In my professional life (you wouldn't believe me if I told you), I often reference the saying that 'everything we do, every decision we make, every time we venture into the uncertain we are but a split second away from absolute failure'. This reference is used to encourage clients to take the next steps but also, to ensure that they look forward in their planning.
Now in my gaming life I have the pleasure of stepping into the frantic, yet highly entertaining, new arcade racing title from Black Rock Studio and Disney Interactive Studios called Split Second. While this aptly named title is not a new genre for Black Rock (other titles include Pure, MotoGP and a couple ATV titles) I was surprised to see the Disney Interactive Studios logo. Disney, to me, brings images of cartoon dogs, talking mice and a century worth of animated magic for kids. So when I saw that Disney was involved I immediately lowered my expectations on the title and I was preparing myself for a rather short lived and bland experience. Perhaps the recent acquisition of Marvel Studios or even the reestablished relationship with Pixar Studios, it would seem as though, that little Disney logo seems to be cropping up into more and more mainstream entertainment medias.
Let me assure you readers, this is not Mickey's Speedway....instead this is the wonderful result of what happens when game developers play a couple rounds of Burnout Revenge after watching Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man. While the interpretation is new, it's actually the finished product that sets it apart from what we've all seen from other offerings.
I admit that I have wasted, in the past, a few hours playing 'simulation' style racing games like Nascar, Forza and the like, I have always been a gamer looking for a little escape. When I want realism I spend a few hours on the 401 or the expert track; the Don Valley Parkway from 4-9 on a Tuesday (not always fast, but it's really important to judge your distances). For me the pinnacle of racing titles has always been the aforementioned Burnout Revenge; I don't enjoy being behind the wheel of a race car going 120 MPH always turning left but experiencing the thrill of twisted metal while flying through unimaginable explosions (mmmmm....explosions) is where Split Second has me by the proverbial short hair.
The story for Split Second is relatively straight forward. You drive as part of a 'reality television show' against a ruthless group of drivers determined to make it to the finish while creating as much carnage as possible. The game is split into 12 episodes comprised of 6 events per episode; the events themselves are made up of races, timed events and tracks in which you frantically try to elude the many paths of destruction thrown at you. It is within this format that I first found myself in absolute awe. Most racing games are pretty straight forward, whereas Split Second goes to great lengths to insert you into this television drama, complete with the idea that each of the tracks are simply set pieces available for your manipulation.
Split second encourages you to draft opponents, take jumps, drift through corners and endure near miss catastrophes by rewarding you with Power Play Points; these points in turn fill up a 3 level bar. By using a single bar, at the right time, you can cause minor events in the game including: explosions, dropping various items onto the track (and hopefully the other players), activating various machinery to disrupt the race field and generally create possible hazards for all racers. But by saving up and using all 3 bars you can create truly catastrophic events like, oh I don't know, how about.....bringing an aircraft out of the sky to wipe your opponents out or if your up to it...completely demolishing 6 lane bridges!
Whether using the minor or major events you can either create opportunities or wrap yourself up with the carnage you create...you are not immune to your own devastation. While you are hard at work making the world around you erupt, it's important to remember that your opponents are doing everything they can to put you in harms way....while you're focused on having explosives drop from a helicopter keep your eyes out; as your opponents are trying to launch a bus into your driving lane. Initially I thought this concept would be a great one-off...something that is neat to see but quickly boring. However, the ease of use and the intuitive setup really works to heighten the intensity during game play. And don't worry this is not another cart racer with Mario-esque power up tendencies; you truly have to work to establish your dominance in Split Second. Activating Power Plays may seem like the ticket to a win but you will need to be just as diligent in establishing a strong race time to finish within the top 3.
The game offers along with the season mode (including quick play) a fully realized Multiplayer mode. Multiplayer pits you (you guessed it) against other players through Xbox Live. What's interesting and somewhat disappointing is that you keep your stats that you accumulated in the single player campaign; in other words your best car in multiplayer is also your best car in the multiplayer mode. In theory this sounds like a great idea; it gets you playing through the single player in order to get better in multiplayer. The downfall of course is that you will almost always be playing against gamers that are better than you (yes, even you Variation). What really hurts is even trying the multiplayer before you've gotten past the first 6-7 episodes in the single player....you are simply left watching tail lights as higher end vehicles race toward the sunset. It would have been nice to have the option to be in matches with similarly ranked racers rather than tossed into the next available match.
The visuals are outstanding; there is a tremendous amount of polish on this title and you are immediately drawn into the television series format. The explosions, while substantial, do not feel over the top (yeah, because I've seen so many real life explosions)...the lighting in all instances just feel right and you are put to the edge of your seat in very short order.
The sound is also an amazing game element....it seems that many game studios have seen what TV series have done; making the sound as much a critical element as the visuals themselves. This is the 4th title I've played this year that makes the effort of wearing headphones more advantageous than just turning the volume up...the closer you are to the sounds the more immersed you will be in the game as a whole....instead of just playing, you feel as though you are part of the moment.
The game does have a few faults, not the least of which being your AI opponents. I can see the merit in making sure that players feel as though other racers are hot on their heels but with Split Second you are never more than a Split Second away from second place. Even during a flawless race and have dodged every obstacle the AI players are still right behind you...even when you've sent all of them into the wall on every lap. Another issue I have is with some of the Survival races...many have you dodging various incendiary devices like missiles and explosive barrels....the missile dodging races however seem to feature a range of track environments with tight corners and sloping hills both of which severely hinder your ability to accurately identify the missiles impact zones.....I found that these missions specifically relied as much on luck as they did any real skill on my part.
In all, I think Black Rock has really established itself as a powerhouse in the arcade/action racing genre and Split Second is on the top of my racing pile. It's refreshing to see developers exploring new options rather than just adding another year onto the title. I'm encouraged that there is already DLC available and time will only tell as to what improvements we may exess of what's on the horizon, here's hoping another studio doesn't sit down to play this title after watching Arnold's Jingle All the Way or we may just experience the end of gaming as we know it.....