Thursday, 27 May 2010

Review: Split Second (PS3)

Have you ever wanted to be speeding down a central city block as other cars are being flipped over? As explosions erupt from the sides of buildings, with the spray of glass blasted all over the street? As superstructures collapse, and dust and debris are flung everywhere in a sea of carnage? All the while, your hearty determination and exemplary grip of the road sends you careering into first place. Rivals burned, fame guaranteed, and all in a days work in the name of late night entertainment.

That right there is Split Second in a nutshell. BlackRock’s latest racing endeavour is more of a battleground of high-powered and fast-moving machinery, all dolled up in the form of a brutally entertaining TV show. Contestants aren’t just expected to race – is this actually possible? – But to use every single method available to them in order to take down their opponents and secure victory. The more chaos, the more points and popularity that ensues, and with that, the game expects you to go all out to secure that coveted No.1 spot.

This mixture of arcade racing and carefully orchestrated destruction perfectly embodies just what Split Second is about; having as much crazy fun in a car a possible, whilst still trying to retain some grounding in reality. The road becomes a blast-filled battleground, in which getting to first place is only half the challenge. Keeping it on the other hand, is altogether different matter. It’s in these heated contests of power drifting around corners and detonating explosives that BlackRock’s latest really comes alive, delivering a solidly fun, but frequently flawed experience.

The game is basically presented like a fictional TV show. Each of the courses are elaborate sets filled with destructible scenery such as buildings planes, industrial equipment etc. Set across 12 episodes, which act almost like the cups in Mario Kart or the events in Burnout, there are four races initially available, with one being the end of show ‘elite race’. Your goal is to drive and battle your way through various challenges earning a number of points per race – depending on position – in a bid to get faster cars, and thus to complete more challenges and finally unlock the finishing ‘elite race’. This special race acts as the game’s episode finally, and victory here decides on whether you move on to the next show of the season.

A number of different challenges are available to you before you reach the final race. These give you a choice as to what types of events you want to do, and its possible to earn the required number of points to unlock the final race without placing first in all of the events. Effectively, if you get stuck trying to complete for example the ‘eliminator’ event, then you can simply skip over it and move onto one in which you might be more comfortable with. This can be done throughout Split Second’s career mode, although later on in the game the number of points required to progress rapidly increases, and so to does your need to actually be competitive in all the types of event.

Unlike other driving games, racing in its purest form, won’t get you anywhere in Split Second. Instead your aim is to build up the games ‘powerplay meter’ by either drifting around corners, slipstreaming behind other cars, or grabbing some air, before triggering destructive events at certain points around the track. These ‘powerplays’ are designed to takedown your opponents, and can be activated when each section of your meter is full, and when a small icon appears over the other racers.

Some of theses are incredible to watch. At one point I was jostling for 3rd place right after drifting around a corner, only then to see the road collapse before my very eyes in an explosion of smoke particles and debris. The car in front flipped over and burst into flames as it hit the deck, while I went flying off the end of the track and into the battle for first place. At other times, you’ll be confronted with airplanes taking off right in the centre of the course, buildings falling down, random explosions, and a constant barrage of chaos - both a curse and a blessing.

Using the ‘powerplays’ actually requires great skill to be used as consistently effective takedowns, whilst also staying out of harms way. Seeing as your opponents also trigger these very same events, you can often be on the receiving end of one if you’re not careful. And this can happen at any time during the race. In essence the game becomes less about fighting for position, and more about learning the tracks and planning that next ‘powerplay’ strike. The only need for racing it seems, is purely for the purposes of building up ‘that’ meter and staying within reach of the opposition.

At times the overly excessive use of the destructive scenery, and constant bombardment of vehicular carnage feels a little bit too much. Not quite a one trick pony, but it does start to feel really drawn out, and in the end proving maybe too intrusive for its own good. Racing can become overshadowed, with its inclusion merely servicing the overseeing powerplay mechanics.

That said, the scenes of chaos and the edge of your seat action is hard to put down, with that ‘one more go’ feeling constantly tugging at your exhaust pipe. This is especially true in heated races in which you’ve only narrowly missed out on first place, and are boiling up for a spot of revenge.

The racing itself, during points in which it’s possible, is pretty good for the most part. Although the handling is quite loose and floaty, constantly veering between having too much over steer, and being overly slidey. It’s a strange driving mechanic, I’ll give you that. And the game’s arcade sensibilities come out through and through, feeling almost like a combination of say PGR and Burnout, and maybe just little OutRun.

Unfortunately, like with most arcade racers, a fluid sixty frames per-second is really required for such a handling model to shine, and in Split Second the game fails to do so, being serviceably fun, albeit flawed. Of course when the screen is being filled with large clouds of smoke, collapsing buildings, large explosive scenery, bleached out and intensely bright HDR lighting, it’s no surprise that the magical 60fps isn’t obtainable.

At times Split Second looks awesome, and with so much going on it never misses a beat, maintaining a solid 30fps throughout with only the occasional screen tear for company. However, when the game’s two distinct elements come together perfectly, the framerate and handling seem inconsequential, and the real fun aspect begins to shine through. Sadly moments like these are ether rare, or rather, broken up by the split racing and ‘powerplay’ aspects of the package.

That said Split Second is pretty fun and rewarding to play at times, although perhaps missing some of the succinct polish that made Pure so great. Evidence of BlackRock’s unique style and personality are plastered all over the game, with everything from the presentation and bleached coloured lighting following on from the art choices made in their last title. The radical ‘powerplay’ mechanic is an entertaining sight to behold and puts a new spin on arcade racers like Burnout Revenge, or action driving titles like Stuntman, favouring combat over sheer driving ability.

In the end Split Second succeeds in entertaining, if only for a while. Scratch the surface and you’ll find a highly playable racing game, simply let down by a little too much emphasis on the explosions and action, and not enough on the driving. What we have here, is a game in which the main mechanic sits somewhere between a bombastic spectacular and unusual curiosity, providing solidly differently take on the traditional arcade racer, but which lacks the true greatness compared to the genre’s most defining titles.


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