Time travel is always problematic when dealt with in pretty much any form of media, there’s always the inevitable paradox concerning the modification of past events and how this would affect the future. A lot of the time, this is simply ignored or explained away rather unconvincingly, but Saber Interactive’s TimeShift embraces these problems and encourages the player to put them to good use.
There’s really not a lot in the way of compelling storytelling, you get the obligatory cut scenes with references to the villain “Dr Krone” and his desire to rule the world by travelling back to the past and creating the “Krone Magistrate”, an evil corporation with enough money to do pretty much anything they like. Sort of like Back to the Future II. The Nazi-inspired propaganda posters generally give away what kind of compliance is expected from the citizens in this new world, and as the game starts you move from building to tunnel to building in scenes reminiscent of Stalingrad in the Call of Duty series.
There is a twist however: you play a suitably-brainy-yet-inexplicably-anonymous physicist who is equipped with an extremely advanced bodysuit that not only provides protection from bullets, but can actually modify time itself. You can make time move forward at a fraction of normal speed, you can pause time entirely, and you can also actually make it move backwards. Obviously there’s an energy requirement, otherwise you’d just pause time and run through the entire game, but happily this recharges by itself and has the added benefit of healing you as well. There are a few rules, you can’t modify anything when time is running backwards to “preserve the time continuum”, nor will running time backwards reload your weapons. You can’t jump off a high ledge and pause time just before you hit the ground (you still die) and unlike Prince of Persia, running time backwards won’t prevent your death.
Throughout the game, the player is encouraged to “think in four dimensions”, and many parts of the game won’t allow you to progress unless you have a good understanding of exactly what time skill you should be using to achieve an objective. For example, you may have to get past the spinning blades of a large industrial fan – obviously pausing time and walking through is the best option here – but further on you may need to reverse time to allow an elevator to carry you up a level, or get past a conveyor belt that is moving in the wrong direction. The puzzles are not hard, and here is really where the game lets itself down. You keep expecting the resolution to be so much harder than it actually is, and most of the time when you crack it you don’t really feel like you’ve achieved a lot. You almost always have a good deal of time to consider how the puzzles work once you’ve cleared out the bad guys, and it’s fair to say that there are really only a couple of head-scratchers.
Having said that, the combat is hugely entertaining. There’s nothing quite like having half a dozen soldiers charging at your position whilst you sit behind a rock, waiting for the right moment to slow time so you can run around the corner and empty a shotgun round into each one before your energy runs out. If close-quarter combat isn’t your kind of thing, you can use the “Thunderbolt”, a crossbow with exploding bolts, to snipe the enemy from hundreds of metres away. Can’t hit a moving target to save your life? No problem, simply freeze time, zoom in and fire. This game endows you with the ability to shoot fish in a barrel, and moreover, makes it fun.
Saber have largely created a new game engine for TimeShift, which handles the action ably but perhaps with not the same level of sophistication you might find in some Unreal 3 titles. The water effects are impressive however (it’s not often you see rain moving upwards in a video game..) and the slow motion movements of the enemy combatants are faithfully rendered, complete with slow, slurred sound. There’s just so much to like about this game, it’s easy to overlook the small graphical faults you encounter from time to time, the majority of which appear to be clipping related. The music and sound effects are largely forgettable, but as I’ve alluded to, after ten minutes of play you just don’t care.
TimeShift has had a chequered development history, but it doesn’t feel rushed. It is only really let down by the simplicity of game play and perhaps the tightness of scripting. It is immense fun, and with a bit of work there could be a spectacular sequel in the making. This is definitely one for FPS fans and novices alike, and comes highly recommended.