If you were in Sierra's position and had to release a first person shooter knowing that there were 14 other competing titles in the genre being released at roughly the same time, what would you do?
Presumably, the main thing would be to try and do something a little different from all the others. You would make damned sure that when it was released that it was as good as it could possibly be. You'd get the press excited, concoct a decent marketing campaign and make sure retail were convinced, too. Then you'd pray that the public bought it.
But a year ago, the Steampunk-styled FPS Timeshift was a product almost destined to not live up to its potential, having already switched publisher from Atari to Sierra at the end of three years of protracted development.
Another year of crunching
Sure, it had some interesting time, er, shifting gameplay ideas, but few who saw it back then thought that it was going to be amazing. And, it seems many at Sierra recognised that too, because just seven bugs away from putting the game out, the project director Kyle Peschel was asked by the management "if you had another year on this game, what would you do?"
After contemplating another year of 100-hour weeks, needless to say, Peschel's wish list was a long one. He suggested they rip out the physics, re-do the FMV, make brand new bad guys, new special effects, update the renderer, ditch the lead character, kill the HUD, the menus, scrap the first four levels entirely.
Despite this incredible list, Sierra told Peschal "do it". ["If you want to see someone suicidal, tell them you're changing the style guide after three years in development," he joked.]
Another eight months on since that fateful meeting, a pneumatic Peschel is the epitome of confidence, stood in front of a room full of the press, dishing out the most energetic game demonstration we've seen in a long time. With undisguised glee he shows how the team has "taken a title that wasn’t so great [and turned it] into an awesome shooter," and goes to great lengths to show just how far the game has come since people last saw it. "A lot of you played it and talked about it, I’d like to let you know we were listening," he says.
Reader meet author
Not just listening, but writing, by the sound of it. A new 300 page script for the game was penned "based on re-imagined gameplay", where a character called Krone takes the Alpha suit from the original version of Timeshift and jumps through time with it ["I have no problem poking fun at our older version" he quips]. You jump in after him with your beta suit and make haste, naturally.
This new "sleek and militaristic' suit has two new features - an 'auto recall' that sends you back through time to stop it falling into the wrong hands, while the other is an AI programme called S.A.M., which stands for Strategic System for Adaptable Metacognition. Essentially an excuse for a co-character, he malfunctions, tries to self-repair and ends up giving you the slow, stop and reverse time-shifting powers that give the game its name. Unlike the original unreleased version, the AI takes more control over which is the most appropriate power to use at any given time, so the hope is the game will feel a lot more intuitive and fun than it was before when everyone merely used the stop power all the time. With no hands-on opportunity offered this time around, we can only take Kyle's word for it that this is an improvement. We won't have long to wait for an opportunity, mind you, so check back soon when Sierra/Vivendi give us the nod.
In terms of the visuals, the whole thing has been dramatically overhauled, with the Steampunk look binned in favour or a grittier, more realistic and some might say a more Gears of War-style look to it : "Now it’s more about the totalitarian, replaced with a moodier darker toned and more immersive look and feel", he says.
Filth and fury
As the screen shots convey, the game now has a convincing next gen feel to it, with the best looking rain you've ever seen in a game, destructible buildings with an oppressive, grimy feel to them, and huge improvements to the character models ["We've gone from models with 2,500 polygons to using source models with five to ten million - Maya can't handle them"].
In motion, it's just as impressive, with every next gen box ticked from complex diffuse lighting to spherical harmonics that give the game the sort of effortless slickness that simply wasn't there before. But while new effects and fancy techniques are, indeed, lovely to behold, some might argue that the game's move away from the Steampunk look has made it somewhat less unique looking. Clearly you can't please everyone.
In terms of multiplayer, not much has changed, apparently ["it was really dialled-in already"], so expect the usual suspects to line-up, including deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag and so on. What's interesting is that developer Saber has allowed users to effectively build their own multiplayer modes, and tweak the parameters to the nth degree to take care of anooying spawn campers by increasing health levels, changing weapon availability, gravity levels and so on. "That, to me, is a next generation feature more than just better graphics," he notes
Don't expect to be able to use your Timeshift abilities in multiplayer like you can in single player mode, though: "I’d love to give you Timeshift," he says "but it’d be no fun for the 15 other guys, where it'd be like you’re lagging out. I wanted to make it fun," Peschel asserts. You can affect time in other ways, such as by throwing time slow/stop grenades, which explode in a "temporal sphere of time". These allow players to catch up with an opponent 50 feet away, pull out their shotgun and take them out just as they're about to plant the flag, for example. "You can use it offensively, defensively and co-operatively. We did it because it was fun," he adds.
Anything else? Well, (deep breath) there will be 24 levels that encompass 15-18 hours of gameplay, up to 1080i support, there won't be co-op play, Live Anywhere won't be supported between the 360 and PC version, a demo for the 360 version is planned, decals and damage are persistent, the AI is aware of your time powers and will actively try to flank you. Also, there's a rejuvenating health system, there are checkpoint saves and save anywhere facilities, and, yes, the gameplay is linear by design, but the solutions to the tasks at hand aren't.
So. That's the all new, improved Timeshift in a nutshell. It's come a long way, baby. Interested yet?
Timeshift is coming to the Xbox 360 and PC in Q3 2007. Check back soon for our in-depth hands-on with the game.