There is a certain fury that creeps out of the most benign personality that is evoked by combat racing games. While some may find the constant dread of competitors getting the drop on you once you pass them up exhilarating, most can agree that having a commanding lead taken away from you just before the finish line to be forehead vein-inducing. The beauty in them, though, is when the revenge function of your brain snaps into place, thus keeping you coming back for more time and again. Bearing this in mind, you have to hand it to the PSP version of Split/Second: not only is it in a class by itself as far as this subgenre of racing is concerned, the platform it’s on gives ample opportunity to exact your driving vengeance quickly and in blissfully short bursts.
Briefly, Split/Second is a study in videogame absurdity in the best possible way. The game’s central concept is that it’s a reality television show where cars race to the finish line while being able to trigger environmental effects that can obstruct or wreck other drivers. The better you drive, the more the meter at the bottom of the screen builds. A well-timed click of the left shoulder button will deplete a chunk of this meter and make, for example, an entire building crash down on your opponents, enabling you to carelessly drive past them on your way to virtual glory.
It’s this mechanic alone – known as Power Plays – that separates it from other battle-ready racing games like WipeOut or even the Mario Kart series. By interacting with your environment instead of collecting weapons gives the player freedom to focus more on driving than aiming. The settings themselves also become living, breathing things as well since the more you destroy, the more the track changes, often making the final lap of many races completely different from the first.
However, this represents Split/Second’s two biggest flaws. For starters, you still have to really learn the tracks to make the Power Plays effective; nearly making them moot altogether if you’re a well-versed and reflexive racer. Otherwise you’re simply saving up the Power Play meter and hoping for the best if you don’t know when, say, a crane is going to swing into the middle of the track to swipe other drivers away. The flip side to this is that if you know the tracks well enough and know what may or may not come crashing your way, many races (especially early on) can be finished without the use of them at all. Meaning, the better racer you are and the more you know the tracks, the less likely you are to rely on the game’s biggest feature.
The second noticeable drawback is the PSP itself. Sumo Interactive did an admirable job of cramming Blackrock’s large-scale PS3/360 game into the comparably tiny PSP, but there’s a lot going on on-screen. The PSP’s screen, while still large by comparison, is still too small to be able to catch every detail of the mayhem, causing more than a few bogus crashes. Elite races and multiplayer modes exacerbate the problem since racers’ names are floating above cars and obscuring the environment, making some wrecks (even the ones you cause) seem cheap. Extra credit goes to the developers for making the HUD as minimalist as possible to alleviate some of this, but driving into a median is way too easy when there are other cars and a little bit of wreckage on the road with you.
But this is still a wacky good time. Causing a 100-ton tanker to collapse on your competition will have you grinning from ear to ear, and the relatively short races are perfect for morning commutes, breaks between classes, or quick jolts right before bed. There are more than a few clever variations in racing types that are a blast to play. Detonator, for example, has you dodging missiles shot from a helicopter to priceless effect. The package also contains its own set of unlockable achievements along with the obligatory stock of cars as the carrot for playing with precision and compulsive gaming completionism.
It also feels just right in your hands, too. The PSP’s nub makes veering and turning precise. While Power Plays are most often rewarded by drifting around turns, the controls mostly lend themselves to better steering than drifting, which will probably cause more than one fan to ditch using them altogether.
While it’s painful to admit that the PSP as a platform inhibits Split/Second from being a truly great portable racing game, the insanity that can be caused during races makes it absolutely worth it for fans of the genre. One wonders about possible sequels and what can be done with this kind of creativity in a very by-the-numbers style of game.
Nov 19, 2010