REVIEWS -- Split/Second -- PC
Burnout meets Michael Bay, albeit for a split second
by Lazare Gvimradze
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Rent
Refining the concept of fun arcades disguised as serious games, ‘Split/Second’ delivers by introducing a fresh new take on the expression “explosive action.”
When it comes down to it, the main problem with differentiating driving simulators with arcade racers isn’t really about comparing their loadouts of licensed cars or analyzing the vehicle handling with surgical attention. The answer may as well be as simple as some people wanting a serious experience, while others just seeking sheer fun. Beyond that, nothing matters, really -- which is precisely what Black Rock Studios have proved back in 2008 with Pure, the quad bike insanity we never thought would succeed. Whilst remaining a traditional off-road arcade, the game had several strong advantages regarding scale, artistic direction and addictive tricks, most probably earning the title of the best ATV game in years and granting Black Rock a worthy foothold in the genre.
And so they took the opportunity. The second game from the developers, Split/Second: Velocity, has been in the works since the launch of Pure and promised innovations at even more diverse angles. The Burnout-styled gameplay would try and feel cozy in a reality-show setting where entire cities would be built as set decorations and rigged with explosives, which, in turn, would be directly set off by the contestants during the race. The ridiculously hilarious concept, coupled with the unavoidable expectations from the studio which bought us Pure, launched a train of hype that may have been a bit too much for the game to handle.
As far as the setting goes however, it’s exactly like it sounds. The story is delivered with the currently popular TV show format, where several races form a single “episode,” each complete with separate opening sequences and advertisements for the next installments. That’s basically all regarding the “story,” which obviously exists for the doomed purpose to justify the mayhem taking place on-screen.
The mayhem on-screen
And here, Split/Second begins to shine. There are several types of races taking place at around a dozen locations, which are further broadened by countless variations and reverse versions of the tracks. Traditional circuit runs and lap time eliminations give way to much crazier modes like sequences where you have to dodge helicopter missiles or explosive barrels (yep), or better yet, beat time records while the rigged charges go off right in your face. And while all this may sound wonderful, it’s the main gameplay nuance that “triggers” the real potential.
But before I address the given innovation, let me delve into the mechanics. They are, shortly put, simplified, even overly so, as there are literally only six buttons necessary to play. All of the fictitious cars control differently while retaining a curious mix of arcadey handling and a suspension system reminiscent of more serious simulators, with the thought being furthered by the complete lack of nitrous boosts or temporary bonuses. So, that covers the four directional controls. The two buttons left stand for “Power Play” triggers, which can be enabled after filling up the corresponding meter via drifting, drafting, jumping, the usual stuff.
Now, the interesting aspect of Split/Second is that SOMETHING is always rigged to either explode, swing around, demolish, or collapse almost anywhere on the track. Which means, after filling up your level 1 Power Play, you can wait for a blue icon to highlight one of your (or several) opponents before hitting the trigger and watching the poor guy get crushed by an exploding truck or swiped away because of an unfortunate crane malfunction. And these triggers are LITERALLY, everywhere. Cliffs collapsing, cars flipping, bridges falling down, you name it. While showing itself as a simple gimmick for fun, the curious system proves to have a deeper tactical element: there is always a chance that you’ll get offed by your own Power Play, or that some of the craftier opponents might as well dodge the debris you conjured up from a former gas station. And don’t forget that the school bus you left burning in the middle of the road might seriously foil your plans on lap 2.
So that’s where the level 2 triggers come into play. After filling your Power Play meter to its fullest, you can reach certain points (usually not more than a couple per track) where you can trigger massive route-changers which usually involve dropping whole buildings across the road or setting a docked ship off the rails, crushing any unfortunate racers in its way. The impact from these events sometimes turn the configurations and layout of the track upside down, forcing you to abandon the “official” routes and go jumping through aircraft carriers or take shortcuts under collapsed bridges. All this intensity is woefully fun from the start, and manages to keep you involved right to the end, but there’s a massive “but” spoiling everything soon afterwards.
The massive “but”
Albeit being set off by the contestants, the Power Play sequences are still as scripted as they can get, offering no variety, not even a different physical behavior on continuous detonations. The “new” wears off pretty easily after three or four hours of playing, forcing you to see past the decorative mechanics and at a shallow arcade racing game without any other aces up its sleeve. Split/Second: Velocity is perfect for having short portions of fun with friends, but goes off-limits to hardcore gamers waiting for large amounts of experience.
Speaking of friends, the game delivers an impressive amount of multiplayer options, ranging from typical LAN/online play to a now-dying split-screen mode, giving you the chance to hit the gas with a friend in the same room, maybe even on the same keyboard (you CAN play Split/Second with one hand, and still feel comfortable). It is the least the game can do to pull off from its lack in variety, but seeing as Black Rock are a young and enthusiastic lot, they just might give us what the hype promised in a sequel (they didn’t add the “Velocity” to the name just for fun now, did they?).
But back to the game. Yes, there may be flaws with what to do, but there’s definitely a nice something to stare at. Looking past the relatively low-poly models, some texture flops, and a honestly crappy damage model, it becomes apparent that the game manages to cover most of its technical shame with brilliant post-processed effects and exceptional lighting -- you definitely won’t forget the sunsets, and we’re talking about a game with cars blowing up. Fill this up with an almost complete absence of any kind of HUD (except for the aforementioned circular PP meter following your car’s rear), and we get yet another driving game with a great taste in style.
But you know how it is with pretty games, they require quite the futuristic rig to run without turning into slideshows. Fortunately, Split/Second has this problem covered enough -- if you are content with dealing with a permanent 30 FPS cap, you’ll get smooth gameplay even on low-end machines, complete with some flexibility for graphics options. The porting is actually not that bad overall -- the keyboard is implemented nicely, visual cues included, and you can always hook up a gamepad or a steering wheel without risking a nerve failure from configuring the things.
Next comes a small disappointment with the honestly mediocre audio component. The engine sounds may sometimes seem literally copy/pasted on several groups of vehicles, and the generic music tries fueling up the “reality show” part without much success. But then again, if you listen to how skyscrapers collapse through highways or trains screech before being thrown off bridges, you may feel uneasy enough to cringe and accept that the explosions part is done brilliantly. Which, you know, on average compose 50% of the sounds per race.
To sum things up, it may become apparent that Black Rock actually lost to their previous game and released something a bit more unpolished and boring. That, however, is not how I see things. Pure became something people weren’t expecting it to become, so naturally Split/Second received more hopes of success than it was initially planning on delivering. Which it did, because it really IS a solid arcade game with a powerful and seriously potent gameplay element screaming for further development and perfection. Great for parties and short portions of fun, it unfortunately lacks the maddening drive of its offroad predecessor and runs out of tricks way too early. Still, worth a shot: you won’t find another game where you’ll risk suffering a head-on blow from a crashing Boeing plane.
Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios
Developer: Black Rock Studio
Release Date: May 18, 2010
Review Date: 01-06-2010
Numbers of Players: 1-4
Players Online: 2-8
Notes: Downloadable Content, Leaderboards, Online Tournaments, Player Stats, Dolby Digital 5.1, aka 'Split/Second: Velocity'
What Split/Second lacks in polygons and texture resolution, it makes up with beautiful particle effects and explosions, an obviously cheap, but time-hardened tactics.
Playing through any of the various game modes is hilarious right before track repetition and no real replay value dampen the experience. A potential multiplayer component does a fair job at hiding this.
The TV Show format coped unexpectedly well with crumbling buildings and exploding cars, sometimes making the episodic plot delivery feel ripped from the best racing reality-show ever made.
The lack of descent sound effects required for a driving game are somewhat compensated by funny commentaries and explosions, but never completely.
Split/Second delivers everything it promised, but not enough of what people expected -- that is, an experimental new fuse of genres suffering the widely spread boredom syndrome.