The Playstation 2 was easily one of the finest consoles ever released, not just due to the hardware that creator Sony put into the console, but also thanks to the formidable library of games it formed around it over time. The Playstation 2 was a must have console from the moment it was released and continued to receive spectacular games well after the next generation had hit the scene. It was the birthplace of many great series, yet also the burial ground for some others. Then there is TimeSplitters, which was both born and butchered on Sony’s beloved, black box.
What is TimeSplitters
After working on Goldeneye and Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64, a number of Rare employees left the company to found Free Radical Design and begin work on their first game: TimeSplitters. This was going to be a release title for Sony’s new system and an ambitious one at that. Free Radical Design, headed by David Doak, Karl Hilton, Steve Ellis, and Graeme Norgate, wanted to apply some of the features found in Goldeneye and expand upon them. The world of the game had to be immersive and funny at the same time, while offering fluent gameplay and complex levels.
The story of the game puts player in the year 2401, where humanity is fighting a losing war against alien invaders known as the Splitters. These creatures use time travel to manipulate humanity’s past, so you take on the role of Sergeant Cortez, who chases them down and makes sure to put things right. Standing besides the story mode was the game’s elaborate multiplayer functionality. Players could duke it out throughout the series both online and offline, solo against bots or with friends on the couch, on the spectacular maps made by the developers and homemade maps created by the community.
The series counts three games in total, starting with the multiplayer-focused TimeSplitters and ending with the more story-heavy Future Perfect. A fourth entry, simply titled TimeSplitters 4, was in development when Free Radical Design landed in financial trouble and was bought out by Crytek. Director Steve Ellis expressed that, while he’d like the series to continue, marketing departments have repeatedly shot down the idea due to the lack of a marketable character and ideas. Despite the occasional rumblings and a fan petition, the series has yet to see continuation.
TimeSplitters is synonymous with the kind of couch co-op that was so inherent to the sixth generation of consoles. If you had a friend around you could enjoy a story mode together and when more friends showed up you could switch to multiplayer. Yet, at the same time, if you were on your lonesome that story mode was still fun and you could head into the arcade mode to enjoy the varied challenges of the arcade league or the literal challenge mode where you are tasked with oddball challenges to complete. All of this worked on a ranking system involving bronze, silver, gold, and platinum trophies that all came with specific unlocks for the multiplayer.
With a huge and varied cast of characters, and an increasingly appealing cartoon art-style as the series progressed, there was always bound to be a character people enjoyed. From the regular soldiers of the Russian army to the cool-looking robots, beautiful heroines, and peculiar heroes, the time travel theme of the series gave the designers a free pass to incorporate any kind of character they found appealing. My personal favorite is Viola, the aristocratic girl in the guise of a performer who seeks to rid the world of evil wherever she finds it.
The multiplayer was always a ball of fun, allowing players to design their own maps and tweak every little function of the multiplayer to suit their needs. Weapons and rules could be turned off or changed around to make sure everybody was having a good time, and the game modes that were on offer were always certain to be entertaining. Multiplayer was hectic, fast, and fun, with an AI that could certainly take on the actual players. Few experiences in gaming are as fond to me as the time when me and a cousin were the last two survivors in the virus mode, where bots and players alike must avoid being touched by players spreading a plague, and darting across the map trying to hold out as long as possible.
And it is here that I run into a problem, because trying to praise other aspects of the game is no longer something I can credit to the series as a whole. TimeSplitters the first’s story mode is little more than a series of levels where you get a thing and bring it back to the exit, showcasing its mechanics and AI, but clearly pushing players to the more important multiplayer mode. TimeSplitters 2 is where the ambition of Free Radical Design to take their experience with Goldeneye and improve upon it came true, offering players large, non-linear stages with interesting stories and fun objectives. Most impressive of all? The game expanded as you replayed it, adding extra objectives on the higher difficulties and opening up paths that were inaccessible before. This is shown most clearly in the first two levels, post-cold war Siberia and prohibition-era Chicago, where the dam and hotel respectively seem like background objects on easy, but are revealed to be fully-accessible parts of the stage on normal and hard.
While you won’t hear me say this often, I feel that Crytek’s marketing department is correct in their assessment. TimeSplitters, as a series, is darn near impossible to market because it never assumed a consistent personality. With 150 playable characters, as a multiplayer game TimeSplitters would sooner rank among sports games than the likes of Team Fortress 2. Box art for the first two games reflects this, as they show a seemingly random cluster of characters, like the currently popular athletes that adorn any given entry of Fifa and the likes. Except the faces of soccer players are something that draw the intended audience to these games, whereas the rich personality of the cast of Team Fortress and Overwatch pull gamers to those games.
Sergeant Cortez makes for a poor alternative, again due to indecision. In the first game he is not present at all, and in the second game he is both the less interesting character of a duo and during missions he assumes the role of historical characters, leaving his personality and looks out of most of the game. By the time Future Perfect rolled around and they decided to keep Cortez as himself during missions, it was too late, the guy still made little impression, and now they squandered their chance at focusing the series on a guy who assumes the role of historical characters.
Likewise the tone of the games and its comedy also shifted around constantly, as did its mechanics and story structure. Not one of the game is truly alike and most people I spoke to seemed to only like or remember one of the entries in the franchise. In fact, I myself only really liked the second game, finding the first to be a simplistic arena shooter and Future Perfect was just plain annoying to me. And all of that makes it hard to discern what TimeSplitters is supposed to be really about besides time travel and shooting enemies.
And it’s because of that, that I sincerely doubt there is much of a future for Timesplitters. While there are dedicated fans for the games out there, the market has definitely moved on and in terms of cartoon-like FPS games there are strong contenders currently dominating the place. Maybe Crytek will eventually test the waters with some HD re-release now that they are sitting on the license anyway, but don’t expect much.