Last week the news snuck out that the classic first-person shooter TimeSplitters is being rebooted. What’s more, the game will be made by a revived Free Radical Design, staffed by two of the original studio’s founders, David Doak and Steve Ellis.
The entertainment industry is no stranger to reworking old intellectual property. Some would argue that it is rather too reliant on it, given the churn of Call of Duty and FIFA titles each year. But there is something special about Free Radical.
My nostalgia probably clouds my judgement. TimeSplitters 2 and Future Perfect, the second and third in the franchise, were major events in my adolescence. I played too much of both before Team Fortress 2 stole my affections.
Even so, those three games seemed to be loved by their designers, which can’t be said for many blockbusters. Indeed, the story of Free Radical is marred by developers being snaffled by soulless publishers who carelessly misuse their games.
The original Free Radical ended up becoming the British division of Crytek, before running into financial difficulties. Rare, where many of Free Radical’s employees met while working on the likes of GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64, likewise seems a shadow of itself since being bought by Microsoft.
Free Radical didn’t just take employees from Rare, with TimeSplitters being labelled a ‘spiritual successor’ to those N64 classics. (Yooka-Laylee, a platform series whose staff also trace back to Rare, was similarly a homage to Banjo-Kazooie.)
But despite leaning on what went before, TimeSplitters was fun, eccentric and innovative. However finely polished many big-budget games are today, many are lacking in such soul, pitching towards a lowest common denominator.
In a 2018 interview, Doak complained of this narrow vision among big game publishers about what can be marketed, discouraging developers from taking risks and focusing on what gamers really like. “Probably now I’m more inclined to play indie stuff because – what I just said about marketing – that steps outside of it,” he said.
Rare had a peculiar culture that allowed such experimenting. To read some development histories of GoldenEye 007, it sounds like a group of students were left to muck about and created an amazing game, in part because senior managers were distracted elsewhere.
It’s telling that Doak praised the comedy movie What We Do in the Shadows for following a similar model. “It’s an example of a small team of people doing something really well because no one’s trying to interfere with it,” he said, laughing.
It’s counter-intuitive to frame the reforming of an old game design studio, itself heavily-inspired by an even older one, as an antidote to dominant monolithic game publishers. But when TimeSplitters emerges in several years, it might well prove that the old underdog still has better tricks than its rivals.