I tend to enjoy games with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, but most don't pull it off very well. Oh sure, lots of games try. Very few games nowadays, in fact, seem unaware of their over-the-top, ridiculous natures. But most don't seem to understand how delicate the balance is between having an ironic or humorous edge and simply allowing the sheer excess of a game overwhelm it to the point of monotony. For every Duke Nukem and Serious Sam, I wish there were more games like TimeSplitters 2, a title that seems to have genuine fun with the excesses of the first-person shooter (FPS) genre but without resorting to the raunchy, sledgehammer-like wit of most "funny" games.
I confess to not having played the original TimeSplitters. Frankly, I remember only minimal noise about it. From what I understand, though, TimeSplitters 2 isn't so much a sequel as an expanded version of the original. The premise of the game is very simple and, in essence, a shameless gimmick. The paper-thin plot involves some not-quite-explained nonsense about a war fought in the future between humans and some kind of alien race that is manipulating time. The game begins as two soldiers capture a space station with the time travel device and plunge back in time on a quest to eradicate every last "timesplitter" and retrieve their "time crystals" for god-knows-what purpose. The implication is that this will correct time or something, but this is really an example of what TimeSplitters 2 does well. It is mercilessly well-paced and understands the player couldn't possibly care about its plot, yet provides just enough spunk to its story to give it an entertaining narrative dimension. From this brief sci-fi set-up, it drops the player immediately into a series of missions, each taking place in a different time period, that have their own aesthetic, story, and characters yet all involve essentially the same gameplay: shooting stuff.
So what, you say. I've played FPSs before. What makes this one so special aside from the gimmicky premise? Well, the first and most obvious reason is that it's made by Free Radical who, as astute gamers will know, is made up of the blokes who gave us the revolutionary FPS GoldenEye some years ago. That game and its pseudo-sequel, Perfect Dark, set the standard by which all console FPSs are judged. Before their time, the genre was seen exclusively as something that could only be done justice on PC, with its seemingly impossible-to-beat mouse/keyboard control scheme and superior hardware. However, GoldenEye proved that FPSs can have a different focus than the adrenaline-fueled kill-fests inspired by Doom. Instead, it emphasized more methodical gameplay with a higher level of detail in what the player could do with his or her weapons, making for a gaming experience so rich and compelling it marked a milestone in the industry and injected FPSs with a touch of cerebral complexity they badly needed at the time.
TimeSplitters 2, thankfully, carries on this legacy nicely. Although it doesn't shoot for the higher level of complexity achieved in Perfect Dark, it manages to capture the lucid and winning appeal of GoldenEye. Like all FPSs it involves running around some sort of place in a first-person view, collecting firearms, and using them on enemies who all fight back with differing levels of intelligence. The level design, following squarely in the able footsteps of its predecessors, is what makes the game so special. Like GoldenEye and Perfect Dark before it, the environments in TimeSplitters 2 are well-crafted spaces that have practically no redundancy. They are tightly constructed and reward thought, ingenuity, and planning rather than brute force. On the higher difficulty settings, players who attempt to run through the game guns blazing can expect to die quickly. The unique pleasure of the game comes mostly from analyzing the specific values of weapons, practicing complex combat and subterfuge strategies, and successfully managing to survive a level through foresight. However, for players who do enjoy a more visceral approach, the lower difficulty settings allow for a romp through levels that will satisfy anyone's appetite for destruction.
Of course, it's not as if TimeSplitters 2 has a monopoly on any of the things I just mentioned. FPS fans will be quick to point out that games like Halo have more sophisticated AI which results in strategic situations that are arguably more impressive than anything in TimeSplitters 2. I can't really deny this, but I feel it's beside the point. The appeal of TimeSplitters 2 only partially relies on its gameplay. Its real personality comes from its genre-bending aesthetics and loopy sense of humor. The time travel motif is exploited to the fullest possible creative level, making for a lot of delightful and cheeky send-ups of various genres such as sci-fi, westerns, cyberpunk, and even gothic literature. The various levels have their own protagonists (who are somehow being subconsciously "possessed" by the time traveling protagonists from the future I guess) and each begin with a brief but appealing cinematic that establishes the genre with confidence, style, and a goofy sense of bemusement. For example, the level taking place in prohibition-era Chicago begins with a deliberately hokey detective novel monologue. And the level taking place in a Flash Gordon-like future effectively sets the gee-wiz tone of a ham-fisted science fiction serial. In fact, all the levels have their roots in pulpy literature and/or cinema. Overwrought westerns, corn-ball spy novels, and plot-less kung-fu stories provide part of TimeSplitters 2's kaleidoscopic tour of dime-store fiction. If you're like me and you find the dreary "space marine" aesthetics of most FPS's out there to be dull as a board, TimeSplitters 2 provides a refreshing, fun, and—god forbid!—lively change of pace. Not only do you get the rock-solid gameplay foundation of its forbearers, but the chance to play through levels that you might not ever see in another game. I've fought oozy creatures in metallic corridors so many times it scarcely registers anymore. Halo might be great, but I think there's something to be said for a game that lets me play as a shotgun wielding harlequin out to punish a top-hat wearing serial-killer in Notre Dame Cathedral.
This gleeful variety is ultimately what gives TimeSplitters 2 most of its staying power. In addition to being a fun, concise, and satisfying game, it smartly avoids direct competition with wildly ambitious games like Halo, Doom III, and Unreal 2. Instead it opts to make an impression through sheer personality, and although I doubt it will knock people's socks off, it manages to carve out its niche gracefully.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.