Review: Split/Second

Do you remember that part at the end of Return of the Jedi, where Lando is flying the Millennium Falcon through a corridor as the Death Star itself explodes around him? Remember how exciting it was, when he just barely cleared the exit, a plume of flames and spaceship debris chasing mere hundredths of seconds behind?

Split/Second isn't a game that glorifies the fundamentals of racing. These are represented, sure; folks familiar with the genre will likely be drifting and drafting onto the podium within the first few races. More than that, though, Split/Second rewards players who quickly master the art of catastrophe evasion -- an art which frequently requires you to navigate cinematic hazards mimicking Lando's narrow escape. It's a winning recipe that provides some of the most satisfying thrills I've ever experienced while behind the wheel of a virtual automobile.
These thrills are provided by Split/Second's destructible environments, which serve as traps players can set off at the most opportune moment using "Power Plays." You store up the energy required to activate these traps by drifting, jumping, drafting and dodging your adversaries' hazards. There's a pleasantly wide variety of machinations you can use to destroy your opponents, from blowing up a stationary oil tanker to bringing down an entire dam on the heads of every car unfortunate enough to be ahead of you.

It's not enough to strategically set off Power Plays, however -- if you want to place in the top three, you'll need to spend some time learning where the nastier traps are on each course, and learn how best to avoid them. It's fairly satisfying to cause a helicopter to crash directly on top of your rival, but when you're the one in the hot seat, and you manage to pull through by the skin of your teeth -- that's when the true genius of Split/Second shines through.

The premise for the game's single-player campaign is that you're a (presumably highly paid, steely-nerved) stunt driver competing in a series of televised races. Each of the campaign's 12 episodes are broken down into four events, one bonus event which unlocks after wrecking a set number of opponents, and one "Elite" race, which you must come in third or higher in to move onto the next episode.

You'll encounter a refreshing assortment of event types in each episode. There's your standard Race mode, an "Elimination" mode which repeatedly removes the last-place racer until just one car remains, and a "Detonation" mode where you have to beat a set lap time while Power Plays are automatically triggered around you.

It almost always leaves you trembling after crossing the finish line.

Things really go to silly town in some of the game's more unique modes, such as "Air Strike," in which you avoid missiles fired at you by a relentless attack helicopter, and "Air Revenge," in which you store up energy to retaliate against said chopper. My personal favorite was "Survival," which tasks you with passing up big rigs while dodging the explosive barrels they frequently spill behind them.

There are only a handful of tracks, but each one can be broken down into smaller courses to provide a bit more diversity to your surroundings. In addition, some of the larger Power Plays can drastically alter the layout of the map (while wrecking swaths of drivers in the process).

Each map, and all the explosive traps therein, look absolutely drop-dead gorgeous -- a fact you can easily appreciate thanks to Split/Second's barely-there HUD. The sound design is equally impressive, with eardrum-rattling explosions and engine roars. The soundtrack consists of just one song, but it changes dynamically based on your performance, swelling to an epic crescendo as you take out those last few racers with the finish line in sight.

Unfortunately, the sky-high production values and near-constant thrills are bogged down by a few weak links, the most egregious of these being the aggressively unfair rubber-banding which rears its head in most races, particularly those against the game's set of "Elite" opponents. These expert drivers are capable of summoning supernatural bursts of speed, sending them effortlessly soaring past you -- even, frustratingly enough, in a race's final stretch.

You'll rarely find yourself on the receiving end of Split/Second's elastic balancing mechanism -- in fact, races have a tendency to become a bit lopsided in the event that someone manages to pull significantly ahead of the pack. As the other seven racers squabble amongst one another, the leader can drive without fear of explosions or landslides or wrecking balls -- unless, of course, that leader is you, since your AI adversaries can elect to jump to lightspeed whenever they fall too far behind.

Also, more than half of the cars handle as though they aren't actually cars at all, but rather, slabs of margarine molded into the shapes of cars. You can choose to not drive these uncontrollable buttercars for most of the events, but the time trial "Detonation" mode usually locks you into the game's slipperier vehicles.

Though occasionally frustrating, these flaws don't do much to deter from the overall enjoyability of the game. In fact, they're completely abated by the online and split-screen multiplayer offerings. Some of the most fun I had with Split/Second was when I was playing the barrel-dodging "Survival" mode in split-screen -- an experience which lent itself to frequent screaming and childlike squealing.

Split/Second defies so many of the tropes I've come to expect from the racing genre in recent years. It doesn't possess the customization features of a Forza or a Need For Speed, and it lacks some of the arcade-friendly gameplay variety offered by a Mario Kart and a Blur. However, more than any other racer that precedes it, Split/Second creates dramatic tension and cinematic thrills in every single race, and it almost always leaves you trembling after crossing the finish line.

Ultimately, it's a game about driving into explosions, and attempting to come out the other side unharmed. I don't know about you, but that seems to me like a genre worth supporting.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of Split/Second provided by Disney.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.