I haven't played a racing title as exciting and addictive as Split/Second in a long time. I've always been more of an arcade racer than a sim one, although I can certainly find enjoyment in both. I thought NFS: Shift did a nice job of blurring the lines between the two, but not since Burnout: Paradise have I really gotten to sink my teeth into a serious arcade racer until Split/Second.
Intensity? Yeah, We Got That
Split/Second is the name of a fictional TV show in which you just qualified to participate in. A brief tutorial stage teaches you a handful of basic ideas about the game which includes the Power meter, Power Plays, and familiar driving maneuvers like jumping, drafting, and drifting. All of these maneuvers, and others like drift passing and Close Calls, add to your Power meter.
The Power meter is located at the bottom of your HUD and it's broken up into three sections. The first two sections are blue and the third is orange. Each track has multiple (usually about twelve to fifteen) Power Plays that players can call upon to give themselves an edge to win. The first two stages of the Power meter represent Level 1 Power Plays while stage three is for Level 2 Power Plays. These Power Plays are meant to at least disrupt, if not outright wreck, a car or even cars in front of you. As I found out in a developer conference call a couple of weeks ago, Power Plays can also be used on cars in front of you -- you cannot execute a Power Play on vehicles behind you.
Clearly, finding a reasonable balance in Power Plays was a challenge in design -- but I think Black Rock Studio has not only done a great job with that, but an exceptional job with the AI in general. I'll elaborate more on the AI later, but getting back to Power Plays, their intent is to add intensity and strategy to a race. The vehicles are plenty fast enough, which provides a nice adrenaline rush, but Power Plays create instant and seamless game-changing conditions to a race. This is especially true when a racer unleashes Level 2 Power Play that can either create a huge amount of damage or even change the layout of a massive section of the track. Either way, players must constantly adjust to the ever changing nature of the track.
The pace and intensity of Split/Second is simply unrivaled, and it's quickly becoming my favorite arcade racing title of all time. I'm still playing through the season mode while also playing split screen and online with up to seven other racers. No matter the mode, the events are constantly engaging. It's not the type of racer that if you make one mistake, you're suddenly never going to see the leaders of the pack. Nor is it the type where if you are in first place, you can easily hold on to it. At no point in a Split/Second racing event did I ever feel 'safe' or outdone. As long as there is enough space in a lap, there's a chance for a Power Play (or multiple ones) to get you caught up in a jiffy, and that goes for your opponents too. There's no rest for the man out in front, as anyone within range can execute a Power Play that can quickly take you out of the top spot.
Power Plays can only be called upon when the racer(s) in front of you have an icon above them. When you see a blue icon, press X. If you want to use a Level 2 Power Play, press Circle when the prompt appears. A Level 2 Power Play can re-shape part of a track or open up a short cut for you, in addition to causing massive destruction for those racers in front. But just pressing X or Circle isn't enough. You need to learn to time your Power Plays to avoid damaging yourself and simultaneously ensuring you get the most damage dealt to your foes. Mis-timing a Power Play on an opponent may mean that you only cause a shockwave to them, which could actually just put them in a drift, which means you not only didn't wreck them, but you "gave" them a maneuver from which they can increase their own Power meter.
In A Flash
Single player includes both a Season mode and a Quick Play mode. The Season mode is the meat and potatoes of the game. As you march through the episodes, you unlock new tracks, modes, cars, and honors that can be then played in Quick Play, Split Screen, and Onlne. Some forty-eight decals are applied to your car as you earn the right, giving you a very easy and visual way to let other players know what progress you've made.
Each episode contains multiple event types. Like other racing titles, you need to earn enough credits to unlock the final event of an episode and beat it before you can move on. In the case of Split/Second, this event is known as the Elite Race, and it pits you against the CPU's best racers. You'll race this gang -- including Riggs, Brawn, The Hammer, Smart, LiveWire, and a few others -- several times over. I actually liked that Black Rock chose to make a set group of AI racers rather than going the 'completely random' route. Even the other seven racers that you play during the season have the same name throughout, although their vehicles change, just like yours when you pick a different car for a different event.
Split/Second doesn't feature any kind of deep cash, upgrade, tuning, or damage system. New, interesting vehicles are unlocked as you earn more and more credits. You always know what vehicle you are going to earn when because the pre-race screen tells you. While they aren't licensed cars, many vehicles do share a likeness with real life counterparts including a Mustang Cobra and Porsche 911, and many others. Several statistics distinguish the performance of the vehicles. These include top speed, acceleration, strength (resistance to shockwaves), and drifting capability. Split/Second includes the gamut of muscle, sports, prototype, and truck vehicles for your choosing.
Customization is limited to built in paint colors, which is fine with me. I race with the first person, or bumper cam, anyway. Naturally, different vehicles perform better at different events, and I often find myself thinking about what vehicle to use for a given event. A lot of times in racers I stick with just one or two vehicles for much of the game, but Split/Second has me going between many more vehicles than that.
In addition to flat out circuit races that have you trying to win in two and three lap races, Split/Second includes a variety of other interesting event types to get your blood flowing. Elimination is cool, and is similar to Knockout from the Need For Speed games. Rather than the racer in last place being eliminated after each lap, a timer determines when the last place racer gets the boot. It generally starts off at sixty seconds for the first cut, and then goes down to about a third of that from there. This type of setup makes for some thrilling races, especially when you trigger a Power Play in the last few seconds to overtake the car in front of you just as the timer runs out.
One of my favorite modes -- Air Strike -- has an attack helicopter trying to blow you off the road. This is one of the event types in which you don't use Power Plays but are instead challenged to avoid the steady flow of rockets flying down onto the track. A visual marker shows you where the rockets will land, and as long as you don't sustain a direct hit, your score keeps ramping up. Just like a normal race, you start off in eighth (last) place, but as your score moves up, so does your rank. By avoiding waves of missiles, you get a score multiplier to more quickly get you through the ranks and end the event.
A similar event involving eighteen wheelers dropping bouncing explosives out of its back trailer is a lot of fun as well. In this event, you are tasked with avoiding as many dropped bombs as possible as you pass one truck after another, all the while a timer is counting down. When you pass a truck, you get a few more seconds added onto your timer, the idea being to give you more time to earn the top score for the event.
Yet another mode is Detonator, which has you racing against the clock by yourself on a track. The catch? Power Plays are randomly executed as you drive. Just like the other modes, as you reach them in the Season, they are unlocked in Quick Play to enjoy at anytime.
No matter the mode of play, I was having a lot of fun. I found myself replaying events over and over again to try and get 1st place, not because I needed to, but because I genuinely wanted to, it's that darn fun. Besides, the load times are great and the flow of the race changes from one run to the next. You just never know what racer is going to trigger what Power Play, when, and they greatly affect the race from one lap to another.
Another cool thing about racing in Split/Second is actually at the start of every race -- there is no 3, 2, 1 countdown as the cars idle in stationary position. When the races loads up, it's go time -- no countdown, no starting from rest -- your car is already moving, so step on that accelerator and get going. I never thought that removing the traditional start method that the vast majority of racing games use would make such a positive impact on the experience.
Something absolutely required for this type of game is fluid animation and a silky framerate. I have yet to experience any sign of slowdown no matter the amount of destruction on screen. The framerate is wonderfully smooth and the sense of speed is gorgeous. The variety of tracks adds to the visual appeal as well. And for the record, I much prefer in house, instrumental beats to race to than radio music like you often see in other racing titles. The music in Split/Second is very fitting, and the effects are great.
As I continue to play more and more Split/Second, I'm finding it increasingly unlikely that I will find much bad to say about it. I can tell you my finger hurts from holding down L2 on the PS3 controller so much, but other than that -- I can't find much not to love about this game.