retrospective: second sight
You’ve heard of Perfect Dark, right? And Goldeneye 007 for N64? Oh, and you remember the Timesplitters series, of course. Yep, those are some absolute classics. You might also know that they all came from the same core team – a team that started at Rare, before they splintered off as a new studio. And it was at Free Radical Design that they made the incredible Timesplitters series. But that team created more than just those few gaming mega-hits. Between the exceptional Timesplitters 2 and the underperforming Timesplitters: Future Perfect came another title – a mind-bending, story-driven action title called Second Sight. And it was bloody brilliant. Brilliant it might have been, but Second Sight wasn’t the commercial success it should’ve been. Problems with the original publisher meant the announcement of the game was delayed. The release was unfortunately timed with another, similar title. And in the end, not many people heard about the third-person adventure made by the guys that created some of the best shooters of a gaming generation. It wasn’t the end for Free Radical, but this is a game that deserved so much more.
Trick of the mind
The idea for Second Sight had been knocking around in the mind of its writer, David Doak, for a few years before he and the team eventually got to make it. In fact, it was supposed to be Free Radical’s first game as a new studio. Back then it was called Redemption, but the general idea was the same – your actions in the game would change the course of the story. But when the release of the PS2 was delayed, Sony saw an opportunity for a simpler, multiplayer-focused shooter. One that required less storytelling, and could be produced in time to be a launch title for the new console. That shooter was
TimeSplitters. And after its success, the game that would later become
Second Sight was put on the backburner – for more than four years.
But the idea was always there. And when the game was eventually announced in 2004 – just a few months before its planned release date – it had already been in production for a while. The plan had been to announce it much earlier, but when the original publisher got cold feet, things changed. By the time Codemasters stepped in to help, it was almost finished, and the team had to work hard to build hype for a game that was coming out in just over six months. Despite positive coverage before and during E3, it wasn’t enough for Second Sight to light up the charts.
It didn’t help that the game launched within weeks of Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy.
The two titles were surprisingly similar; both had psychically-powered protagonists, powerful mental attacks and awesome physics. At the time, it was impossible to talk about one without someone bringing up the other. The fates just weren’t on Second Sight’s side. But for many of those that did play it, it became an unknown gem. Fans of TimeSplitters could be forgiven for thinking it was a spinoff thanks to the art style alone. Its distinctively blocky characters were hugely expressive, and at the time the game looked gorgeous. The team chose the graphical
style because they knew that the hardware of the time wasn’t powerful enough to make characters look genuinely realistic. So rather than trying the impossible, they opted for a style that let them make bad guys look truly evil. And it allowed them to create a story-driven title that captured the minds of those that played it.
The story places you in the body of John Vattic, a scientist who is co-opted into a Special Forces team and sent to Russia to stop a mad scientist doing psychic experiments on children. Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous, but bear with me.
At the beginning of the game, you wake up in a sterile facility, alone and chained to a bed. You have no memory of who you are or how you got here. All you know is what you overheard as the guards wheeled you, semi-conscious, through the halls – you’re dangerous. A psycho. A killer.
Within moments of waking, a strange force lifts you from the bed and undoes the cuffs that hold you captive. As you wander around the room, discombobulated, John wonders aloud whether he did that with his mind. Maybe it’ll work on the locked door, too?
You’ve been playing for less than a minute, and you’re already completely drawn in. The first control you get lets you open doors with your mind! Soon you’re ripping monitors off walls, chucking chairs at guards and healing yourself with your brain. But you’re bruised, you still don’t know who the hell you are, and you look like Britney Spears that time she shaved her head. Yes, my references are as retro as this game. Sorry about that.
Soon you find a computer and log in. Search the hard drive and you discover some pertinent files. It’s your history. You learn who you are, and read about a mission that you were part of. One of the members of your team, Jayne, was killed during that mission. The name sparks something. As you read, your brain hurts (in the game, but also maybe in real life), and suddenly you’re living through a memory.
In the past, you’ve got hair, glasses and a fetching shirt, like a nerdy Justin Timberlake, or Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman without the beard. As you play through the mission, learning how to shoot and take cover, you meet Jayne. She runs into a building, and you just know – don’t ask how – that she’s in danger. You follow her, and as she is about to die… you save her. Hold on a second! Nope, no time to waste. Now we’re back in the present, and you’re reading the file again. Jayne survived, and is being held in a mental institution. You have to break her out. Wait. Did you just change history? Just how broken is your mind?
As you progress in the present, you keep revisiting the past, changing details that affect you when you return to the modern day. See, we told you your brain would hurt. The time-bending plot is artfully told, with strong characters and impressive animation. You really feel for ol’ baldy. Then, towards the end of the final level, a revelation changes everything. Back in 2004, it blew my tiny 16-yearold mind. I won’t spoil it for you here, because now that Koch Media own the rights to the title I’m still hoping for a remaster (and maybe – whisper it – a sequel?). But rest assured, it’s one of the most satisfying ends that you’ll ever get in a videogame.
The real draw, though, are John’s powers. It starts with basic telekinesis, aka lobbing floating chairs at terrified guards, and psychic healing. Soon you’re bunging balls of mental energy
“Soon you’re ripping monitors off walls, chucking chairs at guards and healing yourself with your brain”
at people and ‘charming’ guards so that they don’t see you as you sneak past them. Sadly there’s no ‘blow a raspberry’ or ‘pull their trousers down’ button. Maybe one for the sequel? They can have that one for free.
By the end of the game you are a super-powered Britney/Justin (depending on your current timeline), picking up guards and wanging them over walls, tossing explosive barrels at groups of baddies and blowing them up, and even possessing guards. That one is particularly fun – there’s nothing like exploring ahead with your projected presence, finding a couple of guards, possessing one and shooting his mate in the foot. Understandably, he isn’t too pleased, and by the time you reach them with your physical body, you’ll probably find that they’ve had an argument that has ended in them both shooting each other. Now you try telling me that’s not a good time, and I’ll reply with a gif of Lex Luthor shouting “WRONG” from Superman Returns. Another pre-2008 reference for you, there. You’re welcome.
There are also some inspired touches that make Second Sight feel truly special. For one, when you take cover against a wall, you can press to creep around it without moving away from the wall. It doesn’t sound like much now, but that’s something not even stealth king Metal Gear had managed back in 2004.
There are cameras you can control by logging into computers, but move them too much and guards get suspicious and start asking questions. Search the computers and you can dig up guards’ chat conversations about totally pointless crap. Does it need to be there? Of course not. But it’s a lovely touch.
Then there’s the in-game camera. You have two options – a fixed camera that changes as you move into different areas, à la Resident Evil, and a traditional camera you control with the right stick. I love that Free Radical gave players the choice.
The sniper scope is an odd one, too. You play the game almost exclusively in third person, and when you scope in with a rifle, it doesn’t take up the whole screen. Instead, the scope appears in your bottom-right corner. You can still move as you aim, and see what’s going on around you as you line up your shot. It’s… weird. Do I want to see it in other games? Probably not. But it’s a neat touch, and a cool experience.
The only disappointment is that, by the time you get all your powers and can wield them alongside the best guns, the game is almost over. You barely get to enjoy being a superhero before the credits roll. I played the final level dozens of times, finding different ways to beat it using my plethora of powers. But I was left wanting more. It’s a shame, but hey, at least it’s a strong idea for that sequel? Right Koch Media? Right?!
Above Who said corridors were boring?
above The graphics and in particular those distinctive character models will be familiar to anyone who played TimeSplitters.
Top Trips to the past usually involve more gunplay, while present-day levels are all about your psychic powers.
above John was far too good at hide-and-seek. This is why your friends don’t play with you any more, John.