As much a Kart racer as an arcade racing title, Split/Second is as predicated on screwing over other competitors as finding a perfect driving line. The premise is simple: as a contestant on the television show Split/Second, you'll race against other drivers on a track designed to be destroyed.
Split/Second has the most impressive destruction and explosions yet seen in a racing game. Forget Burnout and Motorstorm; from passenger jets exploding across a tarmac as you race under a wing, to detonating power plant cooling towers, to collapsing train tracks, Split/Second assaults your eyes as soon as you're off the starting line. There's so much going on during races that it's often difficult to navigate the game's courses, though the designers usually do a pretty good job of marking turns and plastering visual cues around the track.
While it's occasionally clear that the the environments and vehicles have some fairly simple geometry, Black Rock has done well to heavily stylize the game through lighting and color filters. Each course has a specific palette and theme without feeling monotonous, and the lighting is particularly strong. Split/Second is the closest a racing game has come to approximating the look of popular car films of the last decade or so, and that goes a long way to selling the premise. The visual design and UI are also very slick, though occasionally a little obtuse.
Split/Second's music is straight out of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, for better and worse. It's suitably epic, but there's not a lot of variation to the score and eventually it may wear out its welcome. The sound effects rival the biggest action games of this console generation though, as cars and explosions rumble through the speakers with some very aggressive positional audio. This is a game to play on a nice home theater with the sound turned up.
Structured like a television show, Split/Second's singleplayer mode plays out over a 12 episode "season". There are 4 races immediately available in each unlocked episode, and winning or placing in races rewards players with credits, which unlock additional cars and grant access to each episode's Elite race. The variety of different types of races and the credit based mission unlock model help to make sure you're never spending much time on race modes that don't catch your fancy, and really help mix things up.
The controls in Split/Second are somewhere between Burnout and Project Gotham, with a heavy emphasis on drifting and drafting and no penalty for pinballing off walls coming out of a tight turn. Where other arcade racers provide little tangible benefit for drifting other than slightly better race times, drifting is a requirement in Split/Second. As you drift around corners and draft behind your opponents, you'll earn the ability to trigger the all-important power plays. These range from the simple, like causing a parked car next to the track to explode, to catastrophic chain reactions of chaos and destruction that can often change the track itself.
At first, power plays seem like an arbitrary gimmick, but after a few races, the mechanic reveals more depth than is immediately apparent. The most devastating power plays require either inordinate amounts of patience and delayed gratification by requiring a completely full power bar, or expert timing. Learning each track is important, but learning the telltale signs of a power play in the making is the key to winning races. This is particularly important later on in the single player mode against AI opponents, which feature some of the most frustrating rubber-banding in a racer this side of Mario Kart.
This is indicative of Split/Second's only real failings. There are a few issues that have plagued arcade racers for years, and Split/Second demonstrates the worst of them. There will never be a race in Split/second's campaign where the AI fails to keep right on your tail, but there will be plenty of times where you're hopelessly outmatched and destined to finish in third or fourth - you're either winning a close race or getting completely destroyed. Meanwhile, a rewind feature like that found in Forza or DIRT is nowhere to be found, and a single mistake in the third lap of a race can result in a vicious cycle of restarts. These don't kill the game, but they do result in major frustration. Should Black Rock revisit the world of Split/Second, it's an issue they should pay close attention to.
There are other tiny issues, of course. Though there are a large number of courses, these are all plotted out in the same 4 or 5 environments. The multiplayer is a recipe for profanity laced good times with friends, but take note: you can only race with the cars you've unlocked in the singleplayer mode. There is full split screen support for two players locally though, which works very well (but 4 players would have been nice, as unrealistic as it might have been).
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