It's 2 a.m. and I'm still playing Time Commando, the latest game from the French development group, Adeline. By some stroke of luck, and probably a large sum of money, Activision has managed to publish a ground-breaking title that has enough whiz-bang graphics, environmental, enemy, and weapon variety, and clever twists to keep me and many other gamers awake into the wee hours of the morning playing our hearts out.
The game is a cross between Alone in the Dark, Fade to Black, and (back me up here, old-timers) that old Apple II classic side-scrolling fighting game, Karateka. The basic premise here is that you work in a virtual reality combat training facility where soldiers are schooled in all forms of battle, from primitive to futuristic. As the thin plot thickens, a virus is uploaded to the main computer. Because the future is apparently devoid of anti-virus software, you get sent into the computer to fight the virus and the many, many unique foes it puts in your way. You start in a prehistoric setting throwing rocks and swinging clubs at cave-dwellers, and progress through the game by beating on various human and animal life with every conceivable weapon appropriate for the time period.
Despite the fact that the story has loopholes so large that I could throw my 17-inch monitor through them, the game's graphics are outstanding. In a bold move, by developer Adeline, the action is displayed via a kinetic, cinematic camera that swoops around the environment and your main character to continually give you the most interesting angle on the action. We're not talking Doom here, where the backgrounds are rendered on-the-fly. These are pre-rendered backgrounds with pre-determined camera movements similar to those in the Alone in the Dark series where the camera is stationary while you're in an area, but as you move to the boundaries of that area, the camera either follows you with a zoom, dolly, or pan, or the view switches to another stationary camera in the next area. To complete the individualized feel of the game experience, your character and enemies are polygons rendered completely on-the-fly. This combination of visual effects allows the game to pursue a linear path with static backgrounds, while using fluidly animated characters within those environments.
Techie talk aside, Time Commando also delivers some great thrills. What sets this game apart from the pack is its depth: the number and variety of its enemies, weapons, and levels are unmatched. What other game gives you a chance to whack a Friar with a broadsword, hurl fireballs at an evil demon, have swashbuckling bouts on the deck of a Conquistador's ship, and perform aerial jumping kicks at an electric bear and fish that live inside a computer processor? As you travel through the game you pick up lots of cool new weapons, but finishing each time period leaves you with only your fists and feet to ward off bad guys. There are numerous hidden rooms and power-ups to be uncovered, but you'll find that many of them remain hidden while you succumb to the urge to follow the beaten path. Part of this is due to the pressure of a time limit. The virus, represented by a meter at the top of the screen, is basically a timer. You must find floating computer chips along the way to keep the virus from overtaking the computer. The other factor that hinders your search for secrets is that you lack the ability to go backwards in a level. Once the area scrolls off the screen it's inaccessible. While this is annoying, it does create a fast tempo that forces you to continually forge ahead.
A number of clever twists have been added to keep the action lively even in the later stages of the game. A good example is the Wild West section of the game, where you come upon a barn but you can't open the door. Dynamite sticks are being lobbed in your direction from a window at the top of the barn, but shooting at the window doesn't change anything. The secret here is to catch one of the sticks of dynamite and throw it back into the barn, presumably igniting the stash of TNT inside, which makes the barn blow up reeeeeaaal good.
One of the most amazing points in the game can be found in the Modern Wars era where you acquire an Uzi and a rocket launcher. Realistic sound effects and very cool explosions highlight this section. You can't call yourself a gamer until you've fired off a few rat-a-tat rounds from an Uzi in Time Commando - it's an invigorating experience.
One of Time Commando's small flaws is its enemy intelligence or, perhaps, its lack thereof. In the easier skill levels, the game is a cake walk and even in the harder ones, the enemies still walk right into your line of fire, without regard for what type of weapon you have in your arsenal. Bad as this sounds, the game might consist of an eternity of hide-and-seek playing if the enemies had more intelligence. Another minor irritation is that it's often hard to position your character when trying to dig out a hidden item. The game should have offered a larger hot-spot area for these operations. And the final criticism of Time Commando is that the background graphics and the characters aren't always a seamless combination, causing certain graphic anomalies to occur that can break the suspension of disbelief.
Adeline has shown with Time Commando that it still has the wherewithal to produce a masterpiece on par with Relentless, its incomparable action adventure.