With TimeSplitters and its sequel, Free Radical's staff seemed to struggle deliberately against the prevailing trends in FPS and action games, trends that they themselves had helped create in their work at Rare on GoldenEye and Perfect Dark. Filmic style, narrative coherence and considered, tactical combat were all eschewed. In their place were frantic, twitchy arcade shooting and a charmingly silly kitchen-sink conceit that could accommodate every spoof and staple they could think of. The games were a defiantly uncool manifesto for a traditional gaming aesthetic (or lack of one), and though they divided opinion, many loved them for it.
So it's a surprise to find Second Sight sneaking out from under the noisy cover of EA's signing of TimeSplitters 3, for this paranormal spy thriller is all about stealth and story and a seamless, directed, singleplayer 'experience' - the very model of a modern videogame. Which is not to say that there's no family resemblance. TimeSplitters fans will feel at home with the funky flared character design, while the snowbound Russian base, the scattershot AK47 and the musical cues - even the telltale chirrup of the CCTV cameras - belong to an unbroken lineage stretching all the way back to GoldenEye. So cosy, so avuncular, so Britsoft.
The premise, the structure and the setting are all new, however, and substantially more voguish. Dr John Vattic awakes in a mysterious medical research facility to find he has amnesia and psychic powers - telekinesis, self-healing, shockwave attacks, projection of a ghost form and more. These are drip-fed to the player as Vattic makes his escape and investigates his own abduction, his past and his place in this web of intrigue coming back to him all the while in the form of punchy playable flashbacks. Handily, these include his secondment to a military special ops team and the attendant stealth and weapons training.
The plot is a pretty hokey sub-X-Files conspiracy, to be sure, but it's handled with genuine grace and economy, piquing and steadily rewarding interest without resorting to shock tactics or loudly telegraphed Big Secrets. Crisp of cut-scene, blessed with a refreshingly light touch and low-key compared to the po-faced chest-beating of its peers, Second Sight could well be a high water mark in storytelling through games (as opposed to storytelling around them). Its flashback technique recalls Silicon Knights' remarkable horror yarn Eternal Darkness, but it's far less grandiose, more focused in its application, and ultimately even more successful. Free Radical has taken totale-spinning like the proverbial duck.
The same, sadly, cannot be said of its attempt at the ubiquitous stealth action. Second Sight lacks the radar or the camera flexibility for players to be aware of all threats to their secrecy. While it could be said that a certain level of frustration goes hand in hand with the quiet excitement of going unnoticed, that excitement is only there the first time, and endlessly restarting and replaying sections of motionless hiding is the very opposite of entertaining. So is the alternative - skulking in cupboards to wait out repeated security alerts. That the most disheartening sneaking sections come early in the game - during Vattic's escape and before he has a full compliment of psi powers - is a critical error in pace that threatens to kill the game for many players.
Far more successful is the armed combat, some of the best in any thirdperson actioner to date. The essential lock-on system is complimented with the ability to finesse your aim vertically, bringing the rich satisfaction of the smoothly timed headshot to this perspective. The weapons are familiar and masterfully realised, cover is easy and fun to use, and the resulting firefights are an evocative and generous thrill.
Second Sight's supposed USP - the psychic abilities - are a more mixed blessing. Occasionally fiddly, they are slow to reveal their potential, especially since their use is only very occasionally required, leaving it up to the player to discover how best to wield Vattic's brain power. It's also a great shame that telekinesis, which should be the standout power, is let down by some tinnily unconvincing and buggy physics (one of several areas, also including audio, in which the game feels a little low-rent and dated).
But then, just as Vattic approaches a godlike ability to manipulate his world in later stages, the player gets comfortable and finds that tactical options are blown wide open, timid tedium replaced by scope for genuinely creative and cruel improvisation. The rush of omnipotence is heady indeed, and finally, perhaps just a little too late, Second Sight adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Caught between the superior psychic physics of Psi-Ops and the bigger, brassier stealth-opera of Riddick, Second Sight may get squeezed out. But it doesn't deserve to be. Despite its irritations and its occasionally threadbare set-dressing, this is a smart, fun, forward-thinking work, a tale well told, and a true British original.
Second Sight is out on PS2, Xbox and Gamecube this Friday (3 September)