TimeShift is a nice example of what developers can do with a game if given the proper amount of time to build on a game and improve its foundation. What a year ago looked to be a budget shooter worth only a passing glance has been reworked into a title that plays well and, at times, can look fantastic. It's a first person shooter that comes out in the midst of one of the busiest release periods of all time for the genre and, when all is said and done, can't quite keep up with the leaders of the pack. What it can do, however, is carve out a nook of its own where those interested will find an enjoyable game that plays well and looks attractive, but suffers from some design issues.
The basic premise of having control over the ebb and flow of time, though touched on lightly by other titles, is one that has yet to be fully explored in videogames. While TimeShift falls short of taking the idea to the next level, it's moving in the right direction as it incorporates time manipulation into both combat and light puzzle work. In the end, the shortcomings it has in this area prevent it from reaching the upper echelon of shooters as there is little else that really stands out in the single player experience.
TimeShift puts you in the role of a mysterious physicist (so mysterious that by the end of the game you know basically nothing about the character you just spent hours guiding through peril) with access to a special suit. This futuristic couture can absorb damage, provides Halo-esque health regeneration, and can even manipulate small chunks of time itself. You've likely played games with the much overused "bullet time." That same slow-motion effect is in TimeShift, but you can also go a step further and pause or reverse time. Recommendations as to which effect you should use are given by S.S.A.M., an AI ally, but you're free to make your own decisions.
In combat, this time mechanic can be quite interesting. When sticky grenades get attached to you, rewinding time will put them back in the air so that you have another chance to dodge. Pausing time as grenades or barrels explode will allow you to step out of the blast radius unharmed. Slowing down the flow of time or stopping it entirely will allow you to get a bead on incoming rockets to pick them out of the sky. You can even grab a weapon out of an enemy's hands after stopping time. In short, you're a superhero and TimeShift does a great job of conveying that sense of power to the player.
By the end of the game, however, it largely breaks down to the same bullet-time style of play we've seen a thousand times over. This is in large part thanks to a few overpowered weapons that have more than ample supplies of ammunition. The prime example is the Thunderbolt, a crossbow not unlike the one found in Gears of War. This weapon fires a bolt (no charging time required) that sticks into enemies and kills them instantly regardless of where it hits. The "balancing" on the weapon is that it is slow moving. However, your projectiles aren't affected by your time manipulation. That means with time slowed the Thunderbolt moves too rapidly for enemies to dodge. With its zoom, you can simply sit back and pick off enemies by slowing down time, firing off a volley or two, waiting for the meter to recharge and then repeating. Even when conscientiously trying to play the game in a way that makes use of all of the tools at hand, it's really tough to avoid falling into routines that are sure to lay waste to entire armies. It doesn't help that the framerate can stutter when time is rewound in the midst of a big fight.
The puzzles, too, start out interesting but then grow to be mundane. There are three basic types that dominate the landscape. The one that you'll see most often involves turning a crank to move a platform or lift and then either pausing or rewinding time to get on said lift. Pausing time to walk across electrified water or through other deadly obstacles is another favorite. The last common puzzle is one where you pause time to walk over ramps that would otherwise tip over like a see-saw.
In reality, these hardly qualify as puzzles, especially since the game will recommend which time power to use as you approach the scenario. With every situation scripted, it's also impossible to solve some puzzles in any other way than the game dictates -- even if it seems sensible and doable. There is a lot more that could have been done here -- especially with the rewinding of time mechanic -- that TimeShift ultimately feels like a series of missed opportunities.
Like the time shifting mechanics, more work could have been put into the sci-fi story. The mildly confusing plot is done a disservice by disjointed cuts to and from action, sometimes with no explanation as to why you've moved from one locale to the next. It actually feels like the story and presentation were scrapped and redone many times over without ever having a cohesive idea.
It all adds up to a situation that we don't often see in the videogame world. Enough work was put into making the game competitive with the biggest franchises that TimeShift almost feels like a letdown in that it didn't hit a home run. In reality, it isn't a letdown at all. It just feels like more could have been done with the game, even if the strides the development team took at the end of the project were great by any measure.
While the big idea of time control could have been fleshed out a bit more, the game has a good flow to it. The gameplay is smooth and fun with only minor clipping issues that even the best titles aren't strangers to. Smaller battles interspersed with light vehicle or turret usage and brief puzzles break up wilder firefights with a pleasing regularity. The level design, while largely linear and straightforward, is easy to follow and builds to specific choke points where combat becomes intense and enjoyable. Best of all, there are very few places (outside of the very end) where the game ever feels frustrating. Rather, when death occurs you're often left with a feeling that you didn't make the best use of your time abilities and that the next time will go more smoothly.
The visuals can be a real treat, especially on the first and last levels that take place in a rainy, dystopian city. Pausing time and then running through the frozen raindrops looks beautiful. Rewinding time and watching them go back up is wonderfully mind bending. Other times, particularly in some of the middle stages, it can be obvious that the game came from more humble beginnings and the wow factor is lost entirely to bland art direction, average character models, and uninspired interior and landscape regions. Like much of the gameplay, the visual fidelity is a rollercoaster of highs and lows. The score and sound effects, however, are stuck at the bottom of a valley without any hopes of seeing the top.
Perhaps the best reason to go pick up TimeShift is for the multiplayer arena combat. The time warping mechanics were smartly brought into the online game through chrono grenades -- explosives that send out a small sphere where time is altered. Anything caught within a slow sphere moves at a fraction of its normal pace including people, bullets, and rockets. It's an adaptation of the single player game that works incredibly well and is incorporated into the myriad preset game types with great success.
The standard deathmatch, team deathmatch, one-on-one, and CTF are all in TimeShift, but they also have variants that take advantage of the time controls. One requires you to trap enemies inside of a time sphere before they can be killed. Another gives one "king" unlimited time powers but makes him the sole target of the other players. There's even an attack and defend game type that requires you to impair the opposing team's machine by throwing chrono grenades at it.
TimeShift multiplayer is old-school arena combat, bringing the good and the not so good back to the forefront. It's fast paced with little to no option for taking advantage of cover where the death totals rack up in short order. It also gives many of the customization options back to the player (including control on the console where stick layout and button configurations have enough options to please anyone, right or left handed), remembering to include the oft-ignored system link options.
From what we've seen, the overpowered weapons in the single player game are all properly balanced for online matches. This adds to the nice sense of fury TimeShift provides as grabbing any weapon allows you to immediately dive headfirst into the midst of the fracas. It's a fast and over the top game that allows you to simply hop on and start blasting, then find some depth when you start to understand how the chrono grenades can turn the tides in your favor.
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