Better check yourself, lest you wreck yourself.
I first had hands-on time with Split/Second almost a year ago at E3 2009. At the time, I was a starry-eyed gamer walking into a convention I had dreamed about for years. While most of my time ended up being a lot of work, I distinctly remember enjoying the Split/Second demo, hoping to see and play it soon. Fast forward to the present, and Split/Second is finally on store shelves, and it stacks up against any other title coming out this month.
[image1]Though I have always had some worries about racing titles, ever since my disastrous purchase of the $70 MRC: Multi Racing Championship for the Nintendo 64, Split/Second is quick to quell these fears and establish itself as a racer more about blowing opponents up than crafting a perfect line to the finish line. While there’s something of a backstory that sets up the game as a reality TV show with a ludicrous budget for destruction, players will probably never consider this outside of the 10-second previews and intros that bookend sections of season mode. As with the fighting genre of gaming, it’s not really about the story.
What Split/Second is really about is destruction. Rather than overlaying Mario Kart-style power-ups over a modern-looking racing game, Black Rock Studios has opted to do something a bit more innovative and has given racers the opportunity to blow up the track in an effort to impede the front of the pack. These attacks split between level 1 and level 2 "power plays". Before you can trigger any of these track-changing, semi-truck catapulting, or TNT-loaded attacks, you’ll have to fill up your power bar by drifting, drafting, and generally racing in the stylish manner Burnout and Project Gotham Racing have made old news.
Once you have loaded up your power bar, you’ll notice that every track in the game is loaded with ways to completely annihilate the competition. Some of these opportunities are small, like a helicopter dropping an explosive piñata on racers, while others are massive, like a jumbo jet barreling down the racetrack. They can also open up shortcuts or even alter the track.
[image2]These level 2 track changers make Split/Second the exhilarating experience it is. In one race, I was following the field in last place. With a full power bar, I triggered it upon seeing a big red arrow on screen. As if by the Hand of God, one of the track’s massive towers came tumbling over, burying my competition underneath heaps of rubble and providing me with first place and a win.
All of this destruction and action is certainly aided by the high level of polish Black Rock has given to Split/Second. Car models, textures, and explosions all look spectacular. Flecks of fuel, dirt, and grime fly at the screen, while a blue sky hovers above and the landscape streams by in Hollywood colors. Split/Second beats Michael Bay at his own game. Explosions, fast cars, and a level of gloss summer blockbusters are known for make the production value second to none.
Truthfully, this concept of altering the track, causing chaos, and a hefty dose of blinding speed is just plain fun. But Split/Second doesn’t let the formula grow too stale by adding dashes of new modes I’ve never seen in the racing genre. Race and Elimination matches are fairly standard fare, but Air Strike (and Air Revenge) and Survival modes turn destruction into manic entertainment. Air Strike pits the player against a helicopter that launches missiles along the track, while Survival has the player overtaking semi-trucks that drop explosives barrels in spades. Survival in particular is hellfire in a bottle. The track is populated with dumb AI racers (or hopefully less dumb players over Xbox Live). These other racers act as linebackers to your running back. I could play Survival mode for hours trying to rack up a high score.
[image3]Though Split/Second offers a handful of tracks, they’re ultimately derivative of each other. This is staved off by the player’s ability to alter the track, but by the end of the single-player season, you’ll ultimately feel a little fatigued by the repetition. Online multiplayer can relieve this fatigued feeling by replacing the oft-unbalanced, oft-maddening AI-controlled opponents. There were more than a handful of instances where I was leading a race well ahead of opposition, only to have a computer racer spring ahead at the last possible second. Despite that frustration, it didn’t keep me from racing again and smashing my opponents to dust to make up for the offense.
Ultimately, Split/Second is a great first outing for what is sure to become a line of racers that becomes bigger, faster, and more destructive than the last. Black Rock has proved the concept, shown what kind of polish they can muster, and given arcade racing fans a reason to get back in the game. The explosions and thrills will certainly last until the inevitable "Split/Second 2" throws a couple of different buildings at us.