Imagine a different now. A now where the first-person shooter took the other path at the fork it faced in the new millennium. A now where the looping locomotion of the shooter campaign is unbolted, its tonal cues taken not from drizzled concrete but crazed concept art. With the right kind of eyes, you can make out the shapes of this alternate present through the fog of time. Prey, Doom, Wolfenstein, Fallout 4, Dishonored: Bethesda’s crusade to preserve the single-player campaign has yielded a crop of colourful games that grasped at the edges of what was. Alas, none of these games present us with the opportunity to shoot watermelons from above the heads of cavorting monkeys.

That honour goes to TimeSplitters 2, a game planted like a railway signal, blinking at the branch line of shooter design. It all begins in 2002. Wait, no, it’s 1997. No, hang on, 1990! The game’s opening level, the Oblask Dam, in Siberia, is the site of a temporal disturbance. Not, as you might suspect, caused by the series’ eponymous alien menace, but rather by dint of its design. 

I spoke to David Doak, the founder of Free Radical Design, about his team’s work on Timesplitters and its sequel – and about many of the members having worked on the classic Goldeneye 007, at Rare. Stephen Ellis, the director and producer; Graeme Norgate, who composed the music; and Karl Hilton, the lead artist, were all Rare employees. Their touch, along with the fresh talents of lead character artist Ben Newman, and animation director James Cunliffe, gave the level the marks of mutation.

The clandestine research facility under the Dam, so the story goes, has uncovered something buried in the ice. ‘The little bit at the start around those little cabins... the dam’s got this [The] Thing vibe going on,’  Doak told me, invoking the chill of John Carpenter’s snowbound sci-fi. Though there are horrors in its halls, what really rose from the ice were the ghosts of Severnaya and the Arkhangelsk Facility, two of Goldeneye’s mythical levels. ‘If you go back to Goldeneye, even though Severnaya is quite small, the interior levels are really quite good,’ Doak proudly exclaimed. Just because things would get tested in them... the AI behaviour or something. The dam in TimeSplitters 2, it’s got all the Goldeneye stuff just being done to the max.’

Indeed, as an opener, Oblask still stands as one of the finest first-person shooter maps ever crafted. It delivers high doses of style and attitude, but the true reason it resonates so powerfully is because it doesn’t actually feel like an opener at all. Instead, it feels like a continuation, a mutation of console shooter scripture. ‘He really wanted to build the dam from Goldeneye,’ Doak stated, when describing senior designer Rob Steptoe's want for bigger environments. ‘It was also about pushing the draw distance – you can snipe the guy half a mile across the level. The reason it became such a good level is because it was the kind of working testbed for a lot of stuff.’

Oblask’s marvels are many: the spits of snow on the camera lens, the two-tone wail of the alarm, and the intricate interiors, wound tight in the greys of the Eastern Bloc like a great, cold brain. Despite the bleakness of its setting, the mood of the mission is light, the game’s atmosphere conjured by the comic sensibilities of Ben Newman’s designs: log-limbed characters exaggerated to Popeye proportions, wrapped in outlandish costumes, every movement worthy of a splash panel. Doak outlined the game’s story and style, saying, ‘It was very much Ben Newman, who was our main character guy. Ben would just build stuff... [he] would just have a sketchbook of ideas for characters.’

Cut from a fleshly pattern of bare midriffs and bosomy heroines, Newman’s sexualised designs betray the era in which they were made. But for Doak, they did something else, something very few games did then. ‘A thing that I always really liked about TimeSplitters, which I think we were doing well ahead of the curve – the publishers were endlessly trying to stop us from doing it – was the diversity of the characters,’ Doke explained. ‘A lot of the female characters are highly sexualised, but many of them aren’t – and also: they’re there.’ Being there was important, then as it is now, and the power of its premise granted the game carte blanche to change genders, races, and even species as if rifling through an anthology of one-shots.

Aside from its aesthetic, much of TimeSplitters 2’s doughty irreverence comes from the itch of its spirit to break free of constraint. ‘Goldeneye, because it's the Bond universe – particularly the Bond universe from that one film – is incredibly narrow in its scope, in terms of environments and characters.’ It puts TimeSplitters 2’s campaign in stark relief, which Doak described as ‘a ragtag mix of genres.’ More than just Bond’s rarefied trip to the N64, Free Radical was striving to break the shackles of its own shadow, cast by the first TimeSplitters. ‘The second game was what we thought the first game should have been,’ said Doak. ‘It was all the ideas we’d had along the way.’

These ideas drove Timesplitters 2, alongside the egalitarian approach of Doak’s team at Free Radical. ‘[Lead artist] Karl Hilton wanted to build Notre Dame, so that was it,’ he said, discussing the game’s third mission set in the iconic French Cathedral. ‘The whole start of that environment was... I remember Karl saying, “Oh fuck it, I’m gonna see how good a Notre Dame I can build.”’ 

Likewise, the game’s surreal humour – something missing from the majority of AAA shooters now, save for the occasional trace of coal-black self-awareness – seemed to have been born out of the ‘fuck it’ mentality. ‘Somebody made the monkeys,’ Doak thoughtfully told me, unsure of the origin of TimeSplitters’ simiian streak. ‘Ben would have built them,’ he said, a little unsure. ‘It’s a funny monkey because it’s kind of got that stupid kind of blow-up doll mouth.’ Things escalated. ‘How many monkeys can we have on screen at once, because they’re funny,’ laughed Doak, and then, ‘what if you had a bunch of monkeys who ran around and helped you!’ Thus, Monkey Assistant – one of the game’s mythical multiplayer modes – was born.

Free Radical’s development style has the air of a food fight, ideas and imagery hurled in a whirling delicious mess, and bound together miraculously to produce something wonderful. As the lead writer, Doak wielded his pen like a welder’s torch, and fused the patchwork together with the era-spanning narrative of the game’s campaign. But he had his work cut out for him. He touched on one the game’s little flourishes: the watermelons, which find themselves, however unlikely, in Siberia. 'They made a nice sound and they were fun to shoot,’ Doak gleefully stated, prising play above all other concerns. ‘Also, you know, if you are living in an isolated dam somewhere, and it's cold, watermelons would be a nice thing to have!" 

They would indeed. The modern shooter, alarmingly lacking in exploding subtropical fruit, is an exercise in speed. ‘I guess it's a pacing thing,’ Doak mused. ‘When the first Call of Duty: Modern Warfare came out, I was in awe of that. I thought it was amazing. It redefined a lot of stuff. But then, unfortunately, it just became the cookie cutter for every game going forward.’ Of Modern Warfare’s thundering campaign, Doak said, ‘A lot of that Modern Warfare setup, it’s great, and it looks really great, until you realise that if you find a way to run through it – it’s just all about getting to there. If I get to there, then we’re doing the next thing.’ Doak added that he admires Dishonored’s play style, and how it’s ‘trying to be more interesting.’ Indeed, TimeSplitters 2, with its stealth, secondary objectives, mazy maps, and key-driven puzzles, would be closer now to Dishonored than it would be to the shooter.

What, then, will the next TimeSplitters game look like? When news of Koch Media’s recent purchase of the IP – and another cult Free Radical game, Second Sight –  reached Doak, he sent them a message. ‘I emailed them to say good luck!’ It seems they will need it. In the years after, many employees took the studio’s name as a brief, and spalled in different directions. ‘There’s people at Riot and Blizzard,’ Doak told me. ‘There’s an interesting little core of Free Radical people at Valve now.’ Several employees who were at Free Radical stayed with the company through its sale to Crytek, and are now at the newly formed Dambuster Studios – who are owned by Koch Media. Can they hope to craft the same magic? ‘I don’t think you can say that people can’t do it,’ said Doak. ‘It’s always gonna be harder if you’ve got people standing over you saying, “is it done yet?”’

It’s an experience with which Doak is depressingly familiar. The third game in the series, TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, was trammelled by EA at very turn. It launched in 2005, a time when console shooters were dominated by Halo 2 and the world-beating online multiplayer offered by Microsoft. But Doak puts the game's failure down to its publisher. ‘It wasn’t successful because EA buried it.’

He described an EA rep needling him, saying, ‘The thing you’re doing is good but it doesn’t look anywhere near this internal thing.’ After months of manipulative prodding, Doak detailed a trip he took to EA’s headquarters to discuss Future Perfect’s marketing: ‘This was a jaws-on-the-floor moment, [the EA rep] said, “The bad news is that if we know that spending a dollar gets us five dollars back, and there’s a choice between that and spending a dollar and getting three dollars back then we’ll go for the thing with the biggest reward. Your game’s really good, but unfortunately we’ve got another game which has turned out to not be as good as we thought it was going to be, and we need to support it with the marketing money.”’

This mysterious game, held aloft by EA like a carrot and stick, was a unique form of torture for Doak. It was a unique form of torture for any and all that played the thing. It was Goldeneye: Rogue Agent. Doak said, ‘[EA were] trying to spin it off the legacy of Goldeneye, which is a game that we created when we were at Rare. [They were] telling us that doing that is going to hurt what we’re doing now. That’s a special kind of love.’

Despite the pains of the past, at the end of our conversation, Doak took on the yearning tone familiar to a million fans, explaining that his feelings toward the notion of seeing another game in the series were solely positive. ‘When I saw it, I was really pleased because I just didn’t like the idea of there never being anything done with it.’ At last, something is being done with it, whether or not it will measure up to expectation, only time will tell.

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