Saturday, 26 February 2005
We tell you why, now that it's been released on PC, Free Radical's game deserves a second glance.
Under the careful eye of Twycross-based Rare, Goldeneye and it’s successor-in-all-but-name, Perfect Dark, defined a generation of rifle-toting gamers. It’s fitting, then, that members of the same development team provided an iconic first-person shooter for the current crop of consoles: Timesplitters 2’s rich characterisation and enchanting aesthetics captured gamers’ hearts in the same way that Carrington and Co. did nearly a decade ago. Free Radical, the developer which now houses the creative minds behind the former couplet, have decided it’s time to show that they’re just as prolific outside of the first-person viewpoint that they’ve dominated for the last decade. Second Sight promises third-person thrills as we step into the shoes of one John Vattic, and unravel a captivating tale of conspiracies, horrifying discoveries and most importantly, lofting soldiers into the air with your mind. And then dropping a barrel on their head.
There was a time when you’d empty a whole cartridge into a cardboard box, and it’d just stand there. Not even a twitch. Nowadays, with the advent of technology like Valve’s Source engine, the cardboard box wouldn’t be so lucky. Undoubtedly the most fruit-bearing development of these advances is that now we can pick things up, and well, throw them around a bit. Which, as we’re sure you’ll agree: is a jolly good laugh. It was ineviatable, then, that we’d soon be frolicking around with psychic abilities. Surely Second Sight utilizes the draw of telekinesis naively to cover up flawed, linear gameplay in order to get the gravity-gun-loving punters in? In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth: this is Free Radical we’re talking about. Vattic’s psychic abilities are so much than a mere USP: they unlock gameplay opportunities than you average run-of-the-mill, by-the-rulebook third-person blaster cries out for. Coupled with the pant-wettingly exciting prospect of crushing baddies with your mind alone: these powers give Second Sight the opportunity to create genuinely refreshing, innovative and challenging puzzles, and most importantly, a sense of choice.
Let’s set the scene: Vattic opens a door. You’ve just stepped into a heavily guarded courtyard. Whipping out your sniper rifle, you deliver a swift bullet into the skulls of your opponents. Through the front door you go. Job done. Or perhaps you’re feeling a little Solid Snake (the star of a title that Second Sight clearly draws inspiration from). Vattic unveils one of many psychic abilities from his extensive portfolio, projecting himself outside his material body so he can snoop around and see what’s going down. There’s seven guards dotted around the courtyard. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Do you take them down with the SMG? Avoid violence and posses their minds with your charm ability? Or do you take them out with a well-placed psi-blast? If you like, you could try your luck and just peg it across. In terms of the choices available in times of conflict: we’re literally scraping the surface here. Fancy having a go at a bit of telekinesis? Why don’t you loft up that palette over there and crack it over the head of that unsuspecting guard? Bit of a pacifist? Does that cupboard look appealing? Go on, hop in. Wait ‘til everything’s calmed down.
That old biddy clearly knows her stuff. With Second Sight, there’s always another way. Be sure not to dismiss Second Sight’s mindgames as a mere gimmick – Vattic’s psychic tendencies bring a sense of adventure to a tired and saturated genre that often falsely masquerades itself as just that, rendering each and every room a lip-quiveringly enticing prospect: and you won’t mind going back and replaying a section if Vattic cops it. The only thing we’re worried about is, how the hell are we going to go back to linear, locomotive Enter The Matrix-style gameplay after this.
It’s not only combat that benefits from Second Sight’s psychic theme: puzzles are easy to get wrong, and terribly hard to get right -- and with puzzles being such a core gameplay mechanic in the genre, we at AltGaming have seen plenty of competent adventures fall at the wayside due to lackluster puzzling. Luckily, Vattic’s psychic abilities provide a refreshing angle on tired puzzles: in one section you’re presented with a room which needs decontaminating before you pop through the door, but there’s guards pouring in – and the process simply isn’t going fast enough. You’re going to meet your maker if you’re not careful. Using your telekinesis ability, you make the blades spin faster. And faster. Therefore, the decontamination process gains pace. Vattic walks on through the door, and you’ve saved your behind. Other titles would have asked you to press a button. Second Sight doesn’t revolutionize third person puzzling: far from it, but what it does do is ask the player to do a little more, and while they’re undoubtedly recycled puzzles, they certainly don’t feel like it. This innovation is reflected in the shooting mechanics: both standard and sniper aiming work well both in times of calm and intense action – as does the first-person camera angle which sits side-by-side with the aforementioned mechanics, and Free Radical have done themselves proud, clearly putting in those little extra bits of effort which render the game a joy to play.
But all these marvelous gameplay opportunities aren’t anything without a captivating front-end and narrative to tie everything together: luckily, Second Sight delivers on both accounts. We’re treated to Vattic’s story in the form of a dual-narrative: the action zips between past and present, with alternating segments of gameplay. The opening scene depicts Vattic awakening in a mysterious scientific facility: accused of unspeakable homicide. He’s a broken man: battered and bruised, both physically and mentally, with not a clue as to his identity or his past – the setting for the action set in the present, as we see Vattic discover his new-fangled powers and come to terms with not only his new abilities, his past and his true identity: but the reason why he committed such crimes. Every so often, we’re taken back in time: and given the opportunity to take the role of a younger, healthier Vattic, as he’s drafted into a team known only as Winter Ice, intent on revealing the secrets of a scientist, who – under the instruction of Stalin – experimented with the mind and it’s psychic potential. From then on, we’re taken on an emotional rollercoaster as we find out how Vattic came to be the supposed monster that he is now, and why he wields the power that Winter Ice were once sent to investigate. It’s a captivating tale: and after the mish-mash that was Timesplitters 2’s narrative, it’s pleasing to know that Free Radical have done their heritage justice with a compelling saga to rival even Joanna Dark’s glorious exploits.
This level of excellence is mirrored in the front-end: Free Radical made a brave choice in using their trademark pseudo-comic-book visuals for Second Sight, the same eye-candy that defined Timesplitters 2’s marvelous aesthetic – undoubtedly the correct choice: as the enchanting visuals add depth to the superb narrative, and the warm charactisation really brings the story to life. Each and every character is beautifully crafted: just by looking at their faces you can see that each one has a story to tell, and it’s really a shame that we don’t get to indulge in their tales. The voice acting, while initially a little grating, is superb and adds even more depth to this rich characterization and coupled with a moving soundtrack: Second Sight is a treat for the senses.
It’s not without a few niggles, mind: the camera – while efficient and usable, sometimes lets you down in moments of intense action – and occasionally suffers from Resident-Evil-corridor syndrome. Vattic’s voice hints also get on the nerves: repeating supposedly helpful comments until you get something right, and after a few “I wonder where that path goes” comments you’ll wish that you could pick him up and lob out the window. But these are small niggles: and are crushed under the weight of Second Sight’s gameplay euphoria.
Free Radical are undoubtedly game-developing deities, and we’d expect nothing but a masterpiece from them: we’re not disappointed. Second Sight brings a fresh twist on a tired genre: providing the player with a real sense of choice – and coupled with an innovative USP, enchanting charactisation, a rich narrative and gameplay that really feels like what the game claims to be, an adventure, Second Sight sets high standards that only its siblings can boast about. Be thankful that Free Radical jumped ship when they did. Highly recommended.