I am in mourning. The tears are free-flowing, the teeth gnashed, garments rent. Nottingham's Free Radical Design, the makers of some of the dearest games to my own heart, have shut their doors, and there is nothing now but to grieve.
According to Joystiq, Free Radical laid off about 75% of their workforce, and the company exists now only in limbo as an outside agency tries to sell it (and/or its IPs), whole or in pieces. If you're as familiar with Free Radical as I am, you'll understand why this news drives me to maudlin gibbering. And so, I offer up the following retrospective by way of a tear-soaked eulogy in this time of deplorable loss and lament.
Today's remembrance will focus on TimeSplitters and its two sequels, with Free Radical's standalone titles to be examined in part II.
TimeSplitters (2000, PS2 launch title): Playing TimeSplitters is like mainlining pure, uncut FPS directly into the eyeballs. At first glance, it appeared quite simplistic, and in a way, it was. The "story" mode was essentially nothing but one-player capture the flag against enemies that behaved somewhat like shooting gallery targets. The main twist was that each level took place in a different time period, complete with appropriate past, present and future weaponry. An additional "challenge" mode offered task-based variations of the same run-and-gun game replay.
With TimeSplitters, Free Radical refined the FPS genre into its most basic, twitchy, arcade-shooter form, and the result was quite simply a blast to play. The arsenal was hugely diverse and fun to use, and the game exercised the full spectrum of FPS skills: reflexes, strafing, fine aim, etc. Though the graphics look dated today, the frame rate was fast and extraordinarily consistent even with a screen full of enemies and effects. This not only showed admirable technical prowess on Free Radical's part, but lent the game a fast, smooth pace still rarely matched.
Though TimeSplitters was undeniably simplistic in some respects, it had surprising depth and replay value. The multiplayer was comprehensively customizable and allowed for up to 10 bots, and even had a built-in level editor. Multiplayer, whether played alone or on split screen, was therefore almost infinitely variable and fresh. Without any discernible story keeping things too serious, the game took a refreshingly tongue-in-cheek direction when it came to character design and challenge premises.
On a personal note, the game was a fixture in my dorm room. After my roommates and I made the regrettable mistake of seeing The Mummy Returns, we returned home and fired up the PS2. We set up a death match in the pyramid level, selected a range of period weapons and a full contingent of mummy bots, and consoled ourselves with a frenzy of undead blasting that was nevertheless more coherent and compelling than the movie.