Time to Split! Why the Return of TimeSplitters Matters

By Ian Stokes on at

TimeSplitters is back! Sing it from the rooftops and praise the Lord!

“What’s a TimeSplitters”? Honestly, you folk don’t know you were born. Though given that there hasn’t been a TimeSplitters game released since 2005, it's a fair enough question. Lots of shooters are called iconic, and that's all well and good. But TimeSplitters deserves a little more than generalised praise: its take on the FPS, and particularly local competition, remains unique even in such an over-subscribed genre.

What is TimeSplitters?

TimeSplitters is a trilogy of multiplayer-focused first-person shooters developed by Free Radical Design, a studio started up in 1999 by ex-Rare alumni (David Doak, Steve Ellis, Karl Hilton, Graeme Norgate, and Lee Ray). These five brought an impressive pedigree with them, having all worked on Rare’s hit shooters Perfect Dark and the legendary GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64. Both would influence the frenetic action and focus on multiplayer action, to the extent that the original TimeSplitters was even built on a modified version of the GoldenEye engine.

One of TimeSplitters’ unique selling points was its lack of a fixed setting. Under the guise of a war through time against the titular TimeSplitters, a race of diabolical aliens attempting to change history to wipe out humanity, the series was free to jump between settings at its leisure. This meant that you’d be battling mafia gangsters in a 1930s nightclub in one level, only to jump into the distant future to battle robots in the cyberpunk dystopia of Neo Tokyo the next. The creative freedom, and more importantly the gleeful abandon with which Free Radical exercised it, meant that you’d never stay in one setting long enough to get bored.

The original TimeSplitters dropped in late 2000 as a launch title for the fledgling PlayStation 2 and was met with critical and commercial success, leading to the immediate greenlighting of a sequel. Two years later, the series would reach its peak with the launch of TimeSplitters 2. Improving upon the original in almost every conceivable way, TimeSplitters 2 was arguably the greatest shooter of the PlayStation 2’s era. The third title in the series, TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, would be published by EA in 2005. It was a fantastic game, though a little of the free-spirited nature of the development team was lost as they bowed to the will of a corporate publisher who didn’t ‘get’ what TimeSplitters was all about.

While all three games featured single player campaigns, the series’ hallmark was its frantic multiplayer action. Four-player split screen combat was a staple of the series and TimeSplitters was just about the only reason anyone bothered shelling out for a PlayStation Multitap back in the day. Drawing from across all of time and space for its cast of characters, arsenal of weapons, and selection of maps to battle across, no shooter before or since has matched TimeSplitters in diversity. There was even a robust map editor to supplement the already stellar line-up of combat arenas.

Where TimeSplitters shone brightest was in the sheer variety of gameplay modes it offered, with classic modes like deathmatch and capture the flag running alongside bizarre inventions like Shrink, a game mode where everyone’s size was dependant on their position on the scoreboard, or Monkey Assistant, where the player in last place had an army of gun-totting monkeys to help them out.

A Bridge Too Far For Free Radical Design

Despite the meddling of EA and the compromises that Free Radical had to make for TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, the game released to positive reviews when it launched in 2005. Unfortunately for Free Radical, EA failed to make good on their promises and delivered a lacklustre marketing campaign, instead choosing to double-down on its own internally-developed shooter, the woeful GoldenEye: Rogue Agent.

Burned by this experience with EA and facing the changing gaming landscape of the early Xbox 360/PS3 era, Free Radical faced tough times ahead. TimeSplitters 4 was a tough sell in the mid-2000s, when greyish brown was the new black and publishers weren’t interested in your game if the protagonist wasn’t a generic white dude with brown hair and designer stubble. With the massive success of gritty, realistic shooters like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and the avalanche of chest-high walls that would follow in Gears of War’s cantankerous wake, there was little room left at the inn for TimeSplitters with its wacky characters and lighting-paced action. Ironically enough, the colourful and diverse cast of characters now seem ahead of their time.

Free Radical would eventually cave to the pressures of the evolving market, signing a deal with Ubisoft to develop Haze, a gritty, futuristic shooter exclusive for the PS3. Despite Free Radical’s best efforts, the game was a flop with audiences and critics alike. The final nail in the coffin for Free Radical would come in 2008 when LucasArts pulled out of a deal for the development of Star Wars Battlefront 3. With no money in the bank and no projects on the go, Free Radical was forced to declare bankruptcy, laying off 140 employees and leaving the studio with a skeleton crew of around 40 staff. The emaciated studio would find salvation in the form of German games publisher Crytek, who purchased the studio and rebranded them under the Crytek banner.

The Crytek UK Years

After the death of Free Radical and their subsequent buyout by Crytek in 2009, hopes for a return to the TimeSplitters universe seemed bleak. Speaking with CVG back in 2012, Crytek’s CEO Cevat Yerli outlined the difficulties that Crytek would face in bringing the franchise back from the dead: “The thing with TimeSplitters is, if we made a sequel to TimeSplitters, nobody would accept this apart from some fans, and we don't know how big the fan community is, unfortunately. And we don't want to design this as a packaged goods game that launches on a console, and even if we wanted to I don’t think publishers would like the idea. That is the truth, and that was the truth even before we bought Free Radical.” Ironically, the original CVG interview is no longer available online since they closed their doors in 2015, but you can find excerpts here.

So Crytek sat on the TimeSplitters IP, renaming Free Radical Design to Crytek UK and using them primarily as a support studio for its flagship Crysis series. They would eventually be put to work on Homefront: The Revolution, but Crytek’s own financial woes forced them to sell both the studio and the Homefront IP to Deep Silver, a subsidiary of German multinational Koch Media, in 2014 (this little titbit will be important later). Despite this, the franchise never lost support from its die-hard fans, who put in serious work to ensure that TimeSplitters never fell out of the public eye.

The Fan Years

Support ranged from the barrage of petitions on Change.org asking Crytek to revive the series, or at the very least bring out a HD remaster, all the way through to projects like TimeSplitters Rewind, an ambitious fan remake of the original TimeSplitters trilogy using the CryEngine. Announced in 2013, TimeSplitters Rewind was a fan project but it apparently had ex-Free Radical staff on board to help with development. The team even had the backing of Crytek itself, whose authorisation was both a nice gesture and a damning indictment of its expectations for the franchise.

Ambitious might be a generous description of the TimeSplitters Rewind project though, which was announced over five years ago. Progress has been slow thanks to several shifts in project leads and shifting to newer CryEngine version updates, effectively restarting development on several occasions. The last meaningful update from the Rewind team came at the end of last year with a short video update detailing their progress on the Siberia Dam map from TimeSplitters 2, probably the most memorable mission from the series (the map itself was originally a homage to the opening level of GoldenEye).

Given the recent purchase by THQ Nordic, TimeSplitters Rewind’s future looks even less clear as the team currently awaits word from the franchise’s new guardians on whether the project can continue. Volunteer fan projects on this scale are rarely seen to completion, but Rewind gave the fanbase something to unite around – a rallying point from which to showcase their passion to the games industry in the slim hope that TimeSplitters might one day return.

Back from the Past to Save the Future

That faith might have finally been rewarded though, as Koch Media, a subsidiary of gaming publisher THQ Nordic, announced a few weeks ago that it had picked up the rights to TimeSplitters (and the excellent sci-fi game Second Sight) from Crytek. There is no word yet on what THQ has planned for TimeSplitters. However, it’s worth remembering that THQ Nordic owns a UK-based game developer called Dambuster Studios, formerly known as Crytek UK, who themselves were formerly known as Free Radical Entertainment. With the IP and the original developers under their wing, it’s safe to say that THQ Nordic has big plans for TimeSplitters.

A HD remaster of the original trilogy seems like a safe bet, allowing THQ to make some relatively quick money back on its investment while simultaneously gauging the size of the TimeSplitters audience out there. Beyond that though, who knows? If Dambuster Studios was to take the reigns of a new TimeSplitters project, we have to imagine that it would be an AAA title given the size of the studio, which has around 130 employees at current head count. As to the quality of such a project, well… Dambuster Studios’ last title, Homefront: The Revolution wasn’t exactly a barn-burner when it launched in 2018 but, given the difficult development that title went through, it might be harsh to judge the studio on that product.

It’s easy to get excited about TimeSplitters and Free Radical reuniting (sort of), but we have to remember that the Free Radical of old is long gone. Of the original five Rare alumni that started the studio, only Graham Norgate remains in his position as audio director. Dambuster Studios may carry the legacy of Free Radical Design, but the majority of the staff who worked on TimeSplitters have since moved on. Will TimeSplitters be able to adapt, to morph that frantic and fun core into a successful modern form, or forever remain a fondly-remembered game of its era? Appropriately enough, only time will tell.