Part II of our dreary lament over the death of Free Radical Design concludes by looking at their two non-TimeSplitters releases. If Part I left the reader with the impression that Free Radical could do no wrong, it’s all the more important to acknowledge these missteps. We tell the truth about the dead out of respect for the living, and so, join me in mournful contemplation of Second Sight, all but forgotten, and Haze, remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Second Sight (2004): Coming between Timesplitters 2 and Future Perfect, Second Sight was a departure for Free Radical in many respects, most prominently in the 3rd-person perspective and comparatively somber tone of the story. The game’s premise (hero wakes up with extraordinary psychic abilities and no memory) was, unfortunately, something of a cliche even five years ago, especially since psychic powers themselves were a burgeoning trend at the time. The other main draw of the action was stealth, and as we all know, for a period of about 10 years, stealth was shoehorned into about every third game release. All of this meant that, to gamers who looked no further than the synopsis, Second Sight hardly stood out from the crowd. In fact, reviews at the time invariably mentioned Midway’s Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, a game with a nearly identical premise whose release preceded Second Sight’s by a mere three months.
That was an unfortunate coincidence, because it’s easy for people to forget that games with similar premises can vary infinitely in execution. In fact, the number of genuinely novel games could probably be counted on a hand and a half; virtually nothing is unique, especially when reduced to a one-line description. Games, books, movies; virtually all creative endeavors live or die by the consumer’s willingness to dismiss them based solely on the most reductive analysis. I can’t necessarily say that Free Radical’s interpretation of common gameplay devices was Earth-shattering, but it was undeniably their own, and made for a worthwhile experience.
The story alternated between the amnesiac’s present situation and flashbacks leading up to the shadowy events that granted him his powers and brain damage. The flashback segments therefore relied more heavily on gunplay, and unsurprisingly, this aspect of the game was quite polished. In fact, the level design, control, implementation of the powers and overall pace and flow of gameplay were all up to Free Radical’s high standards. Even the story, arguably unfamiliar territory for the team, was engrossing and well-presented, and culminated in what I still consider one of the better twists in gaming.
As eager as I am to praise the game, I must admit contributing to Second Sight’s legacy of mediocrity. Though it’s now on the list of games I dearly wish I’d kept (and that’s a long list), I eventually traded it away, and based solely on the widespread availability of used copies and rapid price drop, so did virtually everyone else. For me, it was the lack of variation in replay, and especially the stealth segments (which stand out in my mind as being tedious and frustrating compared to everything else about the game) that led me to think I could do without it in my library. And, since I’m working from distant memory, I can’t dispute other complaints cited by reviews at the time, such as the gunplay rendering the powers redundant, or the easy replenishment of health and psychic power taking away from the overall challenge.
As much as it pains this diehard fan to say, Second Sight was solid, but not spectacular, and this fact, combined with its apparently too-familiar premise, made it too easy for Free Radical’s experiment to fade into the shadows of higher-profile games.
Haze (2008): Ah, yes…Haze, the other Free Radical game I got rid of, but this one gladly, after the course of a single angry, angry weekend. It was simultaneously a return to form and a much greater departure, and its dismal failure is unavoidably mentioned in the same breath as the news of the studio's demise.
Haze was a first-person shooter, but had little in common with the beloved TimeSplitters games. In fact, many of the best points of that series found their diametric opposites in Haze. The story was heavy-handed and bland, with no sign of Free Radical’s trademark humor. The level design was uninspired at best and downright baffling at worst. The characters were irritating, particularly the squad mates who spouted the same few phrases so continuously and enthusiastically that I felt compelled to either mute the game or simply shoot them to death just to make them shut up. The vehicle segments were infuriatingly counter-intuitive. The weapons were decent (with the notable and embarrassing exception of the flamethrower, the less said about which the better), but the designers decided to implement the two-weapon system.
I hate this particular gameplay device with a fiery passion. I could write many epic, profanity-rich volumes about just how much I hate it. For now, let’s just say that Haze, just like the dozens of other games that cribbed from Halo, was not improved by the two-weapon system.
However, the true tragedy of Haze lies in what it did right, the hints of the much better game that could have been. For one thing, the gunplay was genuinely enjoyable, though it could only be enjoyed fully when the numerous distractions took a break, and it was at least somewhat enhanced by the few story-related combat tricks (e.g. use of the performance enhancing nectar as a soldier, playing dead as a guerilla, etc.).
The story, for all its flaws, did at least have a brilliant twist. I’m not referring to the widely known mid-game defection, but instead to a twist that would have redeemed the story and reenergized the tone of the entire experience. It would have, that is, if it had come earlier in the game, and not as a zinger just before the credits rolled. Instead, it left me with the feeling that the best part of the game was the part that never happened. I sold it off without ever even trying the multiplayer.
The flaws of Haze are all the more mystifying given that they were all things that Free Radical had demonstrated that they could do right in the past. Second Sight had a serious story and dialogue that didn’t make the player cringe. Future Perfect’s vehicle segments were enjoyable enough, and certainly never detracted from the experience. Each of their previous games positively reveled in weaponry rather than crippling its own arsenal.
As a mere consumer, I have no real insight into the thought behind these changes, except to say that they seemed to be more in keeping with genre trends than one studio’s unique vision. Perhaps Free Radical would have done better to realize that even if the TimeSplitters games didn’t have the edgy plots and inventory systems of other shooters, they were better off for neatly occupying the niche they themselves defined.
In every corner of the entertainment industry, developers of content walk a fine line between doing what they do well (at the risk of stagnation) and breaking with the past (at the risk of alienating fans). Sometimes, trying something new pays off. Sadly for Free Radical (and for us, its devoted bereaved), of its two attempts at branching out, one was underwhelming, and the other was offensively flawed, and seems to have cost them dearly.
Even considering its miscalculations, Free Radical did much more right than it ever did wrong. It doesn’t deserve to die—not like this, so young and beautiful, and, like Howard Moon, with so much left to give. The gaming world will be a sadder place without TimeSplitters 4, and the doubtless many other works of genius that may never have a chance to come about.
So, if you’re a massive company with a spare few millions in cash lying around and/or a track record of supporting creative games (I’m looking at you, Sony), do yourself and the world a favor and put in a generous bid for good old Free Radical. If you’re just another mourner like me, then forgive Haze, cross your fingers, say a prayer, or conduct an eldritch and forbidden reanimation ritual.
Please, Free Radical, please don’t leave us.