Whether you’re on a muddy quad bike or behind the wheel of a juiced-up sports car, there are certain things that are always on your mind while playing a racing game. There are your rivals to consider - particularly that persistent pest who always shunts you out of the way on the last stretch. There’s that killer hairpin that always catches you out, and the constant tick-tick-tick of the clock as the potential for glory slowly ebbs away. In Split/Second you’ll once again have to deal with these things, but you’ll also have to deal with other problems: exploding roads, collapsing overpasses and jumbo jets that crash headfirst into your humble vehicle.
The concept behind Split/Second is fairly strange: while you initially appear to be racing through familiar real-world environments like highways and docklands, you’re actually taking part in some form of futuristic gameshow, one where all the participants drive through enormous studios. As a result of this setup, the show’s producers are able to lace their tracks with a selection of ridiculous hazards and special effects - over-the-top features that would normally kill the drivers stone dead. At crucial points during a race, you’ll be able to trigger these traps, wiping out your opponents in spectacular fashion.
In essence this setup is just an excuse for some thoroughly over-the-top hijinx with a flavour that’s not too dissimilar to the better moments of the Burnout series. Split/Second is the work of Black Rock Studios – the developer behind last year’s excellent Pure. This game is being handled by a different team, but there’s still the odd similarity – notably an emphasis on “look-at-me!” visual flair. Speed and style are everything, to the extent that your entire HUD - even the speedometer - is reduced to a simple little indicator that appears behind the back of your car. As you pull off drifts and other show-off manoeuvres, you’ll gradually fill up a coloured meter; once this is partially full, you’re able to use Powerplays - and it’s here that that the real fun begins.
As with the rest of Split/Second, the system behind these attacks is elegantly simple. Once you’ve built up a degree of credit, you simply follow an on-screen prompt to hit one of the face buttons once you’re in range of a specific spot on the track. Maxing out your bar grants you access to a second tier of Powerplays, but even the standard ones are hugely enjoyable - tearing apart the tracks in impressive fashion. During my E3 playtest I found that much of my early Powerplays were used to take out opponents directly ahead of me, but you can certainly also use them to dismiss people creeping up on your lead. And perhaps best of all, there are also Powerplays that allow you to reform the very track you’re racing on, closing off paths and changing the very shape of the race.
The real cleverness behind this design is that it allows the tracks themselves to take on a new level of character. In many racers the scenery that surrounds you is little more than window dressing for the central act of whizzing around a circuit, but here you’ll actually pay attention to the environment. There were two Split/Second tracks at E3 – one playable on the show floor, the other on display behind closed doors. In both cases the Powerplay hazards seemed to be a lot of fun: In the dock-set stage players were able to cause a hulking great boat to slide across the track like an unstoppable battering ram, while at another moment a helicopter arrived to drop explosive crates right on top of the leading racer. The course-morphing tricks were even better: one Powerplay caused a track-side cargo boat to keel over, destroying part of the track in the process. After this happened, players found that their new path carried them up onto the tilted deck of the wrecked ship – an excellent touch that underlines the OTT nature of the game in general.
As much as I like the idea behind Split/Second, there’s no denying that the game’s excellent presentation is a large part of the appeal. The final product isn’t out till next year, but the build on show at E3 already looked pretty suave. There’s a pleasant amber glow to the graphics, a subtle touch that gives the game a slightly unreal quality – which is fair enough, given that it’s supposed to be a futuristic TV show. While we’re on the subject, the full game will comprise of 24 “episodes” split across three separate seasons. It’s not clear how many tracks there will be yet, bur expect to see several variations on the different environments. Vehicle types, meanwhile, are assigned by the game depending on the track. Apparently there won’t be anything in the way of car tuning, but there may be some form of alternative customization: The Black Rock Developers were keeping relatively tight-lipped, but we should get an announcement or two later in the year. They were happy to confirm that the game will have two-player split screen, however.
Having seen and played the game for myself, only one minor concern remains lodged in my mind: the Powerplays look excellent, but I’m not sure how easy it will be to avoid them when someone springs a trap on you. Racing games are ultimately about striving for perfection, about mastering your skills so that you can score that elite, flawless lap – and that’s going to be hard to do if a smokestack could collapse on you at any given moment. I’m told that most of the Powerplays will be avoidable if you’re a careful driver, and that you’ll be able to escape many of the threats if your reactions are quick enough; hopefully that will be the case, as it would be a massive shame if the Powerplays ended up as a flashier version of Mario Kart’s infamous blue shells.
Aside from this worry, there’s an awful lot to like about Split/Second. There were a lot of high-profile racers at this year’s E3, but Black Rock’s game seemed to carve a comfortable niche of its own. It even seemed to impress EA boss Patrick Soderlund, who praised the game in the middle of a disparaging rant about the competition for NFS Shift. There's some way to go before we can determine the absolute leader of this year’s pack, but it’s certainly fair to say that Split/Second is looking pretty darn classy. The full game is due out in the first quarter of 2010, so let’s hope Black Rock keep up the good work in the meantime.
Split/Second will be released on PC, PS3 and Xbox360 in early 2010.