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E3 2009: Split/Second hands-on

E3 2009

E3 2009 was filled with many announcements, but nothing had really surprised me until yesterday. Sure, the PSP Go and Metroid: Other M were big deals, but it was Split/Second ,an upcoming racer from Blackrock Studios – the developers behind last year’s Pure – that really seemed to be the talk of E3. Though still very early (the game is set for a 2010 release), a playable version of one of the game’s levels was being offered on the show floor and at times was attracting substantial lines as players queued up to see just what this explosion-heavy racer is all about.

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“In Split/Second, the player is a competitor on a reality TV show,” said Keyur Shah, who led me through my hands-on demo. “You’ll play through a whole season of the show, from the premier to the finale, trying to win.”

The title Split/Second refers to the amount of time that you’re given to make decisions during the game. Players take the wheel of a fictional car that they’ll be able to upgrade throughout the game and then race through massive environments against their co-stars. Each level is rigged with opportunities that you can trigger once you earn “powerplays” by driving your car as aggressively as possible. Some of these powerplays are simple – in the airport level that I demoed, I was able to trigger one that unlocked a shortcut. But with another, a “massive powerplay” as Shah referred to it, I was able to literally take out an entire section of the track. Where racers before had to navigate around the airport’s terminal, they now had to navigate through it as debris came crashing down.

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Part of the strategy of the game is taking out your opponents through triggering powerplays. When timed right (and you’ll be assisted by icons that help point out opportunities), you can take out your opponents by collapsing buildings and even landing planes literally on top of them. It definitely adds a new dimension to racing games and makes Split/Second’s already white-knuckled racing even more intense.

The control scheme has also been kept purposefully simple to keep players in the action instead of worrying about their controllers. I really appreciated this as I was able to quickly get into the action from the moment I picked up the controller. Blackrock has also gone out of their way to redesign the HUD of the game. Instead of having your speedometer and powerplay meter in the corners, they’re built right into the back bumper of your vehicle. This is a very clever move that I’m sure will be emulated in racers to come.

It’s definitely a unique concept. The first thing that struck almost everyone when they came to take a look at the game was the graphics engine. This game is visually stunning, even with several months of development to go. What I was most impressed with is how well the framerate held up despite how much was going on in the environments. The distance draw is phenomenal and though the game was a little heavy on lens flares, it still looked phenomenal. Explosions literally shatter buildings and it’s easy to get lost in the dust and debris as you try to remember where the track is supposed to be.

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Since the game is still so early, I was only given an opportunity to race through one level. Shah wouldn’t tell me how many levels were in the final game, but I was able to find out that online multiplayer for up to eight racers will be available. Players will also be able to race split screen, but those details weren’t shared.

The team at Blackrock seems on task to deliver an interesting and unique racing experience. My only concern is that the racing seems limited to the tracks in story in a time when open world racing ala Burnout Paradise and Need for Speed are preferred. Without an open world to explore, I wonder how long players will stick with the game after they’ve won it all. Hopefully the online multiplayer, massive explosions and simply fun gameplay will keep players hooked.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003.

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