Ruination: TimeSplitters 2

Ruination is a new regular feature where I'll push the limits of nostalgia by examining games I once loved. For the inaugural episode I take a look back into my teenage years and examine what I used to consider my favorite game of all time, TimeSplitters 2.

By Tony Walter | Jul 15, 2013

I was a weird kid. This is evident by the nightmares that inhabit the boxes of my gradeschool artwork under the stairs in my mom's house. Weird kids like weird things. From homemade paper dolls of Santa to first person shooters with monkeys. The new regular feature, Ruination, is an inward look at what has made me who I am today by method of examining my favorite childhood games. The primary goal is overcoming my sense nostalgia for this material, and examining them on a more critical level with my adult mindset. Well, as adult a mindset can be while still holding an appreciation for things like dinosaurs. Will these childhood treasures hold up? Will they be worthy additions to my list of favorite games? What is it, regardless their quality, that made them so memorable?

TimeSplitters 2 is probably the game that I've referred to as my absolute favorite game more times than any other game. That's a weird notion to me as an adult. I have enough trouble putting together frivolous lists. Deciding one game that would be something I consider above any other game? That seems impossible. Still, I have no qualms with admitting that TimeSplitters 2 holds a very near and dear place in my heart. I might even be willing to make the argument that it would be the game I bring to a deserted isle if I could only take one game, if we're debating the hypothetical. That is, I could have made that argument about six years ago. 

It's probably been more than half a decade since I've played my supposed favorite game. Which makes that statement feel even more unnatural. This past week I decided to address this issue. I wanted to know if this game really does deserve that title. I'd be lying if I said I weren't afraid. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, and potentially losing that for something is an intimidating prospect. The other problem was that I used to be a dedicated cheater. I owned devices like GameSharks that unlocked all of a game's secrets before I booted it up for the first time. I had no idea what to expect from playing TimeSplitters 2 the right way.

As it turns out, old games are really, really fucking difficult. No, really. I booted it up for the first time last week thinking smugly how much time I spent with it growing up. "Like riding a bike," I thought as I quickly created a new save file on the GameCube version of the game - which I had never played before. I was about to be humbled by something I had only pleasant memories of. 

First thing was first. TimeSplitters 2, and the entire TimeSplitters franchise, is known for its roster of multiplayer characters. However, most of these characters are locked away when you first start playing. In order to unlock these characters (including my two childhood favorites) you must complete the various, mostly single player, game modes. In TimeSplitters 2 specifically, you must also unlock most of the multiplayer game modes and maps, which feels a little odd in a game so rooted in split screen multiplayer. Nonetheless, I knew if I were going to get my full enjoyment out of this game I'd need to start unlocking things, and it would be a good way to see just how the game felt without cheats.

One of the three major ways to access these unlockables is through TimeSplitters unique Challenge mode. Challenge mode is a series of missions based around bending the game's engine and mechanics in different ways to create difficult tasks for the player to complete. For instance, one Challenge will have you running through the multiplayer maps as a monkey collecting bananas. The bananas will be set in such a way, that in order to complete the challenge within the time limit, you must find the ideal path to collect them. Another Challenge will have you shooting cardboard cut-outs around various environments from the single player and multiplayer. Shooting the cut-outs in certain areas (the dick) will net you more points. The Challenges go on in this nature.

I bet breaking stained glass with a grenade launcher is really satisfying. Really satisfying.
While the premise behind this Challenge mode is definitely interesting, I found the individual missions to be incredibly hit or miss. A Challenge that tasked me with breaking all of the glass in an environment, using only bricks, became an addictive game of one-upsmanship. Each retry I would get slightly better, until I achieved a gold medal. However, another Challenge that tasks the player with lasting as long as possible against an endless wave of zombies was tedium punctuated with frustration. Due to the way that enemy characters will animate, stumbling around and dodging your attacks, accurately hitting them isn't always reliable. And being required to do so for several minutes at a time, at best, is boring. Another challenge that required you to shoot watermelons out of the hands of monkeys that ran around a circus tent became frustrating due to the game's archaic and swimmy controls. Eventually, I discovered a place where I could leave the crosshairs stationary only firing when the watermelons entered my line of sight, resulting in the best possible medal. Unfortunately, more often than not, I ultimately found myself resorting to cheap tactics or online guides to make it through the more difficult challenges. Some of which I only felt satisfied in knowing I wouldn't ever have to do again.

The second mode that unlocks the various characters, maps, and modes is the Arcade League. Arcade League is the part of the game that most closely resulted in a broken controller. Unlike the Challenge mode Arcade League is more straightforward with its tasks. These are based on existing multiplayer modes with specific, increasingly difficult goals for the player to complete. The Arcade League offers both the most difficult suite of missions in the game, and the most reward for completion. Forty five different matches, split between three difficulty levels, each unlocks something upon completion.

I promise my love for this game wasn't based on its use of dinosaurs. Mostly.
While Arcade League felt much more ironed out than the Challenge mode, probably due to being based on actual game modes, it was ultimately more frustrating and suffered from just as many weak spots. At its strongest, it presented fast-paced, exciting, and challenging fights. Matches that, if failed, didn't require much time to get back up and running again. One mission puts you against a large team of dinosaurs, armed with only a crossbow, tasking you with seventy kills in only a few minutes, the catch being that the dinosaurs all die in one shot. This results in something more closely resembling Duck Hunt than deathmatch, and proved to be a completely unique type of challenge. A similar mission, that pits you against a team of ducks, has a infinitely more frustrating feel due to the ducks not dying in one hit. For that mission I found myself restarting time and time again until I began in the ideal spot next to body armor and duel shotguns, at which point I found a small room with one door where I could bottleneck the opposing team. The missions based on the game's Assault mode, which are short story based missions with a series of objectives, require the players to complete them in very short amounts of time. The requirement felt unrealistic for each mission based on this mode, and each time resulted in me scouring the internet for help. Forcing players into unsporting tactics and referencing guides shouldn't be necessary to achieve that rewarding feeling, and ultimately it results in most victories feeling a little more shallow than they otherwise could have.

The story mode spans many different environments and themes.
The last stop in unlocking the game's complete multiplayer contents was the Story mode. This was, unfortunately, a mode that I largely ignored while growing up. I say unfortunately because TimeSplitters 2 actually presents a narrative construction that is probably more innovative than anything I've seen in any modern shooter. I think I erroneously dismissed the mode as a cheap trick existing only to justify the thematic variation in the multiplayer. The reality is that the time travel through-line serves as the thread to tie together several smaller pulp stories. Playing through the story mode feels like flipping through the dusty old novellas in my grandfather's basement. Each presents a unique, contained universe with exaggerated characters and narratives that serve simultaneously as homage and parody to the themes they draw from. From the cold Siberian military horror, to the dark Chicago noir, to the warm red sands of the Martian space opera, and the dusty roads of the American western, TimeSplitters 2 campaigns through the pages of pulp fiction with a method that sustains fresh throughout. The time travel narrative isn't abandoned throughout these stories either. Instead, each mission ends as you retrieve what you were sent back in time for (a time crystal), the timeline shifts, the major opponent of the narrative (the TimeSplitters) appear, and you escape by jumping through the portal heading to the next time period.

One of my personal favorite story missions was occult mission set in 1895 Notre Dame. 
After about thirteen hours spent unlocking all of the game modes, multiplayer maps, and characters, it was finally time to cash in on what all that work had been for, and what TimeSplitters 2 earned its spot on my childhood favorites list for, the multiplayer. TimeSplitters 2's respected multiplayer comes in part from its legacy that connects to such lauded classics as GoldenEye and Perfect Dark. Much of the team working for Rare LTD. at that time found their way to Free Radical to work on the TimeSplitters franchise. What comes from this are weapons designed and balanced by people who have created some of the best known weapons in all of video games, and more importantly, some of the best maps ever designed for shooters. TimeSplitters 2's maps span the thematic differences that the game's story mode does, while creating memorable and interesting layouts that feel balanced for each of its many game modes. The second ingredient that makes this game's multiplayer so memorable is the ability for the player to manipulate the options for a match. The game offers three difficulty settings for the multiplayer bots, sixteen different game modes, sixteen maps, at least ten different match setup options, weapon set customization, bot set customization, and one hundred twenty six different characters to choose from (each with slightly varying statistics). You could probably play this game for years without ever playing the exact same multiplayer game twice.

I've personally never been a competitive person. I dabbled in playing the MechAssault games on Xbox Live for the original Xbox, I played a healthy (read: unhealthy) amount of Halo 2 and Halo 3 when those were released, I checked out the hype when Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare came out, and I actually got pretty good at Gears of War back in 2006. Each of these games I walked away from respecting, but not ultimately feeling attached to the competitive aspect. And I always had more fun when I was with a group of friends playing for kicks rather than a ranked match. TimeSplitters 2 speaks to me in that way. The multiplayer exists not to cater to the competitive crowd, though I'm sure the game could certainly be suited to that with the right setup, it feels more natural when playing the game for goofy fun. Even the best of the Arcade League were the matches that were designed with a sense of humor. Friends who wouldn't normally be actively interested in playing first person shooters used to play TimeSplitters 2 with me for hours back in high school. And playing it again as an adult I find myself just as attached to the more lighthearted aspects of the multiplayer. When playing with a friend I create a game that will be as absurd as possible. One hit kills on a giant, open map with only proximity mines? Sure, why not? Virus mode, which forces players to run from characters who are on fire, on a small map with lots of blind corners? That sounds like fun. TimeSplitters 2 is a rare multiplayer first person shooter to concentrate on delivering a fun experience instead of concentrating on the best competitive environment. In fact, it might be one of a kind.

Gun-toting monkeys are a common sight in TimeSplitters 2's multiplayer.
If I'm going to be honest, me playing this game didn't start with this feature in mind. Last week, when I received the horrible news about Ryan Davis, I wasn't really in the mood for video games. Well, that was until I found myself in the local used games store. I was looking around the GameCube section when I spotted a copy of TimeSplitters 2. The initial reaction was one of nostalgia, positive feelings weren't something I was having a lot of last week. Maybe it was in the few moments of bliss provided by childhood memories, or maybe I knew that was just what I needed to take my mind off of things, but I found myself at home that evening attempting to blast just enough monkeys to unlock the character I always used to play as. Then, for some reason, I spent the next several days fighting through some frustrating objectives, laughing at goofy multiplayer matches, and enjoying experiencing parts of a game that I ignored as a kid.

When I began thinking about this feature, and the prospect of destroying the nostalgia I hold for some of the games I loved as a kid, I was afraid. The idea of playing something I used to love and losing those memories to the realization that it doesn't quite live up to what I thought it was, wasn't really a risk I thought I wanted to take. Even during the moments of nostalgia for TimeSplitters 2, the game I probably felt the strongest about as a kid, I had reservations about buying the game. Thinking back a week later, that I may have avoiding having the experiences I had with this game, that I might not have been able to use it to escape like I did when I was a kid, and all out of fear? I'm glad whatever circumstances that existed that day to push me to replaying this game did. Even if TimeSplitters 2 had disappointed me this week, I think the value in discovering that and understanding what drew me to it when I was younger would be worth it, and that wouldn't take the memories I have for the game away. 

I think it's innate for us to fear labeling things. Especially labeling something we love. It shows some degree of vulnerability to admit that something is special to you, valuable to you. TimeSplitters 2 is absolutely one of my favorite games, I'm not sure that will ever change, and this week only further cemented that fact. For me to say that TimeSplitters 2 is my favorite game of all time might be a bit much. I've played a lot of games. Seriously, way too many. So, I would need to think for a very, very long time to come to figure out what game that really is. Though, until I have an official answer, I think I'd be okay giving it to TimeSplitters 2. Sometimes weird kids have good taste.

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