Review: Split/Second (PS3)
Black Rock Studios definitely set out to create the most unique of our three arcade racers this month (the other two being Blur and ModNation Racers). While the other two games focus on more traditional elements in the "kart" racer sub-genre, like power-ups in the form of weapons and speed boosts, Split/Second utilizes a unique concept, that of allowing the player to destroy the environment to thwart opponents. There's definitely credit to be given for trying something completely new, but the question still stands: can Split/Second hold up to the competition?
If the contest was judged on production values alone, Split/Second would win hands down: it's one of the slickest looking and sounding racers I've ever played. Tons of effort were put into making great looking environments, car models, explosions; even the menus look swanky, adorned with flying slow-mo shards of glass. The soundtrack complements the visuals wonderfully; everything here has an action movie feel, high on thrills and adrenaline. In between "episodes" of the game you get little video clips that preview new tracks or challenges ahead; the game is framed as a reality TV show where contestants can trigger explosions in the environment that will total cars and...not kill the driver? Yeah, the premise feels a bit phoned in, but it's cute.
The gameplay is an absolute thrill, at least at first. Like I outlined in my first shot, the game is a standard arcade racer with one big twist: the player can occasionally trigger explosions that send obstacles crashing into the race track, knocking out opponents. There's definitely few things more satisfying than sending a burning bus careening into unsuspecting opponents or watching a plane crash onto a runway, wiping out everything in its way. The big problem with the mechanic, as cool as it is, is that all these events are scripted. The first time you watch a certain building detonate piece by piece it's nothing short of epic, but by the fifth time it's a big "meh". There's a lot of repetition as well - I lost track of how many hovering helicopters that drop explosives, burning buses and cars, and cranes that will sweep crates across the track I saw in the different courses.
While power plays feel awesome to use, there isn't much strategy behind them. The AI, which almost never makes a mistake when driving peacefully, seems programmed to do their best to crash themselves near a power play. They almost seem designed to make power plays feel more powerful and useful; once you go online, you'll see only a handful of crashes from power plays all race (you can get 2-3 wrecks per use in single player). For the most part power plays are easy to dodge and the only way to take out humans is to time them just about perfectly. In single player, however, the only tactical choice is, "destroy a few cars now or wait until there's more bunched together?" There are also level 2 power plays which use the entire power meter (normal power plays only need one third of it). These trigger much more powerful catastrophes (falling towers, collapsing bridges) that also change the route. The problem is, grand as they are, they almost never make sense to use. In practice they're barely better at destroying cars than regular power plays and changing the route doesn't do anything to help your position.
Speaking of AI, Split/Second is nothing short of criminal in its abuse of the infamous rubber band difficulty mechanic. What this means is, no matter how well you're driving and dominating the competition, the AI will always creep back due to artificial speed boosts given to them. Drive with grace and expend your power meter to jostle into first? Get rewarded by being overtaken soon by opponents that can boost past you for no reason other than the game wants them to. Make a mistake and crash once? Expect to drop from first or second to 5th or 6th. And don't worry about making a comeback; since power plays can only be triggered on opponents you can see, once they gain a certain buffer of space between you it's practically impossible to hit them or come back. I've seen many matches where 2nd and 3rd place were a full 8 seconds behind first. Split/Second is frustrating.
Split/Second's online is decent, but nothing to write home about. There's not much intelligence in matchmaking so players of wildly different skill levels will be thrown into a room. What exacerbates the problem is that your car selection is based on your career progress in single player. If you're halfway through career mode and start going online, good luck playing against players who beat the game and have the best cars. The game's ranking system encourages lots of rage quitting, since you can easily lose rank points if you have a bad match. When you see a player that has the top rank of 1, expect him to quit the match if he ever starts to fall behind.
Single player spans twelve episodes with a total of 72 events; now obviously they couldn't make all of them standard races. My favorite mode has to be Detonator, which is a basically time trials with preset power plays working against you. Detonator singles out the most exhilarating part of the game: swiftly dodging hazards of all types and sizes. Unfortunately, the other events get old fast. Survival has you dodging explosive barrels coming off of trucks; passing trucks gets you points. There really isn't much to this mode at all; it can be fun for a while but gets repetitive easily, and different tracks do nothing to change how you approach it. Survival is exactly like a standard race except that your goal is to not be in last every 20 or so seconds, since that car proceeds to blow up. I'd like to call mention to how when you're in last place with less than 10 seconds before detonation, the entire screen starts flashing red as if you were hit by a grenade in Call of Duty; thanks for making a tricky and intense situation needlessly frustrating and annoying, Black Rock.
Air attack, or as I like to call it, "dodge tiny red arrows", has you swerving away from missile salvos from a helicopter as long as you can. The game puts down small arrows on the field to see where missiles will hit, but seeing them during a sharp turn or behind the explosions of other missiles can be near impossible at times. Going too slow invalidates that salvo's score and being near even one explosion breaks a "perfect" dodge, which means you only get a fraction of the points. The mode also features a score multiplier that resets when you get hit; that's a codeword for restarting the level if you're going for the gold score. Air revenge is so similar to air attack that I'm pretty sure its existence is purely to make the game appear less repetitive: it's exactly like air attack except that dodging waves builds your power meter, which you use to damage and eventually destroy the helicopter. The gameplay is pretty much exactly the same, except you press the O button to deal damage once every 2-3 waves.
The repetitious overlap of air attack and air revenge summarizes my thoughts on Split/Second. At first the game is awe-inspiring with its slick presentation, epic explosions and unique concepts. Sooner or later, though, its lack of variety really shows itself. There are only 11 tracks in the entire game. For the sake of comparison, Blur has 35, Modnation Racers has an infinite variety from online level sharing, and Mario Kart on my DS has 32. To be fair, the amount of effort put into a track in Split/Second is very high due to all the scripted events going on and alternate routes. Still, even those events become predictable and uninteresting after a while. The extra modes only add only a little and get old fast. Multiplayer encourages lots of quitting instead of playing a lot of matches to level up. Split/Second is about the best rental recommendation I've found in a long time. Let the sweet sensation of the first few hours remain with you; the repetition and mediocrity that comes afterward will leave a bad taste in your mouth.