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Hands-on: Split/Second

If you asked us to sum up Split/Second in one simple sentence it would be: Split/Second is like Burnout, except the world around you is the thing that gets smashed into bits.

Going into the racing-heavy E3, with showings of Forza Motorsport 3, Need for Speed: Shift and Blur (to name a few), we didn't know what to expect from Black Rock Studio (the team behind 2008's Pure). In the end we walked away with more anticipation we've had for a racing game since Burnout Paradise was first revealed. Forgetting some of the hang-ups we had with the demo, Split/Second is one of the most intense racing experiences we've had in ages.

Gallery: Split/Second | 57 Photos

Grabbing a seat, Xbox 360 controller in hand at Disney's booth during E3 2009, the Split/Second demo featured one track -- the airport shown off in the E3 trailer for the game. In the beginning of the race, players jockey for position on your standard track, circling the airport perimeter -- then, things change drastically.

The action is fast, intense and ... simply put, extremely rad.

Skillful driving builds an action meter (projected behind your car), increasing your meter for drifting, drafting and passing. The action meter is split into three sections, and using a portion of the meter will allow players to activate smaller events within the world. When an icon flashes above an adversary's car, players can send random chaos towards the target car -- limited by what events are available on that part of the track. For example, a long stretch of road behind the airport houses a row of parked buses. Using part of your action meter will send buses hurling into the road, taking out of the opposition if timed correctly (and yourself, if timed poorly).

Filling the action meter allows players to trigger large environment-altering effects. Triggering the airport control tower sends the structure plummeting to the ground below, cutting off a stretch of road for the remainder of the race and forcing players to drive through a airport landing strip (where planes will land during the race). Players can also destroy a road leading past the terminal, forcing cars to again change their course and drive through the terminal itself -- thankfully it's deserted of would-be travelers.

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The action is fast, intense and ... simply put, extremely rad. Behind closed doors we were shown a boatyard level, which allowed for the same level of environment-altering chaos; however, some of the major environment events in the boatyard level had multiple levels to them. In the beginning of a race, a large boat is suspended in midair and players simply race under it. Triggering the boat with a full action meter sends the vessel crashing, closing off the narrow passage below, but allowing players to drive through it. Another event destroys the mid-section of the boat, forcing players to a higher level of the ship.

While the world crashing moments are extremely rewarding, the game has poor car crash animations. In comparison to the world's triggered events, vehicle collisions aren't nearly as impressive as we'd like them to be.

Although Split/Second isn't scheduled to hit stores until Q1 2010, it should be noted that the game did suffer from inconsistent frame rate, mostly dropping during intense triggered events. According to a Disney representative, Black Rock is confident the game will run smoothly when it ships.

While most racing games live and die by the amount of included vehicles, Split/Second is a game where the environments are the key element to the game's success. Too few tracks and the experience will get boring over time. Split/Second allows players to change the world around them, essentially creating a new track on the fly -- but if the game ships with a limited number of tracks, it may not matter how intense the action is in the end.

It's very difficult to take a genre that is used to so many basic conventions and turn it on its ear. Hiccups and gripes aside, Split/Second is one of the best racing experiences we've had in a long time and we can't wait for more.

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