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Prince of Darkness

Indeed, the process of making the sequel began with standing back and looking at its predecessor. From last summer, as Sands Of Time was being hastily readied for a winter release, producer Helias began to consider its completion. The development of the first game could have been smoother - an early engine and the team behind it was scrapped, while Jordan Mechner, the creator of POP, wrote the story and had the rights to veto any new product Ubisoft developed from his IP, so his involvement and approval were crucial throughout. Then the team showed what they had described as a mere demo at E3 2003, and scored such a positive reaction that they returned to work to discover that Ubisoft no longer wanted the finished game for 2004, as its developers had been assuming, but to hit shelves by Christmas - cue frantic months of bug-squashing and last-minute alterations to what had begun life as the Beyond Good and Evil-based Jade engine.

POP2 is also set for a quick turnaround and a pre-Christmas release, but a similarly tortuous saga seems unlikely this time. Around 50 staff - roughly the same number as worked on Sands Of Time - are working on the title, though only around 20 per cent of them worked on the previous game. With the first game providing the ready-made multiplatform technology, animation for the prince and related gameplay features, work on the sequel focused first on researching a new look and atmosphere rather than anything under the bonnet.

Then, there was the luxury of cherry picking the best of the features sacrificed from Sands Of Time in the rush to make the game ready for market. "They were full of ideas," says Helias, still bubbling with admiration for the work invested in that earlier game, "and we worked with those ideas first. We kept some of them, but some of them were not really in keeping with the treatment of the new game. There were very great ideas in the previous game that we wanted to keep, of course.

"There were some bosses that were designed in the first version but not implemented because of the time constraints. Some of them are very good ideas, so of course we keep these ideas - every good idea is good for a game, we don't want to change that." Jordan Mechner, who had power of life and death over Sands Of Time, has not been significantly involved in POP2, but Los Angeles scenarists Secret Agents were enlisted to work with the Montreal team in his place. "We want to have all the attention around the story," says Helias. "The story makes the game. You could have a good game but a bad story, but a good story can mean a good game. A very good story with a very good game, that should be one to keep. We want POP2 to have the same feeling at the end when you play Sands Of Time; that relationship of gameplay and story - the two are evolving together."

And the elements of that story? Time is again of the essence, with POP2 beginning a few years after the end of Sands Of Time. "At the very beginning," Helias says, "the prince doesn't understand that what he has done in his previous life - unleashed the sands of time - will have consequences."

Those consequences will have teeth, and the prince is at the top of their hit list as he is pursued by hordes of new monsters angry at his upsetting of the timeline. "He will have to fight for his life," says Helias, shedding some more light on the deeper relation of the prince's gloomier new look to the sequel's story. "They want him dead because of what he did to time. The main purpose of the game is that the prince has to save his life, and the game will be based around the solutions for him to escape and to destroy what is behind him."

Another parallel with the original will be its confinement to a single dominant location. Rather than make the prince platform his way through generic lava and snow levels for the sake of it, Sands Of Time put the prince in a grand palace and made him stay there. "In POP2, we will have the same thing, but we will bring in new elements so different that for the player it will feel like going to different places," Helias explains.

The Saturday-matinee smarm of the prince's narration turned out to have been part of a clever conceit when you completed the original. Moreover, it might not fit the newly menacing world in which the prince finds himself. Understandably, the POP2 team is still mulling over whether to reuse the device in the sequel. Any Sands Of Time-style subtitle will have to wait, too: for now, it's just POP2.

The prince was a thirdperson avatar of unprecedented flexibility and mobility when he arrived on the scene late last year. Now he's about to be joined by Galleon's Captain Rhama, with Ninja Gaiden's Ryu - another new icon of wall-running, ledge scaling elasticity - already here. Has the POP2 team had much time to play it?

"We play a lot of games. Ninja Gaiden is a good game. A little difficult from my point of view," Helias laughs, "but that's only my point of view. To compare the two titles? I think it's difficult for us to say how we could. There is some difference, some similarities. What's important for us is to do something different with Prince Of Persia 2 from the beginning and bring some very strong story and gameplay. We are proud of Sands Of Time. We want to do something similar."

For all Ninja Gaiden's almost Zelda-like polish and comfort of control, and the movements the hero shares with the prince, there is something a little more automated about the acrobatics of Tecmo's game - motion is utterly impressive, largely effortless and most often a means to an end. In The Sands Of Time, pulling off unfeasible gymnastic feats is an ecstatic end in itself. And for the sequel - however much innocence has been replaced by experience, adventure by flight, golden desert light by more familiar videogame gloom - that ethos remains intact and elemental.

"The moving is very important, the action of the prince is something that we want to keep," Helias explains. "We just do more. More action, more diversity in all of the moves the prince will be able to do - when he moves somewhere, or when he's in combat, we will give more freedom to the prince to do what he wants to do when he wants to do it, rebounding on to enemies, control of what you can do - cross the wall, jump, grab the end of the rope." Hang on.

Prince of Persia 2 is scheduled to appear on PS2, Xbox, Gamecube and PC in the autumn