May 19, 2010

Split/Second is flashy, full of suspense and intense competition, and has a flair for the dramatic. It is intentionally all of these things, because the Black Rock racer’s setting is that of a reality show. And as reality shows are never the place to find actual realism, Split/Second is incredibly over-the-top.

The game is essentially an arcade racer with a gimmick, but what can we say? It’s a very cool gimmick. Manipulating the environment to thwart other racers is an intriguing concept, especially when it means explosions and mayhem. (Hint: It always means explosions and mayhem.) The game plays a lot like the Burnout series, with eye-blistering speed and rewards for risky behavior. Split/Second kicks things up a notch, though, by throwing not only explosions and swerving cars in your face, but also ridiculous obstacles like crashing planes and collapsing buildings. Best of all, all of these “Power Play” events are triggered by you, the player (or any of the racers you are competing against, of course). In Split/Second, there is nothing quite as satisfying as perfectly-timed Power Play wiping out a group of opponents at once. You’ll need to dodge your own explosions, too, but close calls are all the more exhilarating.

Ridiculous mayhem aside, the racing mechanics in Split/Second are solid and satisfying; drifting, jumping, and going really fast all feel great.  However, attempting to bump or nudge other players off the road really does not work. The game really wants you to focus on blowing them up instead, and that’s fine, but it would have been nice to be able to nudge rivals into walls with a few finesse maneuvers.

The game’s very impressive visually, with graphics that rival any other racing title currently on the market. The explosions are impressive, the cars look slick and everything runs at a smooth frame rate (even in split-screen). Of course, that’s easier when only perfecting one look. All the game’s tracks seem to blur together in a dusty brown mess of abandoned buildings and construction equipment.  The rest of the game’s presentation leaves a bit to be desired. After all, with the premise of a reality show, it would have been nice to have at least some announcer or voice acting during the race to make it feel more show-like.

Black Rock threw in a few different game types into the Season mode. Race is the standard type, with Elimination mode slowly knocking out the racer in last place every ten seconds until only one remains. Those are both enjoyable, and Elimination adds an intensity that adds to the game’s exhilarating excitement. Survival mode has you avoiding explosive barrels dropped out of big trucks, and Air Strike has you doing the same with missiles launched from a helicopter. These feel more like a 2D shooter than anything else, and while they’re not lasting diversions, they’re an interesting test of driving skill. Detonator is the game’s Time Trial mode, but course hazards trigger as you speed around the raceway. (Race, Survival and Elimination modes are also playable online and locally with a friend.)

The single-player Season mode is the game’s main attraction. Everything proceeds in “episodes,” named chapters with a handful of varied events, culminating in an “Elite Race” against AIs with specific personalities. This final race determines your standings in the show, and performance in these last races each episode decides the winner at season’s end. There are 12 episodes with six events each, so even if you’re perfect the first time through, there’s about five hours of gameplay here. (You won’t get things perfect initially, either, as learning the tracks is key to victory. We’d clock it in at about eight.)

Online play in Split/Second is a mixed bag. Since you unlock better and better cars through the single-player mode, new racers are completely outclassed by those who are further through the game. This is most certainly what the developers intended, but it’s not too fun to see a few players dart off into the distance knowing that you will never get the chance to unleash hell upon them no matter how much power you manage to build up. Of course, all of that changes when you are the one behind the wheel of a beastly vehicle, but that sort of introduction to the online experience isn’t likely to leave many die-hards in the months to come.

Split/Second is a fun way to spend an hour every once in a while, and those susceptible to its charms may become obsessed. Much like, well, a reality show. We hesitate to recommend it for everyone because it’s hardcore and may not have the legs to sustain online multiplayer, but it’s definitely going to hit the right buttons for some. 

Staff Writer Eric Schabel contributed to this review.

Score: 4/5

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