Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment
Developer: Saber Interactive
Release Date: October 30, 2007
There are two games that I personally hold to be tied for the "worst thing I've ever played" title. The first is Mob Enforcer, an unfinished mess that could have been good if it had actually been completed. The second is Will Rock, one of the only titles to have been built on the original Serious Engine from Croteam and one of the most excruciatingly painful experiences I've ever suffered. Now, you might ask yourself, "Why are you starting a review by complaining about old games you thought were awful?" Well, the answer is this — today I'm reviewing the PC version of TimeShift, and the people who've crafted this sci-fi FPS just so happen to also be the people who made Will Rock. Pay attention, now; keep in mind the entire time while you're reading this that I absolutely loathed the last thing this company released. This one little point will add spice to my critique.
So what is TimeShift? Well as I stated, it is a 3D, first-person-shooter game. At its core, it is very "meat and potatoes," with one crucial innovation that immediately elevates this game from "another generic shooter" to "interesting FPS that should please just about any fan of the genre." What is that innovation? It is, just as the name implies, the ability to manipulate time.
The basic plot breakdown surrounds a research laboratory that is ostensibly financed by the military. The main project this facility is working on is called N.E.X.T., Next-Generation Engineering for the eXploration of Timetravel. After nearly 10 years of development, the project has not only mastered the basic mechanics of traveling through time, but it has also produced two suits that function as time machines. The first, creatively dubbed the "alpha suit," allows travel back and forth through time. It's stylish, in a bulky "power armor" sort of way, but it's low on frills beyond the ability to go back to your elementary school days, take a round out of that playground bully and zip back to the present with no one the wiser.
The second suit has been called (unsurprisingly) the "beta suit," and it's on track to be stuffed full of features attractive to the military. As an unpolished prototype, it looks sleek and sexy but is probably dangerous to wear.
The head of the N.E.X.T. project gets it in his skull to steal the alpha suit, blowing up the lab in the process. His goal seems to be going back in time, usurping the Third Reich with his ambition and superior knowledge of science and technology, win World War II and take over the world. You know the drill — standard megalomania of the criminal mastermind variety. Alas for our villain, an unnamed research physicist (that would be you, the player) manages to get into the beta suit just before the lab explodes and goes back in time to a radically different past. Can you use the suit to restore reality to the way you remember it?
Shortly after popping into 1939 and into the middle of a massive city-wide battle, the beta suit sustains damage to its temporal displacement engine and loses the ability to actually puncture a full wormhole through space-time. What it does not lose is its ability to slow, stop or minutely reverse time. In gameplay terms, this is the good stuff. This is what makes TimeShift such a fun and ultra-violent shooter. You're bombing around a past that never was, a distinctly advanced version of Europe in the 1930s, with the capacity to control any given firefight. It's heady stuff, slowing time to the point where you can circle-strafe around an enemy, unload a shotgun point-blank into his chest, back and head, then return to real time to watch the body bounce around and/or explode.
My first impression of TimeShift (past the graphics, that is) was that its scripting is exceptional. You're pumped straight into an insane firefight that involves running around the ruins of a city avoiding a walking tank thing that dwarfs the sky. I've seen end-levels in FPS games that were less adrenaline-charged. Of course, theirs is always the Gangs of New York or Blade effect, where the most intense action takes place in the first 10 minutes. I was therefore even more pleased to discover that the pacing holds up throughout the whole game. If you're worried that TimeShift can't sustain itself for the entire ride, fear not. It might not be as masterfully crafted as say, Half-Life 2, but I still find it to be one of the more engaging FPS titles I've played in some time. The fact that I get to run through bursts of flame or across electrified pools of water, while time itself has stopped, might have something to do with this.
Speaking of graphics, I must say that TimeShift is stunning, due to the in-house Saber3D engine. The models feature high-polygon counts and exceptionally detailed textures, although they are hampered somewhat by slightly stiff animations. The lighting and shadows are extremely realistic, with no glaring bloom making everything look fuzzy. The environments are glorious, full of detail and dynamic energy. While you can see where the game world and the skybox are separated, the interior walls are animated, providing a broader sense of life and action than most titles using a bitmap-painted sky. The artistic direction is very strong as well, influenced heavily by steampunk but with slightly less focus on the "steam" part.
TimeShift takes place in a very unique hybrid timeline, fusing World War II ambience and squalor with far-future technology — armored zeppelins with fully functioning server mainframes, that sort of thing. There is one notable irritation to the graphical feast, and that is the load times required to display it all. While there isn't an excess of loading, whenever you do need to change levels or boot up the game itself, TimeShift needs to process shaders. This takes almost a minute on my machine, running with two GB of RAM and an nVidia 8800 GTS video card. I can only imagine how much longer it would take on lesser hardware.
If you'll recall, I described TimeShift as a "meat and potatoes" shooter, minus the temporal manipulation. What this means is that there aren't really any staggering new weapon types or vehicle types. The AI scripting isn't particularly impressive; you can usually outsmart the enemy simply by running behind some cover and watching the little red dots on your head's-up display. They'll come for you eventually, regardless of how much death and destruction they might witness. Actually, if you ever stop and think about the events of the game from the NPC's point of view, it must be shocking indeed. To think, one minute you're the furious fist of a dystopian world government, and the next thing you know, your entire squad is dead and you've taken eight point-blank shotgun shells to the chest — and you didn't even seen where they came from. The superb voice acting touches on this from time to time; the enemies often exclaim their disbelief in what they're seeing. I would, too.
TimeShift has an "unlock" feature, whereby your advancement in the game will open up new out-of-game content. These come in the form of cinematic movies and concept art. I like the idea, but personally I think Saber could have done more with the concept. Of course, I have yet to see anyone handle the whole "achievements" thing properly, so perhaps I'm just being jaded. While I'm splitting hairs, looking for things that I actually think aren't good, how about the complete lack of running or sprinting? I realize you have all the time in the world, but come on. Most people don't casually walk from point A to B in a firefight, temporal displacement or otherwise. As a final gripe, the multiplayer servers have been consistently empty since I started playing TimeShift (so much for seeing how this plays out when everyone can stop time!).
To say that I've enjoyed TimeShift is somewhat of an understatement. Everything about it seems to suggest "sleeper hit." It looks great, performs well, it utilizes Havok ragdoll physics more effectively than any other title I've seen (objects actually have weight!), it has an interesting story, and it features a cool plot hook that isn't as much a gimmick as one might think. Now factor in how I started this review: I despised the last game from Saber Interactive. Somewhere along the line, they really got their act together. Don't get me wrong, there are a few tiny rough spots in what these guys have released. The shader processing is tedious, and the relative ease of the game itself detracts somewhat from the excitement. The temporal manipulation makes pretty much any firefight a foregone conclusion, and the onboard AI in the suit not only automatically heals you and adjusts the time shifting as the situation requires, but it also lets you know when to shift time to avoid death. You're constantly aware of any given threat, and you have quite the deus ex machina to deal with it. However, despite this, TimeShift is an excellent example of how a talented crew can break with the tired trend of modern urban combat in the Middle East and still produce an intense and memorable FPS experience. This is "worth playing," indeed.
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