With my Sunday Driving playthrough of Black Rock Studio’s excellent Split/Second now at an end, it’s time to take a final, summative look back at one of my favourite racers of all time.
Split/Second, like its contemporary and rival Blur, was a victim of a combination of factors: poor marketing, arrogant publishers and an overall gaming landscape that was somewhat in flux. As such, while those who took a chance on it back in the day tend to look back on it rather fondly now, it doesn’t get nearly the recognition it deserves.
Let’s change all that, shall we?
Split/Second is a 2010 release, developed by Black Rock Studios and published by Disney Interactive Studios for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC. It casts you in the role of a contestant in a big-budget reality TV show themed around motorsports: the production company bought up an abandoned city and rigged it with explosives, just waiting to be set off at inconvenient moments during episodes. Hilarity, as you might expect, ensues.
Okay, all this doesn’t make a ton of sense if you stop to think about it — what TV company would greenlight a show with such a clear and obvious risk of actual death within about 5 minutes of filming getting underway? — but the game runs with the concept and just ignores any inconvenient or nonsensical aspects rather than trying to come up with flimsy justifications. This ultimately works in the game’s favour; as ridiculous as it all is, it won’t take you long to be fully on board with what’s going on — and, let’s face it, most of us play games to escape the restrictions placed on us in reality anyway!
That “reality TV show” aspect isn’t just a back-of-box marketing bullet point, either; Split/Second fully commits to the aesthetic of early ’00s American TV shows, with obscene amounts of lens flare, shakycam and overdramatic music. All that it’s really missing is some sort of sarcastic presenter — there is an announcer who opens and closes each episode, but he’s more “Film Trailer Guy” than Ryan Seacrest — and a bit of obnoxious backstabbing between the actual participants. In fact, despite the game hyping up the “Elite Racers” who you have to face at the end of each episode, there’s no real characterisation at all, which is a bit of a missed opportunity to explore the concept further.
But I digress. Split/Second is split into twelve discrete episodes, each of which contains four regular events, one locked bonus event which can be unlocked by scoring a particular number of wrecks in the preceding four racers (perhaps repeating them if necessary) and an Elite race that concludes the episode. The latter is unlocked at various “Credit” milestones; Credits are earned according to the positions you earn in events and are not “currency” as such — they’re simply a measure of your overall progress through and completion of the game.
The regular events have several different categories. Out of these, the Race and Elimination events are the most straightforward, featuring you against a pack of seven other cars, all competing to be the winner. The difference between the two is in how the winner is determined: in a Race, it’s the first to cross the line after the designated number of laps, while Elimination features a countdown timer, and every time this expires the person in last place explodes until only one participant is left.
The twist on the usual formula here is those explosives scattered around the city I mentioned earlier. By driving skilfully and/or dangerously through drafting, drifting and jumping, you build up a “Power” meter, and when this reaches one of three levels, you are able to set off “Power Plays” when an opponent passes by them.
The standard-level Power Plays that can be unleashed at the first and second levels of the meter (draining one level in the process) tend to involve something exploding in the environment, perhaps throwing obstacles into the path of your opponents in the process or simply blasting them into a wall with a shockwave. The “level 2” Power Plays that can only be triggered with a full meter tend to have a more significant impact on the level geometry, collapsing buildings and blowing huge structures up, sometimes even completely changing the route the racecourse takes.
Split/Second’s eschewing of the “boost” formula popularised by games such as Criterion’s excellent Burnout series makes for a markedly different feel to the experience to what you might typically expect from a racer of this type. Power Plays encourage you to drive aggressively and go on the “attack”, but the way they’re implemented also puts you in great danger when you’re out in the lead, since you can’t fire them backwards — but you can bet your arse that the seven cars snapping at your heels can fire them at you!
Probably the main criticism of Split/Second people have had over the years is the feeling that in the Race and Elimination events, there is an increasing amount of “rubber banding” as you proceed through the twelve episodes. In other words, it’s difficult to maintain a lead because it always feels like there’s someone right on your tail — and with the fact you can neither boost nor fire Power Plays behind you, it’s difficult to really pull ahead to a significant degree except in extraordinary circumstances.
This certainly makes for exciting, tight races, particularly later in the game — but can also be extremely frustrating when you take the final corner of a difficult race just a little bit too wide and all seven cars come sailing past you and over the line! Thankfully this particular situation isn’t too common; instead, you’ll just have to get into the habit of watching your six, and perhaps trying out a different car if your current one really doesn’t seem to be getting you the wins you deserve.
Ah yes, the cars. In Split/Second, all the fictional cars tend to be in one of three distinct categories: drifty, grippy or strong. Within these areas, there are variations in speed and acceleration, but generally there’s some sort of tradeoff to be made; the strong cars tend to be slower to accelerate but have a good top speed, the drifty cars tend to be the nimblest but the hardest to control, and the grippy cars struggle to build up Power at the same rate as the others.
Being a Western-developed racing game, Split/Second’s handling is a little on the “heavy” side, particularly when drifting is involved — Ridge Racer this ain’t, so you shouldn’t just try and drift around every corner, no questions asked. The fact your back end tends to swing out pretty wildly can cause you to lose a lot of speed when attempting to slide around a corner if you’re not careful, so practice and careful timing is essential; that said, you shouldn’t neglect drifting, either, as it’s one of the most reliable means of earning Power.
Outside of the two race-type events, the next most conventional are the Detonator events. These are time trials in which you have to complete a single lap around a specific course in a predefined car — sometimes one you won’t have unlocked yet, allowing you the opportunity to “preview” it for yourself. The twist on the usual time trial formula is that the Power Plays are setting themselves off ahead of your position while you drive; these happen in the same places on every attempt, however, so you can “learn” where these explosive hazards are unleashed while you’re learning the basic track layout — and in fact doing so is essential to take those top spots in the rankings.
After that, we get into interesting territory. Survival events place you on a simplified course accompanied by a bunch of “drone” cars and a whole load of big rigs. All you have to do is overtake as many big rigs as possible before time expires. Easy, right? Sure, until they start flinging explosive barrels at you; blue ones knock you off course similar to being caught in a Power Play shockwave, while red ones wreck you immediately, causing any score multiplier you’ve built up to be lost.
Yes, these events are score-based; every three rigs you pass without incident causes your multiplier to rise, so avoiding horrible explosive accidents as much as possible makes for the easiest, quickest route to a first-place score. You also earn five points every second you’re not dead, which just feels vaguely insulting after a while, and really doesn’t contribute anything meaningful to your final total.
Air Strike events are a similar idea; this time around, though, you’re having missiles fired at you by a helicopter, with points awarded for every one you avoid being hit by or caught in the shockwave of. Perfectly dodging a wave of missiles rewards you with a significant bonus, and like the Survival events, you can build up a multiplier every three waves that don’t end in your destruction.
Rather than being time-based, Air Strike events give you just three lives to play with, giving them a somewhat different, much more tense feel to the Survival challenges. They can be frustrating — particularly as the missile shockwaves sometimes seem to extend far beyond where the missile actually hit — but they’re an enjoyably different thing to be doing in a driving game.
And besides, you get the opportunity to take revenge on that bloody helicopter later in the series thanks to the Air Revenge events. These unfold similarly to Air Strike, but you now have the opportunity to build up Power. Using Power Plays, you can reflect the helicopter’s missiles back, and your aim this time around is to defeat the helicopter as quickly as possible. Level 1 Power Plays take off one “chunk” of the helicopter’s health bar, while level 2s take off a whopping four at once, so it’s worth “saving up” as much as possible.
Finally, we come to the aforementioned Elite races. These unfold just like normal races, but with stronger, more challenging opponents, and unlike all the other events, which are completely standalone, the Elite races feature a championship ranking system. Your aim, obviously, is to try and end the season on the top spot, but interestingly, throughout most of Split/Second you have plenty of margin for “error” and you technically don’t need to win anything in order to beat the game — you’ll get the ending if you get third or better in the overall championship.
Performing better in events awards you with more Credits, however, and this is how you unlock new cars and the Elite race in each episode — although the latter is very easy to do, since pretty early in the game, you’ll find the Elite race for each episode unlocked by the time you just start that episode. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be suitably equipped to challenge it, however; the cars increase dramatically in power as you work your way through their four ranks and, as you might expect, even at the top end of things, the very last cars you’ll unlock are the most powerful. As such, it is, at times, worth returning to earlier episodes to improve your performance and pick up a few extra Credits before taking on a particularly challenging Elite race.
Split/Second has its flaws, for sure, with the rubber banding being a particularly annoying one in later episodes, but the whole thing is held together with such a magnificently consistent look and feel that it’s hard to be mad at it even when it’s throwing the most noxious of bullshit at you. The whole look and feel of the game is quite unlike any other racer out there, and the soundtrack is particularly worthy of note as being an absolutely spectacular movie-style complement to the on-screen action — certainly a far cry from the odious “EA Sports Trax” licensed music found in its contemporaries in the Need for Speed series. (Also, the soundtrack is available for free over on Soundcloud — check it out here.)
It’s a crying shame that this game didn’t get the recognition and sales it deserved back in the day — and even more so that its poor commercial performance caused Disney to pull the plug on Black Rock Studios completely, so that now the cliffhanger in the end sequence (spoilers) will likely never be resolved!
Oh well. It’s still a wild ride while it lasts… and it’s definitely a ride worth taking.
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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