Two days ago, my jaw dropped when it was announced that THQ Nordic had acquired the rights to TimeSplitters, the trilogy of first-person shooters released by Free Radical Games in the early 2000’s. My jaw specifically dropped not because THQ’s acquisition of the IP surprised me, but rather, because seeing the word TimeSplitters written in the headline of an article in the year 2018 had seemed, up to that point, like the stuff of sheer impossibility.
For those who might not be aware, the three TimeSplitters games were released between 2000 and 2005, the first game debuting as a launch title for the PS2. The franchise was named for its villains – the malicious TimeSplitters, an alien race at war with humanity in a bleak, distant future. However, rather than engage in open combat with Earth’s military, the TimeSplitters chose to strike at the human race in an inspired, methodical fashion: by using the aptly-named Time Crystals to travel back in time to various points in mankind’s history and compromise several key points in the development of humanity as a species.
At first glance, TimeSplitters shares plenty of similarities with the Terminator franchise. However, whereas the Terminator films have tended to treat their subject matter in a manner that could best be described as heavy-handed and dour, the TimeSplitters trilogy’s greatest asset was its sense of humor, which radiated throughout each of the series’ three titles.
This came largely due to the series’ pedigree – Free Radical Games, now defunct, was founded by ex-Rare developers whose primary claim to fame was their work on Nintendo 64 classics such as GoldenEye and Perfect Dark. The building blocks of Perfect Dark, in particular, could be felt throughout TimeSplitters – just as the former game was more than willing to add some levity to its tale of corporate espionage and alien invasion when necessary, TimeSplitters was a franchise that thrived when embracing the patent ridiculousness of its premise.
And the Rare aesthetic manifested in other ways as well – TimeSplitters’ heads-up display was drastically reminiscent of GoldenEye’s, with a health bar that was virtually indistinguishable from the 1997 classic. The gunplay also worked very similarly to both GoldenEye and Perfect Dark’s, with a variety of fun, versatile weapons that allowed players to approach levels in a variety of diverse fashions. Additionally, TimeSplitters 2 introduced the concept of secondary objectives to campaign missions – optional tasks that would vary depending on what difficulty setting you were playing on. Whereas later innovators in the FPS genre would trend towards linear, setpiece-driven campaigns, these secondary objectives were the method by which TimeSplitters campaigns would encourage exploration and experimentation.
They were also phenomenal games – in many ways, the three TimeSplitters titles (especially the second and third games, TimeSplitters 2 and TimeSplitters: Future Perfect) succeeded at serving as true and proper spiritual successors to GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, surpassing later entries in those franchises by leaps and bounds. They were emblematic of the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox generation, serving as fun AA video games with a passionate cult fanbase that recognized their merit as fun arcade shooters that served as an alternative to the Halos and Call of Duties of the world.
The franchise’s first installment, TimeSplitters, was relatively bare-bones compared to its successors. There wasn’t a narrative unifying the game’s campaign – the trilogy’s universe would only begin to take concrete shape in the 2002 sequel, and so the campaign was primarily comprised of levels set throughout mankind’s history in which the sole objective was to “stop the TimeSplitters”, then a decidedly nebulous threat. The game did introduce the first version of the series’ beloved Arcade Mode, a multiplayer suite comprised of various maps, playable characters, available modes and customizable settings. One of TimeSplitters’ greatest strengths was the ability to play Arcade Mode without friends with which to play multiplayer – it was easy to introduce computer-controlled bots into your session with little effort.
TimeSplitters 2, the game’s much-lauded sequel, released in 2002, and took the series multi-platform. It introduced the protagonist of the remainder of the trilogy, Sergeant Cortez, and chronicled his attempt to retrieve stolen Time Crystals and suppress a TimeSplitter incursion throughout history. The narrative was still window dressing for what was simply meant to be a fun campaign, but it was an enjoyable ride, as the player assumed the roles of various original characters in environments such as the Old West and a futuristic NeoTokyo. The Arcade Mode expanded as well, introducing a series of pre-set challenges in addition to an updated version of the original game’s customizable multiplayer suite.
Finally, TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, published by EA, featured the most cinematic plot of the series to date. Cortez went from being a nigh-silent protagonist to sporting an actual personality, and the mythology was finally fleshed-out as he went on a quest to explore the origins of the TimeSplitters in an attempt to undo the origin of their species – and ended up crossing paths with himself on more than one occasion. Characters who had appeared in previous campaigns received enough development to be able to hold their own in cutscenes comprised of exposition and witty banter. Once again, the robust multiplayer returned – this time with online functionality via an ethernet cable.
All three of these games featured inspired campaigns, but the Arcade Modes were where the series’ sense of humor was really able to shine – namely in each game’s vast stable of playable characters. TimeSplitters 2, the game of which I have the fondest memories, featured a hilarious cast of 126 diverse personalities, including a walking alien squid named Calamari, an anthropomorphic duck named Duckman Drake, and a demonic clown named Mr. Giggles. But of course, my most beloved character?
Introduced in TimeSplitters 2, there was nothing special about the monkeys – they were literally just monkeys. But they were playable, and there were even entire modes built around them, including Monkey Immolation, a variation of TS2’s Virus mode in which flaming monkeys chase you around an arena, aiming to set you on fire and win the match. It might sound patently ridiculous, but trust me, there is nothing more terrifying (and hilarious) than the image of five flaming monkeys wielding Tommy Guns bursting through the windows of a 1920’s Chicago nightclub in an attempt to chase you down and burn you alive with a single touch. The monkeys quickly became the unofficial mascot of TimeSplitters, even gracing Future Perfect’s disc art. Future Perfect would embrace the monkeys wholeheartedly, allowing you to choose from a variety of them, including the Robocop-esque Cyborg Chimp and an undead variant known solely as Brains.
A TimeSplitters 4 was announced in 2007, but the game’s development never came to fruition, and attempts to restart the franchise were in vain. Free Radical was purchased and folded into Crytek, and while Crytek frequently expressed a desire to revive the series, the frequent claim was that the audience simply wasn’t there. Talk of a current-gen installment in the series quickly died out, save for TimeSplitters Rewind, a fan-funded mod announced in 2012 that quickly received Crytek’s blessing. However, that project has been in development for six years, and there’s no telling what form it will take now that THQ Nordic has acquired the rights to the franchise at large.
I’d love to see THQ Nordic take strides towards reviving TimeSplitters in a manner similar to their approach to Darksiders – at the very least, I’d love to see the original trilogy remastered for current-generation consoles. The games exuded personality, and in a world in which arcade-esque shooters a la Doom have been making a comeback, now seems like the perfect time for a series like TimeSplitters to return to the spotlight. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we hear some news.
I’ve missed the monkeys.