basic Rewind powers work, though in Warrior Within, it's easier to get Sand—you're in the Castle of Time, after all. It seeps out of dying enemies and can be found in many pieces of crockery that inexplicably clutter the halls of the palace. Generally the time powers are modified and polished, but in truth they haven't changed much. It's amazing, though, how necessary to the franchise they have become after just two games: should the next PoP title leave out the time control, I think gamers would abandon it in droves.

They've also tweaked the save system. Warrior Within is still very much a console port, so you cannot save whenever you like. Save points are much more common, however, and you'll generally find a new one after ever major puzzle or combat sequence. You'll certainly find one before and after every Dahaka event, during which the Dahaka turns up and chases after you for a while. These instances allow approximately zero margin for error, usually involving jumping puzzles that would be quite simple if time weren't a factor. It's nice that you can start over at the beginning of the chase sequence rather than enduring a long build-up every time. All in all, save points—which are represented by healing fountains rather than sand whorls in Warrior Within—are about three times as frequent. While I generally prefer the freedom to save whenever I like, in games like PoP it just wouldn't work, and save points are common enough that it's no big deal. One thing I do miss is that saving no longer affords you a glimpse into the future. This was necessary in SoT because the puzzles were so incredibly difficult, but it was also a neat effect and I'm sorry it's gone.

Finally, it's considerably longer than its predecessor. Sands of Time was a 12-hour experience, give or take; they claim that Warrior Within is 24-plus hours, though my own experience was closer to 20. Still, it's nice that they extended the play length from the original, which was too short, though I suspect that extension was easy to accomplish since Warrior Within makes no effort to be even remotely as complex as Sands of Time.

Attach Camera Lens. Add Vaseline.

Warrior Within's visuals bring back the beautiful muzzy blur. This effect reminds me most of the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, an experience that was to me like watching a dream. But Warrior Within, though it has its share of somnescence and general fuzziness, looks more like the video game version of Roman Polanski's Repulsion. This is mostly because of the setting.

Whereas the Maharaja's palace in Sands of Time was a colorful, luxurious artifice, in Warrior Within you're visiting a place that has long since gone to seed. The vast majority of the game is spent in the Castle of Time, which looked great back in the day but looks like Fallujah in the present. Fortunately, you spend a lot of the game in the past, and it's fun to see how the moss-covered ruins transform into a lavish golden pleasure garden when you are transported to the days of yore.

Most of your jaw-dropping on the Warrior Within graphics front will be related to the animations of the Prince, who looks even more amazing in this sequel. Though reskinned with his stupid tattoos and "I'm an angry goth rich kid" clothing, he is breathtakingly fluid and lifelike. His acrobatics and combat moves are astounding. One day they'll find a way to combine the elegant fighting system and gorgeous protag animations of Warrior Within with the quality writing and terrifyingly good gameplay of Half Life 2, and we'll have the perfect action game.

Ultimately, the graphics in Warrior Within are stellar and smooth at high resolution; I played through at 1600×1200 with everything and it was buttah, and my machine is definitely getting long in the proverbial tooth. There's nothing to complain about here, and the developers did great work with a year-old graphic engine. Colors are far more muted and drab, but of course you spend most of your time in a ruined castle, so that's to be expected.

Audio, however, is kind of a mixed bag. The clanks and clinks of swordplay, the soft ripple of a curtain as wind passes through it, the whoosh of drifting sand or the spatter of running water, and the mechanical clockwork of the game's devious traps all sound excellent. Alas, then, that the voice acting is so dreadfully bad and the musical score is a totally out of place hard rock thumpfest, complete with roaring guitars and drum solos. It's as though Ministry were hired to design the soundtrack of the next Super Mario Brothers; the music and the game exist in totally different worlds.

One of the great strengths of Sands of Time is the way it is narrated, as a flashback a la Sacrifice. Though you had to finish the game to see the clever intricacy and structure of the story, the writers and artists made clear that you are playing the game inside the corridors of the Prince's memory. Time, he says, is not a river flowing swift and true in one direction; Time is a torrent in a storm. SoT made it clear that the same is true for memory, which isn't organized in a crisp linear fashion. That game was designed to look and sound and feel like ... well, not to beat a dead horse, but like you're playing a dream. They cut a lot of that from Warrior Within. Not exactly a capital offense, but jarring all the same.

Warrior Without

Warrior Within is not a perfect game. But many—most—of its flaws are based in the inaccuracies associated with its absolute failure to remain faithful to its immediate predecessor. If it weren't a Prince of Persia game, I'd probably be raving even more, and though the tone of this review may not seem ravey (maybe I take after my brother), despite its failings, Warrior Within deserves raves.

I just came off a review of Half Life 2, which received a superb score despite a story I considered so riddled with holes as to be utterly nonsensical. At the end of the day, though, Half Life 2's gameplay, that evanescent "fun factor," was off the charts. And in a game, gameplay is the most important part of the equation. We see this again and again: games are games. They mean something, but they have to be fun. I'll take a badly written but fun game over a brilliantly written but flawed game any day.

Warrior Within's script feels like it was written by a fourteen-year-old whose most advanced sexual experience was sneaking looks at his dad's Playboys. A fourteen-year-old whose most complex imaginings involve being killed just after rescuing the prettiest girl in school from some terrible danger—dying at the moment he and the girl whisper blood-bubbled protestations of love for one another. A fourteen-year-old who never matured, who resents women, who devalues powerful narrative in favor of masturbatory adolescent fantasy, and who has never, ever, had an emotion beyond puddle depth. The writing is vomitous, the acting nauseating, the characters vile.

Warrior Within's gameplay feels like it was tuned by industry luminaries of whom no more than a handful exist. Industry luminaries who recognized the need to sell games and tweaked the jumping puzzles to attract more potential purchasers while still respecting that portion of the franchise history. Industry luminaries who also saw the flaws in SoT—the redundancy in combat, the inordinate cruelty of some puzzles, the shortage of save points—and fixed them. The gameplay is without peer, the combat aorta-thrumming, the environments breathtaking.

Warrior Within is not a perfect game. In many ways, it stands as a badly written testament to exactly what is wrong with video games: sexism, teenage hormones, amateurish writing, clumsy franchise handling. But it's entertaining. It's incredibly entertaining. Oftentimes we game scholars, myself included (or especially), get lost in what the games need to mean. What they need to do. How they need to affect us. And we get lost in that for a good reason: games are still looked down on, held in contempt. They're not viewed as the world's first interactive art form; they're viewed as a child's playthings—something of which grownups who play should be ashamed. And so we are defensive of the medium we love. But in so doing, we often lose sight of the fact that, as important as all that is, they are still games.

And Warrior Within is a great game. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Ubisoft's Montreal Studio
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: December 2, 2004

Available for: Game Cube PlayStation Windows Xbox PlayStation 2 

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System Requirements

Windows 98SE/2000/XP (only)
PIII 1 GHz or AMD Athlon 1 GHz
256 MB RAM
DirectX® 9-compliant graphics card (supported cards are NVIDIA GeForce 3/4/FX series (including 4MX) or ATI Radeon 7500/8500/9000 families or newer)
DirectX 8-compliant sound card
DirectX 9.0c (included on disc)
16X CD-ROM or 4X DVD-ROM drive
2 GB free hard disk space

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