Developer: Saber Interactive
Release Date: Fall 2007
What a long, strange trip it's been. TimeShift seems like it has been in development for ages, and perhaps it has — after all, it was initially intended for release on the original Xbox. But the TimeShift of 2007 has little in common with the brightly colored, steampunk-inspired shooter that we've been tracking for years. With a new publisher (Vivendi) and a new focus on realism and visual splendor, TimeShift may finally see the light of day later this year. More importantly, it may actually have what it takes to be a major player in the congested Xbox 360 shooter market.
TimeShift was clearly the focus at this year's Sierra Spring Event, held this week at the W Hotel in San Francisco. Following a brief video presentation, Lead Producer Kyle Peschel took the stage, dropping both knowledge and profanity on the assembled journalists. Peschel detailed the odyssey of the title, which was slated to hit stores last year — and nearly did.
"In 2006, we had a game that was ready for release," claimed Peschel. "We were seven bugs away from release. If you were to sit down and tell me that somebody somewhere was seven bugs away from putting out a title and they decided to extend it for a year, I'd tell you they're crazy — or committed."
When TimeShift headed over to Vivendi (from previous publisher Atari), so did Peschel. Upon arrival, he was presented with a compelling proposition. "They're like, 'So, Kyle — we think you've really got something here," said Peschel. "We're wondering what you would do if we took the handcuffs off.'"
The result is a wholesale change in what TimeShift is and how it will be perceived by the average gamer. Though Peschel was happy with the initial steampunk focus, it was largely lost on the mainstream gamers who tested the game. As a result, the red and blue-tinted buildings of previous builds have been replaced by dark, gritty environments, complete with fascinating weather and fire effects.
"What we had before was a very competitive title in the first-person shooter marketplace for Xbox 360 and PC," said Peschel. "But some games have come out since then, some new technology upgrades have happened, and I was really worried about the overall quality of the title, visually."
One of those titles was Gears of War, which handily redefined how a frantic shooter should look on a next-generation console. TimeShift presents highly stylized urban environments soaked by the falling rain and devastated by raging fires — or by you. Explosive grenades and heavy gunfire can knock down walls or create openings in the brick barriers that may separate you from your prey. An excellent blurring effect is used to distort images in the distance, though Associate Producer James Bonti mentioned that it would be further tweaked for the final release.
Enemy characters, which were previously composed of just 2,500 polygons, will now sport at least 5 million source polygons each. The creation process for such detailed models is so intense that the characters must be rendered in chunks before being brought together with the more powerful TimeShift game engine.
Though the visual improvements are the most obvious of the bunch, several other changes have been implemented to make TimeShift a tight, well-balanced experience. "Next-gen is more than just graphics," Peschel noted. "Next-gen is sound, it's script design, it's the roundness of characters and the believability of how you can interact with them. It's the core gameplay mechanics, and how do you retool shooting to not just be shooting? How do you make it an overwhelming experience for a user?"
Pacing is an important part of that "overwhelming experience," which is why a large chunk of the original gameplay has been removed from TimeShift. With 24 missions, TimeShift should still present a 10 to 12 hour single-player experience, but much more had been planned. "We had about 34 [levels] originally, but we wanted to make sure we bring the best gameplay experience to players," said Bonti. "So we cut out the 10, and now we're reworking all the levels, design-wise, to make sure they flow properly." Also tossed was the original voice acting and motion-capture work — all of which was redone to fit the new feel and focus of the game. The plot has changed substantially since the voiceover tracks were laid down by Hollywood actors Dennis Quaid and Michael Ironside, but the fate of these tracks has yet to be determined. If the revamped storyline requires new voiceovers, Sierra will probably go with some lesser-known actors, presumably to meet product delivery deadlines.
As indicated by its title, TimeShift's unique gameplay element is that of time management. But we're not talking about drafting a schedule, here — as Colonel Michael Swift, players can actually pause, reverse, or slow down time. In previous builds, this was all manually controlled, making use of separate buttons for each action. However, Peschel noticed that players would become too reliant on the ability to stop time, and would struggle in segments in which other tactics were necessary.
All of that has changed. Though the three time-related abilities remain, gamers no longer have full manual control over the system. Instead, the Strategic Systems for Adaptable Metacognition (S.A.M.) unit on Swift's left arm will assist with a new, single-button time control scheme. "S.A.M. will be making decisions with you — not for you — on how to best overcome any threat," said Peschel. Time control will depend on an on-screen meter that will limit how much and/or how often you can use the ability. Otherwise, it would likely be far too tempting to freeze time in every situation and constantly dole out destruction sans consequence.
Though not shown at the event, Swift will, at some point, make use of a "rugged, four-wheel ATV," which Peschel maintained was a huge improvement over its vehicular predecessor. "We had this kind of awkward-looking tricycle," he said. "The sheer fact that I'm talking about an FPS with the word 'tricycle' somewhere in the sentence kind of shows the ill-fated idea that that was."
Multiplayer in TimeShift should be largely similar to how it was previously, with at least six fully customizable game types: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, One on One, Stop the Machine, and King of Time. While the first four are pretty self-explanatory, the others are new takes on concepts that have been previously explored elsewhere. Stop the Machine inserts an object in each team's base, and it's up to each team to infiltrate the other's base to shut it down. King of Time tasks players with accumulating the most time holding an item or ability or sorts, though it was tough to tell exactly how it will play out without an actual demonstration of the mode.
As was previously reported, a large PlayStation 3 logo was shown following the initial presentation on Monday night. When asked about it the following day, Bonti could not confirm the existence of a PlayStation 3 port, though he certainly did not deny it. "It was obviously on the board yesterday, so we're obviously thinking about it," he said. "I can't give you any dates or anything like that." Right. Might as well start the pre-orders.
TimeShift seems to be on the path to making a shocking recovery from the depths of potential mediocrity. With Gears-like visuals, a tighter narrative, and simplified controls, TimeShift looks like it could really be something special when it hits this fall. "This is really a commitment from Sierra to step up and go beyond just a 'ship it and forget it' kind of a mentality," Peschel said at the end of his presentation. Based on what I saw this week, I'd have to wholeheartedly agree.
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