Imagine an arcade racer that takes place in the mind of Jeremy Clarkson, or set at the conclusion of a Roland Emmerich movie. Where pulse-quickening races take place amid fireworks, explosions, and disasters of Biblical proportions, and where crashing cars shatter into so much glass and pieces of tin foil.
If you can picture all that, you’re some way to understanding Split/Second Velocity’s premise. Created by Black Rock Studio, Split/Second takes the risk/reward mechanic of EA’s classic Burnout series and marries it to an unusual combat system where background elements can be used to total your opponent’s vehicles.
Again, like Burnout, fancy driving manoeuvres such as drifting, jumping and drafting (using a leading opponent’s slipstream to boost your speed) gradually fill a gauge at the bottom of the screen. Depending on its level, and how carefully you time button presses, you can unleash all manner of havoc on the other cars ahead, from an out-of-control lorry hurtling into their path, to a tumbling a Boeing 747, which will cause an apocalyptic maelstrom of carnage across sections of the track.
What’s immediately striking about Split/Second, particularly when compared to Bizarre Creation’s Blur released at around the same time, is just how simplistic and pared-back the racing action is. This is arcade racing at its most pure, with drifting satisfyingly easy to pull off – think OutRun 2 rather than Forza 3 – and enough of a sense of danger to make successful slides through bends an enormous thrill.
Similarly, Split/Second’s attack system can be mastered in a trice, and makes even Blur’s Mario Kart-inspired power ups seem complicated by comparison. This isn’t to say that Split/Second’s violent events are without their own subtleties, however – there’s a certain amount of strategy amid the explosions, with each race presenting a tricky balancing act between pulling off enough drifts and drafts to fill up your gauge, while at the same time observing the racing line closely enough to stay in contention.
There are also two levels of attack, dependent on how far you fill your gauge before unleashing them, while artfully-timed jabs of the A button can also reveal hidden shortcuts, which further add to the competitive possibilities of each race.
And as devastating as the attacks initially appear, getting totalled by a runaway train or a collapsing bridge doesn’t immediately put an end to your racing prospects – Black Rock has clearly been working hard to keep Split/Second balanced, and even the most direct of hits will only put you back a few places in the running.
Split/Second’s straight eight car races are punctuated by a number of other challenges, including Elimination, where the car in last position is violently knocked out every few seconds until one driver remains, Detonation, a kind of apocalyptic time trial, Survival, where you must avoid exploding barrels rolling from the rear-ends of speeding lorries, and Air Strike, where you have to drive around the track avoiding the missiles raining down from a pursuing helicopter.
It’s Split/Second’s races, however, that provide the most consistent thrills, and pose a rising challenge and an eventual pay-off which is hugely satisfying. Getting totalled by an opponent isn’t as infuriating as, say, being clobbered with a red shell in Mario Kart Wii, and using environmental attacks provides the kind of thrill that will leave you enthusing about your last-second victories down the pub.
On more than one occasion, I won a closely-fought race with a final, carefully-timed attack, taking out my rival in an eruption of flame, and allowing me to hurtle over the finish line by the narrowest of margins with a cackle of glee. Split/Second is full of moments like this, which linger in the memory and will no doubt bore your friends to tears should you attempt to describe them over a beer.
It could be argued, I suppose, that Split/Second may prove a little too shallow for some. Take away the explosions and pretty graphics – which at times border on the spectacular – and you’re left with a remarkably straight-up racer, with no mechanical modifications or gear changes. And without the presence of real-world vehicles – like Burnout, the cars in Split/Second’s garage are all imagined, with unconvincing names like Cobretti Nero GT400 – unlocking new ones doesn’t have quite the thrill of, say, Forza or Blur.
In all other departments, however, Split/Second is every bit as good as Blur, and provides an exhilarating experience which is the very epitome of the pick-up-and-play arcade racer, particularly when played online or in split-screen mode against human opponents, where the competitive air of the Elimination mode reaches fever pitch.
Split/Second may look like a racer set in the mind of Jeremy Clarkson, but its heart is in the arcade – and if you rate heart-quickening thrills over beard-stroking simulation, its mixture of knife-edge driving and widescreen violence will prove hard to beat.