I can be happy in second place, happier in third. At least if I'm playing Disney and Black Rock's upcoming racing game Split Second.
Having seen the trailers and read our earlier impressions of Split Second I was excited to finally try the other one of 2010's action racing games (Blur's the other). We've gone through the basics here plenty of times. Eight-car races in tracks set amid combustible structures. A race at an airport where the flight control tower can be knocked down onto the track, transforming the route. A race through a shipyard where a docked freighter can be exploded onto its side to create a new banked turn or an even bigger freighter can be knocked across the track and sweep any cars in its way off of it. A race through downtown of a city, where the helicopter can drag a giant dumptruck onto the highway to squash your rivals.
What makes the track around you explode in Split Second is a magical ability called Powerplay, a radial meter of power to spend on detonations. You gain power in that meter by drifting, drafting and jumping your car. As you race back you will sometimes see icons float near cars that are ahead of you. Blue icons indicate that a detonation requiring one third of your meter is available. Red icons indicate something more massive, something that will exhaust your full meter, is available. One button triggers the calamities, and, even when a Black Rock developer raced through a track three times with infinite Powerplay, he was not able to trigger every bit of chaos available. At the shipyard, he caused boats to rock and barrels to explode across the road. He dropped a shipping container on top of one car and swung a crane's carriage across the track as if it was Godzilla's tail sweeping the Japanese military. Some Powerplays are a little quieter, opening a shortcut. Still, the track is being transformed, which is Split Second's big idea.
Initially it seems that Split Second is just one big gimmick. It seems that a player will get to know the track, learn which specific form of chaos occurs when a Powerplay is put into use at a given point of the track. And after that, it would seem, the tricks would grow stale. Not so, I was told, and I could see why. There's some Mario-Kart-Blue-Shell theory to the design, meaning players in the rear are always one triggered event away from taking the lead. There's also some second-level strategy, changing the shape of a track as you drive through the part that will be changed, thereby diverting the cars behind you into another, longer route. There's also some accounting for skill, it seems, as I discovered that no bit of caused chaos was automatically catastrophic. A good driver can evade the rolling barrels and collapsing buildings, if he or she can find the opening. The Black Rock developer described races back in the office that involve seven players all trying to trigger the explosions that will stop the lead guy, but the lead guy being slick enough to evade every trap.
It does appear that racing from behind will be the more fun way to play Split Second. In the front, the explosions you trigger pose little risk to anyone but yourself. In the back of the pack, however, you're raining destruction on the fools in front.
Split Second has rough edges still. The game is set for May, but its audio mix is currently off. The car's engine overpowers the sounds of the impressive-looking destruction happening around the track. The collision detection sometimes allows cars to drive through each other or through the pavement. All to be fixed, of course, I was told. May is far enough away and these are not the kinds of flaws a game would ship with.
The other lingering question is one of volume of content. I saw the three aforementioned environments, each of which will have multiple tracks laid out in them. But the Split Second folks wouldn't tell me how many more tracks they'll have. I was shown one alternate racing mode, called Survival, which involved racing loops in Los-Angeles-style open storm drains, trying to evade red and blue barrels falling off of tractor trailers while gaining time extensions and racking up points. It looked like fun but needs polish and a little more flair to not seem too repetitive.
The core of Split Second seems good, the gameplay sound. What's needed next is polish and an ample amount of content to command a full price. Nothing that can't be repaired and improved by May. Now let's just hope it'll be fun to win at Split Second, because it is going to be awfully tempting to just have fun finishing in fourth. Which, uh, is what I meant to do.