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Like many people out there in the gaming space, I like to try to play games to completion. Though I do that with fewer and fewer games as I grow older, those games that particularly interest me still fuel that urge to do everything I can before moving on. Because of this, I am all too familiar with some of the frustrations that come from such a playstyle. Open-world RPGs can be either great or horrible for people like myself. On one hand, we always have something to do, because those kinds of games will almost always have a quest or two hidden away for players to find. However, completions like me are never able to completely move on from them, because those kinds of games will almost always have a quest or two hidden away for players to find. Despite this problem, this genre can be implemented in ways that can either exacerbate this feeling or lessen it in people.
(Spoiler Alert for Beyond: Two Souls. I wanted to keep this post spoiler-free. However, as I was typing it I realized that my points are stronger in the presence of clear examples from the game.)
As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, I purchased and played through Beyond: Two Souls: Starring Ellen Page and Willam Dafoe, developed by David Cage and Quantic Dream, when it came out a while back. Despite the similarities between Beyond and Quantic Dream's previous opus, Heavy Rain, Beyond has been much more negatively received than its predecessor. On Metacritic, for example, Two Souls received a 71 on Metacritic, whereas Heavy Rain received an 87. That is a grand total of a 16 point difference between the games, which is fairly significant. What is it about Beyond that makes people dislike it so much more? This week, I propose a possible answer.
(Spoiler Alert for the entire Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time trilogy)
And so we have reached the end of this little series. The Two Thrones, released in 2005, had a major problem from the get go. While most fans of the franchise vastly preferred The Sands of Time, there was enough of a positive reception to some aspects of The Warrior Within that its fans also needed to be catered to. This new game needed to walk a fine line between calling back to what fans enjoyed about the first game while taking in the improvements and knowledge gained from work on The Warrior Within, a challenging prospect to be sure. The end result was a carefully balanced compromise that works surprisingly well, more than making up for its lackluster predecessor.
The Prince himself is one of the biggest symbols of this compromise that the Two Thrones embodies. Yuri Lowenthal reprised his role as the titular Prince, with a harder edge than in the Sands of Time. This is the Prince people knew from the Sands of Time, as he still uses his old regal speech pattern and rarely resorts to simply uttering curse words. He also has a fair degree of snark, self-awareness, and snide confidence. However, experience has made him a colder and harsher individual than he used to be. This is a man who is significantly less likely to go out of his way to assist others unless he has made some form of vow to them in the past. However, gradually as the story progresses, he learns the error of his ways and slowly, but surely, returns to who he used to be, going so far as to literally combat his darker self, appropriately referred to as the Dark Prince. It is as if the game is performing a sort of meta-commentary on how the Warrior Within's take on the character was so reviled compared to the Sand of Time's take, which I found to be truly fascinating.
Last week, I began a series of retrospectives on the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy. Starting with the original Sands of Time, I mostly praised the game for the many, many things it did correctly, including its gameplay, narrative, and setting. However, despite the great reception of the game, all good things must one day come to an end. Of course, I am referring to the direct sequel to the game, Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within. Released in 2004 as the second game in a soon to be trilogy, The Warrior Within had a lot to live up to. Sadly, it failed to do so it many, painful ways. For very good reason, this second entry in the trilogy has been labeled a black sheep by fans. Allow me to elaborate.
The very first thing that people noticed about The Warrior Within was that the Prince had undergone a severe personality shift somewhere between the two games. In the previous entry, our protagonist was a bit of a snark, but otherwise went out of his way to help those in need when he had the chance. His demeanor added a degree of levity to the preceding, helping to maintain the original game's fairly light tone. In its sequel, this was flatly not the case. Though he was technically the same Prince players knew from The Sands of Time, he acted in a completely different manner. As an example, one of the earliest lines in the game has our dear Prince calling a female lieutenant of an unknown enemy a “Bitch.” Now, to our modern AAA sensibilities, that is hardly a blip on the radar, since “Bitch” is such a common word that it feels tame. However, the Prince and a much more regal speech pattern in the Sands of Time, so this new personality was simply jarring, and the new personality permeates the entire game. Ubisoft even went so far as to get a new voice actor, Robin Atkin Downes to replace Yuri Lowenthal, who had voiced the Prince in the previous game, to sell fans on the new Prince.
If I am being honest, though. That was only a symptom of a greater problem. Overall, the Warrior Within tried to go in a much darker direction than the Sands of Time. The level design and graphics look noticeably bleaker than the much more vibrant locales of the original game. The original game's bright yellow sands, blue waters, and green grass have been replaced by dark caves, dark ruins, dark towers, and dark green gardens. Even the relative cartoon-like graphics of the original game were replaced with a more “gritty, realistic, mature” style (about 4-5 years too early, guys). This was so bad that the earliest female enemy was wearing nothing but a leather bikini with gauntlets and iron leggings in an obvious case of pandering. While Farah's outfit in Sands of Time was a little skimpy, it fit with the setting and her origins as a princess from India. This dominatrix leather outfit looked completely ridiculous, like the game was trying too hard to be mature.
Even the plot suffered from this new tone. To avoid spoiling the game for those who have not yet played it and for some reason still intend to, I will paint in broad strokes. With that said, after the time-bending antics of the Sands of Time, the prince is being chased by a Guardian of Time, called the “Dahaka”, because he was supposed to die in the “true” timeline. In order to save his own skin, the Prince embarks on a quest to the Island of Time with the purpose of going back in time to stop the creation on the Sands of Time. This will resolve the temporal paradox because he could never have fiddled with time had the Sands of Time never been created... or something. This element of the plot does not bother me too much because to some degree all time-travel plots have an element of “Just go with it”, being innately vulnerable to plot holes or logical inconsistencies. What bothered me was how the plot took all the light-hardheartedness and humor of the first game and replaced it with grim-dark upon grim-dark, since the Prince does little else but brood over his likely demise and complain to others about how unfair his circumstances are. I suppose that on some level, I can applaud the designers for daring to do something comparatively different. However, this was a bit of a slap in the face for series fans.
Not everything the Warrior Within changed was for the worse. Some of the things they tweaked were actually genuine improvements. The most notable of these improvements was with the game's combat system, fitting for a game called “The Warrior Within.” Now, the Prince has the ability to pick up secondary weapons for use in his off-hand. Though these weapons will break after enough use, the new combat system allowed players to very their attacks and perform different combos with them. In addition, secondary weapons can be thrown at enemies, permanently discarding them, but adding extra attack options to deal with ranged foes. Though I enjoyed the combat of the Sands of Time, even I must admit that this was an improvement. The combat has gone from a fairly hack and slash fest to a more visceral experience that skilled players can excel at.
Furthermore, even in the original game, ranged enemies could be difficult because melee combat was really the only option in a fight, meaning players had to either wait for enemies to come to them or find a way to close the distance. My biggest criticism of the Sands of Time was also answered, because enemies in The Warrior Within rarely exceeded 4-5 enemies, although there were points where they slipped into old habits. And yet again my praise is tempered with a handful of other issues. For example, while the game rarely threw large waves of enemies at the player, foes often had a large amount of health. I was no longer tired by the overabundance of weak enemies. Now, I was tired by the overabundance of health each individual enemy had and the sheer amount of damage they would soak up before they died. The series had gone from one extreme to the other, and neither one of them were exactly pleasant.
Other changes to the gameplay were made as well, aside from the combat. The most notable of these changes was the semi-open world of the game. In the previous game, the layout of the world was decidedly linear. Players would enter an area where they would then solve a puzzle, undergo a platforming segment, or fight a group of enemies. This would unlock a save point and the entrance to the next location and so on. The beginning of The Warrior Within follows this for a while. Then, the Island of Time opens up a little. Players are able to, with some restrictions, explore the island almost completely. Through sand portals, it is also possible to travel between the past and present versions of the island. This allowed the game to give players multiple objectives that they could tackle in any order in certain points in the story.
While this was an interesting little experiment with game design in a platformer, ultimately it had a number of problems associated with it. For one, it resulted in a major design oversight such that it a certain area of the game was not arranged in a specific fashion before it is revisited in the story, it would literally be impossible to finish the game. Another problem is that due to the similarities between past and present areas and the need to go back to previously explored areas, the Warrior Within feels like it is wasting the player's by literally forcing them to repeat already completed areas two, maybe even three or more times in the story in nearly the exactly same way.
Hardware limitations also stifled this pseudo open-world concept. As a special guest for nidoking042's Let's Play of the game, one of the developers stated that the original intent was to give players a series of shortcuts that unlocked once they completed an area in order to return to the central section of the Island of Time, similar to the way Skyrim always gave player's a secret exit at the end of a dungeon. However, the hardware of the PS2, Gamecube, and original Xbox were unable to load quickly enough to make this possible. As a result, when a player clears an area, they need to go back through it in order to make their way to the central hub which connects all the areas in the game. Speaking from experience, this added needless frustration to the game.
By comparison, other changes to gameplay are minor. For one, the amount of the Sands of Time players will be able to store is much more limiting than it was in the original. Though both games started the player off with three tanks of sand, the Warrior Within gives only an additional three through progression of the story, as opposed to the gradual upgrading via absorption of sand clouds in the original. Furthermore, the tanks are used to both fuel time rewind and the other sand powers obtained throughout the game. Unlike the previous game, where the tanks for rewinding time and for using powers were separate resources. While on the subject of sands, the Prince no longer has to absorb sand from enemies to finish them off, as he no longer possesses the Dagger of Time. Instead, sand is semi-randomly obtained through breaking objects and defeating sand creatures. These factors combined give the player a significantly smaller margin of error for making mistakes in the game. With less sand, players (myself included) would see the game over screen much more frequently.
In the end, this is easily the worst game in the Sands of Time trilogy. Fans of The Warrior Within do exist, but they are vastly outnumbered by the group who preferred the original game over it. As for myself, I ragequit the game when I realized how tired I was growing of constantly fighting enemies and dying while backtracking in platforming sections. I only know about what happens in the game thanks to nidoking042's Let's Play. This game was an experiment as to how to improve the Prince of Persia franchise, and for the most part a failed one. Even Ubisoft's developers realized that by the time development of the final game in the trilogy began. As loathe as I am to admit it, the Warrior Within is likely an important stepping stone to the grand finale of the Sands of Time trilogy as without it, Ubisoft would not have learned the lessons that they did. But we will talk about that in greater detail next time.
(This article is spoiler-free, for those of you who, like myself until recently, have yet to play a game from 10 years ago.)
As a child gamer, I was told of the greatness of the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy. Despite the praise, I had never played the games because I had somehow convinced myself (with reasons that I can no longer recall) that I would hate them. Last summer, the HD collection of the franchise went on sale on the PlayStation Network for about $7.50. Even then, I was not terribly interested in the trilogy. However, this time I was much more open to the opinions of others. Hearing recommendations from a few people and considering how cheap the collection was, I decided to finally throw caution to the wind and take the plunge for myself. Now that I have played all three games in the trilogy, I strongly believe that they serve as an interesting case study in game design from the PlayStation 2 era. Because of this, I will be running a series of articles discussing each game in the franchise, along with its positives and negatives. There is no better place to start than with the game that started it all, so without further ado:
Much of my time this summer has been spent playing games from a bygone era. Because I have only recently started gaming on the PC a few years ago, there is a whole backlog of games, both old and new, that demand my attention. Of those older games on my backlog, I have mostly been playing some of the classic RPGs (cRPGs) from the late 90s and early 2000s. These titles include games such as Baldur's Gate and it's sequel, Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Planescape: Torment, and Neverwinter Nights. All of these games used the Dungeons and Dragons license to create what were essentially virtual DnD campaigns, even using the same rules and systems. As a result of all the hours I have poured into them, these types of games have been occupying my mind and most of my thoughts lately. Although each of these games had their own way of utilizing old school RPG concepts, they mostly seem to have glaring flaws in one particular area: the beginning.
A while back, as of the time of writing, Game Trailers released a news story about a game named Darkspore, published by Electronic Arts and developed by Maxis, makers of The Sims and SimCity. The game was newsworthy because after many months of problems with it, rendering it nigh unplayable, Steam has officially delisted it, making it unavailable for purchase. This is interesting because the issues have nothing to do with the game itself. In fact, the real issue is that the EA servers are not operational. That is correct: In order to play Darkspore, even in single player, customers had to connect to EA servers. You see, EA had cited that the servers were needed for the betterment of the experience, and not as a form of DRM. It is this particular issue that I wish to talk about: the cloud.
Lately, especially with the dawn of the next generation of gaming consoles, cloud gaming has become a serious talking point for both Sony and Microsoft. Quite a few next-gen games, most notably Titanfall from Respawn Entertainment and Ubisoft's upcoming games The Crew and The Division, also made it perfectly clear that they will require the use of cloud-processing in order to function. I have heard a lot of people in the industry praise the advent of cloud-processing. After thinking about it, I am not convinced that such an innovation is healthy for the industry. However, I cannot just say that I think it is bad. My task is to argue the point to those who do not share my view, which I intend to do.
The biggest point someone prosecuting cloud-processing in a video game can make is that utilizing it is another way to mandate that players of the game are constantly connected to the internet at all times. In other words, regardless of any potential benefits, it is another form of always-online DRM. In order to actually use cloud-processing services, it is necessary to connect to the servers where the calculations being remotely handled for the purpose of streaming inputs and receiving outputs. Since the odds of any given person playing the game in the same room those servers are located in are <1%, this can only be reliably done via the internet. Going further, this connection must be maintained in order to continue to make use of the cloud for offloading calculations, because otherwise there is no way to transmit data. The unfortunate reality of this necessity means that cloud-processing will always demand that users get online and stay online, giving publishers and developers a very convenient excuse to implement always-online policies. We have seen this is the past with 1 very infamous case study.
I do not think I need to tell you guys all the things that have gone on regarding Microsoft and the Xbox One (X1). If you are reading this, then you are likely already aware of the controversies surrounding the X1 since the initial February launch, along with the ensuing backpedal only a few days ago as of the time of writing. There is no real point in reiterating all of that here. Having said all that, with all that has gone on recently, there has spawned what could be referred to as a reverse-backlash, where people were angry that Microsoft responded to both its critics and low pre-order numbers. This movement was born in response to Microsoft cutting some of the consoles more interesting features, citing that the online check was necessary to maintain them. While I find these claims dubious, for reasons cited by both Eurogamer and Gamasutra, that's again not the point of this article.
What I want to talk about is what the Xbox One could have done in the first design to make the new console more palatable to initial audiences. To be clear, I will not be focusing on the TV features nor any of the PR surrounding that. The scope of this article will be solely on the technology and policies with regards to the gaming side, because that's ultimately what matters. I feel that there are five major changes they could have made in the design they first revealed so that it would have been more successful. Two of them are changes that have already been made, two are commonly cited complaints that remain on the console, and the last one will probably be very controversial, as I am sure I will get a lot of flak for it. Though I am not an expert in the fields of business nor engineering, I have some knowledge of programming and operating systems. I do not have any reason to believe that what I propose would be particularly difficult. Final disclosure: I am an unashamed fan of the Playstation brand, so my stake in Microsoft's success is only in that I wish that the competition they provide forces Sony to continue improving. Having said all of that, my proposals to “fix” the original design of the X1 is as follows.