The world feels solid too. Many walls, barricades and objects can be splintered by heavy firepower, and the ragdoll body dynamics are very convincing. Use your suit’s slow-motion facility, fire a grenade at the nearest group of bull-necked Combine wannabes, and the effects are pretty spectacular, helped by some very nice blur and distortion effects to show that the flow of time is being disrupted. In short, TimeShift might not be as gobsmacking as Crysis or as gorgeous as Call of Duty 4, but it certainly doesn’t look and feel like their poor country cousin.
The question is, does it play like one? Well, the plot definitely has that ‘straight to video’ feel. As far as I can work out from the (I think deliberately) confusing intro movie and the snippets of text jammed in while the game loads levels, you’re a scientist working on a revolutionary time-control suit at a top-secret military research facility. Another Scientist, Dr Krone, steals the Alpha prototype model and uses it to travel through time and become an evil dictator in an alternative, totalitarian future Earth. Only by rescuing the damaged Beta version of the suit can you jump to his alternative timeline, aid the ‘Occupant’ resistance, unravel Krone’s evil work and set the world to rights.
To do so, the suit gives you several abilities. First, it acts a bit like armour and tracks your physical condition, repairing damage when you take a breather much like Halo’s shield or Call of Duty 4’s health recharge feature. More significantly, it allows you to control the flow of time. Press and hold the left bumper (in the Xbox 360 version) and you can choose to pause time for a few seconds, slow it down, or even reverse it. Tap the bumper, and the suit’s in-built AI chooses an appropriate power for you. This means you can do some pretty cool things. Obviously the old F.E.A.R. blast several baddies in slow-mo then watch them collapse as time speeds up again routine is a no-brainer, but you can also grab weapons, evade heavily armoured robotic sentries and solve your share of simple puzzles.
And making use of these abilities is vital because the combat – at least on anything beyond Casual level – packs a punch. TimeShift goes big on high-powered weaponry and puts it in the hands of large numbers of enemy troops fully capable of using them. As you’re often surrounded and outnumbered, and there’s no Gears of War-style cover system, making careful use of the slow-motion and pause facilities is the only way to tip the balance in your favour.
I couldn’t say that the AI is up there with F.E.A.R. or S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but your foes show some signs of group intelligence, and it’s hard to win a firefight against them fair and square. As a result, much like F.E.A.R, the action develops its own rhythm. You make contact with the enemy, hunker around a corner, engage your powers, then deal as much damage as humanly possible before the guage runs out, before scrambling for a safe spot in which you can recuperate and recharge. There’s a whole lot of tension, then a very satisfying, bloodthirsty release.
That said, it’s hard to avoid the thought that much of the suit’s potential has been squandered. Watching a crowd of enemies blasted back in slow-mo never gets old; nor does reversing time when a grenade comes flying towards you. However, anyone expecting puzzles in the order of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is going to go away disappointed. It’s all along the lines of pausing time to escape the falling lift or cross the collapsing bridge, and points at which you can reverse time are blatantly controlled and obviously signposted. There’s none of the experimentation or flexibility you get in a Crysis or Bioshock, and the fact that the suit suggests which power to use means you can click the left bumper and switch off 90 per cent of your brain entirely.