From the developers of Pure, one of this gen’s best racing games, comes Split/Second. This new endeavor is easily the most intense racing game out there, and one of the most unique, but falls somewhat short of being the best. S/S’s premise is that you’re the newest contestant on “Split/Second”, a racing reality show
The devastating power plays are earned by building up your power meter, done by either drifting through turns, drafting behind rivals, or more extreme stunts like jumps, passing a rival in a turn, passing after a jump, and the most rewarding - narrowly avoiding being hit by the debris caused by power plays. You’ve got two levels of power plays available: blue-coded level 1, which can be built up three times within one power bar to give you back-to-back power plays, and the red-coded level 2, which requires you to fill the entire meter. If you fill the bar up, you can either do three level 1 power plays or one level 2 - each varies in severity, with level 1s ranging from exploding buses that go flying across the track and setting off bombs to level 2, which can result in things like planes coming down into the paths of rivals, and severely deforming the track by taking out things like bridges and forging a whole new racing path, including one jaw-dropping area on the wharf track where you wind up racing through a fire-filled tunnel. There’s a risk/reward system for the level 1 power plays versus the level 2 ones. If you save up for a level 2 and hit, you’ll more than likely take a group of enemies out, but those aren’t as readily available as level 1 power plays, which can be found all over the track and stand a better chance of helping you regain a position quickly.
Season mode takes you through 12 “episodes” of the explosive racing faux-reality show Split/Second, and gives you access to a variety of modes to progress from episode to episode. You can partake in the usual races, and elimination modes, as well as the Split/Second-exclusive ones like “detonator”, where the power plays are set off ahead of you and you have to dodge their effects AND beat a target time to win. These really test your ability to play the game as a racing game since you can’t rely on the power plays to hurt you, and have to stay sharp to avoid their hazards. There’s also survival mode, which pits you and a set of generic rival cars against a gang of trucks that throw explosive barrels out at you - the last car to survive this ordeal intact is the winner. There’s also the intimidating air strike mode, where you have to dodge a series of missiles by weaving out of the way of their target on the track. Beating the S/S-exclusive modes unlocks them for play outside of season mode. Winning an ep’s final race lets you move to the next episode, and qualifying for it is determined by points, and you don’t need a top three finish to get them - allowing you to progress even if you’re not able to succeed in one of the modes offered for an episode, which definitely makes the game more accessible.
One of the best things about Split/Second is that it can be played as either a typical racing game without the use of the playmakers, or you can just go all out and try to use as many of them as possible to cause complete mayhem on the track. That opens the game up quite a bit and winds up making what seems like gimmicky gameplay at first into something with more substance than one might think. There’s never any slowdown in this racing romp filled with rivals and screen-rattling explosions - resulting in this being the most intense racing game I’ve ever played. As a Burnout enthusiast, I didn’t think anything could top that series for sheer insanity, but Split/Second has managed to do that.
A variety of cars and trucks are playable, with cars giving you more speed, and trucks offering up more power. Trucks can absorb damage from power plays better, and also push cars into their path or off the track, but cars are better suited for avoiding power plays altogether. Offensive drivers will probably prefer using trucks, while those looking to play with more finesse will get more out of cars. All of the vehicles control smoothly, although the higher-end ones do require some practice to avoid spinning out easily. Unfortunately, S/S/ is hurt by some crazy rubber band AI - a single mistake can take you from first to sixth easily because of how tightly-packed the cars are. You can certainly regain your position if it’s early in a race, but if you’re at the end and have this happen, you can find yourself cursing at the TV due to one bad thing happening at the worst possible time.
Xbox Live play itself is incredibly smooth, but the game’s unlocking system kind of handicaps new players. In order to unlock vehicles for off or online use, you have to go through the season mode. However, online, players can use the super-powered vehicles in races alongside the low-end vehicles that new players have - resulting in major balancing issues and really kills the fun of playing it online unless you just play with friends with similar vehicles. Sure, you can instantly unlock all the cars with an Xbox Live Marketplace purchase that will make things even online, but that kills all of the excitement of unlocking them in the season mode, resulting in a trade-off that shouldn’t be necessary. The local multi-player is also hampered by so much going on within a split screen format. The horizontal setting makes things manageable, but the vertical orientation makes it very difficult to tell where turns are, let alone properly judge how to navigate them. Avoiding the power plays is nearly impossible here because of the cramped viewpoint making it even harder to see what’s in front of you - especially with debris from the power plays showing on the screen. It’s an awesome effect in single player and on Xbox Live, but really hinders local multi-player. With all that said, the game is very replayable online IF you have at least one high-level vehicle - there’s no lag despite tons of stuff happening at once, and S/S players are generally very nice online.
Despite its visual hiccups with its multi-player display, Split/Second is still a gorgeous-looking game. The vehicle models are incredible, with some of the best reflection effects I’ve seen this gen. Environments are similarly stunning - especially when you’re able to see them deform in real-time after a major power play. The lack of slowdown in spite of a screen with 8 cars possibly on it simultaneously, along with debris flying onto your viewing area, and the seemingly never-ending barrage of power plays that warp the in-game world is remarkable. That’s one of the things that impressed me most about Split/Second, because if it chugged along, it would kill the whole interactive action film vibe the game has. The presentation of S/S as a reality show is spot-on, with a host narrating the events, and end credits rolling at the end of each episode in the season mode, leading to a trailer of the next episode‘s specialty events.
Split/Second’s audio is also fantastic. The soundtrack would be right at home in a big Hollywood action films and conveys a sense of danger with every song. The hard rock soundtrack is enjoyable to listen to and fits Split/Second’s frantic gameplay perfectly. The sound effects are similarly fitting, with car crashes sounding particularly brutal, and like Burnout before it, they really drive home how vile a crash is, just in case the sight of parts flying away from your vehicle didn’t do it.
Aside from some AI and multi-player issues, Split/Second should please any racing fan, but will definitely find a home with Burnout fans as this game has that series’ sense of complete anarchy, but with a twist that hasn’t been done before in the form of the power plays. The insane gameplay they provide makes this one of this gen’s most unique racing games on the market. If you like your virtual racing to be as insane as humanly possible, play this as soon as possible. While $60 is a little steep given the online balancing problems, $40 is a pretty reasonable price for it, especially if you enjoy the demo.