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TimeShift (Xbox 360) artwork

TimeShift (Xbox 360) review

"I would like to know why giant robots roam the streets of 1939, why the rebellious Occupants are battling the empire of Dr. Krone, and most of all, why those rebels trust me without so much as a “hello.” If a stranger popped into my house, the last thing I would do is give him a gun and turn my back."

When developers resort to hyping gimmicks over gameplay, I tend to tread cautiously. When they name the game after the gimmick, I prepare for the worst. Saber Interactive’s long-awaited FPS, TimeShift, puts the clock in your hands, giving you the power to slow it down, stop it dead, and twist the numbers a few steps back. TimeShift turns back time alright, in more ways than one.

Except for a montage of what should have been a cutscene, TimeShift doesn’t waste a moment on such paltry formalities as an opening story. From what little can be learned in the few seconds of hyperactive editing, Dr. Krone planted a bomb in the lab, slapped on the time-bending Alpha Suit, and vanished moments before detonation. Being the heroic scientist, you hop in the experimental Beta Suit and give chase through an alternate timeline of 1939.

Is the Freeman-wannabe provoked by revenge, self-preservation, or duty? How did he become a crack shot with a sniper rifle? Where can I buy some lottery tickets? I’m not big on lengthy cutscenes of expository dialogue, but I do like to have some motivation. Like an episode of LOST, TimeShift dangles a scrap of information every now and then, and the moment a revelation threatens to appear, the cutscene ends. Three-quarters through the game, and the only characterization was a loading screen that called me a “highly respected physicist with a hidden past.” Very original.

Remember the old days of FPSs, when stories didn’t matter? You simply knew the demons were naughty, the Nazi’s were bad, and what’s that, a robot? Well, it must be an evil robot. After a decade of engrossing myself in the plots of Deus Ex, Half-Life 2, and Call of Duty 4, such trivial explanations don’t cut it. I would like to know why giant robots roam the streets of 1939, why the rebellious Occupants are battling the empire of Dr. Krone, and most of all, why those rebels trust me without so much as a “hello.” If a stranger popped into my house, the last thing I would do is give him a gun and turn my back.

Perhaps my coming was foretold, or maybe my generic suit of sci-fi silver somehow impressed the Occupants. Either way, I was quickly led behind Dr. Krone’s forces, through basements, alleys, up fire escapes to broken attics, and back down to the safety of the streets. Had back doors not been invented? I didn’t understand what I was doing or where I was going, but I caught on quickly to the fact that there was only one way to get there.

Most FPSs have a set path from point A to point B, but the better ones let you meander in-between to mask their linearity. In TimeShift, there is always one hallway, one doorway, and one very claustrophobic course. At one point, I came across a standoff between the Occupants and Krone’s forces in the street. With a giant mech closing in and no way to cross the knee-high barrier of barbed wire, I hid and waited. As expected, the mech’s missiles blew a perfect hole in an adjacent building, complete with a staircase of rubble.

Such restrictive linearity can work at the outset of a game when you’re getting the feel of new controls, but TimeShift rarely releases its stifling grip. Every door in an office building will be locked, except the one with the green beacon above it. A massive warehouse is reduced to a simple corridor of crates. Even the handful of outdoor areas are immediately funneled to single paths, blatantly revealed by objective markers. There is something wrong when, after 14 years, Doom can honestly lay claim to more complex level designs.

TimeShift began as a previous-gen game, and while the delays did nothing for the levels, the graphical overhaul was astounding. The textures, lighting, and visual effects are brilliantly gorgeous, as long as nothing moves. Once the action starts, the chunky framerate often makes Hour of Victory flow like melted butter on ice. Bolt on some disappearing objects alongside enemies that walk through walls, and you have the equivalent to a 1970 Pinto with hot rod flames. It looks cool, but I wouldn’t get behind the wheel.

As for the claim to fame, the timeshift system only impedes, stops, and reverses the world outside of the suit. While a mistimed jump can’t be corrected, the timeshift system is handy for hazardous situations, and forces you to rethink standard tactics of play. When a bridge begins to collapse ahead, don’t turn tail and run. Charge forward, and just before the drop, activate ‘reverse’ to bring the concrete back to your feet. Shamefully, thrilling moments of death-defying leaps are dishearteningly rare. Suffice to say that freezing seesaw platforms gets old fast.

TimeShift packs in a lot of cannon fodder, making your abilities indispensable for combat. Stopping and slowing time does more than provide 3-5 seconds for lining up headshots. Since you are traveling at a higher velocity, bullets and melee attacks hit with exponential force. Pseudo-scientifically speaking, forget that guns wouldn’t work when time is stopped. On the comedic side, you can saunter up to a motionless enemy and pluck the gun from his hands. He’ll either beg for his life or dive for a dead comrade’s sidearm.

As entertaining as timeshifting can occasionally be, it’s equally self-defeating. Barely an hour into the game and I was an expert at freezing and releasing time to match my shots without losing forward momentum. When overrun by reinforcements in the outdoor sections, I simply ducked in cover to recharge. Judging from the enemy banter, the A.I. obviously knew where I was. It simply didn’t bother to do anything about it. Saber threw in all the tired staples of weaponry, but a routine of timeshifting, shotgunning, and hiding will get you through 95 percent of the game without a problem.

After trudging through the single, glorified corridor of Timeshift, I was curious as to how Saber pulled off timeshifting in multiplayer matches. From what I can tell, they succeeded admirably. Players toss chrono grenades to create spheres of manipulated time. If an opponent is fleeing on his last breath, you can toss a stop-grenade to hold him in place. Inversely, that same player could lay down a reverse-grenade to send bullets back the way they came. The 14 maps are outdated by about five years, but I can’t say much more than that. In three days, I didn’t find a single person to play against.

With the exception of time manipulation, every aspect of TimeShift inspires a “been there, done that” sensation. I can look through the levels, weapon lists, multiplayer maps, and character designs, and rattle off a list of FPSs from the previous generation that did the same, only better. The great irony is that TimeShift could have been intriguing with the story to back it up, but as Saber Interactive CEO Matthew Karch once said, “Story? Nah, everyone can claim to have a unique story.”

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Staff review by Brian Rowe (February 11, 2008)

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