A couple of years ago, Black Rock Studios shocked racing fans with PURE, an off-road racer that was both accessible and a blast to play for casual players and hardcore racing fanatics. So when it was revealed that the developer was gearing up to take on a whole new approach with their next title, forgoing the four-wheeler off-road experience for an arcade racer featuring cars and destructible environments, fans of the genre took notice. The fruits of their labor are now available as Split/Second racing onto shelves worldwide.
The game is quite different from Black Rock's previous effort, boasting a reality show premise and tons of destruction, but it’s easy to see some of the groundwork the developer laid in PURE showing up here. The game arcade racing feels immediately accessible, but ultimately challenging to racers looking to obtain the gold medal on all tracks. Additionally, triggering explosions throughout the track to mess with your opponents is a great mechanic and leads to some spectacular moments. Split/Second is a great racing game, and comes wholeheartedly recommended for fans of the genre.
Whereas other arcade style racers come equipped with myriad gimmicks, with some allowing you to boost or reverse time in order to get the edge over your opponents, Split/Second employs a wholly unique mechanic. Throughout each track, there are many Power Plays, which are set charges and events that can be triggered at the push of a button, causing explosions or dropping debris into your opponent’s path or often times right on top of their car. These can have immediate effects, causing your opponent to crash immediately or swerve into a wall and wreck. There are also bigger Power Plays that you can activate when your bar is filled all the way up (you can fill it by avoiding your opponent’s Power Plays, drafting, or drifting), which can have drastic effects on the layout of the whole track, and look pretty damn cool when you perform them.
The dynamic environments are far and away the most striking element in Split/Second. They are constantly shifting and changing due to Power Plays going off, requiring split second decision making (see what I did there? - pun intended) from the player and hair-trigger reflexes. The effects of the Power Plays will cause buildings to topple over, ships to wreck into the track, and other dramatic changes to the structure of each different stage. The constant layout changes of the tracks give Split/Second an element that you don’t see in other arcade racers in the market, and really help Split/Second stand out against the competition.
The meat of Split/Second comes from a Season mode, instead of the typical racing campaign that other arcade racers implement. Keeping with the game’s reality show vibe, the game is divided into 12 individual episodes. Each episode consists of five different races. These races sport a nice amount of diversity, with some being standard eight-car races and one-car time trials, and others being elimination rounds where the last car is eliminated until there’s only one standing, and even some that involve exploding barrels being thrown out of the back of semi trucks and helicopters shooting missiles that have to be avoided. Depending on how well you do in each race, you’ll earn points that will be applied to unlocking newer, more powerful cars and trucks.
Even though most of the game’s mechanics click and work extremely well in the world Black Rock Studios has created, there are some issues that pop up. The AI is pretty spotty and often very unforgiving. There are times when you’ll have a commanding lead over your opponents only to have three or four of them show up out of nowhere to over take your vehicle. While this might be necessary in order to keep the game’s main Power Play mechanic in constant use (after all, you can’t mess with your opponents unless they’re in front of you), it can be terribly frustrating when you have a lead only to lose it seconds before the end of the race.
Additionally, the time trials are very unforgiving, as you’ll have to perform them flawlessly in order to get first place; even if you miss every Power Play the game throws at you, you still have to be mindful of each tracks' turns and memorize significant portions of each track to succeed. Drifting in the game also takes some getting used to, and never feels as fluid as you’d hope, instead being very floaty even in cars that excel at it.
One area where Split/Second really delivers is the visual department. The game looks spectacular, from the car models to the environments, which are awesome to look at and constantly changing due to explosions and general mayhem. The game boasts some fantastic lighting and special effects, and really provides a great sense of speed. This game does not disappoint when it comes to looks.
The sound effects are pretty good as well, with booming explosions and fine racing sounds. The cut scenes play out like teasers for a TV show, lending credence to the game’s reality show format while having the appropriate level of silliness and melodrama. The only real sore spot in the audio is the soundtrack, which strangely doesn’t feature any licensed material, only some original generic music that gets old quickly (fortunately, custom soundtracks are a fine substitute for Xbox 360 gamers).
While there are some problems here and there, Split/Second is a great racer, with a simple, arcade feel that allows for great accessibility and some real challenges for hardcore fans of the genre. The environmental destruction mechanic is employed extremely well, and adds a unique feel to a genre that has become cluttered with more of the same.