It’s funny how the advancing years can affect how you perceive a particular game.
TimeSplitters is a great example. Developed by a team of ex-Rare staffers who had previously worked on N64 classics GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark, this PlayStation 2 launch title was positively received on its original release — but also drew some criticism for, in some respects, seeming like a step backwards from its spiritual predecessors, particularly in terms of narrative and storytelling.
Returning to it some 18 years after its original release, however, paints a somewhat different picture… and makes it an absolute delight to play.
For the unfamiliar, TimeSplitters is a first-person shooter that casts you in the role of a veritable rogues’ gallery of heroes and heroines attempting to fend off an attack on time itself by the titular creatures. In gameplay terms, it feels very much like the aforementioned GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, only with a controller that works and a frame rate that doesn’t suck. It’s a game that emphasises fast-paced arcade-style shooting thanks to a rather generous auto-aim system, but also caters to those who prefer a bit more precision with the ability to manually aim using a crosshair.
The game is divided into three main components, of which two are available from the outset. Story mode sees you progressing through a linear sequence of levels, unlocking new content as you go. Arcade mode allows you to set up a wide variety of custom multiplayer and/or bot matches. And Challenge mode, unlocked after beating Story mode for the first time, provides a series of difficult timed objectives using the game’s core mechanics in various creative ways.
Much of the criticism on TimeSplitters’ original release came from that “Story” mode. Quite simply, there wasn’t really a story to it beyond the context laid out in the manual and on the back of the box. In the game, there was no dialogue, no cutscenes, no feeling of ongoing narrative — just a sequence of levels in which you had to fight your way in somewhere, collect an item, then fight your way back out to a marked exit point as the titular TimeSplitters started to spawn in, intent on killing you.
Thing is, this kind of structure is actually rather appealing today, as it means you can simply get straight into the action and enjoy yourself — heavenly in a world full of games that love the sound of their own “voice”. And the whole game design is built around this philosophy; you can even unlock additional content in the game by finding the best ways to speedrun the levels, in many cases taking less than a minute to get in and out without any interruptions from cutscenes or setpieces. Trying to beat your best times provides potentially limitless replay value — and this isn’t even getting into everything else the game offers.
Each level in the Story mode is themed around a particular time period, with two playable characters on offer for each and surprisingly substantial changes between difficulty modes, such as the objective being in different places, or different shortcuts being accessible.
In single-player, your choice of character doesn’t really affect much since they don’t speak and the game unfolds from a first-person perspective. In the split-screen cooperative mode, however, you can see each other, making for some entertaining, comedic scenarios in many of the levels, particularly when bearing in mind the game’s deliberate use of stylised, exaggerated, comic book-esque character models.
TimeSplitters’ playable cast has always been a highlight, with a wide variety of people (and things) to play as, including male and female humans, anthropomorphic creatures, aliens and robots. In total, this first game has 64 characters to unlock and enjoy, and the two sequels expand this number considerably.
Where the characters really come into their own is in the Arcade mode, where you pick a map and game type — with different maps supporting different specific match types, though all support common, simple challenges such as deathmatch — and then blast right into combat against up to three other human players and up to ten computer-controlled bots. Every aspect of this part of the game can be customised, from the weapons available on the map to the specific bots you’ll be squaring off against. There’s even an easy to use map editor that allows you to create your own levels in which to fight — and while its selection of scenery tiles is relatively limited, you can do plenty of creative things with its capability to generate multi-floor levels with dynamic coloured lighting and the facility to place objects and objectives as you see fit.
TimeSplitters was regarded as a multiplayer-centric title when it originally released, but the robust customisation of the Arcade mode means that it can be incredibly satisfying (and hectic) when played against bots, too. While chasing record times in Story mode is addictive, Arcade mode is where the truly endless gameplay of TimeSplitters lies, whether you’re solo or accompanied by a few friends.
And Arcade mode isn’t all you have to enjoy after you’re done with Story mode, either; Challenge mode presents you with an ever-expanding array of tricky challenges to really prove your skills, ranging from shooting the heads off fifty zombies in just two minutes to holding on to a brain in a bag for at least a minute while fending off the other robots in the area.
While clearly using the standard Arcade modes as a basis, the sheer variety of unique objectives and level setups in Challenge mode makes for a surprisingly diverse experience. In the aforementioned “Behead the Undead” level, for example, death comes swiftly but is primarily an inconvenience designed to waste your precious time. In another mission that tasks you with shooting a hundred “Duckman Drake” enemies in the space of five minutes, you take hardly any damage from your foes’ attacks, but the challenge in this instance comes from actually hunting them down in a large, dark level.
All this gameplay joy is wrapped up in an audio-visual package that has aged surprisingly well over time. While the level geometry is relatively simple by modern standards, the heavily stylised characters retain all of the charm they had when we first met them, the weapons all have fantastically meaty sound effects that will get your subwoofer rattling your walls, and Graeme Norgate’s wonderful music complements the on-screen action perfectly.
Not to mention the fact that it runs at a fair old clip, too, happily maintaining 60fps even when absolute chaos is unfolding on screen.
It is, in short, still very much A Good Thing today. Not bad for a launch game on a platform from nearly 20 years ago, huh?
More about TimeSplitters
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