For some people the name ‘Disney’ when used in-conjunction with a video game could put them off making the purchase but this is no ordinary Disney title: there are no Princesses to woo or strange but wonderful cartoony worlds to venture across. The reason? Developers Blackrock Studios, who have previous form with the often overlooked but damned good – Pure, have now created an action racer with a twist.
Split/Second, or, to give it its full title Split/Second: Velocity (a subtitle strangely absent from all in-game splash screens and menus so we’ll dispense with it too) is a hi-octane arcade racer, formed in the same melting pot as Criterion’s Burnout series. The emphasis is firmly on insane action rather than pure racing and when I say insane action I mean it, it’s not long into the game when you’re hurtling at breakneck speed fighting off your rivals whilst trying stay on the best racing line.
Then, with the bend in sight, a giant air traffic control tower collapses on to the circuit changing your route and forcing you on to the runway, and just when you think you’ve got a long and wide straight to catch your breath a passenger jet falls out the sky, crashing into the tarmac missing you by a whisker as you frantically try to steer your vehicle between the plane’s engines under the wing whilst a number of your rivals bite the bullet, if you’re lucky!
Every single race and event in Split/Second is packed full with moments like that, whether it’s a huge suspension bridge collapsing, the side of a mountain exploding, or cooling towers blowing up. It’s not so much thrill-a-minute but thrill-a-second and all the action is tied together by a reality TV show in which you the driver take on the other contestants through a twelve episode series. The race circuits are created within a made-for-TV city and all of the set-pieces, called Power Plays, are triggered by race competitors in effort to take down the opposition.
These Power Plays can be triggered by building up a three stage power meter: the first section does minor damage like causing a car at the trackside to explode, or a helicopter to drop an explosive barrel. If timed correctly they will take out any opponent in its blast radius or the shockwave of the blast could cause them to spin out of control at the next bend. The second stage of the meter can cause a shortcut to briefly open in front of you allowing you (and nearby competitors to slip through). The third stage unleashes a devastating chain of explosions which alter the course for any remaining laps.
You build up the power player meter by drifting, drafting (slipstreaming behind a rival) and jumping. The drifting mechanic in your first few goes doesn’t appear to work very well, but it doesn’t take many laps to become an expert in the precision handling of the left stick whilst fine tuning the throttle to take a bend with the perfect line and without reducing speed. Tactics of when to use the Power Plays only come from repeat visits to the game – do you constantly unleash minor power plays on your opponents, reducing the meter back to zero or do you save it up for a cheeky shortcut, or max out the power meter so you can wreak havoc and alter the course?
Unfortunately you’re only reminded of the reality TV aspect in between episodes through a cutscene preview of the next episode, these are great and it’s a real shame there aren’t more of these moments because they are really well done and help provide pacing as well as put the games ridiculously, enormous explosive moments into context.
Each of the twelve episodes is made up of four immediately accessible events, a special locked event in which you have to take down a set number of rivals to unlock and an elite event which unlocks the next episode. Fortunately these events aren’t as simple as a straightforward race to the finish line as there is a range of modes featured from the straight forward Race (8-man race over several laps) to many more including Elimination (a clock counts down eliminating the vehicle in last place), Detonator (just you on the circuit and a race against the clock with all the Power Plays being automatically triggered as you race past them), Air Strike (an Apache helicopter is firing homing missiles at you, dodge them to chain together combos for the high score) and Survival (race against test track dummy style cars to checkpoints before the clock runs out).
The Survival mode is worthy of a special mention, because rather than the checkpoints being generic markers on the track they are huge trucks which get harder and harder to overtake to extend the clock, not least because they are carrying a cargo of the famous explosive red barrels which spill all over the track as you frantically try to overtake the truck and rack up the score.
Rarely, if ever, has a racer ever looked so good – it is simply stunning to look at, not that the pace of the action gives you long to admire it. Each location is different from the last whether it’s racing around an airport terminal, a construction site, or even across city rooftops, they all feature a different colour palette helping to keep things fresh. Also, no matter how big the destruction is (which can often be half of the whole circuit) there isn’t a hint of noticeable slowdown in the frame rate. Developers Blackrock Studios have also tinkered with the usual HUD, rather than waste precious milliseconds looking around a huge TV screen to glance at what lap you’re on, what position you’re in and your Power Play meter, the HUD has been miniaturised and inserted on the rear bumper of your vehicle, meaning your gaze is never distracted from the action.
Audio-wise, the accompanying soundtrack sounds like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster and whilst it may seem clichéd to some or stirring to others the effects of obstacles flying past your vehicle really do make the title an excellent reason to invest in a surround sound system if you haven’t already.
Featuring twelve episodes of six events you might think the title lacks longevity, after all once you unlocked all the circuits and game-modes you might be fooled in to thinking there is nothing left other than the online mode to extend the game’s lifespan. Whilst that may be the case for many action adventure games or first person shooters, that is pretty far from being the case here because once you’ve beaten the game there is still one person left to beat. Yourself!
For anyone who has spent days or weeks trying to perfect your racing line on something like Gran Turismo to try and shave a hundredth of a second off your best time, there is exactly the same level of re-playability here. Every single circuit and game mode records your best time or highest score and loads it on to the global leader boards where you can compare yourself with the world at large or just grab bragging rights amongst your friends, There will always be a room to improve and with the action as fun and rewarding as it is, the temptation for ‘just one more go’ is overwhelming.
As has become the norm this generation, Split/Second features online play and the excellent menu system enables you to easily get together with friends in a lobby and enter circuits or events of your choosing. With the explosive, fast and frantic action and though dastardly use of power plays this has the potential to be one of the best online experiences yet seen. Imagine how much fun it will be to takeout the race leader on the final bend by causing a crane to drop a steel girder right in their path as you race on by to take the metaphorical chequered flag.
Public lobbies however, are a different kettle of fish, as early on in Split/Second’s life they are populated almost entirely by people who have purchased the vehicle unlock pack. Although this is far from ideal as they race ahead of you never to be seen again, it isn’t as much of a problem as you may think because it doesn’t take long to unlock suitably fast cars yourself. Doing it that way will ensure you have earned the skill to handle the fast vehicles and the ability to leave them standing.
- Stunning graphics with a rock solid frame rate
- The best set-pieces and explosions yet seen in a racer
- Non-stop thrills and edge of the seat action
- Excellent menu system delivers you instantly to your chosen circuit and game-mode either offline or online
- Not enough of the excellent TV show interludes
- Difficult to initially compete online unless you’ve unlocked the top vehicles or shamefully purchased the unlock pack
In Split/Second, Blackrock Studios have created a truly gorgeous game and I’m not just talking about the quite frankly stunning graphics, but instead the finely tuned balance between the action and racing genre. In most racers, perfecting racing lines whilst holding off competitors jockeying for position is as good as it gets but here that is just the start as you have to master the art of drifting to build up Power Plays, which unleash some of the most awesome set-pieces yet seen in a videogame.
With this title Blackrock Studios have established themselves as a studio to watch out for, and in Split/Second they have delivered the most action packed racer this generation.