As exploratory and culturally-influenced as video games can often be, few have ever managed to replicate the joys of B-movie campiness better than the classic TimeSplitters games. Free Radical Design's signature series is rife with allusions to other prevalent games and pop culture winks to the likes of Goldfinger and Aliens, whether it’s in the form of witty NPC barks or blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em visual gags. The third entry in particular — Future Perfect — leaned into these wacky eccentricities more than ever, and ended up as the ultimate love letter to certain genres because of it.
There’s something inherently cool about hearing "they're coming out of the goddamn walls!" screamed at you during the game’s bombastic opening mission, fending off the 'Splitters using a mounted plasma gun and clued-in about the spirit of what's to come. The Timesplitters' games in-jokes are the stuff of legend but are perhaps so fondly-remembered because they always suit the context of the action, rather than being shoehorned-in. No section of TimeSplitters: Future Perfect excels in this more than the double feature horror known as ‘Mansion of Madness’ and ‘What Lies Below’.
Taking place roughly a third of the way into Future Perfect’s campaign, as the time-hopping, Vin Diesel-cosplaying Sergeant Cortez, you find yourself transported to an eerily creepy Connecticut mansion house in the age-old year of 1994. Up until this point, the only knowledge you have aiding you in your mission to prevent the TimeSplitter threat is that someone’s been meddling with time. All evidence concerning the man responsible points to a house that makes Resident Evil’s Spencer Mansion look like a mud hut.
Traversing this two level arc takes you through what’s what of homages from schlocky ‘80s and ‘90s cinema. The Day of the Dead-esque zombies, the Tremor-like worm enemies you’re forced to rally using your trusty flamethrower – this is something of a George A. Romero fantasy horror. But as the references start piling up, it suddenly feels like you're playing a missing instalment in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy.
Parody — let alone humour in general — is notoriously tricky to pull off in video games. Many publishers had previously attempted to take advantage of the license, but the likes of Fistful of Boomstick and 2005’s Regeneration were really only Evil Dead in name, never in nature. Even when unabashedly aping the same style of play and use of pre-rendered backgrounds popularised by Capcom’s original Resident Evil with Evil Dead: Hail to the King for the PlayStation One, Ash Williams simply couldn’t catch a break. TimeSplitters arrived to fill that gap.
It helps that for as macho as Sergeant Cortez appears to be on the outside, the similarities shared between him and Bruce Campbell’s big-chinned antihero are uncanny. Though one severed hand short of a detachable chainsaw arm, Cortez is a buff and bluff everyman, a wisecracking hero that’s anything but the armour-clad meathead of most first person shooters. Full of wit, personality, and charisma, the link isn’t even so tenuous when you consider that, just like Ash and the Evil Dead, Future Perfect also launched a previously-minor character (Cortez doesn’t even appear in the first game) into the lead role.
As you work your way through the bloody halls of ‘Mansion of Madness’, the pop culture hits and tongue-in-cheek absurdity continue. Joined by an appropriately feisty, gun-toting teen called Jo-Beth, the undead-bashing commences in full force as you discover more about a science experiment gone wrong. Sound familiar?
“Go Back! Don’t come in here! We’ve done something terrible,” yells a fittingly erratic lab scientist as he races down the staircase, only to be impaled by a heavy-set chandelier. If such a setup sounds like the opening to countless terrible B-movies, that’s what it’s going for.
Doors slam without explanation, zombies rain from the ceiling, but it’s really only when you delve deeper into the mansion - exploring it from cellar to attic – that Future Perfect swerves into Creature Feature territory. This is best embodied in both the DeerHaunter mini boss which charges you through the dining room wall, but most notably the Princess, a skeletal behemoth that rears her head first at the end of ‘Mansion of Madness’, before chasing you intimately throughout the caverns of ‘What Lies Below’. In these you can almost feel the “practical” effects work jumping off the screen in true Raimi fashion.
Soon after navigating your way through the catacombs, with the help of your past and future selves, the arc culminates when the beastly Princess attempts to gobble up Jo-Beth and you’re forced to go toe-to-toe in a kind of twisted David and Goliath showdown. Unfortunately suffering somewhat from the basic ‘shoot the shiny thing’ approach to boss battle design, Future Perfect has its own overly-generic moments. But hey. I can think of a popular line of movies equally-loved despite their shabby stylistic approach.
It’s true that the hyper-knowing nature of both ‘Mansion of Madness’ and ‘What Lies Below’ might grate with some. But any diehard cinephile with even the most passing interest in ‘80s and ‘90s horror can only appreciate the clichés as they turn up, get a little Timesplitters spin, then are tossed away for the next one. It's why I think TimeSplitters: Future Perfect ended up containing the best Evil Dead game ever made. It's not about having Ash in it, or the monsters, or even a few lines. It's about an attitude: a pulpy adventure where the good guy is sick and tired of this bullshit, but the baddies get blasted regardless. An atmosphere. It's about making a game, or part of one at least, than can only be called groovy.