Remember last year’s disastrous disaster movie 2012? Aside from being a clichéd, two and a half hour bore-fest, there was at least one standout scene that salvaged some 10 minutes of worthwhile viewing. I’m talking of course about the harrowing driving sequence in which, in a bid to escape the end of the world, the protagonist drives through a crumbling city while narrowly avoiding an onslaught of airborne cars and collapsing buildings.
Now imagine that scene applied to a video game, and you have a good idea of how Split/Second: Velocity (Black Rock’s latest endeavour on the race track since 2008’s Pure) plays out. In essence, it hopes to become the definitive Hollywood driving experience, but does it live up to its blockbuster budget?
First and foremost, do not be deceived by the Disney branding – there are no fairy princesses or whimsical witches, and the only moral it teaches is that whenever the opposition is in front of you during a racing situation, it is your dastardly duty to kill them through explosive means. Clearly, these are the family friendly teachings the company strives for.
In a premise not too dissimilar to Death Race, Split/Second pits a team of stunt drivers in a reality TV face-off across a series of circuits that are rigged with deadly traps, and is spread across 12 seasons with six events per season.These traps act as power-plays, the game’s unique reward system that allow you to trigger explosive charges on command to obliterate your opponents, which is achieved by skilfully drifting and drafting your rival racers. Once the on-screen meter reaches level 1, you can inflict basic levels of destruction such as detonating parked cars into the path of oncoming cars or cause helicopters to drop explosive barrels.
Reach the level 2 power-plays, however, and prepare to be astounded as you witness the more insurmountable levels of devastation that the game was made for – control towers tumble, entire buildings collapse and jumbo jets crash land before you, and that’s just a taste of the carnage to come. What’s more, initiating these sequences can drastically alter the route of the track. For example, in one scenario found in the Downtown track, causing a control tower to collapse will open up a route that diverts the race onto rooftops. For squealing, simple minded children like me, the scale of destruction is nothing short of awe-inspiring and is certainly not something you see everyday in a driving game.
These scenes of delicious mass destruction are quite literally groundbreaking and consistently exhilarating, as you cheat death on numerous occasions by barely scraping past the cavalcade of carnage in your wake at breakneck speed. There’s a surprising level of depth too, leaving you with a choice of strategy of either excessively triggering the more instant level 1 power-plays, or saving them up to execute the larger scale attacks that can potentially wipe out multiple opponents in one foul swoop.
This ability to utilise the environment to annihilate your rivals is undoubtedly entertaining and gloriously over the top, rivalling the best that Hollywood has to offer. I also have to commend Black Rock for producing a genuinely unique concept in a genre that is starting to show its mileage. Yes, Burnout pioneered the concept of taking out your rivals, but never has it been executed with such audacious scale.
Admittedly, the novelty does wear off once you have witnessed every power-play multiple times, and success essentially lies in memorising the locations for them, but they are nonetheless a thrilling spectacle every time.
The technology behind these salivating set-pieces also impresses. There are some very advanced lighting techniques on show here and you can tell a lot of dedication has gone into making the power-plays as visually spectacular as possible. Considering the amount of on-screen activity and densely detailed environments, the performance holds up remarkably well, showing no signs of slowdown and a sensational sense of speed throughout. It all adds up to making Split/Second easily the best looking arcade racer to date.
I particularly like the smartly designed HUD. Rather than clutter the screen with information, Black Rock has taken a more minimalistic approach by positioning every piece of vital information (i.e. your race position, current lap and power-play meter) behind your speeding car, allowing you to fully appreciate the graphical fireworks.
As someone who has watched practically every movie car chase known to man, I can safely say that Split/Second‘s distinct Hollywood influence is readily apparent. Along with the high-octane action, the graphics glisten with a tint of oversaturation, making it the perfect replication of a typical Michael Bay movie. The sound design also perfectly immerses you into the Hollywood ambiance, with emphatic explosions and a suitably intense orchestral score that dynamically changes depending on the situation of the race, just to make your heart beat that little bit faster.
The vehicles on offer range from muscle cars to heavy-duty pickups and lightweight supercars, with a handling model akin to Burnout’s arcade roots. The drifting mechanic works particularly well, allowing you to slide into corners with ease, but the supercars in particular tend to slide too easily on every corner without you tapping the brakes, handling more like soggy soap. Vehicle deformation can also look basic up-close: cars break apart spectacularly on impact, but don’t crumple convincingly like in Burnout Paradise. Still, the relentless pacing ensures that you rarely notice this.
Along with traditional races, Split/Second’s season includes a variety of alternative game modes, and completing them unlocks the subsequent episodes and higher tier cars. Elimination, predictably, destroys the driver in last place at regular intervals and Air Strike and Air Revenge involve you fending off an attack helicopter intent on firing a barrage of missiles at you, daring you to outmanoeuvre them. It’s surprisingly challenging and Air Revenge adds a special twist that allows you to use power-plays to jam the heinous helicopter’s targeting system before shooting it out of the sky.
My favourite extra mode has to be Survival however, which involves a long stretch of track, a ticking clock and some intimidating semi trucks that need to be overtaken. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that as each truck happens to be spilling a load of lethal barrels in what has to be a homage to Michael Bay’s The Island. With only three lives, things can become very chaotic indeed: blue barrels will damage you, but red barrels will result in the instant loss of a life.
As the season progresses, events become increasingly challenging, but this is almost to a fault. While every race is a rampant thrill ride with rarely a dull moment, the aggressive AI can feel unfair at times thanks to some apparent rubber banding that is becoming all too common with the genre. It’s fortunate the racing is as fun as it is, but it can still become an issue in later stages. Racing purists may also dislike the fact that Split/Second relies more on spectacle and ability to time explosions than expert driving skill, although quick reaction times are obviously a necessity. I also can’t help but wish there were just a few more tracks on offer, as repetition can arise when the season pans out with duplicating tracks in the second half.
Wonderfully, all this action can be shared with friends in both split-screen and online battles, and while it is tremendously enjoyable to destroy real opponents, the online mode is disappointingly bare-bones at the moment. There’s very little control in the way of options – public matches simply place you in a random race with no choice of track and private matches have no option to regulate car classes, putting players who purchased the automatic unlock at an unfair advantage.
It’s fair to say that Split/Second would be a fairly unremarkable racer if it wasn’t for its plethora of pyrotechnics, but it delivers some of the most refreshingly thrilling Hollywood influenced races I’ve ever experienced in a driving game. Some might say its unique selling feature is short-sighted and gimmicky, but this is honestly one gimmick that thoroughly works, offering formidable levels of wanton destruction that will surely make Michael Bay weep with unbridled joy. Speaking of which, do I not see Mr. Bay in the credits?
With irresistible smoothness and shine, Split/Second's glossy graphics evoke a decidedly Hollywood veneer.
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Split/Second will constantly have you yelping with fear and exhilaration as you soak in the carnage.
The soaring soundtrack, bombastic explosions and roaring engines suitably ramp up the intensity.
The single player campaign is lengthy, but the novelty can wear off after repeated viewings.
It's no Burnout beater, but this is about as close as anything will get to matching the intensity, lunacy and destructibility of Criterion's baby. Consistently enthralling, Split/Second's fiery formula brings a new lease on life to the arcade racing genre - we can only hope it's a franchise that's here to stay.