'We hope you enjoy the 'retro' feel of our website', proclaims the official site of Free Radical Design ironically. 'For the moment, we have more pressing demands on our time'. You bet they do. Since the developer's inception in 1999, a formation involving various members of the Rare team who developed the warmly remembered Goldeneye for the N64, life hasn't stood still for members of Free Radical. In 2001, their debut game, TimeSplitters, would prove to be the finest entry in an underwhelming Playstation 2 launch line-up. Two and a half years later, it's sequel would reap five nominations for the 2004 BAFTA Games Awards, alongside some quite considerable critical acclaim. Which brings us to now.
The 'now' in question is Timesplitters Future Perfect. Due rather tentatively in early 2005 for Playstation 2, Xbox and Gamecube, it could well be the final TimeSplitters title to appear on the current generation of hardware. First thing's first, it should be noted: Future Perfect is more evolution than revolution, a natural progression of the two titles that preceded it. Rather than pushing boundaries, this is a package focussed on refinement. And for that, PALGN is glad. For whilst the upcoming Halo 2 and Killzone look set to deliver a dollop of gritty, urban warfare and faux-epic storylines, and countless other first-person shooters devote themselves to wringing a game out of the various wars to have taken place in the last century (PALGN believes Vietnam is currently in vogue), Free Radical's franchise possesses a sense of character and humour that places it squarely outside the crowd, and it's a trait that Future Perfect looks set to continue.
The plot, for one, is pure B-movie. Playing Cortez, the hardened hero of the first two titles, players will find themselves in the midst of 'a battle that stretches throughout time where humanity is on the brink of destruction from the malevolent TimeSplitters', with the eventual, modest aim being 'to trace the origin of the TimeSplitters and save mankind'. Somewhat more intriguingly, the game is set between the years of 1914 and 2401, meaning some potentially interesting "meet yourself" time travel gameplay is on the cards, with players becoming their own ally by teaming up with past and future versions of themselves. A particularly memorable sequence on display at the E3 show in May featured the player's alter-ego appearing in the middle of an encounter with an enormous attack helicopter, and taking the chopper down with a deluge of rockets.
It's not only the pleasingly silly story that remains the same though. The pseudo-realistic characters, complete with comically distended and disproportionate limbs, are thankfully still in place, and continue to lend the franchise a visual style that it can truly call it's own. And just as the emphasis in the first two games was placed on fast-moving, hyperactive gameplay, little has slowed down here. Weapons are appropriate to the historical setting of each level and are as satisfyingly meaty as ever (for the first time in the series, stationary weapons dotted about the levels can also be used) and enemy encounters promise much bombast: the latest screenshots (click on the 'Media Panel' on the right to see 19 new screens) show the player battling the aforementioned missile-laden helicopter and mowing down foes on the roof of a moving train. Such scenarios have been seen before in videogames obviously, though few games have succeeded in portraying this kind of action with quite the same joyful verve and excitement as the TimeSplitters franchise.
So if so much has remained unaltered - the extensive Challenge, Arcade and Story modes remain (the latter again offering the option of playing co-operatively with a friend) - what has actually changed? Well for one, there's a tweaked and improved version of the excellent Map Maker mode that featured in the first two games (PALGN has happy memories of summer afternoons spent recreating many of Goldeneye's multiplayer levels in precise detail), and for the first time in the series, you'll be able to share your maps online. Which brings us to the thing that excites us most about TimeSplitters Future Perfect: it's online mode. Since the first game, TimeSplitters titles have focussed firmly on the multiplayer experience - the four-way split-screen matches are amongst the most polished and certainly the most hectic experiences available within the FPS genre, and if you were obsessed and rich enough, TimeSplitters 2 would allow you to link a menagerie of Playstation 2s or Xboxes up for 16-player LAN deathmatches.
Now, those 16-player deathmatches are possible online, via either Xbox Live or Sony's own Playstation 2 network, a prospect that thoroughly excites PALGN. There could yet be problems of course: whether the online mode will be able to maintain the flawless, ultra-slick 60 frames-per-second refresh rate that has characterised the offline multiplayer modes in the franchise to date is questionable, but we remain hopeful. And with well over half a year in the game's development cycle to go, and a showing planned for the ECTS trade show in London this September (which PALGN will be attending and reporting from), there's plenty of time to form more concrete impressions.