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.
TimeSplitters is pure, rather than shallow; it has all the action of an FPS with none of the bells and whistles that seem to encumber as many games as they enhance. Its technical sophistication and humor promised great things for Free Radical's future, and the sequel delivered on that promise.
TimeSplitters 2 (2002): After months of compulsively playing the short demo, I received the full sequel like it was manna from Heaven. It was everything a sequel should be; the same time hopping premise and smooth experience of the first, but improved and expanded in every respect.
In the story mode, the level design incorporated objectives which, though somewhat perfunctory, added complexity and a more deliberate pace. Enemy A.I. grew more sophisticated than the cardboard popup-esque miscreants of the first game's story mode (except, of course, for the challenge that literally pitted the player against cardboard popups), even ducking and leaning gently away from the crosshairs as the player lines up a headshot. There was even a rudimentary story; think Quantum Leap with more savage, unrestrained violence.
In multiplayer, the sequel retained what was best about the original while making significant improvements. The level editor, bots and a few favored maps were refined and joined by new modes, power-ups, optional character-specific skill attributes and even more customizable parameters.
The challenge mode was likewise expanded and joined by the arcade league mode, a series of predefined multiplayer bot matches. Free Radical's sense of humor really began to shine here. Players could not only play as a beasts, mutants, zombies and golems, but could read a laugh-out-loud blurb on each of these characters' back story. The challenge premises were just as clever, including a self-deprecating set that openly mocked the first game's "story" mode.
In a genre that's almost universally dour and self-important, the unfettered silliness of Free Radical's flying snowmen and exploding monkeys was unique and welcome, and being backed by truly brilliant game play certainly didn't hurt.
TimeSplitters: Future Perfect (2005): In this third and last title, TimeSplitters had its first fully developed story. Thankfully, far from falling into the same self-serious traps that make some game plots unbearable, Free Radical went in the opposite direction, crafting a tale that simultaneously parodied and reveled in all the cliches of time travel in particular, and sci-fi heroism and villainy in general. The hero, Sgt. Cortez, enthusiastically spouted a catch phrase so lame ("Time to split!") that other characters actually winced, and generally gave causality the finger as he fraternized with his own past and future selves. There were subtler touches of humor throughout the game as well, like the rambling, defeatist drunk who turned up (in a different form) in each era.
There were the expected incremental improvements, as well; visual effects were refined (and blood added for the first time), the cast of characters was carried over and greatly expanded, and a number of well-executed vehicle segments spiced up game play. Challenges and arcade league returned. The multiplayer was much the same as before, except perhaps for some subtle improvements (not counting the unfortunate announcer).
The overall level design felt like it had come together even more than in the previous games. While the various time periods had always had their own arsenals and aesthetics, the levels in Future Perfect were even more distinct in their senses of space and play styles. Weapons, some with unique functions, were often incorporated into the level design, becoming means of progression as well as mere boomsticks. This level of variety and intricacy of design, together with the newly fleshed-out story lending context to the player's actions and objectives, are why I consider Future Perfect the culmination of Free Radical's design prowess.
Free Radical's website features a bare-bones teaser of TimeSplitters 4, meaning that it must have been in early development when tragedy struck. According to the firm handling Free Radical's situation, news of a sale could come as early as this week. With luck, the studio will live on in some form or another, and TimeSplitters 4 will have a chance to grace the gaming world as a needed counterpoint to all the other shooters out there fighting to become more like each other.
A game where you can go head-to-head against an army of ninja monkeys, where you can be shot to death by a sock puppet or a wayward group of ocean life, or even that you can come back to again and again for nearly a decade and still enjoy its endlessly satisfying and twisted game play is very, very special. TimeSplitters spoiled me. I still feel cheated every time I play an FPS with a clunky frame rate, trite and humorless story, or no bots to fill a match when I've been without roommates or online capabilities.
There are FPS developers out there who could stand to learn a lot from TimeSplitters, and sadly, Free Radical itself can be included among them. If it dies now, it'll be that much more tragic with the badly incongruous Haze as its last offering to the world.
More on Haze (and the largely forgotten Second Sight) in part II. Until then, I've got some weeping to do.