Besides one of last generation's best-loved games, Timesplitters 2 is probably the only first-person shooter my little sister can kick my arse at. Granted, mastery didn't come overnight. We picked up the game for Gamecube sometime in 2003, and she was initially confounded by the business of moving and aiming simultaneously. Several severe schoolings were administered, much hair-pulling ensued, and the poor waif retreated sullenly to the charms of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Tyrannical older sibling function completed, I moved onto the gristlier thrills of Resident Evil 4.
But at some fateful point in the following months, she had a friend round for a sleep-over and they tried out the splitscreen, engaging in controlled skirmishes with the game's modestly intelligent 'bots. No brotherly oppression was here, only the chance to learn the maps and tactics in peace. I was at university at the time - innocent and unsuspecting of the breakthrough that would transform the baby of the family into a merciless doom-bringer, equipped with a minute understanding of terrain and a refreshing absence of scruple.
By the winter of 2004, my own reflexes and hand-eye coordination had wilted to a puddle under a strict diet of books and lager. Christmas that year was a chaos of blast clouds, bestial yelping and hysterical pleas for power-ups. My sister's expertise had reached a point where the exercise of such pathetic, menial tools as firearms was actually unnecessary. She preferred mines instead - mines tossed with preternatural discretion over ledges and around corners to land right under a descending foot. In hindsight, getting off the train down the road from our house was like disembarking from the transport in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. That wasn't the worst of it, however. The worst of it was that she'd managed to get my brother interested, too.
My brother has Downs Syndrome, and is extremely good at exploiting preconceptions about this to disguise the fact that he's a Machiavellian super-genius. Few games paint a picture of their players like Timesplitters 2, with up to 60 cunningly themed awards on offer at the end of each multiplayer match. As a rule, little bro walked away with "Betrayer", "Most Dishonorable" and "Ricochet King". Meanwhile, my sister was cleaning up in the form of "Brain Surgeon", "Weapons Expert" and "Longest Innings". I usually had to make do with "Most Flammable" and "Backpeddler". Something for everyone, indeed.
These are fairly simple rewards alongside the perpetually unlocking sprawl of a Battlefield, a Medal of Honor or a Call of Duty, but they lent Timesplitters 2 a zest and personality other developers could learn from. Free Radical's greatest work is an incredibly simple game, for all its bulk, an enormously fat Santa of a shooter that's forever throwing new toys (many of them explosive ones) at your feet.
Nowadays, the FPS is all about carefully coordinated evolution, staplegunning the player's boots to a conveyer belt laden with emblems, different coloured scopes and support abilities. There's merit to that kind of structure, but it doesn't feel as generous as Timesplitters did. It feels like work, like paying your dues. The modern industry usage of "career" to denote multiplayer progression is telling and a little depressing.
The other thing about Timesplitters 2 is that it encapsulates all shooters, past and present. Care of a fourth-dimensional premise, it's the ultimate pastiche, a carnival mirror in which you glimpse the stunned countenances of space marines, zombies, World War 2 roughnecks, spies, near-future dystopian rebels, Lovecraftian assassins and, of course, annoyingly undersized monkeys, the Oddjobs of the PS2 era - and these are archetypes you can combine at will in the map editor and heavily customisable multiplayer mode suite.