I’ve never understood why anyone was surprised when Perfect Dark Zero turned out to be a bit crapcrap. In fact I never understood why anyone ever expected it to be any kind of a genuine follow-up to Rare’s classic FPS era of Goldeneye and PD at all. And I’ve never understood why anyone was even still waiting for one by that point anyway. Talk about missing the boat.
You see the thing is, the Rare that made Perfect Dark Zero was not the Rare that made Goldeneye. A good proportion of that Rare had left to form Free Radical Design long before the Xbox 360 came around. And at Free Radical, they had already created the successor to Rare’s biggest N64 successes years before anyone ever bandied about the phrase “HD remake”. Or in fact, the phrase “HD”.
You want the sequel to Goldeneye and Perfect Dark? You come to TimeSplitters 2. That’s where you come. Let me tell you about it.
So it’s 2003. I’m talking to a friend about games one day, and he’s very excited about something. “Holy crap, have you played TimeSplitters 2? It’s from the people who made Goldeneye and it’s full of film references and it’s brilliant. You’ve got to come round and check it out” So I did. And then I immediately bought a copy of my own.
Above: The most important box art on my shelf for a good few years
I’d been dubious at first. Not distrustful, you understand. This was, after all, the same friend who unwittingly instigated the £180 purchase of F.E.A.R. I detailed in last week’s Appreciation Section. But to an FPS-loving, film-geek Nintendo fan like myself, TimeSplitters 2 just sounded too perfect. And besides, Rare had nothing to do with it. I’d checked. My friend was getting confused and over-enthusiastic about a new game, that was all.
But he wasn’t. After two minutes with TimeSplitters 2’s opening level, everything made sense. This was Goldeneye 2, from the Goldeneye team, but way better than an actual sequel to Goldeneye could ever have been. TS2 you see, was designed by David Doak, who also designed Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. The soundtrack was composed by Graeme Norgate, who also composed the soundtracks to Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, Killer Instinct, Blast Corps and Jet Force Gemini. It had the same clever and imaginative level design of the Rare FPS of old, and the same fast, twitch-friendly action. Hell, the pause screen was even accessed by looking at a physical, in-game gadget, just like pulling up Goldeneye’s magical spy watch. In fact even the damn health and shield system looked almost exactly the same on-screen.
Above: Where did they get that design from?
TimeSplitters 2 proudly, cheekily, almost ostentatiously displayed its true nature and origins right from the first playable screen. You found yourself outside a huge, militarised dam on the edge of a vast Siberian snow field. A small encampment of out-buildings lay just ahead of you, patrolled by a currently unaware set of guards. In front of you lay a silenced pistol and a sniper rifle. Your objective was to infiltrate the complex before making your way to your final goal at the top of the dam. Sound familiar? Of course it does. That one level was the best combined tribute to and remake of Goldeneye I could have ever dreamed of. And it certainly wasn’t just about the setting.
You see where the first TimeSplitters was a fairly simple smash-and-grab time attack shooter, TS2 was the real deal. It was a sharp, immaculately paced FPS with personal player input right at the forefront of the design. You could play it like Bond or you could play it like Rambo, and that first level was a flawless introduction to its design philosophy. You could, if you wanted to, go loud straight away, mulching through the initial camp in a whirlwind blaze of glory. But it was also entirely possible to Metal Gear through it, using trial and error to master a carefully-planned cover route, using silent and precisely-timed one-shot takedowns to butcher the entire squad and complete four objectives (three optional) without ever being detected.
Above: Not a bad run, but it's possible to get right to the other side of the river without being spotted
Nothing was handed to you on a plate of course. In fact it took me a good hour of experimentation to perfect my run, taking into account the tight timings of patrol patterns, the correct order in which to take each guard down, which guns to use when, and the subtleties of the cover, security camera effectiveness and safe shooting angles. Not to mention dealing with that barely-visible sniper in the tower about half a mile away, across the other side of the map.
The first few metres of that level were a meta-game in themselves. And inspired by my victory there, I took my newfound tactical skills into the level proper, where I discovered (with a lot more digging) that it was entirely possible to get through around two-thirds of the stage with a 100% bodycount without being spotted once. That my friends, is some serious game design right there. Doubly serious when you consider that once you work out how to do it, you’ll discover that said initially implausible stealth run requires barely less ammo for each of the required weapons than is actually available on the level. Clever bastards, Free Radical, clever bastards indeed. You rarely ever get that kind of depth and thought in the design of modern console FPS.
But the best was yet to come. And I could not imagine how much of the best there was going to be.
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