Developer: Black Rock Studio / Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios / ESRB: Everyone 10+ (Violence) / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $39.99
Welcome to a hotly anticipated video game review at Machinima.com. I’m Rob Smith, and I’m sitting at the wheel of Black Rock Studios’ Split/Second. This arcade racer has got Burnout fans salivating, and is ready to blaze its own unique trail when reality TV meets no-expense-spared car combat.
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You’re not supposed to admit in reviews that you’re pre-disposed to want to like a game. Convention be damned. After enjoying Pure for well, the, purity of its take on making racing fun, Black Rock Studios’ next game had to be on the must-see list. Everything we had seen in play-tests indicated that the team had learned lessons, refined its craft, and was on the cusp of revealing the next great racer. Ultimately, it’s close, but that cigar is going to take another go-around before the team can consider this category well and truly nailed.
It’s easy to know what a racing game should be. Competition in the space is tough, and if Pure is the measuring stick by which Split/Second is judged, then this new racer definitely comes out on top. Three car types–the muscle car, super car, and a sort-of-modified SUV—help reveal the subtleties of each course’s design. When you beat bonus rounds, you earn cars, and it’s always tempting to take the latest, greatest, and slickest out for a run. But as jockeys will tell you, it’s horses for courses. The cars with the greater acceleration are not always best suited to the chassis-pounding damage that these tracks kick up.
At its heart, Split/Second is a reality TV show. You compete against other racers across tracks—or should we say sets—that are designed to crash and burn in moments ready to get Nielsen ratings families cooing. Though each of the 12 episodes is introduced in TV guy speak, that’s the end of the inference. You might remember you’re on TV between the 12 episodes, but it’s not a premise that holds your imagination.
On the track, drifting, drafting, and jumping all contribute to increasing your Power meter. Filling one of three segments lets you unleash annoyance on the racers that you see flicker into your line of sight on the track. Fill three segments to reveal the red flash, and now you unleash route-changing hell. This is where Split/Second drops the mother load of track flexibility on every racer. A bridge crashing, a train exploding across the causeway, a cooling tower that was previously your short cut suddenly collapsing… it’s loud, visceral, and oh-so-sweet when you trigger these events on the other guys.
I’d like to tell you about the story powering your racing, crashing, burning, and upgrading. But really it’s as flimsy as this section of the review…so we’re moving on.
Split/Second’s contribution to evolving arcade racing is its variable tracks, where reactions to the changing environment are so critical. The craziness of explosions and route changes seems to require a control finesse that’s simply not under your thumbs. You have to accept the car handling, and figure out any strategy to blow up the cars in front, avoid damage yourself, and weave and drift through danger.
Let’s be clear. The race modes in single-player are fun and unique, however many times you play them. In pre-release testing we didn’t get to try Air Revenge, where attack choppers fire missiles that you need to dodge and then somehow deflect back, or Survival, where monster juggernauts spit out blue and red barrels that you need to avoid. It’s a shame, largely because we could have mentioned to Black Rock that those modes…well, they’re just not fun. In the single-player game they can be tightly scripted to give you a chance of advancement, but amid the craziness of multiplayer, they can make it feel like success is determined by pure luck. And that’s never good.
Split/Second is a ton of fun, and credit to the design, it’s even fun when some AI scumbag hits a Power Play from behind, causing you to spin out of control, turning that first place into a second or third. You can always go back and try again, and with the exception of the Air Revenge modes, that will never get old.