TimeSplitters Future Perfect
It gives zombies a splitting headache, but is it challenging enough?
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When the time's right to look back at this console generation's most important games, surely TimeSplitters 1 and 2 will rank among them. Sure, both games had fairly throwaway single-player story modes that took only a few hours to crack, but both also sported the hilarious and original Challenge mode and a control system so slick we swear it's never been bettered. Throw in an amusing and unique visual style and you've got a series that stands out from the generic mass of po-faced me-too sci-fi schlock that every publisher and his dog has churned out. Colour us excited about a long-awaited third in the series.
Following our last fleeting glimpse of a highly-promising work-in-progress version at EA's Hot Summer Nights event we were already well versed in what the aim was this time; flesh out the main single player story mode, add the online multiplayer that was so dramatically dropped from TS2 and just generally improve on what everyone loved about the first two. Simple really.
Spring into spring
And this preview build (dated 28/11/04) of one of this year's most highly anticipated games gave us an extra spring in our step when it plopped onto the doormat. Needless to say the day's schedule was to revolve firmly around Free Radical's latest and hopefully greatest, playing a decent chunk of the story mode, challenge mode and some offline multiplayer. As first impressions go, this is one of those rare occasions when we can really get a proper feel for what to expect.
Kicking off with the all-important story mode, the focus this time is much more on the central character, Colonel Cortez. We don't know about you, but we barely even recall any emphasis previously on this Cortez chap, but this time he appears throughout in cut-scenes with plenty of pre-mission banter with the game's cast, all depicted in typically exaggerated cartoon-style thoroughly in keeping with what's gone before.
As before, each level is generally set in a different time period, so for example you begin proceedings in the year 2401 (Time To Split) in a rocky desert environment flanked by steep mountain sides, with alien creatures appearing out of thin air on opposing sides of the map. Fortunately Cortez starts the game well-equipped with laser fire and dealing with these unnamed foes is a matter of course. Moving forward onto a rocky precipice to join up with some of your comrades, you man a machinegun emplacement to see off the constantly appearing creatures before eventually exiting through a nearby door to an underground complex, complete with a disabled generator to get up and running via a water pump that's also out of action.
But, in worryingly straightforward fashion, you dispatch guards without so much as a blink, pick up their disguarded ammo, flick a few switches along the way before moving back through to the previously locked door. At this stage you might muse that for all its trademark visual style and slick controls, it's not exactly breaking the very boundaries of the genre, and seems a tad on the forgiving (and dare we say it, easy) side. But on we plod. The next section, Scotland The Brave (1924) is a huge contrast. Largely set inside an old castle, the general aim is to run the gauntlet while the Navy busy themselves bombing the crap out of the island. But it's another level that's over barely before it's even begun.
Next up, the two-part 1969 mission The Russian Connection/The Khallos Express plays up on the whole Summer Of Love theme with a firm emphasis on protecting your groovy moustachioed accomplice Harry Tipper (a recurring theme, we learn) who elects to split off from you and crawl through a series of tunnels and hatches. Meanwhile Cortez must go off, "be stealthy" (they lie, it makes little difference) restore power, find a disguise to sneak through the next section and so on, while simultaneously sniping at enemies trying to halt his buddy's daring dashes to safety.
Through the next section you can leap into a jeep and try driving your way through the checkpoints (with fairly bonkers handling as it goes). Otherwise though it's another straightforward march through willing sentries that emerge on cue from behind boxes and again provide scant challenge before you get to blow the doors off to gain entrance to the train... which you naturally have to board in order to prevent its march to Third Wold War doom.
Please shoot me for I am a gaming sentry
Marching forth onto The Khallos Express, the inevitable cannon fodder stands obediently in the train carriages providing something for us to expend our ammo on, while others stand near gas bottles on the more exposed sections of train and oil barrels that practically scream "shoot here". Plough through them and a chopper roars into view to try and shoot you into next week. Well obviously. A couple of fairly hairy excursions with said livewire chopper provide us with an opportunity to see a few spectacular explosions and dodge red hot pellets of death, not to mention its inevitable doom thanks to the somewhat contrived presence of a disconnected SAM launcher. As if that wasn't improbable enough, we don't even get to operate it; our sidekick back at base manages to take that fun away from us from her end, and so the level goes on, with a curious interchange between Past and Future Cortez; wormholes and the like allowing Free Radical to mess around with the plot dynamics to interesting effect.
But, after four levels, a boss face off and a chunk of the fifth level in a haunted mansion (complete with standout stunning outdoor weather effects), we generally feel decidedly underwhelmed with the opening section - of a game for which we had extremely high expectations. This is evidently an unfinished build that's "not representative of the final quality", so we shouldn't be hasty to jump to any conclusions just yet, although ominously PSM2's World Exclusive review this week reports the story mode was "blandly unchallenging", and seemed generally downbeat despite the obligatory 90 per cent score. We couldn't agree more with most of their assessments from what we've seen in the four hours we played Future Perfect; there's something curiously soulless and uninvolving about what we've experienced thus far, with the greater emphasis on storyline only serving to underline some really excitable and annoying voice acting - rescued only by some superb animation and crisp character models. This wasn't what we were expecting, we have to admit. We can only hope things improve as the game wears on.
Better news elsewhere, though, with the challenge mode likely to offer its trademark range of hilarity in the name of first-person beheading. The first challenge, though, is far from it, with 122,000 points racked up on our first go at shooting the heads off zombie monkeys. But aside from that it's the usual array of complete insanity, with another level arming you only with a gravity gun and a few boxes to behead the zombies with. Oh, and their heads to behead them with once you've sent a few of those flying. Yes, beheading zombies with... the heads of fellow zombies. If there's anything that's likely to make us want to continue our love affair with TimeSplitters, it's humorous touches like this. Overall it looks as if there are at least 30 or so challenges; most reprising what's come before - escorting VIPs, smashing things up and the like - except this time it has the added benefit of not having to be unlocked first, which is definitely the right decision for those who can't be bothered with trawling through single-player missions first. As before, you get medals for your progress; Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum, with the welcome addition of a little medal indicator in the top left keeping you informed of how well you're doing.
The allure of the many
For many PS2 and Xbox owners though the addition of full 16-player online play is likely to be one of the major draws, and although we won't be able to experience this until we get the boxed version, the presence of bots certainly gives a flavour of what to expect across the game's 15 maps. Listed under the bracket of 'Arcade', all the standard favourites make their customary appearance, including Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture The Bag, Bagtag (hold onto the level's only bag), Elimination (Deathmatch with limited lives), Zones (a.k.a. domination), and Assault (defend your own base while attacking the enemy's), so we shouldn't need to remind many of you what these entail.
The more imaginative flavours of multiplayer include TimeSplitters' very own Escort, which tasks you with protecting a VIP; the ingenious deathmatch variant Shrink, where the size of each contender is based on their ranking (so, higher rankings equal bigger character model and thus easier to hit); Vampire, where you must kill others to increase your lifespan; Virus, whereby tagged players stay on fire, with the last one alive the winner; Gladiator, a mode where only the gladiator can score; and the Monkey Assistant mode, which remained locked in our build, so answers on a postcard please. Thrown in for good measure is a League option within Arcade which provides a mix of modes for a challenge/medal-based multiplayer experience, so in other words a pretty exhaustive list of modes that can be enjoyed just as easily offline as on, with a challenging set of bots that will kick your arse given half the chance.
And if that wasn't enough, there's even a set of mapmaker tools for you to mess around with, potentially creating a vast community of homebrew TS levels that should prove extremely popular with those who have the patience for these things. It'll be interesting to see exactly how popular this feature proves amongst console owners at any rate.
At this stage we're cautious to read too much into what we've played, but admittedly we're not quite as beamily confident as we were that Future Perfect will be the console FPS of the year. For one thing the final build needs to be a mite more challenging and show a bit more guile to stand a chance of being held up alongside the rest of the series, but even on a technical level things haven't really noticeably moved on to an especially noticeable degree; it's more a case of progress in increments than two and half years of slog. That's not to say it's not a delightful-looking game, because the TS series has always looked ahead of its time; it's just not doing much that's in any way special anymore. You could say the wow factor isn't quite there. But don't take this as an attack. Not yet. It's still evidently an extremely polished title with an immense amount of entertainment packed into it, especially in its challenge and multiplayer modes. It's maybe just not heading for top marks. All will be revealed when we get the finished build in the lead up to the game's 25th March release.