A little while ago I wrote about Timesplitters, the Playstation heir to the design minds and concepts that delivered the ultimate party game of the end of history (the 1990s), Goldeneye. Now, based on some voting from my Patreon users, I’m taking you down the garden path into the world of Timesplitters 2.
Timesplitters 2 begins in medias res, in a moment critical to the Timesplitters War. The Timesplitters, a strange species of monster, travel back and forth in time to eliminate humans and disrupt critical moments. They find crucial, small achievements and make the bad guys win, eliminating their enemies in the future. They decimate humans by controlling the time stream, and so we see two science fiction heroes coming to save the day. They take over a time portal. A bald man jumps into a big blue circle. We’re off into a game where you appear in a time period, taking the body of a “universal hero” sort, and you achieve some provincial mission of theirs before retrieving the time crystal and hopping on to the next time period.
2. Siberia 1990
In stark contrast to Timesplitters, there is a cinematic opening to each of the levels in T2. You get a small bit of plot, a little setup that bumps you on down the road in order to help you understand why you’re living this strange life. In Siberia, you merely pop out of a portal in a new body. Time travel involves possession.
Each level of the game is focused on a particular kind of story, with the idea that all of these kinds of stories are synthesized into the human experience. Thus, Siberia in 1990 is a strange collection of tropes that lean into zombie films, the mysteries of Russia, The Thing, and the HIND from Metal Gear Solid. You experience all of this in a first person shooter frame. Timesplitters 2 is a weird, experimental game.
3. Chicago 1932
You take to the streets of Chicago and you walk through those streets listening for phones to ring. Gangsters attack you. Informants scuttle in front of you, protected by your bullets, before they hide inside of the newsstand. Every junction is a crossroads that looks like something out of a Tim Burton film. Everyone looks too chunky, and when the speakeasy opens to let you into the backroom club, you murder the villain you’ve been after the whole time. With very few exceptions, Chicago 1932 works the same as every other level in T2. It’s structure reigns monolithic throughout the game, but that structure is a wonderful container that gets filled with a lot of strange content. Siberia 1990 foregrounded the synthetic side of T2, and Chicago 1932 presents us with the dialectical opposite. Siberia was chaotic; Chicago is ordered.
4. Notre Dame 1895
“The rivermen talk of a crazed madman leading a cult of undead followers,” the intro says, and we come to life in the basement of the cathedral with the played mission of rescuing some maidens tied up around the building. Sometimes zombies will spawn in the corners of your vision and make their way directly for the maidens, killing them before you even reach them. If the maidens die, the level doesn’t automatically fail. It just tells you that you’ve failed your mission and cannot proceed. You could live in that basement with all those corpses forever if you wanted.
5. Cybertokyo 2019
This is the strangest mission in Timesplitters 2. You track a hacker through cyberstreets and follow her into a cybervault before disabling a machine that’s converting a Timesplitter into some kind of strange cyberSplitter. The wonder of the level is based on the tracking itself — you have to keep her in sight while peeking around corners. You have to avoid cameras, avoid breaking windows, and make sure that there’s no one around to give you up. I don’t often see it in lists of “noncombat” first-person shooter levels (because there’s combat, but only at the end) but I strongly suggest that people take a look at it.
6. Little Prospect 1853
Two beautiful things that need to be replicated from this level of the game:
– Playing this level in co-op story mode means that the second player starts in a jail cell. They need to be rescued by the other player, who has to player the first quarter of the level solo. I’ve never encountered another game that tries this.
– To break the second character out of jail, you need to pick up a barrel of gunpowder and draw a line between an explosive cart and a lantern. Then you use your six shooter to knock the lantern off the wall in order to set the trail on fire which blows up the cart. This mechanic is never used again in the entire game, and there are no hints to help you know how to solve this puzzle. It is one of the most brilliant and infuriating things I’ve ever seen in a game.
7. Atom Smasher 1972
This is a James Bond level. I hate it. Its only redeeming quality is that you can fail the mission in the last 30 seconds by aggressively killing the last couple enemies of the level. You see, there’s a mechanic that requires you to save some nerdy scientists so that they will disarm some bombs for you. The last bomb has two separate scientists standing around to disarm it, but if you kill the last couple enemies in the level with grenades, you can accidentally murder those scientists too. Cue a restart and spending 20 minutes running through the level again. Do that, you know, three separate times.
8. Aztec Ruins 1920
The first enemy of note in this level is a wood golem that cannot be harmed with any of your traditional weapons. It chases you around until you figure out that you need to equip a crossbow and light its tip on a wall sconce. Then you shoot the golem and it dies, screaming. I have a lot of complicated emotions about all of this.
9. Spacestation 2401
It ends here, with the death of a woman and a difficult time trial to escape the space station. Everything blows up. The time crystals are reclaimed from the Timesplitters and we hope that things will be okay. You solves several small puzzles, you shoot a lot of enemies, and you reach a goal on time. You travel through linear time; most levels end with you finding a time portal and traveling back to the mission selection screen. You hop out of sequence in order to repeat the ludic process over again. The final level presents you with an authentic out–it isn’t about doing all of this again but rather making sure that you don’t even have to. The only way to escape is to blow it all up.