Sunday, May 1, 2011


Ah, racing games.  How I enjoy them.  Nothing like the thrill of being behind the wheel of an exotic vehicle, tearing down tracks at crazy speeds with a pack of rivals, and fighting tooth and nail for first place, barely edging out a photo finish.  It’s been a couple years since a game like that came my way (has it really been that long since I delved into Burnout Paradise?).  Now Split/Second has walked up to the plate; color me interested.

Let’s start from the beginning.  Split/Second is a racing game, named after the titular fictional show that you play as a contestant on.  Split/Second pits racers driving fast, expensive-looking cars against each other in a host of events, including races and lap runs.  The show’s (and, by extension, the game’s) name comes from the inclusion of Power Plays, scripted events that participants can trigger mid-race.  Dozens of explosives have been planted in various places on each track; Power Plays set them off.  The effect can vary wildly, from merely exploding a nearby tanker, to downing an entire building.  The idea is that you use Power Plays as an offensive tactic; instead of throwing a blue shell at someone, or a missile, or something, you can cause the warehouse they’re in to implode, or the bridge they’re racing under to collapse.  I’ve slipped under closing doors, made ludicrous detours in the blink of an eye, and just barely evaded swinging wrecking balls more times than I can count.  Hence, Split/Second.  The entire game is like if you took that scene in a generic action movie where the hero and his girlfriend are trying to escape the enemy HQ, right after the hero set off that cleverly planted set of bombs, and the whole place is coming down...and you stretched it into a TV series.  There’s jumps, improvised detours, and hazards galore.

The presentation and overall design of the game is very consistent; every aspect of the game does its part to convey a general theme.  The menus are slick and edgy, and the HUD--a small overlay that trails directly behind your car, telling you the lap number and your current place, among other things--is a creative touch, being sufficiently informative without being at all distracting.

Progression in the game’s career mode is split up into episodes.  Each episode has about five events.  Each event you complete adds to your total credits, with higher placement netting you more credits.  Credits unlock cars, and also unlock the Elite Races.  To progress to a new episode, you have to place 3rd or better in the current episode’s Elite Race.  While other events are purely for credits, each Elite Race, also counts towards a single ongoing tournament, with higher placements being assigned higher point values.  Since Elite Races are exclusively done with a set of named racers, considered to be the best contenders in the series, the points ladder is sort of a way to see your current standing in the series, regardless of episode.

While Split/Second is hardly a complicated game, there are some things you’ll definitely be wanting to pay attention to as you race.  Power Plays are activated using energy from a bar on your HUD, segmented into three pieces.  There’s a few ways to gain energy, but your primary methods will be drifting and drafting.  Drifting is something anyone who knows anything about racing will be familiar with.  Drafting is in a similar boat, but I’ll explain it anyway.  Drafting is the act of taking advantage of an opponent’s slipstream to pass them.  Getting into a bit of aerodynamics, when you’re going fast, air resistance becomes a more significant factor in your speed output.  If you imagined a car boring through a mound of earth, and another car following closely behind it, you’d have an idea of what drafting is except it’s air, not earth you’re “tunneling” through.  Long story short, following about 1-2 seconds behind a car, at fast speeds gives you a speed boost, allowing you to catch up and pass them.  It will also charge your Power Play meter.

Other things to pay attention to are the types of Power Plays.  Like I said before, they come in many flavors, some being more effective most.  For example, a common basic Power Play is to cause a parked car to explode, causing it to roll across the road in a veritable ball of fire.  Another is to cause a piece of machinery to activate, like a wrecking ball swinging across the track, or a set of buzz saws flying out of their encasing.  Even if the actual explosion or effect doesn’t directly hit you, in many cases the mere activation of a Power Play sends out a shockwave that turns your wheels to jelly (metaphorically, of course), and sends you skidding, making it all too easy to crash into something, or worse yet, spin out.  Some Power Plays will activate shortcuts, such as opening a gate, allowing you to bypass a sharp turn altogether.  Others will cause shortcuts to come crashing down on those inside of them.  Power Plays are context sensitive, appearing over other racers’ cars when they’re in range of being affected by one.  Still, some opportunities to use Power Plays are better than others, and even with the shockwave it’s very possible to miss entirely, or for a Power Play to have essentially no effect.  Frequently I’ve activated a Power Play, only for those near it to shake it off.  And yet one time I managed to eliminate six racers simultaneously by detonating a tanker, causing it to slide across the track, sweeping the whole rest of the pack into oblivion.

The most destructive Level 2 Power Plays require a full bar of energy, but the results are beautiful to behold.  Usually Level 2 Power Plays alter the course of the track, forcing a detour and wrecking anyone and everyone who are too late to switch routes.  For example, driving across a warf, I activated a Lv2 Power Play, which detonated a large ship, causing it to tip sideways, completely wrecking the stretch of track in front of us.  We instead had to drive onto the deck of the ship to bypass the wall of fire that had sprung up.  Another one derailed a train, causing it to crash in the area up ahead, and forcing us onto the freeway overhead.

Unfortunately, it’s not all positives.  Just like in many other games of the genre, there is some definite rubber-banding present, and it can get really bad at times.  When it takes you the better part of a lap to catch up to a computer cruising in 1st place, but only a minute or so for the computer to do the same to you, you know something’s not right.  The computer’s cars also don’t always seem to observe the same stats as yours do.  Trucks and SUVs are fully capable of passing sports cars (they weren’t drafting me, I checked), and a couple times I even saw a car literally spawn a couple hundred feet behind me.  It’s to the point that it actually kind of squanders your sense of progression in regards to the cars you earn.  Even though there’s a definite increase in performance as you unlock more cars, going back to older races with your newly unlocked cars doesn’t help much, as the computer will always use cars similar in class to the one you’re using.  

I also have a personal problem with the fact that the trucks and SUVs seem to be the computer’s car class of choice, just like you’ll find AI opponents more often than not touting rocket launchers and shock rifles in Unreal Tournament, and always dropping everything to go for health recovery items and the Smash Ball in Super Smash Bros games.  There’s just few things in life more irritating than driving an exotic super car and having an SUV just zoom right past you.  The competitors that aren’t driving in humongous trucks instead tend to choose whatever car you’re driving.  It’s kind of underwhelming, but at least the copying is only at its worst in the beginning episodes, when you don’t have that many cars.

Some of the crashes suffered by both you and the computer will feel arbitrary.  You’ll see it far more often in the AI, who will get pushed by a Power Play and either blow up right then and there, or essentially stop trying to steer, and go careening into a wall.  But it happens to you as well occasionally;  sometimes it feels like the game has frozen your steering wheel as a side effect of a Power Play shockwave, forcing you to crash.  Other times, the game won’t even give you a chance to actually hit something; your car will simply explode, and that’ll be that.  This hasn’t happened enough to cause frustration more than a couple times in my playtime thus far, though.

Other than races, there’s a fair number of other event types.  Detonator is very similar to your generic time attack sort of deal, except nearly every Power Play in the stage (including Level 2’s) is being activated as you draw near them, making this possibly the most action-y mode in the game.  Normally I dislike time trials, but Detonator is actually really fun.  There’s also Eliminator, which is kind of like Race except there’s a timer, and when that timer depletes, the guy in last place explodes, and is eliminated from the race.  This goes on at 20-30 second intervals, until there’s only one competitor left.  Clearly, to be a competitor in Split/Second you’d have to have a bit of crazy in you, evidenced by the other modes, Air Attack, Air Revenge, and Survival (the latter of which has you skirting in between a spill of explosive barrels dropped out of a series of giant big rigs).

Split/Second’s car selection isn’t bad.  There’s mainly three varieties of cars: 1)trucks and SUVs, which have good handling, and handle shockwaves better than the other guys, 2)sports cars and tuners, which are fast and nimble, but get knocked around easily, and 3)muscle cars, all-around vehicles that tend to have decent stats in every area.

There’s only a handful of environments, with a couple tracks running through each one, stretched across all 12 episodes.  Though this issue is diminished greatly by the ability to switch routes (sometimes multiple times on track) using Lv2 Power Plays, as of this writing I’m a little over halfway through the game and I am starting to feel the effects of recycled content.  What environments there are though, are nicely varied.

Overall, Split/Second is a well-performing, good looking game.  There’s a load screen when you first start the game up, and before starting each event, but thankfully you don’t have to sit through one if you decide to restart an event.  The game makes pretty great use of effects, with plenty of lens flare present.  For a game filled with explosions though, I think the explosions could actually look much better, as could the objects that go flying as a result of them.  There’s some clear crudeness in a lot of the environment models, and the textures aren’t too convincing.  I've also spotted the occasional visual glitch, such as the ground disappearing into a black abyss, but they usually come and go so quickly that it's hard to pay much attention to them.  

The car models look great.  When the race begins, they look like they just rolled out of the dealership.  Crossing the finish line, there’s scratches galore on the sides, and streaks of dirt and dust on the paint.  At really fast speeds you get a bit of camera shake to let you know you’re being totally reckless, and dirt and debris tends to fly onscreen when something goes off near you.

Whoever was in charge of sound design in this game probably deserves a pat on the back, because Split/Second’s audio is incredibly engaging.  The BGM seems to consist of only one song, but it never feels like it because that song is remixed wildly to fit different situations.  For example, when you first arrive at the title screen, only a barebones version of it is playing.  As you go from menu to menu, more instruments chime in.  Mid-race is where you’ll really see the rewards of excellent sound design.  For example, you’re driving across an airport, and you see something in the sky way, way far up ahead.  Just as you realize that’s a mother-effin’ cargo plane on a crash course for you, the music just completely stops momentarily, as if you’re stuck in a vacuum.  Then it hits, and everything strikes back up again.  This game’s audio sucks you in.  Other sounds of note include a definite presence of the doppler effect (especially when you head into tunnels), and convincing engine sounds.

Split/Second is a very good game.  I didn’t get a chance to try its multiplayer (it also has two player split-screen, quick play and online modes), but the single player stands firm by itself as a fun and engaging experience.  The AI rubber-banding is irritating at times, to be sure, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to hamper what is otherwise a very solid racing title.  Especially for someone who enjoys Mario Kart, arguably the king of AI hax.  An 8.5/10.

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