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Blackrock Studio takes a shot at the big time with Split/Second, an arcade racer so destructive that it needs psychiatric help...
Explained simply, Split/Second is a tour de force of cataclysmic track destruction that challengers gamers to alter the circuit they're driving around, rather than use weapons or power-ups, to hinder opponents and ultimately drive themselves closer to victory. Everything from trackside explosions to seemingly possessed machinery, and razed industrial cooling towers to derailed trains can be instigated at the touch of a button with the express aim of taking out adversaries. Blackrock Studio's explanation for all of this is that Split/Second is a reality TV program of sorts; a claim backed up by the 'Next Time On Split/Second' shorts that play out between each 'Season' of races, and the ability to watch instant replays of your successful attempts to crush the opposition.
Not that an arcade racer particular needs a realistic explanation but, if Split/Second were to happen in the real world, then we can only assume that the project would be funded by a sadistic Saudi prince with pockets as deep as his family's many oil wells. The prince would shout, "Drive, my pretties!" at the start of each race; his "pretties" being the eight presumably well paid drivers on the starting grid, of which you're fortunately one. It's an arcade racer with a difference then, that shuns the regular fodder of open-world racing, car customisation, and nitro boosts in favour of a relatively fresh central concept. However, this alone is not enough to make a game great - originality may well be crucial, but gameplay is paramount.
And this is where Split/Second falls down a bit. It's not that the gameplay is bad by any stretch of the imagination; just that it lacks depth. It's the kind of experience that's enjoyable at its surface level but lacks the scope to keep you hooked for hours on end. From the ways in which you build-up the game's so-called Power Plays, to the skills required to execute them, Split/Second just doesn't do enough to introduce new ideas and features as the game progresses beyond the basic principles that are laid out in the initial tutorial. Beyond some supplementary modes (i.e. Survival and Air Attack/Air Revenge) that do feel a bit tacked-on, and the ever-increasing speed and drift capabilities of newly unlocked vehicles, Split/Second remains fairly stagnant throughout the game's single-player career.
This career's length is also cause for concern given that it consists of 12 Seasons, each of which take between 30 minutes and an hour to progress through (Blackrock does up the difficulty ante sufficiently to make the final few Seasons a bit of a challenge). However, at around 10 hours in total, Split/Second's career mode does struggle to offer sufficient content compared to its competitors. The focus of the game appears to be on the single-player as well, with a multiplayer component that simply adds a selection of modes from the career (Race, Elimination, and Survival). All three translate to multiplayer gaming without any major gripes, although the rubber band AI used to group players together does feel a bit too strongly balanced at times. As a result, you're often left wondering whether any victory is merely the result of being in the right place at the right time, rather than being a barometer of your Split/Second skill.
Presumably Blackrock has had to balance the rubber band system in this way because of how it's tuned the elemental Power Plays. Using these Power Plays is essentially how you gain an advantage over your adversaries in Split/Second, such as exploding a trackside bus next to them, dropping a payload of iron girders on them, or simply opening up a shortcut for yourself. In order to initiate a Power Play, your opponent has to be in your eye-view on the circuit, which obviously explains why Blackrock uses the rubber band system to keep cars close together so that the action doesn't wane. We can't help thinking that more could've been added to this system though, such as the ability initiate Power Plays behind you. This would have allowed players to defend their position as well as attack racers in front of them, although annoyingly only the latter option is possible in the game.
We also have a couple of gripes about the way in which you build up these Power Plays, which is done by either drifting, drafting, catching some air off jumps, or performing a 'Close Call' dodge of another driver's attack. The meter itself is built up of three tiers, each one corresponding to a single Power Play. If you manage to max-out the meter, then you can perform huge Power Plays that change the entire direction of the track by bringing down a bridge or capsizing an aircraft carrier (as track specific examples). Put simply, these have the potential to change the whole dynamic of a race by sending someone in last place to first (and vice versa) in one fell swoop. It's a decent enough system overall, but it's one that appears to benefit chasing racers considerably more than those who are out in front (call us right-wing gamers, but we think good driving should be rewarded, not punished).
This problem isn't helped by a brick-like handling system that tends to slow you down quite a bit whenever you drift. As a result, simply flooring it through a corner and into the barrier is often quicker than nailing a perfectly balanced drift, which makes you wonder whether it's worth drifting at all. Of course, when you're out in first place with no cars to draft behind, drifting becomes your primary source of Power Plays. This feels like a bit of a Catch 22 at times and, particularly as there are no reverse Power Plays in the game, sitting in first place can very easily be seen as less preferable to hanging back in second or third where you're not so much of a sitting duck and can draft to your heart's content. It sounds like a whacky way to play a racing game but it's very much the Split/Second experience.
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