Have you ever sat around watching a race and thought to yourself, "This would be so much better if there were explosions"? Actually, that's a stupid question because you've obviously been thinking about that; after all, NASCAR isn't popular because of all those left turns. For those looking for a bit more carnage in their racing, Disney and Black Rock present Split/Second, a title with all the sensibilities of the Burnout franchise but with an extra helping of kaboom. While a couple of design flaws keep this one away from the checkered flag, it's still a high-octane experience that nearly all race fans will want to try out.
The main draw of Split/Second is the constant chaos of explosions, wrecking balls and shrapnel that litter the track, all of which are triggered via the "Power Play." As players drift, draft and jump through the course, they fill a meter that can be used to trigger trackside hazards. The first two levels of the Power Play are simple enough, featuring exploding tanker trucks and shortcut triggers, but they're still very effective. Even opponents who aren't caught directly in a blast may be taken out by the subsequent shockwave, and it's extremely fulfilling to utilize a well-timed attack to take down that smug bastard who just passed you. Of course, opponents are constantly triggering their own Power Plays against you, so track awareness becomes key, and lightning-fast reflexes are an absolute must.
Those looking for more bang for their buck will want to hold on to their Power Plays until the meter fills entirely because at level three, racers can unleash landscape-changing special attacks that cause absolute mayhem. Level three Power Plays include bringing down an air traffic control tower, thus diverting the race to an active airport runway; partially sinking an aircraft carrier so cars can speed across the deck; and even dropping a speeding train right onto the track, virtually guaranteeing the wipeout of any cars unfortunate enough to be near the scene of the crime. These explosive events can also be replayed with the simple tap of a button, allowing you to enjoy the bedlam from multiple angles. It's a lot like those gratuitous slow-mo replays in action movies that everyone loves so much.
This multilevel dynamic creates a great layer of strategy in what could otherwise have been a fairly brainless game. While some players may opt to cash in Power Plays as soon as they earn them, others might sacrifice position in the hopes they can hit a big route-changing attack that will wreck the competition and set up an easy move into first place. It's a great risk-reward system and really gets players thinking about more than just their line through each turn.
Disney and Black Rock also smartly included a solid number of different race modes, creating a fairly diverse experience that keeps things fresh and exciting. Traditional time trials have been spiced up with a mode where the track hazards are triggered automatically, so you must race at top speed while avoiding the pitfalls, and other minigames include a mode where you must continually pass big rigs that are dumping exploding barrels on the track and races where a helicopter is constantly targeting your car with missiles. To make things even crazier, eventually a spin-off of the air raid is unlocked, where players get to actually deflect the missiles back at the chopper and finally earn a little retribution. The only race type that feels like a direct rip-off of other games is the Elimination mode, where the last player is cut from the race at set intervals, but in a game such as this, it still feels right at home. Everything else is fresh, unique and ultimately a lot of fun.
Tying together all the carnage is a slick, slightly thin, reality TV concept that gives context to the chaos. The game's career mode consists of 12 "episodes," each with four qualifiers, a bonus event and culminating in a race against Split/Second's elite drivers. While this could have been a hokey, stupid idea, you have to give the development team credit again, as they treated it very seriously. Each episode opens with a preview of what's to come, complete with overly dramatic voice-over and everything. More could have been done with the idea, but the framework is there, and hopefully the sequel will feature things such as race recaps, sudden rule changes and the mid-show drama that lies at the heart of most successful reality shows. Even so, the package that does exist is still pretty sleek.
This sexy look extends to the track as well, as Split/Second is quite a gorgeous game. The cars are beautifully detailed, the explosions are breathtaking and the game manages to do it all with absolutely no slowdown or frame rate issues, a truly notable accomplishment. Furthermore, the minimalist HUD keeps your head in the game and your eyes on the road rather than distracting you with pointless speedometers and gear information. While that sort of info may be important in a game like Gran Turismo where simulation is everything, Split/Second is a pure arcade affair, where the only speed you need to worry about is "fast."
For all the good it does, Split/Second does still manage to suffer from a few shortcomings, and unfortunately, they're pretty big ones. Firstly and most importantly, this is yet another racer with rubber-band AI that refuses to give you a comfortable lead. No matter how well you race or how effectively you utilize Power Plays, the field is always just a second or two behind, waiting for you to screw up. When you eventually bite it, practically the entire field will pass you, which means that players are often dumped from first to sixth or worse. It's bad enough when this happens early in the race and you have to play catch-up, but near the end of the third lap, it's downright unfair.
While the need for some degree of catch-up is necessary (the game gets pretty boring when you're out in front racing with no one trying to wreck you), it should have been toned down significantly. Punishing someone for crashing by dropping them to second or third is one thing, but falling to last or being passed simply because the AI decides it's time to go faster than possible is just unfair. Obviously, the issue can be alleviated by playing online against human competitors, but you'll need to unlock some of the better cars in the single-player mode to even stand a chance, so the whole thing is a bit of a catch-22.
The game's other fault is a relative paucity of tracks, meaning that it won't be long before you start hitting repeats. This isn't as big a problem as the AI because with all the explosions, no two races ever feel the same, but players may still get bored with the same old tracks fairly quickly. Hopefully, Black Rock is working on some more locales for DLC, as that would go a long way to improving the title's longevity.
If you're willing to put up with the infuriating AI and lack of courses, then you'll find a lot to love about Split/Second. It's a heart-pumping, adrenaline-fueled, white-knuckle affair that will have you on the edge of your seat and holding your breath as you cross the finish line. This is one of the truly unique racing experiences, which is an incredible achievement in a field which, up to this point, felt like it had seen it all. If you love speed, explosions and excitement, then you owe it to yourself to check out Split/Second.
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