At first glance, Saber Interactive's TimeShift looks vaguely familiar; the protagonist is a physicist in a special suit, close-in attacks splatter blood on your screen, art deco dominates the interior environments, there's even a glowing grenade that sticks to enemies when you throw it at them. Look beyond the surface, however, and you'll see something that's never been done before, something Ben Serviss, TimeShift's Associate Producer, calls "true time control."
TimeShift's plot revolves around a secret program aimed at designing two time shifting suits. One is stolen and you, wearing the other, must go find it. Following your quarry backward through time to the 1930s, you discover a past that never was and then all hell breaks loose.
From the beginning, TimeShift plays like a fairly ordinary shooter - that is, until you get your first taste of the awesome power of the suit. Need to get past that wall of flame? Stop time and walk right through it without getting so much as singed. Electrified water in your way? Again, stopping time allows you not only to avoid damage, but to walk on top of it. Wonder of wonders. Up against an army of enemy soldiers? Slow time, zip around behind them and use their own defense turrets against them. Blammo. Stuck with a grenade? No problem. Reverse time, then knock out the grenadier before he even throws it at you. The moments of game play awesomeness abound.
But the game's protagonist isn't the only one doing a little time shifting. The game was originally slated for a 2005 release, then pushed out to 2006 when the team decided to spin up an Xbox 360 version. According to Serviss, no one at Atari, the game's original publisher, imagined Microsoft's new console would fare so well. Perhaps this lack of imagination contributed to the company's deeper problems.
When Atari encountered mounting financial problems later that year, Saber began looking for another publisher. Enter: Vivendi.
"They were definitely the optimal partner," Says Serviss. Saber refined the game for their new masters and did a whole revision of the script, adding a more integrated storyline and voice overs by veteran actors Michael Ironsides and Dennis Quaid. It was like a whole new beginning for the one-time budget game publisher.
"We were still feeling out what it took to make an Xbox game," says Serviss. Saber refined their original concept and "cut out anything that would seem remotely corny." As their 2006 release date approached, they thought they had it in the bag,. They were wrong.
"Maybe a week before release," says Serviss, "Vivendi took a hard look at TimeShift." The muckymucks decided the game was ready to take the next step, and decided to position TimeShift as a AAA title, and release it in late 2007, opposite The Orange Box and Halo 3. Cue the time machine.
At this point, Saber had been working on the game for three years, and crunching for about 12 months. What lie ahead of them was another full year of crunch, bringing the total development time to just over four years.
"Which is," says Serviss, "a hell of a long time." It was, in a few words, a nightmare scenario.