I promise you that the headline to this story isn’t intended to be clickbait – it is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly believe to be true. Maybe Metroid Prime and Half-Life 2 might not be so handily beaten by Timesplitters, but I don’t consider either of those games to be true first-person shooters; I consider them to be action/adventure games that just happen to take place from a first-person point of view. When it comes to comparing Timesplitters to purer FPSes like Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield, Medal of Honor, Doom, Unreal, or even the Rare FPSes that the Timesplitters team worked on, I have no hesitation, reservation or any other word that ends in “-ation” about declaring Timesplitters the champion of the genre. And here is why.
1 – Time-travel
The Neil deGrasse Tysons of the world love to be snarky fun-haters and poke holes in the faulty science of things like time travel in fiction. Sure, most time travel stories fall apart pretty quickly under even the lightest of scrutiny. But who the hell cares if it makes realistic sense or not? Especially when featured in more lighthearted fare, time travel can be a lot of fun, and in the context of video games, it gives designers an excuse to create a wide variety of different level types, characters, weapons, etc without the need to have everything tie together in any sort of explainable way. In the Timesplitters games, it means levels ranging from a 1970’s disco to a Tron-like VR world to an Aztec temple to a prison colony on Mars to a town in the Old West to a nondescript Chinese restaurant because why not? As the series went on, the jump from one varied place to another flowed a bit better in story mode, but the time travel conceit still meant that the maps you used for arcade and multiplayer modes were far more varied and creative than the same old “Jungle, bombed-out city, military base, hangar, abandoned factory” lineup of maps – oftentimes barely distinguishable from one another – that every FPS of the last 15 years has recycled ad naseum.
2 – Characters with character
Time travel also gives you the excuse to have characters that are all over the place conceptually. Why be limited to “soldiers” or “space marines” or whatever else when you can have those things but from multiple eras across time, and alongside cyborgs, zombies, clowns, cavemen, stone golems, mummies, mad scientists, monkeys, dinosaurs, rotting deer carcasses, half-built snowmen on flying carpets, a character that looks like the Hamburger Helper mascot with a robot body, and hundreds – literally hundreds – of other characters ranging from parodies of famous archetypes to completely whacked-out designs. The sheer number of these characters is staggering: The original TS has 64 playable characters, TS2 has 126 and TS: Future Perfect has 150. Altogether, it comes up to a grand total of 340 characters including characters that appeared in more than one game, 287 characters ignoring the second appearance of characters that appeared in more than one game and 274 different characters (not including characters with multiple outfits). And a startlingly small number of these characters are just repeated basic character types with slightly different outfits – I would estimate that in the total character count, between 70 and 80 percent are completely original and unique. Not only that, but on the player progress screen that shows which characters you’ve unlocked, there is a unique – and funny – bio written for each and every one, and when you select one in arcade mode, they do a unique animation and say something unique (and again, some animations are repeated but not as many as you’d think, and almost none of the audio clips are repeated). This kind of love and care and attention to detail just isn’t present in most games anymore, but especially in FPSes, where the most you can usually hope for in terms of “character variety” is in different armor color – woo, we can be red or blue! – or camouflage configuration. Also, TS just has a unique art style that favors cartoon-like, lanky, slightly exaggerated characters that have a very distinct look that is instantly recognizable and unlike any other game, a far cry (pun intended) from most FPSes that pride themselves on just trying to look as realistic and movie-like – read: generic – as possible.
3 – Lots and lots (and lots) to do
Sure, hardcore CoD players put in literally months of playtime on each game, but during that time they are doing basically the same thing: deathmatch, team deathmatch, and maybe capture the flag. And they might run through the 4-5 hour story mode once or twice. That’s pretty much it. A TS game is absolutely chock full of things to do, from a full story mode to the requisite multiplayer modes. Only TS games aren’t content with those same two or three go-to modes. In addition to the standard deathmatch and capture the flag (renamed “Capture the Bag” because TS has to put its own spin on everything), there are modes called Virus, Elimination, Flame Tag, Vampire, Thief, Shrink, Monkey Assistant, and more. Sure, a lot of those are just novelty variations on the basic deathmatch setup, but they are all different enough to keep things interesting for people who aren’t content to just hone their skills in basic deathmatch for hours and hours and hours. Some modes are genuinely different though, like Escort where your goal is to defend your escortee while trying to kill the other teams’, or Assault which is a multi-stage attack on your opponent’s base while also defending your own. All of these, along with taking place in the aforementioned wildly varying level types, means you can play the game for months and never have the exact same type of match twice. The games also have something called an Arcade League that consists of a series of challenges based around those many modes, with prebuilt parameters for each one that you have to tackle, keeping things fresh beyond just picking and playing your modes (and also giving solo players something to do). And finally, there are the Challenge modes where things really get interesting, having players tasked with a variety of crazy challenges from smashing every breakable object in a building with bricks, punching the heads off of zombies, or racing a remote-controlled cat through a maze-like course, all within a set time limit. It’s more than enough to keep you busy even by yourself far beyond just replaying story mode over and over again. Oh, and with those hundreds of characters to unlock – yep, I said unlock, not buy – completionists will certainly be plenty busy for a good long while.
4 – TRUE customization
Remember playing Goldeneye and Perfect Dark and being floored by the number of customization options in multiplayer? What happened to that? I suspect that being able to heavily customize matches had to be toned down as it got too difficult to do the endless tuning and balancing that modern FPS players require of their matches and maps. Well I for one would rather be able to fully customize my matches and just go with whatever crazy things it results in then be able to only tinker with a few things but have an impeccably polished and balanced match each time. You can customize just about everything in a TS match, from the exact individual weapons available (which again are all over the place given the range of eras and technologies in the game), which bots you play against and how many, the music in the level, how the match is scored (do you lose points for killing yourself or don’t you?), and on and on, along with the expected adjustments to time and score limit. And best of all, you can even save your own custom sets of weapons and bots so you can return to that dream match that you and your friend(s) spent hours tinkering with until you got it just so and revisit it any time you want. There is even a map editor, which admittedly isn’t the deepest in the world as it is intended to err on the side of being streamlined and user friendly over being exceptionally customizable, and built with console controller ease of use in mind, but it’s still there and still a fun feature that most non-PC FPSes lack (and many PC ones do outside of third-party mods).
5 – It’s just…fun
My biggest problem with the FPS genre as a whole is how serious it is. Most FPS games are all very dark and heavy and gritty and deal with mature issues like terrorism and religion and the like. I’m not opposed to that type of thing in games, and I love a game that gets me thinking and feeling, but I struggle to make the connection between heavy, ponderous issues and throwing grenades and blowing up buildings and mowing people down with a machine gun, racking up points while I do so. I guess I like seriousness in my adventure games, whereas I like my action games more lighthearted and silly. That’s what TS does so well, delivering that great FPS action but in a way that is primarily built around having fun and making you smile. In Future Perfect, the third – and as of now, sadly, final – official game in the TS series, when the story mode gets more serious and epic than it was in previous games, there is still plenty of silliness and jokes and one-liners to keep it from ever taking itself too seriously. Games in general just aren’t silly enough anymore, and when they are, it is largely limited to indie and smaller-scale games, not big AAA ones. I think the people that are down on modern gaming wouldn’t be so if there was more room for silliness in big-budget AAA games. And FPSes wouldn’t have such a bad rap if more of them featured a gunfight between a funky 70’s cop, a human-sized gingerbread man, a robot with a fishbowl for a head, and an army of monkeys in a Chinese restaurant, armed with only blunderbusses. If that doesn’t sound like the best FPS deathmatch you’ve ever played, then I’m not sure we can be friends.