Free Radical’s time travelling shooter predicted the future

“It was ahead of its time, and now it’s stuck in it.”



One series remains trapped in time, a relic held in a stasis of circumstance and corporate reluctance. It seems forever stuck in the mud of its sixth-generation origins, defined as much by its inability to move than its ability to enthral. A series that turned out to be as prophetic as it was preservationist.

But the history of what got stuck where and why is only the first part of its story. That story in a sentence or two: staff from GoldenEye-developer Rare splintered into Free Radical who, after the commercial failure of PS3-exclusive Haze, was bought and turned into Crytek UK.

In doing so, Crytek obtained that time-trapped series: TimeSplitters. There it remained dormant until it was ultimately acquired by Embracer Group.

Where it still remains dormant.

That’s a real tragedy, too. Character attributes, customised game modes, map creation — features that would later become defining pillars of first-person shooters like Halo, Overwatch, and Far Cry — are something TimeSplitters did as a matter of course. It was ahead of its time, and now it’s stuck in it.

Revisit TimeSplitters today and it feels like an amalgamation of, well, everything. A touch of Halo in its open mission design, large sprinklings of Quake in its fast, frenetic gunplay — and a dollop of Black Ops with its zombie-zapping antics. It all feels a bit too familiar: you either see traits of shooters to come or traits of shooters past. TimeSplitters passes the baton from one era to the next, while celebrating those who came before it. Part nostalgia, part muse, part prophecy.

TimeSplitters 2 in particular is a game between worlds. Not quite a free-aim shooter like the modernity of Halo, not quite a single-axis shooter like classic DOOM — instead entertaining a middle ground with Free Radical’s equivalent of aiming down the sights, allowing you to aim independently of movement. It feels nearly almost modern, nearly almost old.

That feeling permeates everything, too. Its map maker and toolset vaguely foreshadow the likes of Halo’s forge or Far Cry, without the hardware to truly make it work. It’s the uncle’s brother’s cousin’s roommate of create-a-thons like Little Big Planet or Super Mario Maker. A kitchen sink of maps, bots, modes, themes, and weapon sets, bolstered by a development team that nails atmosphere in every setting it takes on — often more so than games that tackle just one.

But not quite everything survived. Series-defining four-way split-screen with a multi-themed arsenal and bot antics never quite disseminated into the rest of its genre. Perfect Dark Zero alone comes to mind for providing a bot-driven experience with an intriguing selection of weapons. It’s not clear that Zero was meant to be the torchbearer for those attributes in the HD generation, and whether its failure to thrive was the reason TimeSplitters remained dormant all these years.

Returning to TimeSplitters 2 reveals something quite surprising: it’s actually a bit of a thinking man’s shooter. No regenerating health, limited resources, and fragile objectives that can be failed with an unsettling amount of ease. The wrong place at the wrong time can scupper half a mission’s worth of progress.

‘Splitters is the perfect touch point for the zany weapons of Perfect Dark and the open-worldish, objective-based mission design of GoldenEye, encapsulating their core ideas and then some. TimeSplitters couples those ideas with sixth-gen silicon that plays to their potential. If you want your GoldenEye fix, TimeSplitters is absolutely the way to do it.

TimeSplitters preserved the essence of these classics, consolidating them in a time capsule that just happens to run on PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. That preservation matters, too — particularly in a world where GoldenEye 007 was locked behind a Russian doll of publishing rights and licensing permissions to which it could return any at moment. It’s why TimeSplitters remains in our collective consciousness, fuelling demands for a revival of virtually any sort.

Fortunately, that demand is being attended to by TimeSplitters Rewinda project dedicated to a remaster of the trilogy. Calls for its restoration reveal that TimeSplitters still occupies a space few have dared to tread. It hasn’t found its spiritual successor — the BioShock to its System Shock.

But it’s not clear if many fear to imitate, or because many aren’t convinced of its commercial viability.

“The thing with TimeSplitters is, if we made a sequel to TimeSplitters, nobody would accept this apart from some fans,” said Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli said in an interview with in 2012, “and we don’t know how big the fan community is, unfortunately.”

It’s not clear that Yerli is wrong, either. That community has grown up, and with grown-up people come grown-up responsibilities — lacking the time to recreate that split-screen nostalgia. For others, they simply weren’t around back then. They just might not get it. It’s a 19-year-old experience built around bots and a feature, split-screen, that hasn’t been relevant for years. It’s something that’s impossible to market because its strengths don’t really matter anymore.

If TimeSplitters did return, it might help to pay tribute to its past — not chase the coattails of its contemporaries. Use that connection to its maturer audience, turn them into ambassadors for a revival. Embrace what the series used to be in whatever way you can, then spread the word. Screencheat is proof of concept, with its multiplayer combat featuring split-screen — even online. Releases like World of Warcraft Classic are a test, too, and might very well prove that old is the new new.

With a re-release or re-invention comes the real possibility of inheriting habits embraced by its would-be contemporaries. Characters, maps, and skins are fair game for season passes, loot boxes, and microtransactions. Not good.

And that’s the real fear, here: that the Free Rare formula becomes just like everything else, warts and all. A far cry from an experience that was simply different on platforms mostly known for shooters with muted colour wheels and unwavering poker faces. Namely Killzone, and any war shooter you care to throw a monkey at.

Or maybe this refusal to be so serious saw it left behind as fans moved into adulthood, and the industry moved into Modern Warfare. Left behind was a game that let you be a monkey in the Wild West, a doctor in a night club, or a cyborg in a circus — whatever you wanted, really. Capture the flag, virus, deathmatch, kill confirmed, and just about any mode you can think of.

That personality is why a nearly two-decade-old arcade shooter could be the saviour of a genre ever-consumed by the almighty live-service model. The industry greats behind Halo now make games where playing an online private match was an added feature. An industry obsessed with engagement, not entertainment; services, not solutions — where the shooter seems a well-suited conduit for those questionable compulsions.

If the right people can liberate Free Radical’s seminal shooter from its stasis, they could be set to reinvigorate a genre that, at times, seems far too eager to paint its fingernails black — a genre whose recent revelation was a re-work of a decade-old shooter of the same name: except even darker and more straight-faced that it was before.

If they can bring even a fraction of the love, care, and attention to TimeSplitters’ long-awaited return that Free Radical did, perhaps they can not only revive cherished memories of countless players but also reinvigorate an entire genre with a sense of fun and personality it had all those years ago.

Not to play a game for leaderboards, league rankings, or loot’s sake, but simply to have fun. For the sake of having a bloody good time shooting things in the face with ridiculous guns on ridiculous maps.

And just about ridiculous everything else.

Image credit: VGJUNK

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