Simulation racers and I don’t generally get along. I appreciate their attention to detail, and how accurately the digital cars recreate the experience of driving the real thing, but it’s all a bit boring. Outside of Mario Kart, arcade-style racers haven’t exactly flourished on any of the latest consoles. Though for some strange reason, this past month that all changed when three separate developers released three separate combat-fueled racers. While United Front Games’ ModNation Racers and Bizarre Creation’s Blur put the emphasis on weaponized cars, Black Rock Studio’s Split/Second made the environment the weapon, putting a radically different spin on arcade racing. Combined with impressive visuals and a solid online experience, Split/Second immediately sets itself apart from the rest of the crowd, and establishes a great new franchise for Disney and Black Rock.
Split/Second’s career mode places you in the role of the newest driver for the Split/Second reality television show. Over the course of twelve episodes, you’ll be competing for the top spot overall against seven other drivers. Each of the episodes consists of a combination of six races and special events, with the final race being an Elite race, where you take on the best of the best the Split/Second television show has to offer. Every race awards you credits based on your performance, and the more credits you earn, the more cars and episodes you can unlock. There’s a pretty decent amount of variety in the races, though by the time you get to the later episodes you will see more of the same tracks over and over again. Repetitiveness gets even worse when you’re trying to improve your standing in the overall rankings, and have to race the same race more than a handful of times, but the same could be said of any racing game. Thankfully, there’s enough destruction and mayhem on each track that no matter how many times you play it, no two races should ever play out the same way.
In addition to the straight up races, other events you’ll take part in include Eliminator (where the last place car is eliminated every fifteen seconds or so), Detonator (where you’re racing against the clock to finish a course solo, while the computer blows all the rigged environmental traps), Survival (where you have to pass a series of transport trucks dropping explosives on the track), and Air Attack/Revenge (two similar events where you’ll have to survive an onslaught of missiles being fired at you from a helicopter). Survival is easily my favorite mode, as it places you in a tight and confined area as you try to evade dozens of hurtling explosive barrels flying at your car at high speeds. The early Air Attack missions are pretty fun, but later they become incredibly challenging, often ending in teeth-clenching frustration. Air Revenge is the weakest mode, only because it’s so similar to Air Attack (the only difference is you can deflect missiles back at the chopper), and it feels as if the developers couldn’t come up with a better fifth idea.
All the modes in the world wouldn’t mean a thing if there wasn’t a solid gameplay foundation behind the racing. Split/Second’s super-simplified controls make the game easy to learn, and not all that difficult to master. The only real challenge to the game is strategizing when and where to use one of your power play triggers. Triggers can be built up by drafting behind an opponent, drifting through corners, hitting ramps, and by narrowly escaping an opposing driver’s triggered trap. Beneath your car is a three-tiered meter that builds up in relation to how much of the aforementioned driving skills you’ve displayed. Accordingly, there are three levels of power plays, or environmental obstructions, you can create. Minor explosions cost one trigger, and cause parked cars to explode onto the track, radar dishes to come careening through the course, or cause hovering copters to drop explosive barrels smack in the middle of the road. Major events require you to spend all three of your triggers, but can cause giant airplanes to smash onto the course, blow up an overpass thus causing all the traffic above you to fall onto the path, or have a transport copter drop an over-sized dump truck onto a highway. The third tier is Course Changer. If you have three triggers saved up, many of the courses allow you to change the landscape of the track by changing the course. Even more, several offer multiple paths to change, creating absolute chaos throughout the track.
Using the triggers is extremely satisfying, especially when you manage to take out more than one opposing driver with a single explosion. Your opponents can also trigger these events, so if you have a pack of drivers trailing behind you, you’ll find your eyes darting around the environment trying to spot where you’ll next be ambushed. There are some occasions where the crashes can be extremely cheap, but it’s the nature of the game to cause cheap deaths by manipulating the environment to your advantage. Traps can also miss, and there are few things more frustrating than triggering a trap that hits no one. While it’s incredibly easy to build the meter back up by drafting and drifting, the game’s drifting is very jerky, and is nowhere near as smooth as it should be for a game as polished as Split/Second is in practically every other area. Physics on the course are naturally going to be exaggerated, but there are times you’ll feel a bit helpless when trying to control your car after an explosion. I understand that you’re meant to feel a bit of the panic and instability such an event would cause, but the effects are inconsistent track to track. You’re often still able to recover without crashing, but it would have been nice if the cars I was driving showed any kind of consistent stability throughout an episode.
Split/Second more than provides you with great visuals and big budget sound. Even though none of the game’s cars are real, they’re all rendered well, and look great in motion. You do really feel a sense of speed when driving, which is great, but you also feel incredibly slow when your car spins out. There’s no real in between, but since you’ll be speeding along for a large percentage of your time, it’s not really that big a deal. The environments look great, and are jam packed with architecture and hazards. Shipyards are full of those huge containers, as well as cruise ships and construction equipment. Cityscapes are dense, and the streets are crowded with architecture and highway interchanges. And best of all, mostly everything blows up. What’s more, it looks and sounds awesome when it does. The sound design here really makes you feel like you’re right next to an exploding tanker truck, and if you’re lucky enough to drive by unscathed, your television screen becomes singed by the embers. Black Rock’s done a fantastic job creating environments that come to life when you command them to, and though there are a few frame rate drops here or there, for the most part, Split/Second’s visuals impress at almost every turn. The one exception is the odd decision to have a cutaway camera when you cause a big enough wreck. The camera pulls off of your car, and instead focuses on the explosion, leaving you helpless when it comes to steering for about two seconds. In a game like this, those two seconds could be the difference between hitting a wall and making the turn, and it can be annoying.
There’s not much different about the game’s multiplayer modes, save for that there’s no season. Each of the race types you play through can be enjoyed with friends online. Every race is a battle, particularly since you can only use cars that you’ve unlocked in the single-player. Expect to go up against opponents who only use the top-rated car (and why shouldn’t they?) no matter what vehicles you’ve got at your disposal. A matchmaking system based on the online ranking system would have been nice, but going in prepared after completing most of the offline campaign is your best bet for staying competitive. It’s either that, or playing offline split-screen with one other friend, which despite how nice it is to have included, doesn’t match the intensity of the online component.
Even though there’s been a sudden infusion of more “adult” kart racers, Split/Second manages to do enough right to stand out from the pack. The racing is simple, yet intense. The graphics are top notch. The game’s unique power play feature keeps every race fresh, and the thrill of blowing up other cars never gets old. The only real issue the game suffers is AI rubber banding, and though it can lead to some frustration, it’s never bad enough that you don’t want to immediately jump back in for another race. There are a few minor issues that crop up, but that shouldn’t deter anyone from picking up this game. Split/Second is a fantastic first entry for a series, and I’m excited to see where Black Rock goes from here.