It's easy to stop watching a film that's not really doing it for you. Ditto when listening to a CD. But it's not so easy to stop midway through a game. One reason is the time invested. Giving up on a film halfway through could mean 45 minutes. Halve that half for a CD. But what if you've sunk six hours into a game, knowing you'll need another six before you've seen its storyline resolved; bested all of its challenges; seen, heard, and experienced the remainder of a world crafted just for you? It's difficult to eject that disc, put that box away, and simply move on. Part of it is having to stare at rows of half-finished titles in your collection, but that's merely pride. Perhaps a more significant part is owed to the interactive nature of your investment: a lot of your progress thus far has been just that -- your progress. But when you're no longer a kid, with that stack of yet-to-be-played games on your shelf, another six hours means a lot. (While there may be naysayers whose week is comprised of 15 hours of class, getting hammered, and tweeting about getting hammered, they'll understand in time.) So there you sit at the halfway point, somewhat engaged, but often not; hopeful that some late-game moment will have you shaking your head at your misguided, mopey pessimism; hopeful that the game's novel ideas that initially attracted you, but have yet to satisfy you, eventually will. It's an unfortunate spot to find oneself, and it's ironic that the title that currently exemplifies this allows you to actually rewind time.

The key idea in TimeShift is control (albeit limited control) over time. Never mind how (hint: mad scientist crap). Slow, stop, and reverse time without affecting your own actions to respectively become blurringly fast, move about a freeze-framed environment, and have a second chance at a past event or manipulate a current one. Meshing this concept with a ground-pounding and puzzle-solving FPS creates great potential. Control of time is something few have had the ambition to introduce to its playscapes, and for this reason alone, Saber Interactive deserves praise; however, by the halfway mark, it starts to become clear that the attempt, not the execution, is what will have garnered it.

Time given to players in a paused environment is scant, leaving little room for guesswork in non-combat situations. In a few seconds, only a limited distance can be traveled. Thus, assessing environmental puzzles is done not by asking how stopping time might solve a problem, but whether there is actually enough time to move anywhere for it to even be applicable. The same type of forced conclusions exist for time reversal, and as the most interesting of the three time manipulation actions, its application in the game is disappointingly limited to a handful of set-pieces. Among the three modes, slowing time is used the most -- overused, in fact -- and not by choice. The endurance and aggressiveness of your armoured foes, the relentless fire they pour on your position, and their instant appearance upon your hitting a trigger point create situations so lethal that slowing time becomes mandatory in order to survive. Any tactical possibilities that may have emerged from slowing time are negated by the ferocity of the enemy: in the end, it's all a wash.

The lay of the land in TimeShift is linear, which alone is no crime; yet the paths taken here are so tight that a stifling rhythm is eventually felt as the player is guided by a radar-based waypoint, and coaxed down corridors, past red doors and barbed wire, through green doors and openings. See enemies? Kill enemies. No enemies? A sure cue to flip a switch or manipulate time. There is no middle ground. Like the overly chunky art deco touches to the interiors and architecture, the intentions are clear, yet the results aren't entirely likeable.

Once the promise of time manipulation fades, TimeShift becomes a violent, run-and-gun shooter, often re-interpreting others' ideas, whether functional (the recharging shield from Halo) or narrational (learning about this alternate 1930s by walking about dilapidated buildings and overhearing others' tales of woe, a la Half-Life 2). Despite this mid-game disappointment, I chose to persevere. There was still promise that this production started in the designers' minds with a grand finale that included a series of novel, time-manipulation ideas that offered some choice on how to achieve that final goal, and that everything experienced thus far was just a merely adequate lead-up.

By the end, this did not happen, but in the end, I still was not completely disappointed. The reason? The carnage festival. Your foes cartwheel through the air from explosions, flap their arms when trying to shake off a clutch grenade, misfire into the ground when reeling from a Thunderbolt arrow lodged in their shoulder. The varied character animations are humourously enhanced by occasionally wonky physics. All the while, guards bark canned lines, making for unintentionally funny situations: under what circumstances would the last surviving guard in a room full of body parts and blood declare, "You're not authorized!"? Add to this mayhem the ability to manipulate time: just how much of a coincidence is it that all of this can be seen and heard in slow motion? Through whose design would you be armed with explosive-tipped arrows and time-stopping abilities, and not be expected to cause a guard's conversation partner to suddenly burst into chunks?

Upon achieving mastery over the grunts, this slo-mo Kibbles 'n' Bits sideshow becomes a guilty M-rated pleasure, not unlike continuing to watch that boring movie only because the protagonist is just that attractive, or keeping that CD in the player to repeatedly play the one track you do like. It's not such a horrible thing, really. But you will never get that time back.



mar 2010

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