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.
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.
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.
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.