Possibly one of the most hotly debated topics of recent years was whether TimeSplitters was actually a good game or not. It certainly split (pun intended) Eurogamer opinion right down the middle with some deriding its shallow non-entity single player experience, while others warmed to the hugely entertaining and quirkily original Challenge Mode, engaging multiplayer mode and the fact that it pushed the PS2 so early on in its life.
Coded by Rare breakaway rebels Free Radical Design, the game went on to be one of only four 100,000+ selling titles (in the UK) in the early days of the PS2, and the team gained huge plaudits as a result. Naturally expectation is high for the sequel, with the growing console FPS fan base hoping for a game that can finally match the multi layered delights of that revered N64 classic GoldenEye.
One of the main moans of the original (coded from scratch in around 12 months) was the rather thrown together story mode, with seemingly a complete absence of credible narrative to hold together each level. Instead it felt like a series of nine standalone episodes set in differing time zones that, while entertaining, could be completed in a few short hours. At least this time around Free Radical has made a bit more effort. In TS2 we learn that the evil TimeSplitters race has grown in power and - shock horror - the fate of mankind is in the balance. To cut the story short, which isn't too difficult, the only way to halt their evil reign is to find the time crystal in each of the ten levels (cunningly distributed throughout various points in history) and leg it out of there before you get killed.
This is one wealthy game
But the still rather tenuous story does not detract from the wealth of other modes included. The 30-level strong Challenge mode is, thankfully, available right from the start, while the Arcade mode gives wannabe fraggers to get in some practice for the inevitable multiplayer excursions. For the committed, an i-Link mode gives PS2 owners the chance to experience the ultimate in console multiplayer, although the long mooted online play was, as most of you will be aware, dropped just before completion.
Concentrating on the single player experience for a moment, it's fair to say that every level has a degree of polish that won't disappoint. It's not perhaps the most obviously aesthetically pleasing game in the way that, say, Devil May Cry is. Many will pick holes in the general lack of texture detail, and that's a fair criticism to levy in TS2's direction. However, there are plenty of other areas where TS2 excels. The overall 'look' of the game thanks to its proprietary engine gives it a softer, more rounded appearance than just about any FPS out there (with the exception of TS1, naturally). As with TS1, the character models have a stylised and incredibly well animated appearance and an attention to detail that will melt the heart of even the harshest TS critic. The numerous weather effects also deserve applause, and help deliver a consistently coherent and credible environment - especially the Blade Runner inspired Neo Tokyo level, and the Wild West. In fact almost every level you play makes you wish there were more than just one built around them - it would certainly have beefed up the rather anorexic single player campaign. On the plus side, there are a trio of hidden mini games (including a Snake variant) that Free Radical has thrown in for eagle eyed observers - nothing more than fillers, but certainly a nice touch.
More holes than Swiss cheese
However, during the single player episodes, it's apparent that the AI is not all it could be, and TS2 flatters to deceive all too often. There are more than a few occasions where the holes in the system are all too apparent, and conspire to give the appearance of an undercooked product. For example, witnessing baddies running around in endless circles like headless chickens is certainly never going to win any awards, neither will the scrappy, almost absent, boss AI. On more than one occasion it was possible to dispatch our foe with ten quick blasts without so much as having to strafe out of the way - hardly groundbreaking enemy behaviour by anyone's standards, least of all in one of the most eagerly awaited games of the year. But on the other hand, the general behaviour of the drone AI is more often than not superb, with excellent duck and fire tactics giving you the impression of a genuine fire fight. This anomaly can be put down to Free Radical being pressured to deliver the game before it was ready, and will rile more than a few of the faithful. Such sloppiness won't spoil the enjoyment overall, but will certainly rile those of us that wish such errors could be spotted and sorted out before the game hits the shelves.
Gameplay wise, the single player missions are brimming with the usual GoldenEye style Primary and Secondary objectives that vary depending on what skill level you choose - if it aint broke, don't fix it, and the formula once again works as it always has done. Each mission is played in a different time, and therefore you get to experience a new character, new enemies, a new environment and a whole new set of weapons every time, which lends a degree of freshness to the game. Occasionally you're expected to do things at your own pace, while in Neo Tokyo, for example, it's all about stealth and cunning, with a fair dose of trial and error - all against the clock! One particularly insane level has you charging around having to defuse bombs while hordes of enemies make your life hell. There are so many highlights during the single player missions, it's easy to see why various reviewers have got so carried away (The alien invasion! The Wild West jail break! The Quasimodo/Esmeralda rescue shoot out!) but sadly it's over so quickly (10 to 15 hours on Normal we reckon) that you're left gasping for more - again!
Almost too much fun
If that was all there was to TS2 it would be easy to give Free Radical the bird for again selling us a little short in the story department - but that would mean ignoring the awesome charms of the Challenge mode. With 30 levels of insanity to get to grips with, it's fair to say there's more than enough gameplay hours to keep even the most committed TS head occupied. Anyone who's familiar with TS1 will know the drill; think of the most surreal, twisted task, set it against the clock and let you get on with it, so it's more zombie head punching, window smashing, lunacy, and again it's ridiculously frustrating, but never less than hugely entertaining; playing this mode with a friend or friends (taking it in turns) is almost too much fun, and will last you ages. Make sure you've got a few joypads spare, though eh? You may want to smash you controller to pieces at times - but that's part of the fun…
Of course, the modes you almost certainly will be playing with your mates are the numerous split screen multiplayer ones. Friends are optional, thankfully, as you can replace the real thing with pretty evil bots, but clearly the real deal is where it's at. Every possible element is customisable and tweakable to your specific requirements, so if you want to play as teams, with/without bots, with certain bot sets, or using too many deathmatch/capture the bag variants to possibly list, then you can. Suffice to say that fans of FPS console multiplayer madness will be more than well catered for….especially when you factor into the equation the map making mode, giving the more creative/time rich player the option of creating their own unique arenas.
But with the game being released on three systems, and many Eurogamer readers owning multiple consoles, many of you will probably be wondering whether there is a standout version. Having played both PS2 and Xbox versions extensively, it's clear that the game has been designed to appear identical on all formats. We haven't seen the GameCube version at close quarters recently, but it's safe to assume that this version will also be the same, subtle control variances aside. In fact, the only noticeable difference between Xbox and PS2 was the welcome presence of 5.1 surround sound on the Xbox, and very slightly sharper textures. And while we're on the subject of sound, the aural delights are never less than brilliant at any stage; the soundtrack is genuinely listenable, while the gun sound effects always lend a credible atmosphere - particularly in the Wild West, where the ricochet effect is genuinely, knowingly, spot on.
Control wise, much has been made of TimeSplitters 2's silky smooth system, and it's well worth believing the hype. After so many ham fisted efforts over the years, when you're controlling TS2 with a PS2 pad, it somehow feels like an entirely new, and infinitely more sensitive controller - an absolute revelation. As early as your first kill on the Siberia level, it's clear that a huge amount of attention has been lavished on this crucial area. Controlling the cursor while you're in sniper or aim mode is so slick it's a joy. Making tiny adjustments is a piece of cake, and just makes the process of creeping around corners, picking off enemies and playing the game feel so natural, and ultimately more rewarding. So many times your enjoyment of a game is marred by an ill-advised control system. This problem does not apply with TimeSplitters 2. Rejoice.
But with the game out on three consoles, surely one pad is better suited? It's probably down to habit and personal preference, but the double shoulder button configuration makes the PS2 pad the easiest to pick up and play in our opinion. Having said that, it's possible to configure the controls to your exact requirements, meaning that Xbox owners in possession of one of those lovely 'Magic Box' joypad adaptors may even consider, shock horror, using a PS2 pad. With this in mind, it's possible to enjoy the best of both worlds - 5.1 surround plus the option of using the controller the game was arguably designed for. (We're bracing ourselves for accusations of anti-Xbox bias, but remember TS1 was designed with the Dual Shock in mind, and TS2 uses the same control system). However, PS2 offers eight-machine link possibilities, and somewhat bizarrely the Xbox version does not… decisions decisions.
FPS fan? Get down the shops!
The bottom line, though, is whether you'll want to buy it. With so many top quality games coming out over the coming weeks, TimeSplitters 2 is certainly one of the best five new console releases out before Christmas - whether you commit yourself to this over the other great games coming out will depend on your love of first person shooters. The two single player modes combined will keep you going for ages (not to mention single player vs. bot possibilities), while the multiplayer charms (tons of maps, modes, level designer, link modes) put it easily on a par with anything else out there. And it's got monkeys in it, which instantly makes it an essential purchase.