Entertain Your Gamer – PAX Impressions – Split/Second

One of the games that I was fortunate enough to get some time with at PAX East in Boston this past weekend was Split/Second.  Developed by UK based Black Rock Studios, which is itself a division of Disney Interactive.  Black Rock previously developed and released the ATV stunt racer Pure in 2008.  Split/Second is an upcoming arcade-style racer set for release on May 18th, 2010.  I got to play through the single race, single track demo that was on display twice.  With the game releasing in just over a month and a half I feel pretty confident in saying that we were being shown close to final code for the game.

Those of you that follow this blog may recall that I also gave some beta impressions for another soon-to-be-released arcade racing game called Blur which is set to release on May 25th.  For those that remember the third person character action game throwdown between Prototype and Infamous in 2009, you may already be asking yourself what differentiates Split/Second from other arcade style racers such as Blur, especially considering their close proximity of release.  While Blur can easily be boiled down to Mario Kart, but with real cars, Split/Second offers us something different.

Let me start off by saying that in the overall destruction department, Split/Second has Blur, and most any racer I can easily think of,  beat almost before it leaves the starting line.  The premise of the game leaves realism at the door, but it is all the better for it.  Imagine if you will, what a city designed by someone of the Jerry Bruckheimer mindset would contain if that city was also designed for the sole purpose of being destroyed.  The game sets you as a contestant on a fictional reality television show in which drivers can set off environmental hazards, here called powerplays,  to take out their opponents.  Gasoline tankers line the sides of the track, helicopters carry bombs or other equally destructive items, buildings themselves can be destroyed and the track itself altered as a result.

In order to trigger these sometimes jaw dropping environmental hazards the player the player must fill a power bar by drifting around turns.  Drafting other drivers and attaining air time were other means of gaining power, but the drift is the best and most readily available way to do so.  During the course of the race icons will appear over opposing drivers if they are potentially in range of a powerplay.  Most typical “level 1″ powerplays only consume one of the potential three sections of the powerplay meter.  The true spectacle begins when “level 2″ powerplays requiring a full meter are triggered.  These powers plays will actually cause destruction on a level that actually changes the layout of the track itself.  On the demo track, a Space Needle-esque structure can actually be blown up and toppled at the start of the second lap, crushing and cars that end up under it. The player that triggers the blast and those behind him will the drive up the side of the wrecked skyscraper and jump from rooftop to rooftop before rejoining the portion of the track unaffected by the devastation.  This was nothing short of jaw dropping both the first time I saw it, and on subsequent viewings.  Whether this sense of awe will be maintained after you have played this track for the umpteenth time remains to be seen.

Below is some video I shot while someone else was playing that shows a few power plays in action.

Despite the semi junky resolution that my digital camera provides I think that it should be pretty apparent that Split/Second is a nice looking game.  The lighting model came across as very impressive, the sunshine and shadows on the track featured in this demo looked very realistic and rendered impressively even at the speed my car was travelling.  Explosions look just as dangerous as they should and the volumetric smoke and debris obscures your vision to add just another layer of uncertainty and excitement to the proceedings.  Another visual presentation element worth noting is the minimalist HUD.  All of the pertinent information regarding race position, current lap, and the powerplay gauge are confined to a space immediately below the rear bumper of the player’s car.  This simplistic presentation gives you all the information that you need while in no way obscuring your view of the racetrack.  One complaint I heard as I watched another gentleman play the demo was that there was no on screen map.  Personally I did not feel that a map was necessary.  Most sharp turns are evidenced by readily evident signs.  The only times I might not have realized such a turn was coming was in the event that an explosion or wreck obscured my view, and that seems perfectly fair in my opinion.  The developers clearly were intent to keep with their minimalist HUD presentation and any sort of mini-map would be a compromise.

As an arcade racer, Split/Second is easy to pickup and play while still seeming to offer opportunity to master the driving model.  The game handles in a manner that will be immediately familiar to anyone that has played an entry in the Burnout series.  Getting the car I was driving to drift was a pretty easy affair and only a few times did I feel like I was not in control of my vehicle.  There are numerous classes of cars available, each with different handling characteristics.  The sports car that I was driving handled about as I expected it should.  Several other cars were featured in the demo, including a Chevy SSR style pickup truck and a muscle car.  The cars react to the force of explosions also seemed on the money and all the vehicles felt appropriately fragile.  If you slam into a wall too hard you are going to wreck and be forced to respawn and lose a few spots in the running order.

I mentioned earlier that one my biggest concerns for Split/Second was this: how many hours I can play this game before the novelty of blowing up buildings and dropping stuff on cars wears off?  I think this game can foster a dedicated online player but Disney and Black Rock need to get this game in front of as many sets of eyes as it can.  A wide release demo on PSN and Xbox Live is pretty much a must.  This is the kind of game that screenshots do not do justice toward.  Gamers need to get this game in their hands and play it.  In this economy there are woefully few games that are on my radar that I will pay full price for without playing some sort of demo first.  Black Rock should also take a cue from Criterion’s handling of Burnout Paradise and support Split/Second post release with DLC to keep the game fresh.  That being said, despite my concerns, the time I spent with the demo all has but sold me on Split/Second.  As a concept, this game offers a fresh take on the arcade racer formula and I look forward to playing the full retail game when it releases on May 18th for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.

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