Split Second: Velocity

Playing through a race in Split Second, or Split/Second, is a bit like watching falling dominoes. It’s this series of intricately and painstakingly arranged pieces designed to create a visual spectacle, and the first time you see the dominoes fall, it’s almost poetic. But once the last chip has fallen, as impressive as it looked, would you want to watch the dominoes fall in the exact same pattern again and again? As much fun as Split/Second is, it always comes back to this question – how many times can you replay it before its explosive and often catastrophic set pieces become predictable?

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The game’s career mode is presented as a reality TV show. The season, as it is called, is broken up into 12 episodes, each comprising six events. To add to the TV-show feel, the start and end of each episode is punctuated with a “This/Next week on Split/Second” sizzle video accompanied by an appropriate game show announcer-like voiceover. But that is thankfully the extent of the reality TV influence, and beyond that, it’s just a matter of making your way through the 12 episodes and the events in them.

Events are of six types i.e.: Race – standard eight-car lapped races, Eliminator – a sprint where the last car is eliminated at timed intervals, Detonator – a time trial where the environment does all it can to impede your progress through powerplays (I’ll get to those in a bit), Survival – overtake a series of trucks that toss flaming barrels in your path, Air Strike – evade incoming rockets from a chopper above, and Air Revenge – deflect rockets back at the chopper to take it out.

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While Survival, Air Strike, and Air Revenge are fairly unique, the race, elimination, and time trial events have been done to death in racing games. That’s why Split/Second throws powerplays into the mix. Drifting, drafting and jumps fill up your three-part powerplay meter. Filling up one part allows you to trigger level 1 powerplays, which are environmental attacks that are scattered around the track in the form of buses rigged to blow, falling debris, exploding barrels, etc. When you have enough of your meter filled, you will notice powerplay icons appear above your opponents’ cars when they’re in the vicinity of a powerplay. Time it right and you can take out one or multiple opponents. Level 1 powerplays can also be used to open up short cuts.

Fill up your powerplay meter all the way though, and that’s when the fun really begins. This allows you to trigger level 2 powerplays at specific parts of the track. These are spectacular and often devastating larger-than-life environmental attacks that can change the course of the race, literally. These attacks can either take out multiple opponents or act as route changers that alter the layout of the track quite significantly. Level 2 powerplays are easily the highlight of the game, and the first time you see some of them happen before you, they can leave you speechless and feeling very, very small as you slip and slide around in an attempt to avoid becoming a casualty. A commercial jet plane crashing onto the runway and coming straight at you along with loose propellers fans and other flying debris – this is just one of the many level 2 powerplays in store for you.

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There’s no point having powerplays if your cars don’t handle well enough to avoid one when an opponent triggers it, and Split/Second, while not the easiest in terms of car handling, falls comfortably on the arcade side of the spectrum with controls that are simple and responsive. And thankfully, this is a game where all those car attributes like Speed, Strength, Acceleration, and Drift actually matter. Strong cars help you withstand powerplays more easily, while those with higher Drift values help you slide around narrow turns easily (at the expense of speed, of course). These attributes are important, and you’ll need to pick the appropriate car for each event type. There are no licensed cars here though. Mostly comprised of muscle cars, SUVs, and super cars, they look more like Matchbox scale cars with their big tyres and low profiles, although you will see obvious inspirations, with Gallardo and Ford GT look-alikes in the mix.

The Season mode is fairly lengthy, with 72 events to play through. Beyond that, there’s two-player split-screen, as well as an online mode that is extremely barebones, but a lot of fun nonetheless. You will only learn how devastating a powerplay can truly be when a human opponent is triggering it. Once you memorise tracks and know where the powerplays are, not only will you know when to save up for a powerplay and trigger it, but as you near these areas, you will also start to genuinely fear them as an opponent behind you waits to trigger it to take you out. It’s this game of cat and mouse that makes Split/Second’s multi-player thrilling, even though it lacks depth in terms of game modes and supports only 8-player races.

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Although Blur does it too, Split/Second features a unique HUD, taking it away from the corners of the screen and placing it at the back of the car. Everything from your objective to the powerplay meter to your track position is visible under the rear bumper, which is fairly neat and not as intrusive as it may sound. Another cool touch is that the icons that represent the Trophies/Achievements that you’ve unlocked show up as decals on your car, and your career progress and online level are represented by the number on your car. The environments, while limited, are well detailed and the set pieces are pulled off brilliantly. Special mention must be made of the lighting, which is absolutely stunning, and to the framerate, which remains rock solid even with explosions and destruction everywhere (PS3 version).

But coming back to the dominoes reference, there’s only so many times you can enjoy looking at the same thing. Split/Second features just 11 environments, although there are varying layouts for each, which means that once you’ve seen the powerplays for each of them and memorised their layouts, the novelty quickly wears out. At around the halfway point in the Season, things will start to get a little repetitive, and although a couple of environments only show up towards the end, the career mode does seem to overstay its welcome, something that Blackrock’s previous effort Pure did brilliantly to avoid.

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The car selection too is limited, and each car you unlock is so much better than the last, that you’ll never go back to the old ones. There are no car customisation options either, which again Pure delivered in spades. On the track, there’s very little to help turn the tide in your favour besides the powerplays. There’s no nitro and no other performance boosts to speak of, although you can’t really hold that against the game. Although the effectiveness of the powerplays is best experienced in multi-player, the AI does a fairly decent job as well. They’ll be gunning for you every chance they get, especially when you’re in the lead. This will come as welcome relief to those who found that races in the demo got too boring once you were in the lead.

While the PC version plays fairly well, it is clearly second best when compared to the consoles. To look even close to as good as the PS3 version does, the game will have to be played at the ‘very high’ setting; something my Q6600/8800GT rig just couldn’t handle at a playable framerate. But bring it down a notch to ‘high’ at 1680×1050 with V-Sync on, and the game plays just fine, although the framerate seems locked at 30 fps. The biggest downside though is the lack of players online. It’s hard to even find a full lobby of 8 players, so if you intend to play online, which you absolutely must to experience the game at its best, the PC version is not the one to get. On the upside though, there’s no visible lag in either the PC or PS3 version.

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When it’s at its best, Split/Second beats the pants off the competition, but in opting for quality over quantity, it finds itself way too short on content. The powerplays are a joy to behold, but they get old quickly and there aren’t enough environments to keep things fresh. Multiplayer is an absolutely blast, but again lacks longevity due to its shallow nature. This is a great platform for Blackrock to build on and it would be a shame if they didn’t follow this up with a beefier sequel. And if they do, buy that one.

(+) Powerplays are brilliant
(+) Fun multiplayer
(+) Great presentation

(-) Short on cars and tracks
(-) Gets repetitive

How we score games

Title: Split Second: Velocity
Developer/Publisher: Blackrock Studios/Disney Interactive
Genre: Racing
Rating: 12
Platforms: PS3 (Rs 2,499), Xbox 360 (Rs 2,499), PC (Rs 999)
Reviewed on: PS3, PC

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