Black Rock Studio was in a unique position when it announced Split/Second in that the gaming community didn’t roll its eyes and challenge its audacity to announce a new IP that would supposedly shake up the racing genre. Instead we actually perked up a little and said, “Go on then, we look forward to seeing that”. The difference maker was Pure, an ATV racer that stripped down the genre to its most simple and fun elements and offered some of the best multiplayer action we’ve experienced this generation. It was a statement of intent from a studio that has been paying its dues on games like ATV Offroad and MotoGP. The clue was in the name as the purity of the racing experience promised great things for the future of Disney’s recently acquired Brighton-based developer.
Our expectations of Split/Second were therefore high. We didn’t necessarily expect to see the most astounding racing game ever made, but we were expecting to have a lot of fun. We got the chance to race around the Airport stage, which like all of the tracks in Split/Second has been selected and designed because of the kind of special effects that it inspires. An airport is the perfect playground of destruction. The towers, terminals and Tarmac make for a great venue to race and blow things up and straight from the countdown we have explosions greeting the start of the race.
Races in Split/Second kick off with a rolling start presumably so we get right into the thick of the fast-paced action immediately. One of the first things that caught our eye once some of the smoke had cleared was the way information is displayed on the screen. Rather than having your placing, lap and drifting/drafting score spread around the screen, obscuring your view of the carnage, it’s all placed right behind your car. With it is your power play meter, which builds up thanks to drifting, drafting and death-defying leaps through the air. There are three stages to this meter, and building up each gives you access to more elaborate and destructive action in the game world.
Level one attacks are small in size, but can still have impact so long as you get your timing right. In the case of the Airport track it tended to involve the blowing up of petrol pumps, small buses or attacks by helicopter gunships. All very run of the mill (seriously, you’ll understand what we mean shortly). By level two the impact radius has grown, but more importantly you can trigger two attacks in quick succession. Again timing is really all-important. However, level three is where things start to kick off. These power plays can be earth shaking, and in the case of the Airport could mean huge changes in the course of the track as well as structures such as the control tower falling down onto it.
At this level we could blow up the track and divert down into the airport terminal, then bring down the control tower to divert onto the runway and ultimately bring down a plane into the path of oncoming traffic. These big event power plays are great just to pull off to open up new areas of each course, but if you can catch an opponent in the blast at the same time then all the better. You’ll know you’ve done well because the camera will suddenly zoom in and slow down the action to get a closer look at the mayhem in front of you.
That’s not the end of the story though and as much fun as Split/Second was Black Rock was equally frank with us about areas it will be looking to improve the game. For a start the power-play meter building was very heavily skewed towards drifting, which was fine, but perhaps a bit unbalanced. Greater concern was piled on top of that because the drifting physics are still a little too black and white. We were often in a power slide or not and that meant it could be hard to start one and then hard to stop it again afterwards.
We got used to this rather easily as it’s not uncommon in racing games, but Black Rock wants it to be more refined. Another important feature that will be added between now and Split/Second’s release is more physics-based power plays. Bringing down the towers and planes was great and visually very impressive, but because the animations are scripted you can predict how they’ll land and how the debris will fall. Physics will make this much more random and add a greater challenge as well as more excitement.
Regardless of these tweaks, we still had a lot of fun with Split/Second and look forward to playing an awful lot more of it in the coming months. We could be looking at a serious contender for the racing crown in 2010.