For every unexpected success in gaming, another would-be classic is forgotten. Perhaps one of the biggest injustices of the sixth console generation was the hilarious and gritty FPS Timesplitters becoming a footnote in video game canon.
Free Radical’s spiritual successor to GoldenEye 007 first emerged in 2000. It was rough around the edges, but delivered frantic, arcade action through a variety of weapons, game modes and characters. Killer calamari hurled grenades at mobster chefs, and robot police officers screamed “Why?” when blown to bits.
A significant improvement was the sequel, TimeSplitters 2 (2002) which added a fantastically C-grade plot. Vin Diesel lookalike Sargent Cortez hops through time periods, becoming a Russian spy, a hardboiled detective, a Buck Rogers-esque spaceman and more. TimeSplitters: Future Perfect would follow, but the IP would ultimately fall by the wayside. Crytek, who absorbed Free Radical, officially shelved the series in 2007.
While I could reminisce about blowing up gold-fish powered robots into the wee hours, today I’m talking about the trilogy’s solid soundtracks, specifically TimeSplitters 2.
The soundtrack was composed by Graeme Norgate, whose resume at the time included GoldenEye 007, Donkey Kong Land and Killer Instinct. It’s a hell of a list, but the amazing thing about TimeSplitters 2 is that it showcases Norgate’s diversity on every track.
TimeSplitters 2 kicks off with the pounding, gritty electro vibes of its main theme. The player is sucked into a whirling cacophony of cold steel – the beginning of their journey as a gun-totting, health-pack-chugging Dr Who.
Of course, a game with a multi-millennial timeline can’t sound like the inside of Skynet the whole time. This is where Norgate’s chameleon-like composing shines.
A few dead zombies in and the player arrives in 1930s Chicago. Violin stings and mandolins strums seep from the speakers as the player stalks down alleyways and shoots out windows. A few tracks later and we’re on the streets of Neo Tokyo, with Norgate meshing traditional Eastern-vibes with modern sounds.
These levels are tongue-in-cheek caricatures of the genres they represent, and Norgate’s music follows suite. A by-the-numbers tune probably isn’t too tricky to write, but following tropes and formulas while still keeping it fresh and distinctive is a different ballgame.
Norgate manages to achieve this through a delicate balance of tradition and surprise: Wild West features a grinding, almost-hardcore riff that compliments the galloping drums and twangy guitars. Robot Factory, for all it’s industrial tones, is driven by a Fantasia-style keyboard climb.
Unpacking the entire soundtrack to TimeSplitters 2 is a mammoth task, but listening to the album in full is a worthwhile experience. It’s a testament to Norgate’s writing that his compositions stand alone as explorations of genre and themes that all gravitate around a central structure. There’s a real coherency across the entire soundtrack, which I imagine is owed to Norgate’s rigorous production.
Norgate has worked on some big titles since TimeSplitters, including the Crysis series. However, his work on this forgotten trilogy stands out as an achievement in video game music. If TimeSplitters is a love letter to GoldenEye, then its soundtrack is one to the soundtracks of the past.
Many of Norgate’s soundtracks are on Bandcamp, and are worth giving a spin. If you’re unfamiliar with TimeSplitters, it’s as good an introduction as any. If you’re already a fan, it’s like a trip back in time.