Split/Second Hands-On

We visited developer Black Rock for a brand-new look at Split/Second, including the new downtown track and Nemesis mode.

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Next year, Black Rock Studios will follow up Pure with its second arcade racer, Split/Second. Despite the move from off-road ATV racing to city-based action, the team is incredibly bullish about its aspirations. "We don't just want to have the best visual effects of any racing game; we want to have the best visual effects in any genre," boasted Nick Baynes, game director at Black Rock. Thankfully, he has the goods to back it up. The game boasts an incredible number of visual effects--dynamically lit particles, real-time smoke shadows, and deferred rendering techniques--which are impressive even when you're racing by at ridiculous speeds.

Split/Second wears its Hollywood influences on its sleeve, and it's undoubtedly what a racing game would look like if Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer went into video games. Thankfully, the team seems to have taken the better parts of the pair's movies and applied them to the genre, such as incredible stunts, spectacular explosions, and nonstop action. In a nutshell, Split/Second is an arcade racer where drifts, jumps, and near-misses earn you the ability to pull off power plays, which are dramatic events that either take out other racers or open up shortcuts. These are usually highly explosive events: aeroplanes come soaring overhead, huge towers collapse, and cruise ships come crashing into the track, all as you race. These all change the course dynamically from lap to lap, so in theory you very rarely get the same race twice.

The last time we saw Split/Second was at the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo, and we came away so impressed that we nominated it for an E3 Editors' Choice Award for Best Racing Game. The game has progressed even further since then, and the docks circuit that we saw in LA boasts a much more stable frame rate. "I think we'll look back at the E3 build and be embarrassed," said Baynes, acknowleding how far the game has come in a few short months. Not only has it improved visually, but the game also feels more fun to play--the result of internal and external focus testing, according to Baynes.

Our visit to Black Rock in Brighton, UK, allowed us to find out a lot more about what to expect in the finished game, including a new racing location and game mode. Split/Second will be set in one giant city, an as-yet-unnamed 20-square-kilometer metropolis which is split into distinct areas, such as the airport and the dock areas seen previously. This time, we also got to play the brand-new downtown area, where entire bridges collapsed, train tracks exploded, and there was even the hint of entire skyscrapers toppling, although the team didn't want to spoil the game's bigger power plays.

It's important to note that despite the large city, this is not an open-world game. Split/Second is essentially a game show, with 24 episodes consisting of a few races each. The city itself has been built especially for this game show, making Split/Second very much like the film Death Race, only without the death. This is a Disney game, so while there is plenty of action, Black Rock has consciously avoided anything too violent, and the visuals favour warm colours and bright lighting. The game show doesn't have a host, but each episode will see you racing in three to four events, and you need to finish in the top three in the last event to make it to the next episode. At the end of the episode, you'll see a trailer for the next show, which will reveal the next power play that you'll get to unlock, and they'll get bigger and crazier the more you progress.

While standard races will form the meat of the game, around 40 percent will be special events, such as the one we were shown called Nemesis, which was inspired by Terminator 2's viaduct chase scene. In this mode you have to race against the clock while huge trucks drop explosive barrels in your path. Blue barrels will knock seconds off your time if they hit you, while the red barrels will kill you instantly. There are also other racers to compete against, all trying to take you out, but if you can consistently avoid the barrels and overtake the lorries, more time will be added to the counter. It looks like it will be a fun mode, and even though the barrels were made from placeholder graphics at this stage, we look forward to competing against the clock with friends.

Black Rock says that it has plenty more locations and game modes to reveal, as well as more tweaking to do based on user feedback. Indeed, Baynes seemed very interested in how we were playing the game, asking for feedback on the experience. We thought that the game could do with more visual clues showing where you need to go, but once you've played each track, you start to learn the route and where the big power plays are. While the opponent AI is still being tweaked, it's not an easy game at this stage, and we failed to finish in pole position despite repeated attempts on the docks track.

The team has been conscious of avoiding genre conventions, so there's no boost button, and while you will unlock new vehicles and decals, the cars themselves are secondary stars to the power plays. The rewards system is build completely around the power plays, so the prospect of bigger and better explosions is what will drive you through the game. Clearly, the episodic format also favours downloadable content, although Black Rock claims that it hasn't thought that far ahead yet. While we didn't get to see any multiplayer, Baynes says you can expect eight-player online races, including special events, as well as two-player split-screen.

Split/Second is looking as promising as ever, and the new trailer shows just how explosive the experience can be. The game is scheduled for an early 2010 release, so there's plenty of time not only for the team to polish what's in place, but also to tease us with more tracks and game modes over the coming months. With a talented team following on from the success of Pure, this is one racing game to keep an eye on, so check out our brand-new video interview, and watch out for more info on the game next year.

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