Monday, February 20, 2006

TimeSplitters 2

I know it's not a recent game, but I only just got to play it. So I'm going to review it a bit.

This isn't a review-review. It's a dissection. However, it isn't a carefully constructed dissection - it's a quick and messy job with a hacksaw.

TimeSplitters 2 is a first-person shooter with some pretty serious limitations - such as the utter lack of ability to interact with NPCs. Also, it's an XBox game, so the control scheme is a bit unnatural.

The basic story mode involves a number of levels which are all functionally independent short stories. Since the overarching plot involves someone who travels through time to find crystals, all the stories are technically seen through "his" eyes and tied together by a final few seconds of crystal-hunting.

This is a brilliant idea. There's enough of a link between the levels to serve as a perfect wind-down: at the end of each level, you grab the crystal and lightning-headed mafioso pop in to harass you until you jump through the final portal. This is an ending – something which many levels in many games lack, especially FPS. In many games, you simply pass through a door and on to the next level with barely enough time to register that you finished a level.

However, the rest of the level is unique – and that's what makes TimeSplitters unique. You become someone on the scene who has a job to do, and just who that person is varies from level to level, no repeats. Are you the Indiana-Jones-style adventurer? The spaceman? The private eye? The weird thief girl from Notre Dame? A robot?

Each level (and, to a lesser extent, each character) has its own taste. For example, the private eye gets silenced pistols, hunting rifles, and tommyguns. The archaeologist gets a pistol and a crossbow. The spaceman gets a bunch of futury weapons. The Notre Dame dame gets shotguns. Lots and lots of shotguns.

The minigames also change from level to level. Giant turrets for our spaceman. Security systems that the robot can interface with. There's cameras for everyone after 1960. There's weird jungle puzzles for our archaeologist.

This gives the game an incredibly diverse feel. I really enjoyed that! The gameplay was largely excellent.

There were some downsides.

Perhaps the biggest one was difficulty in building up any narrative force. Yeah, I have a weak spot for the Notre Dame setting. Probably the music. But once we finish with it, we never see our masked thief again. This is definitely a weak point to anyone who really cares about the story of a game – which I do.

The other big problem was the radical differences in difficulty and some rather unhelpfully vague goals.

Why were Robot Factory and that one with the awesome spy guy so hard? They were roughly TWICE as hard as the other levels. That's pretty weird. Also, why were some levels almost impossible to figure out how to get through – like the stranded spaceman level? Others, however, were laughably straightforward.

This sort of highly uneven level design doesn't happen very often in games with a coherent and consecutive plot.

Also, TimeSplitters took the idea of “difficulty levels” very seriously. I'm good enough to win some platinum awards in arcade mode, but I'm not good enough to beat it on “hard”. On the other hand, I can almost beat it just using my feet on “easy”. Maaaaybe a bit too much differentiation.

Despite the very interesting story mode, the game really shines in its extras. The extras allow you to go through a huge number of added simple levels, designed with verve. Some of this extra content is EXCESSIVELY DIFFICULT for me. Although I can win golds and platinums in most of the contests, I can't even beat other ones. I couldn't even get to the highest arcade league, because I can't beat the handy-man level in the middle arcade league... despite getting a gold and a platinum on the two earlier levels on that subset.

The idea of extras is profoundly awesome, as I mentioned. While doing these levels, you can earn new characters, new levels, new hats. This is cool. The problem is: you can really only use your extra unlocked content in multiplayer contests.

Yeah, I earned Gretel Mark II, but the only place I can play her is in a death match. I'm not a big fan of death matches using XBox controllers. Not awesome.

Since I have such a profoundly hard time with some of the challenges, my suggestion would have been to put in a selection of extras, but make only one available by default. As you unlock characters and other extras, you can choose them in any given challenge. Can't beat the handymen? Unlock the “Handyman Can” extra, which equips you with dual tommies from the start.

Who cares about “balance” - these are the extras, they're supposed to be fun.

Still, despite my whining, the extras are a beautiful touch.

The last piece of the game is the map creation system. This uses a simple – and I mean SIMPLE – tile placement system to lay out the map and place people. Even in “advanced” mode, it's pretty brutally limited.

One bizarre choice was having “red connectors” and “green connectors” which were incompatible. Kind of weird and irritating. Another irritating thing was that they forced you to have ceilings, so no useful room can be more than two stories high. Lastly, it occasionally causes the XBox to crash when loading up the preview.

However, I've snuck a look at the next game in the series, and its map editor has fixed these problems. I'm going to buy it – probably tomorrow.

There are a few other details: the music is exquisite. The fact that there's no such thing as NPC interaction is irritating, especially since the character models are so awesome. A lot of people really hate the sci-fi handgun, but I loved it.

End result:

All games use varying a pattern of play to keep the player interested. Usually, this is through a steady gain of power over the course of the game.

TimeSplitters 2 uses a “bunch of short stories” method to radically increase the amount of variation on the basic pattern of play. It successfully makes you grin with glee as you pick up a new weapon or solve a new puzzle. I think this is most of its coolness. This does have drawbacks, but it's quite a good game.

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