The current talking point in racing-game circles is whether merely racing is enough. Turn apexes, ideal racing lines, and the general craft of driving skillfully, it seems, aren't enough to keep the casual crowd happy, and now game developers are struggling to figure out how the arcade racing genre can evolve to keep bringing new fans to the consoles. Lately, we've seen more than a few racing-game experiments looking for answers, but one that certainly has our attention is the upcoming Split/Second, which we had a chance to try today during a Disney Interactive press event.
Developed by Black Rock Studio, Split/Second is as arcade a racer as they come. Cars rip around tracks at ludicrous speeds, with only the slightest requirements of brake usage. Rail riding is a perfectly valid tactic, even if it does scrub speed off of your car as you go, and real wrecks come only with the most dramatic of collisions. However, what sets the game apart from every other arcade racer we've played before is the sheer amount of mayhem that you can create in this game thanks to the so-called "powerplay" system.
As you whip around in your car, you'll gradually fill up your power meter (indicated by a colored meter beneath your car). With enough power built up, you can set off powerplays by pressing the A or B button at the precise moment. Smaller powerplay moments (executed with the A button) will result in minor catastrophes on the track; for example, a bus that was previously inert at the side of the road will all of a sudden explode and shoot out into the middle of the road, taking any cars out in the process. Likewise, a helicopter might drop an exploding barrel in the road, wrecking any cars caught in the explosion.
If you fill up your boost meter completely and subsequently press the B button at the right time, you'll execute an absolutely cataclysmic powerplay that will have major repercussions on your opponents and the very track itself. Consider the airport-themed track shown off in the game demo. At various points on the track, executing a "major" powerplay will do anything from topple a control tower to blow up an entire terminal, or send a jumbo jet hurtling down the runway in a crash landing aimed directly for your car.
All of this mass chaos is explained away in the game's narrative, which finds you driving through the sets of a series of action-themed television shows. These scenes of destruction aren't happening in the "real" world of the game, but that doesn't take away from their impact. During our first few laps in Split/Second, we continuously saw destructive havoc that had us smiling from ear to ear. As cool as the powerplay moments look, they're also effective for taking out opponents. That said, they're just as dangerous as they are useful. As you get used to the track, you'll find the best spots to use powerplays to cause the most damage both to the surroundings and your opponents, while also making sure to leave yourself in the clear to make up some race positions.
Graphically, Split/Second is running off of a modified version of the engine behind 2008's Pure (another Black Rock Studio creation). The game's frame rate, even at this early stage, is holding together remarkably well, considering the volume of destruction displayed onscreen. The explosions are big and fiery, and the crumbling dust effects when buildings topple are dramatic. In some moments, these effects are almost too much; it's easy to lose your way in all of the chaos and get caught in a crash. Producers told us that they're aiming for 30 frames per second when the game ships next year, and they aren't that far off the mark now.
Currently the game supports only eight cars on the track in a race--a number that we wouldn't mind seeing bumped up at some point--but if our hands-on time is any indication, the racing will be tight from back to front. We had several moments in which we found ourselves in front of the pack, only to get the business end of a powerplay moment and become an instant back-marker. And given that the game's tracks are always changing thanks to the destructive powerplays, you can expect new shortcuts to frequently open up.
Will Split/Second pick up the mantle from 2009's Burnout Paradise as the arcade racer of choice? That depends on several factors: track variety, the frequency and variety of powerplay moments found in the game, and the driving model itself. If Black Rock Studios can nail all of these things and toss in some compelling online modes to boot, Split/Second has a real shot at shaking up the arcade racing genre. The game is currently due for release in early 2010, and we'll be following its progress all the way to the finish line. Look for more coverage on the game during GameSpot's coverage of E3 2009.