Wednesday, June 29, 2022

TimeSplitters: Future Perfect (Xbox)

Within the sea of gaming, there’s usually at least one series you hear about on and off, but otherwise don’t pay too much attention to. For me, that was TimeSplitters, a series of FPS games developed by Free Radical Design. When the announcement came in 2021 that Free Radical was reformed by their new parent company explicitly to revive the series, I got a little more curious about the series, though I wouldn’t actually try any of the games out for myself until I had seen certain references to 2005’s Future Perfect, the third game, that caught my attention. Coincidentally, I found a physical Xbox copy out in the wild and now I’m glad that I gave this game a chance.

In the year 2401, humanity is locked in a mortal struggle against the TimeSplitters, an evil race of creatures that have pushed humanity to the brink of extinction through the power of the time crystals. During the Time Wars, Sergeant Cortez has stolen nine time crystals with the intent of powering a time machine created by Earth’s brightest minds. With the power of the time machine, they send Cortez back in time to destroy the time crystals at their source, ending the Time Wars before they ever began. Unfortunately, the mission proves much more difficult than they had hoped.

From my understanding, Future Perfect is the first TimeSplitters game to really emphasize its story, which is fortunately very well-written. The characters quickly make a strong impression and have a lot of staying power thanks to their consistent and distinct personalities, as well as the many humorous situations they find themselves in. Cortez in particular has a habit of making his mission more difficult than necessary, even unintentionally helping the main villain, Jacob Crow, in a particularly memorable scene. Despite his frequent mistakes, however, Cortez is still a likeable character, as he remains dedicated to his mission and some of his ideas, which often risk creating temporal paradoxes, end up working out in the end. Jacob Crow is also a very memorable villain, with a comedic timing that makes him entertaining without undercutting the serious nature of his plans or the horrific depths to which he sinks.

Cortez frequently risks creating paradoxes by interacting with himself.

Some side characters that Cortez runs into, including Captain Ash, Harry Tipper and Jo-Beth Casey, also stick out in spite of their limited presence. They each exaggerate some trait about their location in space-time to the point that they’re often funny, though they can also highlight the game’s more risqué sense of humor, particularly certain scenes with Harry Tipper and Jo-Beth Casey. While it’s not likely that characters like these would exist as they are in a modern take on TimeSplitters, they lend a certain charm to Future Perfect and it would be hard to imagine the experience without them.

Even though I hadn’t played the first two TimeSplitters games before Future Perfect, I found the story pretty easy to follow anyway and got the gist of prior events that led up to humanity taking a real stand against the TimeSplitters, as well as the severity of the Time Wars. I also found the time travel logic pretty consistent, with time loops that neatly work themselves out and logical points in time for Cortez to perform certain actions. The locations of each mission and their connections through time travel also show a strong grasp of narrative design, with a logical progression that gradually ramps up the urgency of Cortez’s goal while also incorporating elements in a way that makes logical sense for the game. For instance, one mission involves Cortez fighting off zombies and ghosts, though they are a result of experiments conducted by Jacob Crow in the past.

If you play through the entire story on Easy difficulty, you can beat the whole thing in about four hours. While this can feel short, the game actively encourages playing through on higher difficulties and through co-op for additional rewards and 100% completion, which helps give Future Perfect some good replay value.

Future Perfect features three gameplay modes: Story, Arcade and Challenge. Before I get into each of the modes individually, I should mention that all three feature similar mechanics at their core. As a game from the early 2000s, it has a “classic” feel to it that takes inspiration from GoldenEye 007 (1997), in which players pick up weapons, health and armor by walking over them. The d-pad swaps between weapons, as well as their Primary and Secondary fire, though the player may need to figure out the best opportunities for each weapon based on their environment. The left and right analog sticks respectively let the player crouch or activate a weapon’s zoom function. Players can also pick up and throw grenades, as well as swap between multiple types with the press of a button. Cortez also has a Temporal Uplink, which lets him lift and throw environmental objects without touching them in a mostly intuitive fashion. At times, players can also drive vehicles or use mounted turrets that can help turn the tide of battle, though the vehicles can feel hard to drive in tight spaces.

Vehicles come up more in Story Mode.

Though the game has a strong emphasis on multiplayer for its content, the shutdown of Xbox Live on the original system means that I am unable to comment on the online capabilities. Fortunately, those looking for some classic multiplayer gameplay can still play locally through split screen or a LAN connection. Future Perfect also boasts the inclusion of 150 playable characters and although that’s an impressive stat and is mostly justified by the surprising variety of character from across the series, some variations seem to only exist to inflate that number. The only thing that stops it from feeling repetitive, in that case, is that the variations at least have different stats.

Story Mode consists of thirteen chapters, which must first be played in sequential order in one of three difficulties, Easy, Medium or Hard. During each chapter, in which the only playable character is Sergeant Cortez, players are given a few Main and Secondary objectives to complete to advance the story. Since there’s mostly shooting involved, players are given the opportunity to try out many of the weapons the game has to offer, which can impart valuable information for the multiplayer modes. Of course, shooting isn’t the only thing players are tasked with, as Cortez’s Temporal Uplink is useful for completing environmental puzzles and there are times where the player can instead opt for a stealth approach by knocking out unsuspecting enemies with melee attacks.

Although some levels have multiple paths and optional rooms, the game does its best to make sure players don’t get lost. Buildings and outdoor environments can subtly indicate where the player should go next or suggest a method for getting past certain enemies and obstacles. When activating certain switches and levers, a picture-in-picture view will pop up on screen showing what door you’ve opened up as a quick reminder of where the next room is. If all else fails, Story Mode also adds a secondary ability to the Temporal Uplink that projects a map of the area and where you are. I didn’t realize this function early on, so there was a point where I felt stuck during the early game, only to realize that I needed to interact with a particular door with the A button. This did teach me to try pressing A on the environment if I’m unsure what to do next, though the game doesn’t really tell players that they might need to do this and relies on natural curiosity. I wouldn’t necessarily consider this a fault in design as much as I’m not used to playing this particular style of FPS that involves some level of player trust.

The Temporal Uplink can help you find your way around.

One other key feature of Story Mode, touted on the back of the box, is that Cortez can occasionally team up with his past and future selves. These encounters are the result of time loops within the story, which make sense within the story’s time travel logic, and usually mean that players have to repeat certain sections either back-to-back or in close proximity. During the repeated sections, the player’s Cortez is given a different goal to keep things interesting, though it helps that the missions are mercifully short. In some cases, however, I found the AI a little annoying, since they could take longer to complete their task.

That’s not to say there aren’t other issues during the campaign, however minor, aside from sometimes not figuring out the next objective quickly enough, or taking too long to figure out when stealth is preferred. Each chapter’s location provides enough variety in theme and objective to keep things interesting, but there are points where the design feels too restrictive. While in 1994, for instance, Cortez must fend off zombies and ghosts, but he’s mostly restricted to using a shotgun with only two rounds between reloads and the zombies take too many hits to kill unless you go for headshots. Add in the cramped spaces and zombie swarming capabilities and in you’re in for a more frustrating experience than necessary.

When you’re done with Story Mode, you can still play around with Arcade Mode, where you can play offline multiplayer matches against bots or friends through local split screen. There are thirteen different game modes (Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Bag, Bagtag, Elimination, Shrink, Vampire, Thief, Virus, Zones, Assault, Gladiator, Monkey Assistant) across fifteen different maps, though not all maps are available in all modes, as some don’t translate as easily (and some can feel rather cramped). What gives this mode in particular a lot of replay value is the depth of the parameters you can set for each game mode, as well as the types of weapons you can use and bots you can play against. There’s even an incentive to perform better in later matches thanks to the succinct but useful set of statistics in the results screen, including Longest Killing Spree, Most Accurate, Overall Time In Lead and Most Head Shots. It’s actually a little surprising that a game from 2005 features so much customization, since you don’t really get that as much in more modern games (at least as far as I’m aware).

If you’re looking to unlock additional content for Future Perfect, however, including extra characters, cheats and mapmaker features, then you’ll have to go through either Arcade Leagues or Challenge Mode. League is a sub-mode of Arcade where you can fight your way through 27 scenarios divided between three Leagues (Amateur, Honorary and Elite), each with gradually increasing difficulty. Each scenario lets you earn Bronze, Silver, Gold or even Platinum medals, though you must get Bronze in every scenario is a League before you can move on to the next one. Challenge Mode operates in a very similar fashion, except you’re not as restricted in the order you can approach each of the 21 Challenges.

For even more replay value, you can create your own custom Story and Arcade maps in the game’s robust mapmaker. There was a feature that let players share and download custom maps, though the shutdown of Xbox Live makes it impossible to fully comment on it.

When you’ve either exhausted the single player content or simply want to play with friends, there’s also a local multiplayer option. In this case, you need to specify how many people are playing when you boot up Future Perfect, from one to four, and each player requires their own in-game profile. Once you get in, you’ll find that the save data for a multiplayer game is stored differently from a single player game, though this likely stems from the presence of multiple profiles. I was only able to try out two-player games and found that when playing an Arcade session with no bots, matches feel heavily imbalanced, as an experienced player can steamroll another. As such, it’s recommended that you either play with bots if you only have two people or try to get three to four players in the same room for more variety. Having a second player also allows access to the Co-op Story Mode, which plays out exactly the same as Story Mode, except that Player 2 controls a secondary character and friendly fire is on with no option to disable it.

Although the graphics look a little dated now, thanks to the leaps made in graphical fidelity since 2005, Future Perfect still holds up pretty well thanks to its generally stylized look and highly expressive animations and cutscenes. Fans of classic FPS’ will also find that the HUD generally resembles that of GoldenEye 007, particularly when displaying Health and Armor. However, the experience is still marred at times by some noticeable framerate dips during more graphically-intense sequences, not to mention the noticeable grammatical errors in the subtitles. While the subtitle errors weren’t a make-or-break thing for me in this case, they did still bug me.

The HUD has a classic feel.

As a plus, Future Perfect has some great voice acting, especially from Tom Clarke Hill as Sergeant Cortez and Wayne Forester as Jacob Crow, that helps aid the incredible comedic timing while still taking the story seriously enough to sell it. Not to be outdone, the score by Graeme Norgate and Christian Marcussen has some memorable pieces that have stuck with me after each play session. I also noticed that the guns have distinct sounds that fit each of their utilities and the in-game audio changes realistically depending on your relative position in space.

Even now, TimeSplitters: Future Perfect is a great FPS title thanks to its solid gameplay and its humorous and well-written story. Though it’s imperfect by today’s standards, you’ll still have a good time, whether you play by yourself or with friends.

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