There's 3.9 seconds between me and the car behind, but it looks a hell-of-a-lot less in the rear-view mirror. Without taking my finger off the accelerator, I weave through burning pieces of rubble and other debris that has appeared since the previous lap. Adrenaline courses through my veins, spurred on by the pumping beats of the high-octane soundtrack. I feel like I'm in a car chase from a Michael Bay film or something. Approaching the final corner, a seemingly harmless crane at the side of the road suddenly comes to life, dropping a wrecking ball that swings aggressively across the track. The screen shakes violently and I swerve out of control, missing the ball by mere inches. Breathing a sigh of relief, I imagine how angry the guy in second place is right about now. After navigating the final corner, I cross the finish line and embrace victory.
Leaning back in my chair, I glance around the Lion King themed room that Disney Interactive has set up for the Split/Second: Velocity multiplayer event. The guy next to me finishes a few seconds after I do, his frustration at second place written all over his face. We exchange highlights from what we both agreed was an eventful race and note how easily the outcome of the race could have differed. This was probably the twentieth-odd race we played that day, and it was just as exciting and entertaining as the first. I thought I'd finished with racing games a long time ago, but in bringing something new to the table, Split/Second has rekindled an old love.
To back up slightly, Split/Second: Velocity is an arcade racer in a very similar vein to Burnout or the upcoming Blur. You might have already read our preview of the game back in July, but today we're looking at it from the sole perspective of multiplayer. In many ways this is exactly what you might expect from an arcade racer, but Split/Second offers something unique to the tried and tested formula. Mid race, players can trigger devastating environmental events to wipe the opposition from the face of the track. It's like racing on the set of an action movie.
Split/Second is certainly comparable to the Mario Kart series, in that it offers players at the back of the pack the opportunity to get back into the action. With a quick tap of the B button, bridges collapse, bombs detonate and jumbo jet engines fall from the sky. Timed well enough, somebody in last place could quickly find themselves in first.
Triggering such an event can't be done willy-nilly, however, and must be earned through meeting certain requirements on the track. The HUD (which is rather ingeniously mapped to the rear of your car) features a bar which can be filled through three levels. In order to do this, players must drift round corners, draft behind rival cars and catch as much as air as the track will allow. Each level of the meter will allow you to trigger an environment specific event, with an icon popping up above a rival car whenever there's something dangerous to take advantage of.
Whilst initially I was annoyed at how my hard earned position could be taken from me through no fault of my own, I grew to love the intensity of it all. Victory is never guaranteed, regardless of how far ahead of the field you are, and with pole position comes the pressure of having seven other players desperate to eliminate you from the race. It's genuinely nerve-racking stuff, but fantastic fun at the same time.
Short cuts make life easier for those struggling to keep up, too. Whilst approaching certain sections of a track, an icon will appear for a brief amount of time. If you press the A button within this short window, a new section of the track will open up, offering a quicker route to the finish line. These shortcuts don't stay open for long, however, and if you're too slow to follow somebody through one, the results can be fatal (and incredibly funny). Seeing somebody crash into a closed door or driving off a ledge into the sea is the source of endless entertainment. If you're going to take a short cut, be absolutely sure you can make it through in time.
The most adrenaline soaked aspects of a race come in the form of Power Plays - large scale environmental set pieces that affect the very terrain being raced on. Filling the aforementioned meter through all three levels allows players to initiate these set pieces at certain points around the track. These are level specific, and make use of whatever the theme of the level happens to be, whether it's airplanes, helicopters or cruise ships. These are the most impressive set pieces the game has to offer, and funnel the action into scripted scenes that wouldn't look out of place in Hollywood.
Due to these events, Black Rock Studios has had to ensure that players are kept together. Because of this, it's very difficult to build up a decent lead over the competition, and the pack is always within a few seconds of one another. This 'rubber-banding' ensures that environmental set pieces aren't wasted, although at the same time, making it that much harder for skilled racers to emerge victorious. Still, the action that subsequently unfolds around the race is more than worth it, and the banding isn't really noticeable in the midst of avoiding collapsing buildings and dodging wrecking balls. I can remember one particular race where six of the eight players finished within about two seconds of each other; the competitive roar that filled the room leading up to that moment was truly something to behold.
The worry is that once each of the tracks' shortcuts and hazards have been learnt, the experience might become stale. After all, the game relies on grand set pieces that aim to take the player by surprise. That said, I played certain tracks numerous times, and each race was different from the last. Events that happen in one race might not happen in another, meaning that each can play out in a variety of ways. Still, those who invest a moderate amount of time into the game will learn the levels very quickly, and once done, there's very little to separate skilled players other than luck.
Thankfully, other modes help relieve this problem. During my time with the multiplayer, I got to try out three modes; race, elimination and survivor. While the standard race and elimination modes won't be anything new to racing fans, the survivor mode is worthy of a quick explanation. Here, players race alongside trucks - mechanical behemoths that drop explosive barrels as they tear around the course. By avoiding their dangerous cargo and overtaking, a combo is built and points start to amass. The longer you're able to survive, the bigger your combo, and thus the bigger your score will be. It's very different from the racing modes, and offers some welcome variation to the multiplayer experience.
There's certainly a lot of fun to be had with the Split/Second multiplayer, which concentrates as much orchestrated devastation as possible into each race. Its longevity, however, is questionable. Black Rock has gone to great lengths to ensure that players can share the grandeur of the game's action scenes, but only time will prove if there's true staying power here. There's certainly an audience for what Split/Second has to offer, but with Bizarre Creation's Blur releasing around the same time, that market is going to be forced into making a tough decision.
Split/Second: Velocity is out May 21 on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.