Split Second Review
When speed is not enough, blow up the track
Split Second (stylized as Split/Second) was developed by Black Rock Studio and published by Disney Interactive Studios. In the game, players take part in a fictional reality TV show that consists of a variety of events, each focusing on destructible environments triggered remotely by drivers. This is quite a distinctive and interesting premise, where the cars and drivers are mere pawns to the environmental destruction around them. While the idea behind the premise is promising, the game does have some issues with its execution that prevents the game from becoming a must-own title. Still, racing fans looking for some of the best thrills in any genre should give Split Second more than a quick look.
The premise of the game is an exciting one, as racers participate in a series of survival-based races over the course of a season. The career mode in the game is split into twelve episodes, each 5 races long. The player earns a certain amount of points depending on the podium finish, and after a required point amount is reached, the so-called “elite” race of the episode becomes available. Place in the top 3, and you’re off to the next episode. In the meantime, collecting certain amount of points also lands the player new cars with varying stats. The career mode in Split Second is respectably lengthy, and offers a fun gaming experience even if you do not place first in every event.
The main draw of the game is the destructible environment. As players drift and draft behind others, they earn energy towards the powerplay meter. Once the meter fills up to one of the three notches, you can execute a level 1 powerplay when your opponents are within range of danger. An icon appears above their cars, and hitting the corresponding key triggers some kind of environmental destruction. The basic level destruction ranges from helicopters dropping bombs overhead, parked cars and buses exploding and rolling onto the track, to bridges collapsing and simply general mayhem. This all looks and sounds great, and is one of the best parts of the presentation. The powerplays are not sure-things though, as other drives often have time to avoid the destruction – as does the player. Powerplays also trigger shockwaves though, so if you have managed to avoid a direct hit from the environment, you are still vulnerable for a few seconds and one wrong turn could result in a crash. The energy can also be spent to temporarily open shortcuts on the track, and up to two powerplays can be executed sequentially. As you make laps around the track, some powerplays can be repeated while others can be used only once per race. Unfortunately, the location of the destruction never changes; it only becomes a matter of which events are triggered by the drivers on each lap.
A primary attraction of the whole feature, though, has to be the level 2 powerplays. These can be executed only once per race when someone has filled their powerplay meter, and do they ever look fantastic. Huge airport terminal exploding, a plane crash landing, a huge ship sliding off across the track – these are just some of the epic examples of the level of insane destruction that is to be had at least once on every track. When someone executes a level 2 powerplay, you can’t help but take your eyes off the road and stare in amazement as things explode and collapse. In addition, another way to use your full powerplay meter is to literally change the track. These events cause the track to explode and somehow deform, presenting a different layout on a section of a track for the rest of the race. These aren’t nearly as exciting as the level 2 powerplays, but they do add a nice variety to the race itself.
When it comes to racing, Split Second actually does not have much to offer in terms of entertainment. The cars handle fairly easily and drift well, so there is no doubt that the game is an arcade racer. However, there is nothing that stands out when everyone is out of powerplay energy or there are no events that can be triggered. During these quieter timers is also when the poor AI begins to show. The game suffers from some very distracting rubber-banding. This means that you can never pull away, and if the game says you are over 2 seconds ahead, one crash still means you’re back to the middle or even end of the pack. Alternatively, your opponents have no problem pulling ahead and staying there, taking a number of minutes and lucky powerplays to catch up again. It also seems to matter little if you select a car with a top speed rating, as AI opponents driving SUVs (with lowest maximum speed and acceleration) have no problem whipping past you on straightaways.
Not all events are based on simple lap races though, and this helps the gameplay variety to a great extent. There are some usual suspects, such as elimination races where every 20 seconds the person in last place is eliminated. There are also timed survival races where you are alone on the track, trying to set the best lap time while avoiding automatically triggered powerplays. This event actually suffers because the supposedly “random” powerplays are the same no matter how many times you restart the race in career mode, making them easy to avoid if you need to repeat the race. There are two modes that involve a helicopter: one allows you to fight back, the other just tasks you with surviving for as long as possible. Both helicopter modes are challenging and will test your driving ability, but are also very fun and unique. One other interesting mode involves racing down a wide twisting road together with semi trucks and AI drivers. In this timed mode, the player must avoid dangerous barrels that are being tossed from the back of the semi trucks for as long as possible. By passing a truck, the player gains valuable points and extra time. All of the unique game modes in Split Second are rather fun and well worth checking out when not racing in career or online.
The online modes in the game are limited to just three modes from the single player experience, and are limited to 8 players at a time. Creating an account and searching for a lobby is quick and painless, however there seems to be very few players taking the game to the net. Finding a game is mostly a matter of luck and patience, as you enter one empty lobby after another. Once you do find a game, the gameplay is relatively lag-free and powerplays work just as well as in single player. Though of course, without rubber-banding, the racing becomes much more thrilling and really comes down to the wire. The game also includes the option for LAN and split screen play, both of which are great to see on a pc version of a game these days. As expected though, there were a number of cheaters encountered, who degraded the experience by exploits ranging from activating powerplays without any energy to racing under the track.
Possibly one of the worst aspects of the game is the technical performance. The game is locked at 30FPS, which means that when things get really busy, the framerate drops to a slideshow, even on the test machine running the latest HD 5870 video card and using a quad core CPU. Split Second looks great, but it suffers from a bad port to the PC, resulting in poor performance during majority of the races. There are also a number of other bugs that were experienced, such as the volume glitch that makes the cars’ engines and in-game music sound extremely quiet, while the cutscenes and sound effects remain at full volume. There is currently no word on any patch being in the works to fix the common issues and address online cheating.
As mentioned earlier, Split Second not only offers interesting new game modes, but also a one-of-a-kind presentation for a racing game. Having the game setup as a TV show is clever, but unfortunately the idea is not taken full advantage of. The TV-style presentation, credits and “next time on split second” commentary that occurs between episodes is great, but that’s the only time players get to experience the setting. The rest of the gameplay is spent in menus and races, and you almost begin to forget that you’re on TV. It seems like a huge missed opportunity not to take the setting further by perhaps offering light commentary in between or even during races. Instead, the well-made TV presentations occur only a handful of times, while the rest of the game is spent with ambient background music. There is not much else to note – there are no characters, no story and the only voice actor (from the TV presentations) does his job in style. The in-game HUD is very compact and neat, helping immerse the player in the action packed visuals.
Split Second is an ambitious effort that feels to short change itself on the execution of some of the great ideas here. The destructible environments are a highlight of the game, but many races can be spent just avoiding the same level one powerplays over and over, because nobody decided to collect the full power meter to change the track or trigger a level two event. Not to take away from the powerplays, when level two events are triggered, they are quite spectacular to experience even if you’ve seen them before. During the quiet portions of the track, simple controls and poor AI rubber-banding begins to show. Thankfully, the game offers a wide variety of fun and challenging modes of play where the player is alone on the track. The online modes seem standard and play well when you can find a game, but the population is rather low. Though the inclusion of LAN and split screen play does sweeten the multiplayer experience. Split Second suffers as a poor PC port, being locked at 30 FPS and performing poorly on top range hardware, but at least it offers high resolution textures and explosions look great. While this arcade racer has its share of problems, Split Second still offers a vastly unique scenario coupled with new game modes and first-rate execution of the key concepts that racing fans should check out.