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Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC - Xbox 360 version reviewed.
Every year the ludicrous pre-Christmas rush leaves the average game reviewer with a pile of games they want to play but simply don't have the time to even get a look at. This year was especially bad: when week after week brings us games like Assassin's Creed, The Orange Box or Crysis, who has time to look at a BlackSite or a TimeShift? It's only now, as things get quiet in the period between Christmas and New Year, that we get a chance to take stock, look through those piles, and see if there's something good we might have missed. As someone with a soft spot for the underdog, it's one of my treats of the holiday season.
Of course, TimeShift hardly made it easier for itself. Saber's game was originally set for a 2005 Xbox release. Then its original publisher, Atari, moved production to the Xbox 360 before deciding to drop the game into development hell. Along came Vivendi Universal and offered Saber the chance to take a little more time and turn a failing project into a great one. Unfortunately, one huge change of technology, setting and visual direction later, the game ended up appearing in November; just around the time The Orange Box, Call of Duty 4 and Crysis hit the streets. Ironically for a game where the control of time is a central theme, TimeShift's timing could not have been worse.
Worse still, because a game that would have already felt derivative of other FPS games now seems even less original. Its use of a slow-motion control would always have reminded you of F.E.A.R., and certain elements - the dystopian futuristic setting, sinister government troops, poorly armed resistance and officious civil announcements - practically beg for comparisons with Half-Life 2. In fact, if TimeShift had needed a subtitle, ‘F.E.A.R. and loathing in City 17' would have done the job. However, its biggest new idea - its time-controlling Beta Suit - now feels ripped from the Nanosuit in Crysis, while other parts of the game feel close to Halo 3. As a result, TimeShift could easily be condemned as a B-movie version of other, better games.
But then maybe that's not such a bad thing. There's always something entertaining about a really good B-movie, and Crysis is actually a thoroughly enjoyable B-game.
It helps that, technically-speaking, it's not anywhere near as dated as you might expect. Saber's engine doesn't look at all old hat in the age of Gears of War, Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 - which is good as they're the games that it most frequently brings to mind. When it's good, the game's ravaged urban scenery, rich detail, strong dynamic lighting and excellent water and weather effects remind you of Epic's work in Gears. Period details in some inside spaces bring to mind Bioshock, while a mid-game section in some lovely snowy alpine scenery wouldn't have embarrassed Bungie's latest blockbuster.
When it's bad - when it's just dishing out another boxy, featureless industrial interior - it merely looks like the more generic sections of F.E.A.R. or Half-Life 2. The character models look a bit like someone has tried to splice F.E.A.R's high-tech armour with Gears of War's steroid-popping freaks, but as you can now imagine you're popping bullets into Marcus, Dom and mates, that isn't as bad as it might sound.