You are the next contestant on Split/Second, the new reality TV show where drivers race not only against one another but against the course itself, which is exploding more often than not. Sadly, Split/Second from Black Rock Studio and Disney Interactive is only a game, putting players in the driver’s seat for this insane fictional reality show where you’re just as likely to burn rubber drifting around a corner as have an exploding bus take out your car. Black Rock Studio has a history of making straight forward racing games like Pure and MotoGP ’07, but what happens when Split/Second adds explosives to the mix?
The thing that really sets Split/Second apart from other racing games is the “Power Play” game mechanic. Many arcade racing games reward drafting, passing and performing jumps with some kind of speed boost meter that can be activated by the player. Similarly, Split/Second rewards skillful driving by charging up a meter, but instead of a speed boost the player can execute a power play when the meter reaches a certain level. Power plays allow the player to set off explosions and traps for their opponents at certain points on the course. This could be anything from detonating a tanker truck by the side of the road, to dropping a shower of girders from a crane, all the way up to the blowing up an entire building and drastically altering the layout of the track. The power plays can make Split/Second feel less like a racing game and more like an on-the-fly strategy game, with well timed moves vaulting you from last to first and changing the entire dynamic of the race. Use the power plays well and you’ll leave the competition in the dust, but be sure to watch your back since your opponents can also use them against you.
In keeping with the reality TV theme, Split/Second is divided into twelve episodes with six events each. The episodes are complete with action packed introductions narrated by a Michael Buffer sound-alike and title screen ripped directly from real-life TV show Fear Factor. The events are split into several fairly self-explanatory modes: the standard race mode makes up the backbone of the game; elimination mode forces racers to compete for first place, as every thirty seconds the contestant in last place is explodes; Detonator is basically time trial mode, except everything that can blow up does blow up; Survival mode is what it sounds like. The player must survive as long as they can as 18-wheelers rain down explosive barrels into their path; Airstrike and Air Revenge see the player pitted against an attack helicopter, where the former mode challenges the player to avoid the missile strikes from their aerial adversary, the latter mode allows the player to jam the helicopter’s radar and turn the missiles against it. Although I found the lack of tracks to be a little disappointing, the variety of modes manage to keep them fresh. The fact that the tracks can change drastically during the course of the race also adds replay value. There are only twelve tracks, but that means you’ll get to know them quite well, something that is integral to being able to compete effectively against your opponents.
The game also features a fairly robust multiplayer component, though only three of the previously mentioned modes are available: race, elimination and survival. Thanks to the two player split-screen and eight player online play, you’ll be able to extend your time with the game. But don’t think that just because you’re good against the computer that you’ll be a sure thing online; as I quickly discovered, human opponents are much more adept at using power plays than their AI-controlled counterparts.
Split/Second is a great looking game; all of the vehicular carnage is rendered in beautiful detail. The feeling of speed is aided by the solid 30 FPS framerate, not a stutter or screen tear in sight. The game itself often slows down intentionally whenever a large power play is triggered, this serves two purposes: to heighten the intensity of the moment and benefits the gameplay experience by saving the frame rate. A great deal of credit for the feel of the game must go to the music and sound design team, the aural elements of the destruction are top notch. The soundtrack is a mix of orchestral and electronic pieces that fit perfectly with the game, making the most nail-biting race that much more energetic. If you’re making a game where so many things blow up, you’d better make sure that the explosions sound great, and in Split/Second do they ever. With the right sound system a collapsing building will shake your own domicile, though thankfully not to the ground.
The controls are fairly simple and intuitive, although using the L2 and R2 buttons for the gas and brake is not very comfortable on a PS3 Dual Shock controller, particularly for long play sessions. The left and right triggers on an Xbox 360 controller are much better suited for this task, and not nearly as fatiguing. The game makes ample use of the controller’s vibration function, which adds to the experience. You’ll feel the force of the explosions as much as you’ll see and hear them, the only downside being that the excess vibration tends to drain the battery on the controller pretty quickly.
Unlocking new vehicles as you progress is fairly standard for a racing game, but when you never actually use a third of all the vehicles you unlock this process can become a bit tedious. You are required to unlock what are essentially useless vehicles; slow-but-strong trucks, which can take a lot of damage but couldn’t outrun a sloth. By the end of the game I was only using one or two vehicles, neither of which were trucks. These vehicles just felt like filler, but perhaps it’s just my preference for speedy cars. Another issue I have with the game are the load times, something which in theory should be aided by the beastly 3.8 gigabyte install on the PS3 and 6.6 gigabytes on the Xbox 360. You’ll find yourself waiting around quite a bit between races with constant prompts offering tips and splash screens pestering you about this and that. In game however, the user interface is quite slick. The heads up display is clean and simple, your position, the lap number and the power play meter are neatly tucked in behind the car allowing you to take in the impressive visuals. You can also switch to the first person bumper camera for a more immersive experience, the HUD is slightly different in this view, but the feeling of speed is certainly worth the trade off.
Split/Second is a unique racer that almost defies classification. It’s not a simulator like Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo, but it’s also not technically vehicular combat game like Twisted Metal. It feels like some kind of hybrid of an arcade style racing game like San Francisco Rush and an aggressive racer like Burnout, which isn’t a bad thing at all. With Red Dead Redemption, Alan Wake and a new Prince of Persia game all arriving this week, your action-adventure plate is full. Who needs a narrative or a sandbox world when you have a balls-to-the-wall racing game that requires precision, timing and strategy? Split/Second is a compelling alternative, and there’s not a sword, a horse or a flashlight in sight.