Salutations! Name's Adam. I live in Oxford, I'm about to stop being a student, and I've just started writing for www.gigagamers.com (join us!). I play all sorts of games, with FPSs being perhaps my favourite genre. (Perhaps.) I have a pretty awesome gaming laptop and an Xbox 360, and I'm kind of eyeing up the PS Vita, although I recently bought a bass, so I probably ought not to splash out another load of money...
Imagine if racing was directed by Michael Bay, and you've a rough approximation of what Split/Second: Velocity looks like. Shiny sports cars and humvee-sized jeep things drifting and colliding through environments laboriously constructed and rigged to explode, and I don't just mean red barrels with convenient flame decals on them (there's a game mode where those fall off the back of trucks). Since yesterday, I've blown up a power plant cooling chimney, brought down an air control tower, dropped a bridge (and a freeway overpass) on various unfortunate opponents, derailed a freight train, dodged fighter jets on the listing deck of an aircraft carrier, and been flattened by the disintegrating engine of a flaming passenger aircraft making an emergency landing.
I mean, sure, you respawn, but still.
Developed by Black Rock Studios, the unnecessarily punctuated Split/Second: Velocity is this new racing game you've probably heard of. And it's great. The single-player (I'm about half way through) occasionally induces great frustration and will certainly continue to do so in future, and the console-designed UI and menus are almost as annoying, but the actual racing and its various game modes are packed with both adrenalin and neat new ideas. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's flawless - the nuanced drifting/cornering system could be a little more intuitive and perhaps consistent between vehicles, and the game's habit of splashing pyrotechnics and smoke everywhere occasionally leads to you dying to something you just didn't see - but I would certainly call it brilliant, or good old 'awesome'.
Cars + 'Splosions =
The main part of any racing game is the actual racing, and here, SSV doesn't disappoint. The feature around which the game is based is the range of destructible, destructive environments in which it takes place. Essentially, the game has powerups, but these are inlaid into the track itself rather than being collectibles. You activate the attacks by spending power, which is gained through drifting, drafting (basically tailgating people), jumps, and narrowly avoiding death from other people's attacks. The focus on these mechanics is nothing new, but the shift from collectible weaponry to environmental makes a major difference to how the game plays.
The levels are gloriously huge, and full of stuff that blows up - permanently. Many power-plays (what the game calls these attacks) are one-use, leaving permanent burning wreckage or rubble scattered around the landscape. Trucks which explode and tumble out into the middle of the road are present in most of the tracks, and are a good example. Some of them are so apocalyptic that they actually change the layout of the track. These route changes are, for me, the best thing about Split/Second. Not only is the landscape and powerup layout slightly different from race to race (as you will or won't be able to use certain power plays at certain times), but the entire track itself can differ. Most races seem to have two route changes, usually one near (or right at) the start and one half to two-thirds of the way through. These require a large amount of power to trigger, but can unavoidably kill several enemy racers at once AND often make the race exponentially more awesome. Great examples are the air control tower in the airport level, which opens up a runway that - the next lap round - plays host to a crashing jumbo jet for you to dodge, and the one in the Docks level that collapses a structure and turns it into a huge ramp that lands you on the deck of an aircraft carrier, where you then have to avoid fighter jets sliding down the tilted surface and into the water below. Apparently, there's a track where you get to blow up an entire dam.
Pictured: Not a dam. We destroyed the dam.
Another point in favour of the level/powerup design is the way it keeps the race tense and together. It's rare to get very far ahead or very far behind, and there are sneaky ways to catch up. Once you're at the rear of the pack, you can drift and draft all you want without anyone attacking you, store up a massive amount of power, then kill four competitors at once with a route change. (This has yet to fail to pull me out of a bad situation, for what it's worth.) Level-two power plays, which also take up a full bar of power, are another good option here. Conversely, while you're in front, it's harder to gain power (due to the absence of drafting) and you've nothing to spend it on besides changing routes or opening shortcuts. Split/Second doesn't allow you to trigger power plays without a target, which does prevent you from doing it by accident, I suppose. It doesn't feel like a restriction, in any case.
While you are in front, you get another kind of cinematic experience altogether: the wild escape. Explosions detonate all around you as enemies (inevitably right behind you) target you with power plays. You dodge, drift and generally try to get the hell away as fast as possible. I've heard it likened to the Millennium Falcon's escape of the Death Star, blazing towards space while detonations ripple around it. Often, you don't see the explosions at all, just hear the sound, feel your car skid from the shockwave, and get a splatter of smoky dirt across your screen.
The car handling seems to be solid underneath, but it's very hard to master. With many cars, it's difficult to steer at all without needing to drift; this varies widely from car to car. Once you're in the drift, then a whole new problem opens up: how to stop (and as a corollary, how to stop in such a way that you don't get overtaken by five guys or careen headlong into a building full of TNT). Again, different vehicles handle in massively different ways, with some drifting and driving straight almost on an on-off switch, while others fishtail around like Warthogs on an ice rink, seesawing wildly while you swear and frantically tap buttons in a futile attempt to get them back under control. (You can tell that this has lost me races.) So far, of the 15-ish cars I have access to, I only really use one of them. I'll have a go at the others in an environment other than the story mode, but mostly I try each one, decide it's too hard to steer properly and go back to the Cobretti GT RS, which is supposed to be hard to steer, but it seems to fit well with the way I've been playing so far. One of the Detonator events put me behind the wheel of a Cobretti Slipstream, which I loved, but haven't unlocked yet. The cars are made-up, but styled heavily after existing cars - the GT-RS, for example, seems based off a Ferrari F430. (Apparently this random site agrees with me.)
Details matter, and Split/Second has some details that I'm very pleased with. The cars you drive are made of tough stuff; tough enough that the states of 'intact' and 'dead' are binary. You can survive most crashes, unless they're at high speed; clipping walls and dying isn't as much of a risk as it was when I tried out Burnout. Driving into random crap on the road (small barriers, lamp posts, mesh gates, wreckage, etc) in most cases won't even slow you down, and never does you harm; instead it scatters before you as you plough through it. These two things are a godsend. They place the emphasis of destruction properly and mean you don't have to be too afraid of, say, shoving other racers out of the way or using walls as impromptu brakes when you're drifting. Fun times. The cars don't differ much in speed, just the way they handle and perform, which is also good; it allows you the choice of the full gamut of vehicles, but it seems they've managed to give each one its own unique feel, which you've generally got an idea of after drifting round your first corner.
The game has a nicely minimal in-game HUD, with not even a speedometer. It's the menus that grind my gears.
But Wait, There's More...
And after all that! It has other game modes, too. I'll try and make this brief. There are, I think, five game modes other than the standard race. Survival has you racing around a simple circuit dodging explosive barrels that tumble from the back of trucks, scoring points each time you overtake one, and trying to accumulate as many points as possible before the timer runs out. Of the various modes, I think this is the weakest, for the simple reason that the explosions from the barrels (and the NPC drivers around you cannoning into them) make it impossible to see the barrels beyond them. Generally, when you die in Survival, it's because you couldn't see. It also has a problem in that it plays up a small kink in the game's collision detection that kills you if a hazard juuuuust clips the upper rear of your vehicle, which of course is generally empty space as the bounding box rises above the car boot, meaning you can die to things that you're pretty sure you correctly dodged; in Survival, bouncing barrels can go straight over you, then intersect the air above your taillights by a pixel and kill you (it's happened a few times to me so far).
Air Strike and Air Revenge are perhaps the most unusual, and surprisingly fun, if sometimes frustrating. You drive around a track, and as you do so, an attack helicopter fires missiles at you. Markers highlight the targeted positions. You avoid them to score points; three direct hits and you're out. Air Revenge times you rather than giving you lives; here, as you dodge (as well as drift and jump) you gain power, and can use this power to reflect the missiles back at the helicopter, damaging it. While certain tracks can make this a tooth-grinding task, Air Strike isn't necessarily as hard nor as un-fun as it sounds, and surviving for a long time, racking up points, does make you feel pretty skilled. Not seeing the markers is occasionally a problem, but the game is kind enough to highlight their position through terrain - it's ones you hadn't noticed that then get obscured by explosions once you get near them, or ones around corners, that are problematic. What normally kills you in Air Strike, though, is explosions blowing you into other incoming missiles.
Right behind this car is a missile-firing helicopter, four wrecks, and a train bridge blowing up. Honestly.
Elimination is vicious. It's a race, but after a minute, the car in last place is permanently taken out, and the same again every 20 seconds until there's only one left. It's a lot harder than a race, because you can't cruise in last place and wait for a good opportunity to play catch-up; you need to stay near or at the front of the pack the whole time. One untimely power play or collision can take you out of the race. It's much harder, and consequently much more adrenalin-filled, but also a whole lot more frustrating in the story mode.
Detonator has you trying to beat set times on a track lap while power plays go off ahead of you. It's mostly a way to show off the best a track has to offer. It's also very difficult to beat the 'first place' record - I haven't managed to do so yet, although I think I've achieved second place on all of the ones I've done so far. It's kind of relaxing compared to the other modes; it's also cinematic, as the power plays that detonate tend to be the big, cataclysmic ones and the level-unique ones, rather than the ubiquitous bomb-dropping helicopters and such like. It'd be a great way to practice levels if it didn't judge your performance when you finished the lap.
To sum up: Split/Second makes a lot of innovations, and most of them work extremely well. It feels polished and tight, and its replay value is very high (as the race is never really the same twice). It goes straight for the adrenalin centre of your brain, and never lets up. It does have a few, generally minor, flaws, and the UI makes me want to punch it sometimes, but it's damn fun. Also, an entire dam.