Sunday, June 20, 2010

Review: Split/Second

One thing's for certain, I never thought Disney would put out a game in it with more 'splosions than a summer action film festival.

Split/Second is a heavily marketed racing game with a destructive twist. While playing it, you can't help but be reminded of the Burnout game series. There's a very manifest difference between the two properties, however - in Burnout, you bump and smash your opponents off the road with your own car; in Split/Second, you remotely detonate explosives, collapse buildings, crash planes, rupture dams and otherwise devastate the world all in an attempt to work your way to the front of the pack - where the other racers will all do the same to you.

The game can basically be summed up in such a manner. While the graphics are on the cutting edge of today's expectations (and I hope you like motion blur and post processing), the feel is actually closer to that of mario-kart, where everybody gets multiple blue tortoise shells.

Speaking of Mario-Kart, let me digress a little bit to tell you a story. Years back, all my school buddies and I would often play Mario Kart 64. There's one track in there that has a boulder roll down a cliff and across the road, always with perfect accuracy to smush at least one player. This became known to us as the "Exquisitely Timed Boulder." It became something of a metaphor for us, representing unexpected and unfortunate events. Your particular "Exquisitely Timed Boulder" could be getting extremely sick the day you were supposed to take a trip, or it could be getting a traffic ticket right when you had no money to pay it off, or it could be getting kicked in the nuts by a child as you traveled to your girlfriend's house to spend the night.

Well, Split/Second is a game that revels in, courts, marries, and has babies with the concept of the Exquisitely Timed Boulder. Then it sends those babies to "Coincidentally Unfortunate Happenstance" university, and populates the track with the graduates. The better you race, the more danger you are in of having something extremely unlikely come out of nowhere and squash you or shred you or send you plummeting 800 feet to a wet and rocky demise.

It's actually pretty fun.

The game doesn't concern itself with trivialities such as speedometer, course maps, or anything of that nature. The HUD consists entirely of your standing, the lap counter, and your "power" bar. You build power by drifting, tailgating, jumping and avoiding opponent-triggered explosions and whatnot, and then you can use the accrued power to set off those ETB's on the other cars. The power meter has three levels, and most simple attacks use one level of power, and huge ones that can alter the actual racecourse take a full 3 bars to activate. The lesser ones generally involve a single explosive set off at the side of the course or dropped in the middle by a helicopter, but the big ones involve things such as collapsing a building onto the course, crashing a plane onto it, launching a ship out of drydock across it, flinging a dump truck down a long straight stretch of it, destroying a dam and wiping out half of it, and so on. They can be very satisfying to trigger, and can potentially take you from last to first place.

There are also a variety of race modes. There's the standard race with laps, of course, but there's also an elimination mode where every 20 seconds the car in last place is 'sploded, continuing on until there is only one car. There's also a timed lap where you drive solo and the course itself tries to kill you, a race that involves passing the most semi trucks you can while they fling explosive barrels out of the back at you, and a mode that involves dodging missiles shot at you by a helicopter. Your standings in these events gain you "credits" which then unlock further races and cars.

While there are a variety of cars to choose from, the way it presents them is a little disingenuous. They have ratings for speed, drift, strength and acceleration, but the difference between the cars is a lot more subtle than the stats would lead you to believe. Furthermore, the stats of the different cars have absolutely no bearing on the performance of those cars when being driven by AI - the monster trucks (in the hands of the computer) can outrace the formula 1 racers for example. The AI is very "rubberbandy," a vice most racing games these days have. If you don't know what that means, imagine a giant thumbtack shoved in the top of the cars, and a rubber band strung around the tacks between your car and your opponent's car. When you pull ahead of the enemy car, he suddenly drives faster. When you fall behind the opponent, he inexplicably drives slower so that you catch up. The intention is to make for a better experience for the driver, but to pull it off you have to make it subtle - and this game where everything gets BLOWED UP is anything but subtle. So the obvious rubberbanding gets a little demeaning at times. Of course, the farther you progress in the game, the rubber band stops being attached to YOU and starts being attached to the finish line, and you'll constantly have to be blowing things up and smashing things down all while driving perfectly to stand a chance of placing in the top 3.

The game styles itself as a "reality show," with opening and closing credits around each "episode" and previews of what's coming up next... but during the race, there isn't much of that. I guess the developers thought that a play-by-play would get a little annoying after 50 races, and they're probably right. But what is still annoying is the multiple layers of unskippable "information" presented to you before and after each race that won't hurry up no matter how much you press the key it is telling you to press to continue.

The game has good replayability though, with single races being selectable after you beat them, and multiplayer both in the form of online and split screen competition. The video options are rather simplified (only letting you select with a slider between 4 presets), but the game runs well on previous gen cards on low settings (which still look pretty good) and looks very impressively cinematic on the highest setting. Some of the audio seems a bit off, as every explosion and crash is actually lower in volume to the "whoosh" of your car passing a signpost. I suppose that again is meant to heighten the experience rather than overwhelm you with a constant cacophony of catastrophe.

In summary, I found Split/Second to be a solid, enjoyable title with impressive visuals and engaging gameplay... even if it is gameplay built on making other players scream "OH THAT WAS BULL%#@*!!!"

Verdict: B+

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