In a week crowded with releases like Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption and Remedy’s Alan Wake, it’s easy to forgive gamers who don’t pick up Split/Second. That said, any fan of arcade-style racing games that doesn’t pick this one up is going to miss out on one of the most enjoyable racing experiences of this generation. Combining high-speed racing with excellent presentation and game design that rewards constant retries, Black Rock Studios has created an exciting racing game that is a challenge to put down.
Players assume the role of an up-and-coming driver featured on the fictional reality television show the game is named after. Like most reality television shows, the player competes in a number of warm up tasks before the main event, an elite race against the show’s most famous drivers (all of which have names seemingly inspired by American Gladiators). The only difference here is instead of being marooned on an island or locked in a house, contestants have been thrown into a city rigged with explosive charges. By drafting, drifting and dodging, players gain power to trigger explosions that can temporarily knock out rivals when timed right.
But the explosions do more than just momentarily disable your rivals; they also alter the track design. After you blow up a moving van, it’s flaming skeleton remains in the center of the road, giving you and your opponents a new obstacle to navigate around. If you allow your power bar to fill up, you’ll also be given a few opportunities during the race to trigger larger detonations that more fundamentally alter the track. On one track, players can trigger an explosion that knocks a train off the rails and through the deck of the bridge you’re driving across. For the rest of the race, instead of driving on the bridge, you’ll instead drive on a road hidden beneath it, complete with its own time-saving shortcuts to open.
It’s hard to tell where the track modification falls between gimmick and essential gameplay mechanic. I sometimes completed five or ten races without needing to trigger a route change and then would start triggering them for a similar streak. While not entirely necessary, it is everything that its billed as: you’re given a substantial amount of control over the track that you’re racing across. Whether it adds a whole lot to your game depends entirely on if you trigger it or not, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the game or make it feel cheap as it easily could have if executed poorly.
As with all racing games that try to venture beyond tight driving into the world of weaponry and opponent sabotage, there runs a risk that the player will feel like the game is cheap or unfairly favoring computer-controlled opponents. Split/Second does have a few moments like these. There were times where I’d run perfect laps with the best available car in my garage and still find myself getting passed by AI-controlled drivers as I muttered confused expletives, but for the most part these instances are few and far between. As for the explosions your opponents can trigger against you, the game is all about rewarding drivers who can deftly avoid getting taken out by their rivals, so if they do hit you, most of the time it’s your own fault.
Split/Second’s career mode spans twelve episodes of the show, with each episode then further broken down into six challenges. Each episode features three races and then three wild card modes. While almost everyone falls into the category of “drive real fast and avoid explosions,” I was very impressed that the developers managed to keep all of the modes pretty diverse, even introducing new variations well into the final episodes of the career mode to keep the game fresh. The career mode should keep players in the driver’s seat for at least fifteen hours, though racing game veterans may find the career mode a little easy and may get through it faster.
While the game does boast a healthy selection of modes, I was less impressed with some than others. I liked air strike, a mode that has you dodging incoming missiles for as long as you can survive, but there were too many times where there was just no way to possibly dodge an incoming attack. I also didn’t think there was enough to differentiate it from a similar mode that has you dodge air strikes to build your power, which you can then unleash to deal damage to the attacking helicopter. I think the latter mode should probably have been the only variation as it is much more fun than the mode it is built on, though it has its share of problems too. Chiefly, you’re racing against the clock in this mode and are dependent on the helicopter firing on you. On some of the tracks, you’ll drive for twenty seconds or more simply waiting for an attack to dodge. This lost time can mean the difference between first and fifth place, which is really aggravating since the player isn’t doing anything wrong to deserve the penalty.
That said, the rest of the modes are a lot of fun. One mode takes all the computer-controlled drivers off the track but still triggers all of the explosions, testing your reaction time and really rewarding players who take the time to learn the nuances of each track. There’s also another mode that has you dodging exploding barrels rolling off the back of a tractor trailer. There’s just something uniquely exciting about flying through a screen-engulfing explosion at top speed, particularly when you’re hoping that there isn’t an unseen wall or driver behind the inferno. I really did spend a substantial amount of time on the edge of my seat while playing.
Split/Second is absolutely beautiful to look at. It maintains a rock-solid framerate throughout each and every race, no matter how intense the action gets. I was disappointed that the player isn’t given more control over the appearance of their cars at first, but the game’s technique of plastering your car with decals representing all of your achievements really encourages players such as myself that usually don’t go out of their way to earn achievements to try to get them all.
As beautiful as Split/Second is to look at, I thought the crash camera was weak at times. Sometimes it glitches and shows a black screen, apparently stuck behind some object in the environment. Other times, the replay of a takedown would take over the entire screen, taking the player’s eyes off the road and sometimes causing them to crash. It’s a really lame way to lose position. I’m not entirely sure how the developers could have thought that ever taking the player’s eyes off the road in a game centered on reaction time was a good idea and if they do make a sequel, I strongly suggest they go the picture-in-picture route.
Even with a couple of flaws, Split/Second is a fun, exciting game to play. It shows a great deal of promise and presents a fresh new twist on a couple of classic gaming genres. Though a little easy, the action is intense and quick load times promise that you’ll keep coming back again and again for one more race until you’ve mastered every event, and once you’ve conquered the single player, a full suite of online modes stands waiting to really test your skills. Though racing purists may not get as much out of it, arcade racing fans won’t be able to put this down.