Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Split Second | Last Gen Regen: Forgotten Favourites

Welcome to the second edition of Last Gen Regen: Forgotten Favourites! Today I'm going to shift things up a gear by taking a look at an overlooked arcade racer by the name of Split Second.  The game was developed by the Brighton based team Black Rock Studios, who had previously released the much loved ATV game, Pure (though that one was made by a different team).  Black Rock Studios were known as Climax Racing in their previous incarnation, before Disney Interactive acquired them. It was Disney that published both Pure and Split Second, before shutting down the studio shortly afterwards. The game was released in May of 2010, just one week before rival racing game Blur was released.  This fact means that neither game performed as well as it might have done unfortunately.  I'm going to cover Blur at another time, as I think both games deserve their own episode.

The premise of Split Second is that at an undisclosed time in the near future, a reality TV series has taken the world by storm where contestants race around a condemned city that is rigged with all manner of explosive devices and traps. As you build up a power meter by drifting around corners, drafting behind opponents, narrowly missing danger and by exceuting big jumps, you can execute what the game calls "Power Plays", that let you trigger these devices around the track in an attempt to wreck your rivals.  They could be racing near a gas station for example, so you can detonate the entire place, or there might be a crane by the track that you can set swinging dangerously into the path of the race.  These examples are both fairly mild, level one Power Plays though.  By banking enough power so that your meter fills up into the red zone, you can release level two Power Plays that have the potential to completely reshape the path of a race.  See that control tower by the side of the airport track? Not any more you don't, it's just been vaporised, forcing everying down a different path for the rest of the race!  While these Power Plays do have the potential to feel a little gimmicky once the novelty has worn off, and the campaign can start to feel just a bit repetitive during the later stages, for the most part they add a lot of excitement to the game and are just dynamic enough to remain interesting. So that's the basic set up, but how does the rest of the game fare? Let's break it down in more depth shall we?

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Almost all of the events take place either at midday or at sunset with just a few set a night, so there's a lot of bright sunlight flooding the screen.  It reminds me of a Michael Bay film back before he started making nothing but crap, such as Bad Boys or The Rock.  I love the way that the game has been designed with almost no HUD at all - your speed, power meter, and lap counter are all cleverly place on a readout situated on the back of the car itself.  This lack of screen clutter allows you to focus on the race and soak in the impressive explosions that are constantly popping off.  For the most part the game performs adequately but there is the occasional frame rate dip when something major is happening such as an entire building collapsing on 4 or 5 cars at the same time.  It doens't really effect the game play too adversely but it is there so I have dock a point for that I'm afraid.  Other than that though, Split Second looks very nice indeed and still holds up pretty well today.

Sound: 9 out of 10
The sound design in Split Second is absolutely glorious, from the way the explosions totally envelop you and the shrapnel flying mere inches away from your car cuts through the air, to the dynamic music.  Special mention has to go to the music in this game, in particular the tune that plays during the Elite Races that cap every "episode" of the show.  It sounds incredibly cinematic, and as you claw your way up the field into the top three (which is the requirement to proceed) another layer of instrumentation is added with more bass coming in and some very funky guitar work.  It really helps build the tension and excitement in these events, which after all are supposed to be the highlight of each episode of the fictional show.  There is not much voice over work in the game, but what's there is very well done as well, with an announcer telling you what's coming up in today's episode and also giving you a sneak peak of the next one.  Great stuff all round!

Wiping out five rivals with an exploding power plant is actually quite satisfying - who knew?

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
I've already described how the basic races function in the intro, but there's a bit more to Split Second than that.  The main campaign mode is broken down into 12 episodes, which represent an entire season of the show.  Each episode has 6 events within it, with four being unlocked initially.  The 5th event is always a bonus event which is unlocked by wrecking a certain number of opponents within that chapter.  Normally you will have wrecked enough cars by that point to unlock it, but occasionally you may have to replay an event or two to get enough wrecks.  Event six is always the Elite Race, and is unlocked by earn a certain amount of points in earlier races.  These don't have to be from within the same episode though so say you get to the end of episode 12 and you are a little short of points to be able to take on the Elite Race (which probably will happen) - simple, just go back to a previous episode and find an event that you didn't do as well in as you could have done.  Perform better and earn some more points towards your goal.  Every event in the game has the potential to award your 50 points if you manage to get first place, then 40 for second, 30 for third, etc. While progress was fairly rapid in the first half of the campaign, by the end of it I was having to go back to earlier races for more points.

There are also a few more modes besides the standard races that I've already described.  There is also an Elimination mode much like those seen in other games, except with the added complication of the Power Plays, and a time trial mode called Detonator where you are given a fixed car for the event.  So far, so standard.  Things get more interesting after this though with the addition of some modes that are unique to Split Second.  First up we have Air Attack.  In this, a fully armed and operational attack helicopter will be firing rockets at you, denoted by red targets on the track surface.  You have to avoid taking a direct hit or suffering too much splash damage which will eventually cause your car to explode.  Get wiped out three times and your race is over.  As you clear more and more waves without losing a life, you will build up a score multiplier, and if you don't take any damage at all whilst still maintaining a decent speed you will earn a perfect wave bonus - this is the secret to earning a high score.  Later on in the campaign there is also the addition of an Air Revenge mode, where the attack helicopter returns.  This time, by building up your power play meter, you can then send the missiles back at the helicopter and eventually take it down.  Level one power plays just take one pip off the helicopters health bar, whereas saving up a full meter and releasing a level two power play takes off four pips, so ultimately it's faster to wait until your meter is full.

Finally, for the main game at least, there is Survival mode.  In this, giant big rig trucks are constantly doing laps around the track, all the while dropping red and blue explosive barrels.  The blue barrels will damage you, and the red barrels will wreck you instantly.  You don't have a fixed amount of lives, in this mode you can be wrecked many times.  Instead, you are up against a tight time limit which is increased by passing the trucks.  As you keep passing trucks unscathed, once again you build up a score multiplier.  There are also other cars on the track that are there to get in your way. The first time you play this mode it takes place in a storm drain of the type featured in the famous chase sequence from Terminator 2, which is really awesome!

So that's the structure of the game, but how does it actually play? Really well! The handling feels spot on, with each car having a different weight and drift style to it (new cars are earned by meeting certain point thresholds, by the way).  The drifting feels really good, with you really able to throw the cars around the corners with extreme precision after just a few goes to get a feel for it.  The rumble in this game is also very well implemented, adding to the immersion immensely. It's not something I would normal notice or comment on unless it is truly exceptional, as it is in this game. With Split Second, Black Rock have crafted an arcade racer that rivals the true great of the genre such as Ridge Racer, Sega Rally, and Burnout - it's a tragedy that it isn't as well known as it deserves to be.  Those who do know of it do love it for the most part, though.

This is the Survival mode - watch out for those barrels or say bye bye to your chassis!
Innovation & Cleverness: 7 out of 10
I'm going to give Split Second a fairly high score here (at least, higher than I usually give) because the combination of triggered explosions with the TV show format is quite unique, especially to the racing genre.  The closest thing I can think of is MotorStorm Apocalypse but that came along quite a long time afterwards and you don't actually have any control over the destruction in that game.  It isn't nearly as dynamic either.  Nope, there isn't really anything else quite like Split Second out there.  We may well have received a sequel, but Disney in their infinite wisdom pulled the plug on Black Rock, and the team went their separate ways.  Some of them continued to work on racing games alongside veterans from Bizarre Creations, Eden Studios and Codemasters, to form the Forza Horizon developers Playground Games.  Others moved on to making mobile games at companies like Shortround Games.  So luckily, it wasn't truly game over for most of these guys!

Value & Replayability: 7 out of 10
The main campaign mode in Split Second is actually fairly short, lasting roughly 10-12 hours.  You can add on a bit more if you are a completionist and want to try and get first place in every single event.  Also, it may be just because I was trying to play through the whole game in a fairly short space of time, but I was starting to tire of the power play mechanic just a little bit by the end of the whole thing.  I love the Air Attack mode though, so it's a shame that it's totally replaced by the Air Revenge mode about half way through the campaign and never comes back.

As usual in these reviews, I am basing this score on what the game would cost you today, and not what it was originally selling for. So, you should be able to find a copy of Split Second for a fiver or less fairly easily, which is a very good price for the amount of fun on offer. I did hop online to see if anyone was still playing the multiplayer mode, and was surprised to get into a full lobby on my first try.  This was just in the race mode though - the other modes were pretty empty.

Finally, there are some DLC packs available which add a couple of new modes, some extra tracks and cars into the game.  I thought these tracks were really good, so it's a shame they are only in the free play mode and not incorpated into an extra episode or two of the campaign. There was potential for them to do a "Christmas Special" or something and give the DLC a bit more structure.  As it is I can't really see myself playing them that much.

Overall: 9 out of 10
If you haven't played Split Second already and you still have your PS3 or Xbox 360 then you should definitely acquire a copy and play through the campaign, it's a ton of fun.  The game may also be available through the PS Now service, though I'm not sure about that.  Hopefully one day it will also be made backwards compatible on the Xbox One, though I doubt that will happen as Disney don't seem terribly interested in the game industry these days.  Nevertheless, for a short time they were putting out some solid titles with the help of developers like Black Rock and Avalanche. Perhaps we will get a spiritual successor to Split Second one day, in the meantime we still have the original, which I think holds up fantastically well today.  That's all I have for this time - next time I will probably be playing Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, so see you then! In the meantime, take care!

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