Split/Second Review

By Sterling McGarvey - Posted May 17, 2010

Set in a fake reality TV show, arcade-style racing title Split/Second offers plenty of thrills and big explosions. It has some stumbles, but overall, it's a great high-octane thrill ride.

The Pros
  • A gleefully competitive and fun action racer
  • Presentation ripped straight from a primetime ABC show
  • Great-looking stages designed with tension around every corner
The Cons
  • Cheap rubberband AI renders your skills impotent
  • Stage recycling becomes more noticeable the longer you play
  • Certain side games aren't as strong as core racing

Black Rock Studio’s Split/Second comes at a curious time for racing games. Forza Motorsport 3 is still holding down the fort for simulation. Need for Speed: Shift marked a return to form for the ailing series. Two more racing games, ModNation Racers and Blur, both come out at the same time as Split/Second and offer different variations on kart racing. Amidst these other games, S/S fills the niche for arcade-based racers nicely. It’s not the best game to come along in the genre, but it’ll satisfy your jones for destructively competitive racing for now.

Split/Second Review

All This…On the Next Split/Second!

S/S’ plot offers a unique take on racing games. Unlike so many titles that weave a loose narrative around racing tournaments, S/S’ barebones story is warmly enveloped within a credible scenario. You’re participating in a reality show in which you’re driving around a massive studio set racing against the clock, wannabe participants, and at the end of each “episode,” a variety of elite drivers with American Gladiator-like handles such as “The Hammer” and “Vixen.” Credible, you say? It sounds a bit off until you fire up a new episode and the announcer previews the events you’ll endure. It hits home even more during the end credits, which feel authentic to the point that you’d imagine watching “Split/Second: The Show" on Disney-owned ABC. I found the season finale to be a bit sour in its ending -- it telegraphs a sequel with all the predictability of a Von Kaiser punch -- but others in the office loved it. Go figure.

Aside from S/S’ presentation hook, the gameplay is designed around using explosive elements on the set to stop your opponents from getting an edge on you. That usually consists of triggering an explosion that collapses a structure onto their car. In that sense, it’s tactically different from the likes of the Burnout series, since there’s less physicality involved in downing your adversaries. S/S rewards you more for tactical maneuvers and less for brutish bullying on the course. Aggressive techniques, like trying to smash others into guardrails, aren’t nearly as effective as letting your opponent squeeze ahead, then triggering a massive explosion that takes him or her out of the race.

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The charm of S/S’ reality show approach wouldn’t have nearly the impact it does without amazing visuals. Although I could’ve done with a few better visual indicators of impending danger on a few stages, Black Rock’s approach to crafting a well-designed hazard trap is quite commendable. The stages feel lively, tense, and diverse in theme, from Hoover Dam-like reservoirs to airports full of corridors, hairpin turns, and impending peril. And they look great. Like the studio’s previous effort, 2008’s sleeper hit PURE, S/S is clean-looking and aesthetically pleasant.

Throughout S/S’ episodes, you face challenges beyond vanilla racing in the quest to crack into the Elite races that mark the end of each stage. It’s here that S/S wavers a bit in quality. Air Strike, in which a chopper fires one-hit-kill missiles at your car while you swerve to avoid them, is frustrating, and while I adjusted to its quirks over a few episodes, I still gritted my teeth every time a challenge came up. Elimination, which resembles the same mode in Burnout Revenge, doesn’t execute as well as Criterion’s game. That’s partly because S/S’ deepest core issue -- rubberband AI -- gives you myriad chances to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Rubberbands Make You Snap

Driver AI is truly the monolithic stumble that separates S/S from hitting the standards set by other genre staples. As I discovered over the dozen hours I invested in races, upgrades, and grinding for more win points to unlock better cars, it’s a spectacular game that’s ultimately handicapped by cheap AI and some harsh difficulties. Few things serve to undermine the player experience more than the methods by which S/S punishes you for small mistakes, like wrecking on a sharp drift that other games would permit or blowing a 3 second lead in first place at the finish line because of your drift. It’s amazingly easy to go from the lead to seventh in, well, a split second, regardless of your skill level and quality of vehicle. The AI just doesn’t feel well-tweaked enough, and you’ll experience some legitimately aggravating moments throughout.

Yet for the frustrations, S/S is at its most effective when you’re in the heat of a race and avoid its numerous death traps. Though I’d like to have seen more variety in stages -- just past the halfway point, the luster starts to fade a bit when you’re in the same race type on the same stage you did at the game’s start and it could’ve used more of the dramatically destructive “alternate routes” -- there’s a real charm to the proceedings. Aside from the ABC/Disney analogy regarding presentation, there are many harrowing hazard moments that evoke the sort of narrow-miss scares you’d see on a Disneyland thrill ride. It’s in those small sections that S/S hits the peak of its potential.

S/S offers online multiplayer for up to 8 players. It’s fairly standard stuff, in the sense that you’ll have the same race types offered up for competitive play. Without the trappings of cheap AI, racing is even more tense and cutthroat against other players. There are some caveats, though. If you spin out (rare as it was for me), it’s hard to turn around and get back on track, which others in the office reported. Also, for some reason, online car selection restricts you to what you’ve unlocked in single player, so until you’ve done your grinding to acquire cars, you’ll be at a handicap against other racers. Generally, though, it performed well, and there’s incentive to play and win, since your racing rank and number function both online and in the single-player season.

Split/Second Review

I Hope It Gets Renewed for Another Season

There’s no shortage of fresh racing titles on the market right now. From last fall’s sims to this spring’s kart racers, there’s something to play. Split/Second falls short of the heights set by the Burnout series, but as viciously competitive arcade racers go, it’s a fun and entertaining diversion. Since the finale shows no compunction about offering up a sequel, I’m excited for a new installment that builds on this strong foundation. From the excellent TV-driven presentation to its passive-aggressive approach to crippling your opponents, it’s an exciting thrill ride that’s worth your time investment.