Time is an abstract concept when there's work to be done. For example, take this feature. A whole hour has just disappeared into the ether in the blink of an eye counting the raindrops outside. By the time you've finished reading this sentence you'll probably have grown a beard. When there's work to be done and the deadline's looming, you can be sure some pesky officer of time has pointed his remote control at our faces and pressed fast forward while putting our hands on pause. Must. Break. Free. Actually, we blame Microsoft for sending us an early playable demo of its latest stab at platforming in the shape of Blinx 2.
The original Blinx, from ex-Sonic Team types Artoon, was disproportionately hyped. Released at the back end of 2002, it was, shrieked Microsoft, the game that could 'only be done on Xbox' due to its reliance on the hard disk. Then the all-format Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time dumped on that theory from a great height and made far better use of time shifting to boot.
Stray cat strut
Blinx was all about sucking up trash, firing it out at your enemies and then gathering up all the resulting Time Crystals that allowed you to perform, effectively, the functions of your typical video recorder. As good an idea as it undoubtedly was, the game became frustrating as hell about halfway through, partly as a result of annoying gameplay mechanics which forced you to pick up three consecutive Time Crystals of the same colour to be able to pull off the move, while a terribly ineffective camera system made it a lottery half the time to see just what-the-Cheshire-cat was going on.
Artoon obviously listened to these criticisms, because it has immediately fixed the Crystal problem by simply allowing the player to pick them up in any order and build up a stock of them, while the levels themselves seem much less enclosed, resulting in far less of the disorientating camera problems of old.
Gameplay wise, the main focus hasn't changed a great deal; you're still in control of a grinning Cheshire cat armed with a vacuum cleaner, a.k.a the Time Sweeper, on a spurious mission to perform whatever tasks have been laid out before you (usually: reach the end of the level, then beat the boss). The time powers remain as they were (in this demo at least), so in other words Rewind will repair broken structures by taking them back to their former condition, Pause allows you to stop time entirely and evade swinging blades or uncover underwater pressure pads and the like, while Record makes it possible for you to be in two places at once, and Fast Forward evidently speeds things up.
What has changed immensely is the number of modes available, with two-player co-operative play thrown into the fray for the first time, which essentially allows you and a mate to play through a more difficult version of the story mode with specific co-op challenges cooked up to make it much more than a simple retread of the solo missions. From the demo it looks promising, and it's encouraging that Artoon has tried to cram in as many ways to play the game as possible, including the four-player Battle Mode (which, lacking four people in a room at the time, made it impossible to test for now).
Aside from that, the demo version also gives a glimpse of some stealth missions where you get to control the enemy pigs up against a bunch of sentry cats with laser beam-emitting foreheads. As well as the usual crawl, wall hang and jumping abilities, the pigs come armed with a fairly weedy slingshot by default, three shots of which stun the marching pussies to sleep for a while. But as with the main game, you also come armed with special powers such as banana skins to send the sentries skidding to their doom, or decoys, which entirely fool them into following your Doppelganger. Aside from those, the pigs can also pick up temporary time shifting capabilities which work in pretty much exactly the same way as the full game - albeit in the shape of grenades which you can lob to stop time or create time wormhole to allow you to dodge between sentry points.
Visually Blinx 2 appears to be using the same engine as the original with a few noticeable enhancements; and that can only be a good thing. The six or so missions we got to grips with were up to the high standard in the previous game, with some atmospheric additions, with wind flapping the tarpaulin of the crates in the warehouse area, while lightning effects showed off some of the lighting techniques being used. Once again the character models are sharp and polished, and highly detailed close up, and Artoon has given the whole game the usual bright and cheerful Day-Glo sheen that befits a platform action game. It's perhaps not the most startlingly original approach, though, and although the quality on show helps, you're left reflecting on a game that's evidently struggling to compete with the big hitters in the genre.
What's up pussycat?
Try as Microsoft might, and as much as Blinx 2 feels like a definite, solid realisation of what Artoon was trying to do a couple of years back, question marks remain over the extent of the game's appeal, and simply whether it does enough to generate the sort of excitement required. The Xbox still lacks identifiable icons that are its alone, and while this will satisfy a proportion of the hardcore platform/kleptomaniac gamer there's simply not the buzz around this title that would have too many adding it to their must-have list in the run up to the insanely busy Christmas schedule.
The demo is certainly solid, but we'll need to get our hands on a more substantial and challenging build before we can truly judge its potential, and that's not really good enough for an exclusive Xbox game these days - there's too much competition. Releasing it now, or in early September, might have granted it a little more attention, but you can't help but feel that Blinx 2 will get trampled underfoot in the Christmas rush.
Blinx 2: Masters Of Time And Space is due out exclusively on Xbox in November.