Split/Second Review: A Blue Shell Game

Not many racing games feature exploding silos that violently alter track layouts and redirect traffic onto an airstrip, requiring you to play chicken with a cargo plane apparently transporting fireballs. But Split/Second does.

Why all the explosive destruction? Split/Second is pitched as a "dynamic new TV show" in which contestants compete in high-speed races made more worthy of televising by throwing fiery carnage into the mix. Each track is lined with blast charges that will set tanker trucks alight or topple entire buildings, demolishing any car within range. Contestants can trigger these so-called Power Plays by performing drifts around corners, jumping over ramps, drafting behind opponents and narrowly avoiding a Power Play triggered by another driver. Build up your meter, see a Power Play opportunity, destroy your foes. Oh, and cross the finish line.

Split/Second, from the makers of Pure, is arcade racing plus explosions, like Mario Kart meets The Running Man, where every power up is a blue shell. Good idea?

Loved
A Need For Speed Satiated: There are enough high-speed, high-energy, explosive thrills in Split/Second to keep the arcade racer in you satisfied. Thanks to liberal arcade-style racing controls that require little braking and a strong reliance on throttle control—the kind of non-simulation, easy learning curve driving that I prefer—there's more fun than frustration to be had in races. Thanks to some clever effects and camera angle choices, Split/Second offers a satisfying sense of speed and chaos, a refreshing alternative to the more straight-laced driving sim.

The Strategy of the Power Play: While Split/Second's major trick—explosions amid turbocharged racing—can become unremarkable amidst the din and disaster, the moments when one needs to smartly use an explosive Power Play is where the stress comes into play. Deciding when and where to employ one's stock of explosive attacks is what makes Split/Second strategically fun, in part because you're not immune to your own Power Play attacks.

Survival & Air Strike: Breaking up the standard races are a few unexpected variations, the most interesting of which involve passing big rigs that drop an array of exploding barrels (Survival) and a lonesome race that has you dodging missiles from helicopters for points (Air Strike). While these race types are more rare over the course of Split/Second's seasonal campaign, Survival can be played online (total chaos) and Air Strike gets its own variation about halfway through the game. Both are a blast.

Oil Slick Presentation: Split/Second nails the visual and aural flair of a reality TV. Every menu is filled with shattered glass, kinetic transitions and highly polished surfaces. Seasons begin and end with promos and narration that seal the reality show gimmick, even if the stuff in the middle feels unattended. The game's HUD is minimal, for better or worse, highlighting only the necessary details. There's no on-screen map, because the map can change, and there's no speedometer, because it doesn't matter—your current speed is always "as fast as you can possibly go." Splatters and specks on the camera lens, copious just-off-screen lens flaring, as well as some sharp vignetting give Split/Second a unique style.

A Quick Hit Of Multiplayer: Thin though its options may be, Split/Second's multiplayer mode better illustrates the design of its explosive chaos. Multiplayer with strangers is essentially random, pick a race type and car and wait for opponents to play on a track of luck's choosing. Perfectly fine for a fix, when the AI-controlled racers just aren't cutting it. Private races offer a touch more customization. The settings for race customization are unfortunately meager, but adhere to the arcade design philosophy. It's a solid but option-sparse complement to the game's strong campaign mode.

Hated
Hit Or Miss Moments: Delightfully fun though the racing may be, the driving model has a few quirks. While Split/Second doesn't mind if you crash into a wall from the side at full speed—too easy to rely on as a means to cheaply steer oneself—nicking it at the wrong angle will cause some surprise explosions. There's little in the way of entertaining car-on-car contact, as attempts to steer opponents into obstacles or Power Play wrecks feel futile. The AI-controlled cars feel a little unfair at times, with rubberband catch up opportunities that more often annoy than feel like a realistic challenge.

A Lack Of Reality: Split/Second's premise of a reality show feels underexplored, as there's little in the way of personality or reality style drama injected into the seasons. After the initial tutorial, there's almost no narration or character involved. The whole reality show concept feels harshly separated from the game, something of a disappointment.

Thin Against Its Competitors: There's not much to Split/Second. Its online multiplayer mode is a little too limited. Car customization and personalization is almost non-existent and the game's 11 tracks feel like a small selection against its racing peers. While the Power Play effects are initially breathtaking, adding enthralling strategic opportunities, the rest of Split/Second feels a bit basic.

Split/Second can be a blast. It's an incredibly attractive arcade racer stuffed with explosive, adrenaline-fueled action and a razor sharp presentation. Barreling through its dynamic world is filled with fireworks—actually, each race begins and ends with fireworks, explosive charges rocking the screen before you even hit the gas. There are few racing games that provide the thrills the Split/Second does, especially when flaming trucks whip by within inches of your vehicle and you careen through a hail of recently exploded car parts.

All that flash may become familiar after awhile, however, and the core of Split/Second starts to show itself as a good, maybe not great racing game that has a lot of promise as a series. Split/Second burns brightly, but quickly, and that's the reality of it.

Split/Second was developed by Black Rock Studio and published by Disney Interactive for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on May 18. Retails for $59.99 USD on consoles, $49.99 USD on PC. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through nine episodes and multiple multiplayer matches on Xbox 360.

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