Developer: Black Rock Studio
Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios
Players: 1-2, (1-8 online)
Console: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
ESRB Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10+)
Hours Played: 20
Progress: Finished season championship in 1st place
Disney Interactive and Black Rock Studio team up once again to give us another original take on the racing genre. Split/Second combines the framework of a traditional arcade racer with a gameplay mechanic that allows you to trigger explosions within the track that can take down opponents and open route changes. High speeds, realistic graphics, an epic score and earth shattering explosions promise an intense racing experience. Read on to see if this promise holds true…
A racing game with a story!? Well, going by initial impressions you’d be forgiven for thinking that Split/Second could actually buck that trend. The game starts by prepping you, the rookie to a TV show called Split/Second, for his first appearance as a driver on the show. An unannounced voice guides you through a tutorial track that explains the basics of the game, but after that you’re on your own and any promises of an actual story that holds together the game quickly fade away. Events are grouped into “episodes” that are introduced in brief teaser trailers once the previous one has been completed. Aside from these trailers, there’s little that builds upon the idea that the player is part of a groundbreaking TV show. There’s an odd exception to all of this, the ending sequence leaves us with a massive cliffhanger which hints at the presence of a large back story that’s never revealed… it ends up being weird and feeling kind of inappropriate.
Split/Second has many good qualities, but none are more quickly apparent than the graphics. Tracks have great architectural detail; tons of structures and vehicles straddle the tracks and even the objects that are a bit basic are draped in a fantastic lighting filter that brightens the tracks and at the same time gives them ambiance, as if you’re driving at dusk. The exotic car models are of fictitious design, somewhat reminiscent of those in BurnOut, and covered in a high gloss sheen. The damage modelling on them is great, hit an object and watch the front crumple like a tin can, be hit by a missile (yeah that’s right, a missile!) and gaze in amazement as the front of the car is ripped from the chassis like a sheet of toilet paper from the roll, all in the brilliance of slow motion, it really is great stuff. The destruction in Split/Second takes center stage, it seems like virtually anything in the environment was peppered in gunpowder because all of it can explode in a blaze of fire at the push of a button. The explosions are quite impressive, whether its a dry-docked cruise ship or a conference center, they shatter in a ball of fire as debris realistically scatter in all directions. The way the models come apart in slow motion shows the detail that went into developing the destruction animations and it makes the experience all the more visceral and intense. I was very impressed with the game’s frame rate. The speed in Split/Second is incredible, it’s not quite WipEout but it’s close, even with the road full of competitors and explosions going off all around, the game doesn’t skip a beat and obviously doesn’t sacrifice graphical detail in order to pull this off.
Believe it or not, the audio in Split/Second was actually my favorite aspect of the game. The soundtrack, which combines the score to a Hollywood action movie with techno-esque beats is phenomenal and accents the tense action in the game fabulously. Usually the music in racing titles takes a back seat to the sound effects, but here it’s as integral a presentation component as the visuals. Black Rock Studio has done a great job at putting the gamer right into the action with the awesome visuals, but it’s the music that really sends your pulse pounding and makes your hands clammy, adding to an already very immersive experience. The sound effects keep pace quite nicely as well, with so much going on within the race environments your surround sound system will be kept extremely busy. Helicopters whirl overhead, opponents’ cars riding your tail growl aggressively behind you and explosions make your sub woofer rumble like a thunderstorm. I am extremely comfortable in proclaiming that Split/Second has the best audio presentation in a racing game to date.
I won’t go into the specific control set up for the game as it’s pretty standard to most racing games: the right trigger makes your car accelerate, while the left trigger engages the brake. I’ll rather touch upon how the cars handle, as this is more reflective of the type of game Split/Second is. By drifting (or power sliding if that term is more relatable) you fill up a gauge that allows you to trigger explosions, as such it’s an important mechanic in the game. The vehicles have different handling statistics, and are grouped in a similar fashion to what we find in Mario Kart. Bigger, heavier vehicles are fast but have slow acceleration and are less prone to drifting, whereas lighter vehicles have faster acceleration but have a tendency to drift quicker when turning into a corner, they also tend be more susceptible to shock waves generated by explosions. Like most arcade racers, it’s not about realistic racing mechanics here but about over-the-top drifts and split second directional changes as well as good old-fashioned shunts and pushes. Unfortunately many vehicles are way too twitchy and will engage into drifts at any opportunity, making it extremely difficult to make precise driving adjustments. The cars’ performance is often not accurately reflected in their stats, making choosing the right vehicle frustrating.
The game is split up into different objective-based events which are grouped into episodes (12 in total for the season). Each episode ends in an “elite race” in which the best Split/Second drivers duke it out for first place, points are awarded based on the finishing position and the driver with the most points at the end of the season wins the championship. Each episode also has a bonus event which is unlocked once enough opponents have been “wrecked” due to triggering explosions. Non-elite race events gain the player credits, which unlock new vehicles. The higher you finish, the more credits you gain and the faster you can unlock better vehicles to race with. With the exception of the “Survival” and “Detonator” events (see more about these in the following paragraph) the player fills his “power play” gauge at the bottom of the screen by pulling off drifts, drafting behind opponents, jumping their vehicle or narrowly escaping power play explosions (called “close calls”). Each full bar on the gauge allows you to trigger a power play when an opponent is at the right place on the track, this usually causes one of the structures or objects lining the track to explode, often to the extreme detriment of your opponents. If you manage to fill your power play gauge completely, route changes can become available, these are usually accompanied by dramatic explosions and changes within the track, like a train bridge being blown up as a passing train is flung up high in the air, strewing parts all along the track. It’s fun, effective, especially when you consider that not only does it provide a short cut, but it also eliminates a large amount of opponents, and forces you to adjust your racing strategy to ensure your power play gauge is filling up.
The different events in the game are as follows: “Race” in which your main objective is to finish first out of eight total competitors, “Detonator” in which a lap is to be completed as soon as possible while all possible explosions are triggered as the player makes his way around the track, “Survival“, is my personal favorite where a circular track is populated with semi trailers that launch blue and red barrels behind them, hit a blue barrel and spin out of control, hit a red one and loose a life instantly. Every time you pass a semi trailer you gain points, gain enough points to make it to the number 1 position before you are out of lives; it’s super intense and a blast to play when you have the camera set to “bumper” view instead of the normal “behind the car” view, as you’ll literally see the barrels come right at you. Another one of the events is “Air Strike” in which a helicopter fires missiles at the player, dodging missiles earns you points with the objective being to stay alive long enough in order to gain sufficient points to finish first. A variant of this is “Air Strike Revenge” in which the player fills up his power play gauge by dodging missiles, fill up your gauge enough and you can reflect the missiles back at the helicopter, do this enough to deplete the helicopter’s health bar and in the fastest time possible in order to finish first. Lastly there is “Elimination” where every 90 seconds the competitor in last place is eliminated (ha!) until there is only one left standing, or in this case… racing.
The “power play” mechanic really adds to the excitement of the races, it would’ve been easy to just throw some weapons into the mix like so many other arcade-style racers have done (think Blur for instance) but the explosions along with the exciting music and fantastic graphics really add to the immersion and make the races tense to the end. The speed in Split/Second enhances the tension quite a bit considering the fact that the player not only has to worry about outrunning his opponents and power sliding around corners, but also about dodging explosions and objects that are thrown in front of your vehicle at the last second. Unfortunately, races are needlessly close right to the end due to the nasty rubber-banding the AI opponents suffer from. Blast some rivals off the road and balk in frustration as they appear right behind you in no time. You’re often relying on using the power play explosions to slow down opponents as simply out-driving them is extremely difficult. You see, you’re pretty much required to drift around corners in order to build up your power play gauge, however drifting slows you down, your rivals on the other end seem to cut through corners without seeing the need to drift, yet they’ll fill up power play gauges and employ power play explosions with impunity. This makes it important to maximize earned credits so that better vehicles can be unlocked so that more options become available to tackle the different events. Most of the non-race events add variety but feel like fleeting distractions from the awesome “Race” events, which epitomize what this game is about. Having said that, the Survival events are especially fun and all of them, from Air Strike to Detonator, add a level of excitement and intensity rarely found in a racing game.
Arcade-style racing games usually hold more appeal as competitive multiplayer experiences than sim-style racers, which thrive more on leaderboards and posting the best time. The former is especially true for Split/Second which, with the power play dynamic, makes racing other gamers online more of a combative experience. As such it’s a blast to play online. For offline gaming a 2-player split screen mode is available, while it’s always good to see a split screen option in a game, it does negatively affect the frame rate and diminishes the visual fidelity. Your best times and scores for events like Air Attack and Detonator can be posted on the online leaderboards that round off Split/Second‘s multiplayer offering.
With 12 episodes, containing 6 events each, there’s a lot of content here and that’s not even counting the multiplayer mode. This doesn’t mean there’s 72 different tracks however, there are really only 6 completely different ones, which are for the most part different locations within a fictional city. Variants of these courses open up different routes within a location, which are almost always gorgeous, from a canyon running along a giant dam to an airplane cemetery, the courses have great detail with lots to look at. You’ll feel the urge to replay a lot of the events to improve your rank, especially after having unlocked a new vehicle with more appropriate handling stats for whatever you’re facing. I just wish those stats more accurately reflected the handling of the vehicles. A lot of times a vehicle with a very low ranking for drifting will be all over the road and engage in a power-slide at the drop of a hat.
It’s without a doubt the power play explosions and route changes that will put a smile on your face, the first time you experience an airliner crashing right above you, so close you could skim it’s underside, you can’t help but say “wow”! Or the first time a dry-docked cruise ship is blown of its support and threatens to crush you between its massive frame and the guardrail, you can almost hear Captain Stubing cry from the Lido deck, “suck on this Love Boat!”. It’s a unique experience that you’d be hard-pressed to find in any other racing game and satisfies every time it’s pulled off.
Split/Second is a unique racing experience that combines intense and visceral action with fantastic graphics and sound. Dodging massive explosions while thundering down great-looking courses at blistering speeds is one of the best racing experiences this year. Enemies seem to rebound a bit too quickly and losing speed because of drifting while AI opponents seemingly ignore this problem becomes frustrating but you’ll definitely keep playing this one. Any race fan is encouraged to give Split/Second a shot, once you’ve engaged your first route change by bringing down half a city block, you’ll be hooked for some time to come.
+ The premise of being part of a TV show is kind of original…
- …but ultimately doesn’t go anywhere
+ Tracks look great and brim with detail
+ Game moves at incredible speeds without frame rate issues
+ Explosions look convincing and the destruction animations are very realistic
- Graphics and frame rate degrade slightly in split-screen modes
+ Best soundtrack in a racing game ever!
+ Booming sound effects
- Too many of the cars have very floaty handling
+ Triggering power play explosions is extremely satisfying
+ Having to dodge missiles or exploding barrels at high speeds is a super intense experience
- The handling stats don’t accurately reflect the cars’ true driving characteristics
+ It’s a blast (literally) to play online
- The online experience isn’t very original
+ 72 events in total will keep you busy for quite a while
+ Power play mechanic is original and satisfying