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TimeSplitters: Future Perfect

If this preview merely discussed the new TimeSplitters' Mapmaker it would fill you with joy, excitement and yearning. PC gamers have long been able to intensify their appreciation of a given game with editing tools and suites, but while a few console games have provided map editors there's been nothing to rival Future Perfect's suite of design tools. It's incredible.

Of course, this is Free Radical's third version, but it now appears to be the real deal. Memory-saving fixes enable users to build levels twice the size of those possible in TimeSplitters 2, and one of the major improvements is the ability to fuse together tiles from any of the time periods. But that's not all. "Previously the type of blocks we had, and the way they fitted together, tended to dictate what kind of maps could be produced," laments David Doak, Free Radical's managing director. "The limitations of the plugs forced a certain way of building. Now there's only one kind of plug." A universal plug, if you will. Previously Mapmaker was a mean kind of Airfix, with part 1b attaching only to parts 12h or 6f. Now it's Lego, with all the simplicity and scope that implies. Large rooms, created out of smaller tiles, are no longer compromised by a swathe of annoying pillars; they can now be as architecturally simple or as complex as you want them to be. "We asked users what they wanted; they just said big open spaces," chuckles Doak.

It's possible to create singleplayer levels, multiplayer assault maps, deathmatch arenas or challenges to keep you amused. It's possible to set up proximity-triggered sentry guns, even customise their arc of their movement. It's possible to create ambient lighting, flickering corridors or player-controlled switches that can plunge areas of your map into darkness. It's possible to build upwards as well as outwards, creating sniper points for campers, open up sections to the sky, even customise the weather: rain, snow, brilliant sunshine, whatever you decide. It's also possible to use basic game logic to trigger special events, even flash up short messages. You could create the most foul-mouthed level ever devised.

What's even more impressive is that Mapmaker 3 is going online. Free Radical hopes to create a community that's every bit as vibrant as those of Counter-Strike, Quake or Thief, but for a new generation of console gamers. Future Perfect will come with ten maps of varying complexity to give users both insight and inspiration. "The Assault maps are likely to evolve," adds Doak. "A server popularity ranking will tell you which maps are good. You can then download them into Mapmaker and mess around, tweak and improve them."

Although Free Radical is proud of its earlier TimeSplitters singleplayer campaigns, it has recognised that they lacked focus and direction. While Future Perfect sticks to the time-hopping premise, it's going to feel less disjointed. A Second Sight level of scripting and backstory should help, and there are plenty of Bill And Ted-style time paradoxes to make things clip along and fit together with greater finesse. Cortez, the returning hero, often meets himself in levels - provoking comic situations and the kind of time puzzles missing from the previous games.

Levels include an island castle under bombardment in 1924, a Russian facility in the '50s, ancient Egypt, the near future and the far future of 2401. Halo's influence is very evident: grenades are now assigned to the shoulder/trigger button and you can also climb into vehicles either as driver or rear gunner. Current evidence suggests Future Perfect is more channelled than Halo, but its frenzied run-and-gun flavour is no bad thing.

Which brings us on to monkeys. The Challenges and Arcade leagues were TimeSplitters 2's most cherished elements and they are back with a vengeance. Once again, the cuddly simians can be shot, teased, electrocuted and even used as curling stones in Future Perfect's bonus modes. A new gravity gun can also be employed to gruesome effect. One challenge asks you to behead the undead by propelling boxes across the room; run out of boxes and you have to resort to heads rolling around on the floor. You can drive remote-controlled cats, compete in buggy races and even shoot two miniguns in a splitscreen game using both analogue sticks. Though Martin Keywood, the game's producer, worryingly points out that this currently "makes you go blind."

The 'adult' nature of some of this content has forced an 18+ rating on the game, something that Free Radical is a bit miffed about. But since the ruling the team hasn't sanitised anything in an attempt to reach a wider demographic. If it's going to be an 18+ game they may as well go the whole hog, seems to be the attitude. Blood could well be spilt in TimeSplitters for the first time.

With EA on board, there's a renewed optimism at Free Radical, and with a package this broad, versatile and effervescent it's hard to predict anything but an outright sales success. After the mixed reception of Second Sight the future may not be perfect, but it's looking a lot rosier.

TimeSplitters: Future Perfect is due for release on PS2, Xbox and Gamecube in the Spring