Split/Second's core gimmick revolves around a series of environmental traps called power plays that cause havoc for the cars that zip around its various levels
- Power play gimmick is ingenious, superb track designs, imparts a tangible sense of speed
- Traps are the only way you can wreck an opponent, no reward for causing crashes, being in the lead isn't the advantageous position it should be.
Boasting a high-octane over-the-top style with explosive amounts of substance to match, Black Rock Studios' Split/Second is a sleek, addictive, and rewarding console racer made even better by its ingenious Power Play mechanic.
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I'm not a big fan of simulation racing franchises like Gran Turismo and Forza because they require too much finesse and skill. I recognise the technical and aesthetic beauty of perfectly recreated autos as well as the thrill that comes from expertly navigating an S-curve, but all I want to do is sit back in the cockpit of an exotic sports car and mash the gas pedal with little thought to the rules of the road. This is why I love the Burnout series: it sacrificed the right amount of realism in favor of flat-out fun.
But the people who hold Burnout's pink slip messed with the formula a little too much; first, they ruined the sublime Crash mode then they took the game into an unwieldy open-world format for Paradise. I grew disenchanted after that title, and I haven't had a good action racing experience since. But then I received a copy of Split/Second, and I suddenly found myself back in the driver's seat for a thrilling joyride that recalled the heyday of Burnout II. It's a terrific debut for an exciting new franchise, and while it has some issues that keep it from achieving racing perfection, it has the horsepower to be a contender.
Split/Second's core gimmick revolves around a series of environmental traps called power plays that cause havoc for the cars that zip around its various levels. Drifting around turns, drafting behind opponents, and catching air off jumps fills a three-tiered meter which is used to activate the various obstacles; whenever an enemy car comes within proximity of a power play location, all you have to do is push a button and something goes boom. Low-level power plays trigger simple explosions that can potentially wreck cars outright or send out a shockwave that can cause them to lose control and crash into a wall; the more complicated traps require two and sometimes three filled meters, with appropriately explosive results. One of my favourite power plays sets a gigantic ship which is sitting in dry dock sliding towards the sea, taking any unfortunate drivers who happen to be on the wrong side of the track with it. You can also activate time saving shortcuts as well as router changing power plays that dramatically alter the race course.
This controlled demolition combines with the cleverly designed tracks, terrific visuals, and zippy cars to create an oft-times thrilling experience full of near-misses, eye-popping crashes, and 'holy crap' moments. At its best, Split/Second delivers the kind of 'living on the edge' racing that made Burnout so addictive. The variety of races is also great, with unique events like Elimination mode -- a timer counts down and whoever is in last place is removed from the race -- and Air Strike mode -- an attack helicopter rains down missiles onto the track which you have to avoid -- joining the standard "race to the finish line" events. The "TV show" gimmick which holds everything together is nonsensical, but it provides enough skeletal structure to support your progression through the game's long single-player campaign. The multiplayer modes have a lot of potential as well, with the power play mechanic seamlessly translating over into the local split-screen and online competitive races. It's a lot of fun and wrecking a human opponent with a well-timed power play is fairly satisfying.
I do have some issues with Split/Second, however, and although my disappointment is tempered by the quality of its racing as well as the development team's ability to redeem itself in the inevitable sequel, they still cut into my enjoyment of the game. Relying purely on external traps for offence has a disempowering effect that distances you from the carnage you cause. The beauty of Burnout is it makes you feel like the most dangerous thing on the road; in Split/Second, you take a backseat to the power play traps. I recognize that the developers were trying to do their own "thing" but if they had combined Burnout's ability to sideswipe and wreck cars from behind with their spectacular environmental traps, they could have had a defining racing title on their hands. As it stands, the game feels like it's missing something essential.
Black Rock Studios should have also copied the way Burnout rewards you for wrecking cars, which allowed you to generate a tangible sense of momentum as you sowed chaos. You get nothing for your efforts in Split/Second, forcing you to constantly focus on refilling your meters. Drifting is the most consistent way of doing that, so you often find yourself taking wide, sweeping turns when you should be getting in and out of corners as quickly as you can. Power plays are also rendered useless when you're clustered in a pack of cars because you could end up wrecking yourself in the process.
Being in the lead is also a disadvantageous position because you can't activate traps if there are no cars in front of you to act as the trigger point. Consequently, you get bullied by the cars behind you, which brought back nightmares of the blue shell from Mario Kart. I also wonder what will happen once the novelty of the power plays wears off; does the game offer enough once its main gimmick grows old?
I think the answer to that lies in the DLC content; if Black Rock delivers new maps, cars, and race types in a timely fashion, it can keep the interest level high enough to sustain the brand until the inevitable sequel hits. I just hope they tweaked and improve the formula to address the issues I raised earlier because even with those small bumps in the road, Split/Second is still a worthy heir to Burnout's throne. If they can smooth out the ride, it will definitely deserve to wear the crown.
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