TimeSplitters – A Retrospective
The year is Two Thousand, Four Hundred and One. Humankind finds itself locked in a mortal struggle with the TimeSplitters –an evil race of creatures bent on the destruction of the entire human race. Using the power of the Time Crystals they travelled through our history, pushing humanity to the very brink of extinction. With resistance weakening, our last hope lies with a small ship speeding toward Earth. Onboard are nine stolen Time Crystals, intended to power the time machine constructed by Earth’s finest scientists.
The Plan: To travel back in time, find the source of the Time Crystals and destroy them all – ending the war before it ever begins.
I am not a console gamer, especially when it comes to First Person Shooters. That’s not to say I’m against the consoles, it’s where I spend the vast majority of my time these days – all the while complaining about how much better these sorts of things would be with a mouse and keyboard. I must, however, make one exception to that rule, well, three exceptions actually, one of which is a very grand exception and it’s called TimeSplitters. My very first encounter with TimeSplitters was brief. I think it was actually close to around one, maybe two hours before it was replaced with an eye-watering rush down a mountainside, strapped to a plank of wood. No, I wasn’t playing the game en route to the top of a popular snowboarding slope, I was so incredibly fortunate as to have an older brother who would queue for two hours on a freezing night in late November in order to bring home one of the 165,000 newly launched Playstation 2 consoles and a copy of TimeSplitters.
We sat until two in the morning on November 25th in the year 2000 having our retinas burnt out by the 128bits of graphical goodness, until Lee decided that it was starting to make him sick and I remembered that I had to get up and play paperboy in a few hours (not the fun kind with lawnmowers). He gave it another go at lunch time the next day but, ultimately, decided that it was genuinely making him ill and so back it went to the store to be swapped for SSX. Quite which game made for a better launch title is a debate best saved for another day, but it would be some time before I burnt eyes on it again.
TimeSplitters is the true and natural successor to the N64’s Goldeneye. Created by Free Radical Design, former employees of Rare seeking to strike out on their own, TimeSplitters was to be their first release. Having worked on both Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, the team was well established to carry the FPS into the 128bit era, but instead of aiming to beat Halo out of the stalls, these guys were committed to doing something very different. Realising the success of Goldeneye’s multiplayer modes and the enjoyable challenge of Perfect Dark’s solo missions, Free Radical set about designing their own unique FPS.
They created a non-linear FPS with no storyline and no dialogue. Each level was simply a setting, containing appropriate weaponry, enemies and alternate objectives dictated by the game’s difficulty setting. Each mission required you to find the object, key to the level and run like crazy to the extraction point. There was no exposition, no revelations and no gimmicks. There was an objective (not a primary objective or a secondary objective, just an objective) and that was it. Hell, there wasn’t even a cross-hair unless you turned it on, thanks to a very generous auto-aim that was more than happy to pick up the work. In fact, the game was released on 6th generation technology, in the new millennium and the game didn’t even have a jump button! Doesn’t sound good? By today’s standards, that’s perhaps a fair judgement, but this wasn’t what Free Radical was offering to this new digital age.
Almost two years previously, Nintendo had released Super Smash Bros in Japan, the ultimate Nintendo All-Stars fighting game. Only Smash wasn’t strictly a fighting game; it didn’t follow the standard formula of 1v1 FIGHT! It was designed to feature a series of single player challenges that would ultimately train you for the multiplayer experience, all the while teasing you with unlockable characters, stages and additional items. Seeing the potential, Free Radical took everything they already knew about First Person Shooters and threw in some of Nintendo’s seeds of brilliance.
TimeSplitters’ main campaign provided three levels of difficulty for each level, along with three re-playable time trials, each providing an unlockable character for use in the Arcade mode. Running alongside that were nine sets of challenges, each in three parts, all of them teasing you with more and more goodies to unlock. Throw in the collectible awards and you have a 100% worst nightmare; this game was massive.
Between me and three friends, we literally played this game up to and beyond TimeSplitters 2’s release two years later and we still didn’t manage to unlock the last character. We could not beat Challenge 9-C no matter how hard we tried and it drove us all nuts. If you think you get it bad when you play TrialsHD and start screaming, with your grip ever tightening on the pad, you will have some inkling of just how frustrating this game could be, but you just could not switch it off. We’d try, fail, try again, fail some more and then boot up Arcade mode, stack the odds against us and wave goodbye to three more hours.
Arcade mode was where the game really flourished. Once the campaign and Challenge modes were beaten, you then had eighteen levels with ten AI controlled ‘bots’, each with five difficulty settings, drawn from a pool of sixty four fully playable characters, utilising 33 weapons in six fully customisable game types, with up to four players (if you had a MultiTap) able to participate via split-screen in whatever kind of carnage you felt like. As if you didn’t have enough to do, Free Radical freely gave you the tools to do even more in the shape of a fully tooled Mapmaker. Having chosen one of the five available tile sets, the more creatively minded were able to run riot with their imagination and just keep adding to the game.
Those are some fairly intimidating numbers. The possible combinations of match types, variants and characters must number into the millions and I’m content to say I was happy chasing after every single one of them. A favourite of my split-screen gang was to run the map Cyberden on twenty point Capture the Bag mode with all ten bots set against us, all tuned up to the highest possible difficulty. We’d play it endlessly but each time we’d change it around a little. Changing the team colours from Red to Blue and Blue to Red reversed the mode, changing our tactics completely, or mixing it up even further by swapping either of those for the Yellow and Green team bases to play across the map rather than up and down it. Sometimes we’d increase the AI health, but decrease ours, make it so the only usable weapon was a brick, or to split into three teams of our own and work against the ten strong AI team to see who could come out on top. We never played the same game twice.
Of course, Free Radical weren’t content with what they had created in TimeSplitters. The first instalment was simply an experiment, a framework for the greater things to come. Whilst my friends and I were still more than happy hammering away with our self appointed jobs of Defender, Carrier, Protector and Roamer on Capture the Bag, Free Radical were in the kitchen cooking up a great big stew of awesome and, this time, they were taking it cross-platform.
Having provided the Playstation 2 and the entire 6th Generation with its first heavyweight FPS, the huge success that was Halo: Combat Evolved had showed that the market was crying for more motion sicknessey goodness. Enter TimeSplitters 2 – everything the first game was and so much more. Gone was the ambiguous plotline, the verbally challenged were given a voice and each of the 128 available characters were given their own set of stat-enhancing attributes to make choosing one that little bit more difficult than “OMG! It’s a tiny robot with a goldfish bowl for a head, complete with an actual goldfish! SHOTGUN!”
Knowing that the game already had a unique appeal, Free Radical improved upon its already distinctive art style (a huge part of its predecessor’s subliminal humour) by designing a full story-led campaign around its diverse setting through time and space. The titular enemy of the franchise, the TimeSplitters were given a purpose rather than just cropping up as they did in the first game. The TimeSplitters were at war with Humans and they were winning. Having acquired all of the time crystals, presumably found in the relics discovered in the first title if you wish to apply an Occam’s Razor approach, the TimeSplitters are poised to launch an assault on history from the year 2401. Playing as the new hero of the franchise, Sergeant Cortez (a Riddick parody), you board a TimeSplitters controlled space station, along with Corporal Hart, in order to stop them. Managing to interrupt the TimeSplitters as they launch their assaults through a Time Portal, Cortez bursts in, guns blazing, to secure the device. With Hart staying behind to operate the Time Portal and hold off the TimeSplitters still on the station, Cortez heads into the portal to begin recovering the crystals.
From here, TimeSplitters takes a page straight out of Quantum Leap, with Cortez dropping into each level as a character already tied up in their own mission. It may seem like a fairly weak excuse for Free Radical to carry on playing out the same tunes of TimeSplitters 1, but it adds a whole new dimension to the series by helping to establish a very complex chronology that constructs a fantastic universe. This of course also allows Free Radical to begin exploring the characters, with many silent favourites returning from the first game to lead you through each scenario, fully voiced and brilliantly written.
A stand out level from TimeSplitters 2 sees Cortez enter the life of Harry Tipper, an American Secret Agent living in 1972 who has been captured by the evil genius Khallos (full name: Archibald Granville Khallos) after infiltrating his secret island base. The whole set of events is a parody of the early Bond movies, with Tipper taking on the role of a hilariously charmless Bond and Khallos serving as a tongue in cheek Blofeld. The sequence opens with Tipper strapped to a metal table and Khallos poised to instigate ‘death by comedy laser’, stopping first to trade some spy-villain clichés. What follows is an absurd, chance Houdini escape for Tipper, enabling him to explore the base and complete his investigation.
Given the length of the campaign, which spans ten missions, the depth of Arcade mode, return of Challenges and the newly installed Arcade League, it’s a very minor part of the game, but stands out there on its own as a brilliantly contained slice of FPS pie. It wears all the trappings of exactly what you’d expect from a seventies spy movie, with scientists running to avoid the fire, to the army of henchman willing to die for the absurd plans of a madman. It’s an experience that is repeated throughout the rest of the campaign mode, with each level acting as a base for Free Radical to parody everything in movie and gaming culture, from Indiana Jones through to Terminator. It’s fun and each level completely refreshes you, never giving you so much as a thought to turn it off and do something else.
Wanting to go one step further, the post-campaign experience is even greater than the first TimeSplitters title, with the sequel offering a new game mode in Arcade League. Three leagues of five divisions, each comprised of three matches, and four medals on offer in each one provides months of entertainment for the gamer, and an even bigger opportunity for Free Radical to poke fun at anything they didn’t get chance to with the campaign. Matches range from Disco Inferno, a virus style game set in a 70s disco with the objective being to escape the flame infected for as long as possible, right through to Dead Fraction, a team deathmatch which sees the miners of Ulcer Corp revolting against the company executives. While Arcade League takes many of the existing challenge modes found in the first game and gives them a team based spin, Challenge mode in TimeSplitters 2, again, runs the extra mile, putting the player back in sections of the campaign mode, but with the oddest twists Free Radical can possibly think of. You haven’t played a first person shooter until you’ve stood at the top of Siberia’s Oblask Dam, defending it with a Minigun from a horde of exploding monkeys, deployed by the Russian Mafia who want the Dam destroyed.
Three TimeSplitters 2 filled years later and Free Radical are back with TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, the definitive and, thus far, final game of the series. With the might of EA behind them as publishers, Future Perfect was destined to go so much further than the series already had. The game’s story picked up immediately after the end of TimeSplitters 2, opening with Cortez on his way back to Earth having recovered all of the Time Crystals. Earth is found to be in pretty bad shape and humanity is now making its final stand. Desperate to repair the timeline, Cortez is sent back once more to discover the origins of the time crystals with the mission being to prevent them from ever being forged and used against the human race. This time around, Cortez is dropped directly into the events surrounding many of the returning characters, and fighting alongside them, as opposed to inhabiting their existence, as he did in the game’s predecessor.
Whilst the formula for story telling was better established for the second TimeSplitters, this time around all of the cracks were cemented over and extra effort was made to make it one continuous story while, once again, jumping back and forth in history. Every level was, this time, designed to accommodate a much greater script of dialogue between the characters, and saw Cortez leading the way with his own idea of what it is to be a hero – something that his companions find bizarre and the player finds hilarious. His desire to coin his own catchphrase with every jump in time: ‘It’s time to split!’ falls flat every single time, never once failing to make me laugh. Along Cortez’s adventure through space, time and parody, the origin of the TimeSplitters is discovered, along with the protagonist responsible, Jacob Crow – the ultimate insane scientist, hell-bent on ruling the universe.
Deciding to play around more with the time travel elements than they have done previously, Free Radical frequently present Cortez encountering himself throughout the story, with your future self providing you assistance and guidance – guidance that you’re subsequently charged with providing to your past self as the level progresses. Parallel to that, Crow is also seen to take similar actions, visiting himself both in the past and future to further his efforts in space-time domination. It’s not an entirely flawless premise, with many fans of the series able to identify holes in the continuity (as with all mediums attempting to play with time travel), but it makes for a great experience and further provides whole new dimensions of humour in the series.
With over 150 unlockable characters on offer this time, there’s everything you expect to find in Future Perfect beyond its campaign; both Arcade League and Challenge return with the regular Arcade mode in tow. Despite having trodden the same formula for five years, this process is perfected even more, and the experience still remains as enjoyable and addictive as the first time you smashed every breakable object on Chinese with your trusty brick. Along with that, Mapmaker is improved to allow for customisable Skyboxes, weather effects and newly included Special Tiles, pertinent to each tile set. This allows for so many more new experiences to be created should you ever have accomplished the impressive feat of 100% Future Perfect, with Mapmaker also allowing you to create new story based missions – a returning feature from TimeSplitters 2.
It’s a complete package, offering a wholly satisfying experience and the very pinnacle of everything Free Radical devoted their studio to. Being better marketed and offering online play, the game found itself better positioned on the market, selling a respectable 65,000 units in its first week and going on to sell plenty more. Although it never quite made the giddy heights of its competitors in the field, being released so late in the console cycle – Microsoft was ready to bombard the market with the 360 that November (TimeSplitters has never been added to the backwards compatibility list for the 360 despite the floods of requests) – Future Perfect stands as the last, great and fun FPS on the home consoles.
In December 2008, the gaming press began to publish stories of the developer entering administration; quite what led to the demise of Free Radical has never been discovered. Many fingers are still pointed firmly at the flop that was Haze, though suspicions still exist that LucasArts pulled the rug from underneath the Nottingham based studio with the cancellation of Star Wars Battlefront 3, a title that the studio had been at work on for some time. In the weeks that followed, closed internal footage of an alpha stage version of Battlefront was leaked onto the internet, later verified by a former employee as genuine. Despite being at a very early stage, the game looked fantastic, Free Radical having developed a vast multiplayer FPS experience that was sure to have pleased.
In February the following year, 40 of the original 185 staff were reformed into Crytek UK who eventually set to work on the multiplayer aspects of the recently released Crysis 2. Once development wrapped on the sci-fi shooter, several news feeds began quoting Karl Hilton (one of the founding members of Free Radical and former Rare employee) as being keen to explore the viability of returning TimeSplitters to the market with a long anticipated sequel to Future Perfect.
The thing to watch out with something like TimeSplitters is it was a bit of a game of its time, but it was quite British. It had a sense of humour to it. These days it’s difficult because the cost of developing the big budget games is so much now you need to have a broad market. You need to be trying to sell everywhere. Karl Hogarty – Source: Eurogamer
Whether or not we ever see or hear from Cortez again, TimeSplitters goes down as one of my greatest games ever played. It took First Person Shooters and proved that you didn’t have to constantly impress the gamer with gimmicks, gadgets and gizmos, but could innovate and entertain a gamer for literally hundreds of hours without ever letting up. In writing this article, it’s fuelled that candle of remembrance once again into a roaring fire of wonder, with my next visit to an old friend’s place sure to see us sat talking fondly once more of all the good times had. This will undoubtedly lead to the inevitable search for the PS2, untangling of its wires and a kiss goodbye to the rest of a weekend. Whilst I hope Crytek UK get the green light they so richly deserve in bringing TimeSplitters 4 out of its pre-production artwork stage and straight back onto the shelves, I can take great comfort in the years spent with the original trilogy.
I have no doubt that, if hands are shaken and documents signed, Crytek UK will manage to resurrect the franchise without having to sacrifice the integrity that they worked so hard, for so many years, to establish. Should the project get the green light, there’ll be no cover system, no Zombie DLC, no RPG character development or moral choices, just a damn fine, fun First Person Shooter, with monkeys and no jump button.
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