Speeding down an airport runway in a shiny red sports car is cool; speeding down an airport runway with an out-of-control aircraft thundering toward you is insane. That's the idea behind Split/Second, an arcade racer in which you wreck your opponents by triggering destructive hot spots scattered all about the track. The frequent explosions, tumbling debris, and resulting tug-of-war among racers are undeniably stimulating, at least for a while. You'll whoop for joy when you demolish four opponents at once as they pass under a fuel station and moan aloud when a falling concrete beam crushes your vehicle like a beer can. These jolts are electrifying, but they aren't lasting ones. Once you learn the tracks and the tricks, the excitement dies away. Then, you realize that underneath the booms and bangs is a solid but one-dimensional racer that relies almost completely on a single mechanic. That mechanic isn't enough to boost Split/Second to the head of the pack, but it is still a fun racer with a lot of speed and a lot of spark.
Split/Second is all about power plays. As you zip about the 11 tracks (a 12th empty slot hints at the possibility of future downloadable content), you earn power by drifting, drafting, and getting air. Once you gain enough power, icons appear, indicating an opportunity to take down opponents by triggering a destructive event. If you press a button, a helicopter might drop metal pipes onto the course, a crane may go sliding across the roadway, or rocks and boulders may erupt from a canyon wall. Alternatively, you might trigger a bridge to be lowered or a door to be raised, opening up a temporary shortcut. If you trigger a level-two power play after completely filling your power bar, the devastation is even more dramatic. A chunk of roadway could collapse, changing that entire section of the course, or you might cause that enormous airplane to barrel menacingly down the runway. Just be mindful: You could fall victim to your own power play.
The first few times you unleash your newfound power on an opponent are breathtaking. Explosions and screeches are loud and obnoxious, and if you're driving a lighter vehicle, the powerful shocks might send you careening out of control for a moment. You won't always steer clear of trouble, however. Depending on your position and the timing of your opponent's power play, there may be no evading that enormous obstacle that comes crashing down in front of you. If you've ever cursed the unavoidable blue shell in the Mario Kart series, the inescapable events in Split/Second might annoy you. But getting wrecked is rarely frustrating, for several reasons. Firstly, power play triggers are intelligently laid out, so you aren't likely to get caught up in an inexorable string of accidents. (It's possible to respawn in the middle of more devastation and wreck immediately, but such aggravations are uncommon.) Secondly, the game gets you back into the race quickly after you crash. And thirdly, being behind the pack isn't really a bad thing because it gives you the opportunity to bust up the competition.
The single-player campaign is structured as a reality television show on which you are contestant. Split/Second doesn't do a whole lot with the premise (you won't meet any slimy TV producers or peek in on any bloodthirsty viewers), but each episode's introduction and credit sequence is produced so well that you look forward to seeing what courses you unlock next. Episodes and one-off events include the usual races and elimination matches, all limited to eight participants. There are a few additional modes worth noting, however. In Survivor mode, you earn points by passing a series of semitrucks as you circle around the course. There's some fine print, however: These trucks are dropping explosive barrels onto the track. The more trucks you pass without wrecking, the faster you accumulate points. In Air Revenge mode, you must avoid a helicopter's missile strikes long enough to trigger a power play that deflects the missiles back toward the badly behaving chopper. Neither mode features the environmental devastation that makes Split/Second stand out, but they make for fun and anarchic diversions nonetheless.
Yet even with the variety these and a couple of other extra modes add, Split/Second comes off as a bit basic. It doesn't take long to memorize each track, including power play locations. So while entire sections of the track may change if someone activates a level-two power play, the game doesn't offer as much flexibility and variety as Burnout: Paradise or even MotorStorm: Pacific Rift. If you strip away the power plays completely, you have a solid but unspectacular racer with few trimmings. You unlock new vehicles as you play with various stats relating to power, drifting, and so on, but there is no way to customize their appearance, aside from changing their color. You also unlock decals as you play, but they appear automatically on your vehicle. Fortunately, the racing itself is smooth; a low camera angle gives sports cars a terrific sense of speed, and drifting feels great, even in the slipperiest of vehicles. Collision sensitivity, however, can go a bit awry. Sometimes you can bang into a wall and emerge perfectly intact, while at other times, barely scraping a girder can result in an immediate crash. But these are rare moments in an otherwise dependable racing model.
Once you've cut your teeth on the single-player season, you can show off your racing and crashing expertise online. There's a rather bare-bones experience here. You can jump quickly into a race using the Public Game option, but the game cycles through tracks on its own. Conversely, you can host a match for friends and fill empty slots with AI racers, but you can't limit the vehicles allowed in the race or even set the number of laps. Nevertheless, while it lacks the peripheral online features you'd expect from a modern racer, multiplayer Split/Second is often a riot. The AI is aggressive, but computer opponents don't offer the cutthroat competition human players do. In full races, expect an intriguing tug-of-war as pack leaders fall victim to well-timed power plays from racers lagging behind. Besides, it's always a pleasure to destroy a competitor who previously caused an enormous wrecking ball to smash into the side of your racecar.
You can play Elimination and Survival matches with other players, though standard races offer the most pound-for-pound thrills. (Multiplayer Survival can get too chaotic for its own good.) There are some Xbox 360-specific online quirks that need sorting out, however. In that version, the game may report erroneous times and point totals should a competitor drop out midrace. This issue doesn't appear to affect the points you receive toward your overall ranking. However, it's still annoying for the game to indicate you are in first place as you cross the finish line, only for the results screen to erroneously report that an AI racer crossed the finish line two minutes beforehand. We didn't experience this issue in other versions of the game, though the PC version possesses a few foibles of its own. Most noticeably, the game's button prompts don't change if you've plugged in a controller, and in some cases, contextual prompts are completely missing. For example, you will get a prompt inviting you to view an instant replay, but for some reason, the game doesn't tell you how to view it.
Split/Second is unlikely to become your go-to racer, but while it lasts, it's one hell of a thrill ride. Tailing an opponent and taking advantage of his shortcut, watching a tall tower fall onto your speeding nemesis, drifting around a corner while miraculously avoiding destruction raining from the sky--these are great moments that will make you cry out in glee. This is a one-trick pony, and once you see through the trick, it's hard not to wish there was something more substantial to support it. But if you're in the mood for some rip-roaring fun with no strings attached, Split/Second makes for a boisterous weekend romp.