Trace's Split/Second (Xbox 360) review

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  • Trace has written a total of 4 reviews. The last one was for Split/Second
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Incredible But Unbalanced: A Split Personality

Split/Second advertises itself as racing amped up with insane explosions. That's quite accurate, as the game is full of incredible driver-activated destruction wrapped up in a brilliant reality TV-inspired package. Beyond the huge explosions and exciting action, however, lies an unbalanced and occasionally frustrating experience that's all too reminiscent of other arcade racers, with annoying AI and questionable driving and gameplay mechanics that temper the explosive excitement. When Split/Second works properly, it's an amazing experience. When it doesn't, which is often, it's just another arcade racer with a promising gimmick.

 This is reality TV's wet dream. It's beautiful.
Split/Second rationalizes all its chaos by passing itself off as an over-the-top reality TV competition, and let's not mince words: it nails this theme perfectly. The game's singleplayer campaign is divided into twelve episodes, all of which could easily pass for actual hour-long reality TV episodes (were there enough crazy people in real life to build a gigantic fake city and then race through it while it explodes at their whim). The race locations all have this gigantic, overwhelming appearance to them, and you can't help but feel like a contestant in a world out of control as flames and debris fly about wildly. The music is heavily dramatic, much like a Fear Factor on wheels, and is just as memorable as some of the best television soundtracks. The final race in each episode really highlights Split/Second's style, with wild explosions to start the race off and a highly dramatic closing theme that makes you feel like you're watching the last five minutes of a show. It just works well.

The reality TV theme works so well, in fact, that the only criticisms I can make about it are piddling little issues. For one, the game has promo clips displaying upcoming episodes, but unlike real reality TV, the announcer stops talking after a sentence, leaving a lot of dead air while the promotional package continues to play. A real TV show would keep blabbing on with dramatic sentences, perhaps about the competitors facing explosive odds as they take on the aircraft graveyard, or similar statements. The ending also seems odd in how it makes the possibility of a sequel even more obvious than just announcing a second season of the reality show, though it does clear the way for either a sequel or some epic future DLC. Regardless, these are minor issues in the grand scope of the game, and it's a testament to Split/Second's incredible presentation. Its graphics and music are the best I've ever seen in an arcade racing game by far.

It's a tremendous shame, then, that the racing can't live up to the game's appearance. This isn't to say Split/Second has terrible racing, but it is certainly a beast with a split personality. When Split/Second's racing works, it's an exciting thrill ride that simply oozes adrenaline. There's no better feeling than triggering a power play that blows up a swath of your rivals, or switching a route and watching a gigantic structure collapse, destroy a chunk of this fake world, and give you an easier path to first place. While it's easy to assume that these explosions would grow old, it's more a case of awe turning into functionality. Even in your first run around a track, you'll be keeping an eye on potential objects that could explode or shift at any given moment. Once these power plays are witnessed, it's a matter of being ready to avoid them at a moment's notice, and the races pick up a more strategic flavor. The paranoia this causes, especially when in the lead, is quite delightful, and creates a significant psychological divide between first place and all the other positions. The more extreme level 2 power plays and route changers don't appear to show up excessively, and some tracks contain enough layers of major power plays to ensure that races on the same track can remain unique and exciting. When all of these mechanics work, Split/Second's a nerve-wracking delight.

 It's a great shame the AI often ruins the experience.
More often than not, however, bad racing mechanics and a terrible AI system compromise Split/Second’s racing. There's somewhat of a drastic divide between car types, and most of the cars available are either weak and drifty or heavy and slow. A few cars have a nice balance between the two, but not many of the cars are a tremendous joy to drive wildly. This problem is further hampered by a questionable drift system, in which cars seem to take tight turns slower when drifting than when taking the turn like a car would in a racing sim. This is a problem, as drifting is a key element to building up power towards power plays, and when most drifting causes rivals to pull away, it makes power plays that much harder to execute. Cars near the end of the game begin to drift at a reasonable speed, but by this time, you'll be very used to running turns slowly rather than throwing your car sideways through them for power.

The unpleasant car physics get even worse against the game's AI, which often misuses rubber band AI to make unrealistic passes and catch up after wrecking far too easily. Because of this faulty AI, Split/Second suffers from some of the same mistakes as other arcade racers, where a near-flawless performance could yield a worse finishing position than a crash-filled race with a lucky power play near the end. Computer opponents have a knack for completing drift turns faster than a human player could hope to, and love pulling away regardless of their car's actual top speed versus your own. There's other AI issues that can be a bit too punishing as well, such as recovering from crashes faster than the player and magically passing the player after they knock out another car to take the lead. While this can sometimes be countered, it removes much of the reward from a risk vs. reward equation that should be far more stable. Why risk working towards more power plays when the computer can rebound so easily?
This AI problem is accentuated in Elimination, a race mode in which cars are picked off one by one in short time intervals. In this mode and the race mode, sometimes the AI will pull so far away that it's impossible to hit them with a power play for a long period of time, including the twenty-second interval between later eliminations. This creates a distinct sense of helplessness as you're unable to catch up to an opponent to activate a power play, hammering the A button over the twenty seconds in the hope an explosion might pop up as a fluke and slow down your rival. Needless to say, this sucks all the fun out of a play session very easily. Without a means to catch up or blind-fire power plays, the AI has a knack for ruining otherwise entertaining events.

This is not to say that rubber band AI is a complete mistake, nor is Split/Second tremendously difficult. To its credit, the computer does make attempts at fairness, and it will rarely ever trigger a power play that causes the player to wreck without a chance to dodge the imminent explosion. The rubber band AI does seem to fail in all the wrong ways, however, and where it would work best trying to gently keep players and AI within power play range of each other, it will sometimes let the AI or player run away from the pack and win an event easily. Needless to say, that's one time where leading or trying to chase down a rival becomes boring and frustrating. It's an unbalanced and aggressively irritating experience when Split/Second falters in this manner, and it happens far too often.

The multiplayer doesn't do much to alleviate these balancing issues, and in fact encourages it further with a limited amount of options online. AI can be added to private online matches, but more importantly, for public or private games, there's no restriction on the level of car allowed. This means a person who just bought Split/Second could potentially face players who already unlocked every car through the singleplayer season. While it's not impossible to win with a starter car against better vehicles, it's very unlikely, and winning would take a lot of luck that doesn't usually happen as the faster cars drive away to victories by huge intervals. Unless this problem's resolved in a future patch, it's probably best to stay away from multiplayer until the singleplayer campaign is at least halfway complete. Otherwise, expect some disappointing finishes at the rear of the pack.

 By the time you get to Air Revenge, you'll want this helicopter dead.
Split/Second offers a few modes beyond time trial and competitive racing, and they're a mixed bag. Survival is a timed run where the objective is to pass as many explosive barrel-dumping semi trucks as possible, and although it seems somewhat calm compared to the racing, it's entertaining in short bursts. The other modes, Air Strike and Air Revenge, shatter any remaining fragments of realism the game may have held, and involve dodging missiles at high speed. In Air Revenge's case, you'll also build up power to reflect missiles back at the helicopter. Air Strike comes off as an extremely mundane mode that feels like a less interesting version of Survival, but Air Revenge is one of the few modes that seems to encourage excessive drifting amongst the missile dodging, and can be entertaining for that reason alone (exploding helicopters notwithstanding). These modes are a nice diversion, but they're merely a side course to Split/Second's racing, and it's best to consider them mini-games amongst the speed and explosions.

All things said, if you don't like racing games, Split/Second won't give you that Burnout 3-esque epiphany that drives you to enjoy them for a scant few weeks. If you're a fan of arcade racers, Split/Second's worth a try, as the full game is rather entertaining when it comes together (and it's definitely better than the demo). I can only unequivocally recommend purchasing Split/Second to dedicated arcade racing fans who would play through a less popular Burnout game or similar arcade racer. If you can tolerate tremendously frustrating aspects of a game for moments of spectacular triumph and satisfaction as you speed across the finish line with a trail of explosions, Split/Second will entertain you for a week or three.

Split/Second's mechanics are innovative and entertaining, and I sincerely hope Black Rock Studios gets another chance to improve upon these efforts. With some time to tweak the balancing issues and create a fair and strategic racing experience for a sequel, this could become a very interesting and exciting racing franchise. Despite my heavy disappointment with the actual gameplay itself, I enjoy Split/Second's rampant explosiveness, and look forward to the next attempt to make cities and cars explode at will.
12 Comments Refresh
Posted by Wickstrom

I love the concept of Split/Second. Unfortunately, after playing the demo, I was very disappointed with the car handling, and the lackluster AI.

Posted by SkinnyBlue

 Great review, I finished playing the demo and enjoyed the feel and look of the game, but I felt that maybe it would get old fast. I love arcade racing games, though, so I think I'll pick it up and see how long it can keep me busy for. Thanks for your help.

Edited by Chaser324

Great review. You pretty much summed up the way I feel about the game. It's a great concept, but the driving mechanics are a little broken and the AI can be frustratingly cheap at times. 
Personally, I've basically gotten to a point with this game where I don't really want to play this game any more. I'm a little over halfway through the season mode and the AI has gotten just insanely cheap. There are far too many times where I've been out in front with the finish line in view only to be passed by four cars that seemingly come out of nowhere, and I end up coming in fifth. 
The online is also way too unbalanced. Pretty much every match I've ever gotten into is four or five people using top-tier vehicles that are guaranteed to walk away with the top positions, and then myself and two or three others with low or mid-tier vehicles battling it out at the back of the pack in hopes of snatching fifth or sixth place.

Posted by UnsolvedParadox

Looking forward to your review of Blur to compare Split/Second with!

Posted by JohnZimmerman

I too enjoyed the demo. My only question is rent or buy?

Posted by Trace
@JohnZimmerman said:
" I too enjoyed the demo. My only question is rent or buy? "
I'm not sure I can answer a "rent or buy" judgment call definitively, as it depends how much you'd value your time with a game like Split/Second and how much cash you're willing to spare for such experiences. I'll try to elaborate a little on its value beyond what I said in the review, though.
If you were quick or didn't care about earning all the points in each event, you could experience the game's content in a long day or two of gaming. At a more casual pace, depending on skill level, completing the game's season entirely is about one to three weeks worth of gameplay. That's not counting any urges to replay content just for fun, and I'll admit that though I've spent a lot of time with Blur recently, I've wanted to go back into Split/Second's quick play and try some races and the survival mode.
If you use a service like Gamefly or something that doesn't charge per rental, then renting Split/Second's the best choice by far. Otherwise, if it strikes you as a game you might come back to (e.g., you still have the urge to jump back into the demo even after a few races on the same airport track), you might consider buying it, but considering how quickly it's been dropping in price, I wouldn't pay more than $40 for a copy.
I'm not a fan of renting, but if you just want to experience the initial crazy explosiveness the game offers and not much more, that's probably the best solution. Otherwise, wait until it gets down to a nice price point before purchasing it. If arcade racing is your cup of tea, I don't think either choice is a regrettable decision.
Posted by Chaser324
@UnsolvedParadox said:
" Looking forward to your review of Blur to compare Split/Second with! "
Me too. I really prefer Blur to Split/Second, but I'm curious how you feel about it.
Posted by Trace
@Chaser324 said:
" @UnsolvedParadox said:
" Looking forward to your review of Blur to compare Split/Second with! "
Me too. I really prefer Blur to Split/Second, but I'm curious how you feel about it. "
I wasn't planning on writing a review for Blur at first, but the further I get through both its singleplayer and multiplayer, the more points of contention and conversation I see. I'll probably write something up once I beat all the singleplayer rivals and get a little closer to level 50 in multiplayer.
Posted by Chaser324
Blur really is a very strange game in a lot of ways. The disconnect between the PGR style car handling and Mario Kart style power up system definitely makes the gamplay feel unnatural and forced at first. However, after spending some time with it, I finally managed to wrap my head around how the game is supposed to be played, and I started to really like it.
I can definitely imagine some people having trouble "understanding" it though, and as a result, not getting very far into Blur. I think that the whole "Mario Kart with attitude" marketing campaign has done a real disservice to this game because the gameplay doesn't really feel very much like a kart racer. In fact, if you try to play this game like Mario Kart, you probably aren't going to progress very far or have much fun.
That's just my opinion though.
Posted by UnsolvedParadox
@PsEG said:
" @Chaser324 said:
" @UnsolvedParadox said:
" Looking forward to your review of Blur to compare Split/Second with! "
Me too. I really prefer Blur to Split/Second, but I'm curious how you feel about it. "
I wasn't planning on writing a review for Blur at first, but the further I get through both its singleplayer and multiplayer, the more points of contention and conversation I see. I'll probably write something up once I beat all the singleplayer rivals and get a little closer to level 50 in multiplayer. "
Cool, and I'll try to make a long-delayed return to Race Night. :)
Posted by Digi7alS3lf

Great review.
I played the demo, and by the second time i played the race, the WOW factor had gone, and i got kind of frustrated. If you wanna win a race, stay third or fourth until the last lap, and then blow everyone. 
I believe this one is gonna have a nice sequel... that's for sure

Posted by Solh0und

The idea of this game intrigued me but It was the A.I. that was the major fault of this game in my opinion. I wish I rented Blur instead of this from gamefly. Nice review man.

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