Thursday, June 03, 2010

Split/Second Review

Split/Second, developed by Black Rock Studio and published by Disney Interactive Studios.
The Good: Explosive trackside items are a great idea, looks nice
The Not So Good: Mindless driving physics, repetitive events after first playthrough, unfair to current leader, inconsistent AI, insignificant penalty for crashing, most content initially locked, no online server browser
What say you? Unique track-changing events take a back seat to asinine arcade racing: 5/8

Auto racing can suffer from severe bouts of repetition. The same cars on the same track going around and around and around and around and around and around. But what if the track itself could bite back? What would that look like (actually, probably something like this) ? Thus is the premise of Split/Second (known in Europe as “Split/Second: Velocity” and in Canada as “You like racing, eh? What's it all aboot, ya hoser?”): in the future, men are men, women are women, and high-stakes racing takes place on TV with no regard for personal safety or the Gulf of Mexico. Obviously, the ability to trigger changes on the race track in real time is intriguing. Does Split/Second make the podium in the world of arcade racing titles?

As you might expect in a racing game primarily designed for the console world, Split/Second looks quite good. Each of the game’s eleven tracks is very detailed with plenty of trackside elements to look at as they quickly pass by. The game uses high-resolution textures that look quite nice. The environments are also distinct, from urban settings to desert climates (not as tasty as “dessert climates”). The car models are also quite detailed, although they don’t respond much to minor damage. Explosions are fun to look at, and the camera view constantly gets cluttered with various liquids and solids you encounter on the track. It’s obvious graphics was a strong point of emphasis during the development of Split/Second. The sound design is less impressive, though: although Split/Second includes a heart-pounding soundtrack to accompany the action-packed gameplay, the sounds seem a bit muted, from the explosions to the car engines. It’s simply not as powerful as I would have expected. Still, Split/Second provides an excellent slick presentation that rivals any contemporary racing title.

The first thing you’ll do in Split/Second is press “enter” five times to skip the initial movies. Sigh. At least the game doesn’t require the disk in the drive (online SecuRom authentication). The second thing you’ll do in Split/Second is immediately go into your first race without having the ability to change your controls or graphics settings. And, of course, the game did not correctly configure my gamepad. Awesome start! Once you get past those annoyances, you’ll find a single player season mode with twelve episodes (the game is a TV show, or something…I had to sit through unskippable cut scenes for each episode that destroyed my memory) of six races each unlocked in an order of your choosing (somewhat: four basic races plus a locked elite event and a bonus event). You can enjoy quick races of anything you’ve unlocked, as well. Split/Second also features online (or LAN!) play, but the features are lacking: finding a game is difficult as matchmaking is segregated by game mode. Additionally, only three of the six game modes are available for online play, and I had tons of problems joining games. I was successful about 10% of the time; otherwise, the server was not available or the game crashed as it attempted to connect to the host (no dedicated servers, of course). At least split screen seems to work well, if you actually have real friends to play against.

Split/Second features a nice amount of content for a racing title. First, the game has eleven tracks on which to race. Each arena has several different paths (which can be switched by the competitors) and you quickly learn where the explosions and obstacles are triggered. The settings are recycled somewhat and the layouts don’t retain any sort of individuality (due to the non-technical nature of the game), but the tracks do their job as a place for arcade racing. Six modes are available that either involve straight-up racing or avoiding explosions. We have standard races, elimination (last place is eliminated every twenty seconds), survival (dodge barrels dropped from trucks), air strike (dodge missiles fired from a helicopter for points), air revenge (dodge missiles fired from a helicopter…but earn power!), and detonator (one lap with lots of explosions). The alternate events work well within the context of the game, although they are similar in approach (watch out! another explosion/missile!). Twenty-seven cars are in Split/Second, all with different ratings in speed, drift ability, strength, and acceleration. The stats vary wildly, so there is actually some strategic decisions to be made here, especially for specific game modes. Unfortunately, most of the content is locked from new players. Booooo! This goes for online races as well (you only have access to cars unlocked in the single player “season” mode), so beginners will be at an instant disadvantage simply because they haven’t played as much, not because they are less skilled at the game. Though things do unlock quickly enough, I am always against preventing people who purchased a game from all of the available content, especially if it puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

Split/Second is solidly in the “arcade” racing camp, and the actual racing leaves a lot to be desired. The fact that the game doesn’t have a handbrake key tells you all you need to know about the lax physics. You rarely need to touch the brake pedal during any race and only occasionally need to take your foot off the accelerator. This game is all about speed, which is fine but the racing lacks any need for actual skill. It’s sad that I yearn for the nuance of Need for Speed. You can have (high quality arcade racing games with relaxed physics that still require skill to play. At it stands, Split/Second really just features paths along which explosions occur. Yes, the “power plays” are the draw of Split/Second: power earned by drafting behind other cars or drifting through corners can be used to trigger explosions or other objects to wreck your opponents. The game clearly highlights (through the use of an icon) when a power play is available, so it’s just a matter of saving up energy for the best moment. Power can also be used to activate shortcuts or alternate routes, although the latter option is simply cosmetic and doesn’t alter the race in any significant way. The power plays always trigger at the same places around the track, though, so it’s certainly not dynamic or varied once you have raced a track one time. Because of these power plays, it’s much more preferable not to be in the lead, since you can’t trigger power plays on those behind you. In fact, the first place car is constantly targeted by the AI and there is no way to counter the attacks, other than dodging the falling debris and fireballs. The AI also suffers from “catch up” syndrome: you can blow up every car multiple times and still barely (or not even) win a race, as the AI will rocket towards the front. Indeed, the penalty for crashing is so insignificant that it’s really meaningless: a loss of about three seconds of progress rarely means no victory, as you can simply catch back up to the front of the pack. Split/Second simply has too much luck involved and removes skill to such a degree that the winner isn’t usually the best driver, but the one that just happened to avoid most of the explosions. That may, in fact, be the point of the game, but it’s a point that I personally do not agree with.

Despite track destruction being a fantastic hook, Split/Second suffers at the hands of its driving model (or lack thereof): it simply lacks any sense of difficulty or skill. All you need to do is press “go” and steer, with the occasional slide through a corner and light touch of the brake. I don’t mind arcade racing games (exhibit A), but you must require at least some skill in navigating the tracks and handling the cars. With the explosions triggered at set locations, after you play the game a couple of times, Split/Second becomes predictable and sadly repetitive. The AI isn’t much of a challenge either, unless you get pinned by an untimely explosion near the end of the race and end up in last place, despite perfect driving the rest of the time. Still, affecting the race using trackside elements is pretty fun, and the game does a good job highlighting when to use the power you have accumulated through drafting and drifting. Split/Second features a number of different cars with varying abilities that will alter your race strategy. This is a game better suited for multiplayer (though the single player “season” mode is decent), but unfortunately Split/Second has a hard time (at least for me) not crashing when connecting to the host. But at least it looks nice as you unleash destruction. Split/Second would have been appealing if the racing model was elevated beyond super simple levels of ridiculousness.