Split/Second

It’s well designed, with a lot of smart ideas in it, but it was more frustrating than fun to play. Despite having tracks that are far more active than an average racing game, there’s not enough variety to keep things interesting, either in the track-design or in the variety of events.

I’m not that good at racing games, and this one in particular gave me a lot of trouble. This is not the sort of game where every corner should be drifted around, and so learning when to let off the gas is important. While I like the fancy holographic HUD, and appreciate its unobtrusiveness it unfortunately lacks a speedometer, which is essential for this sort of learning. It’s such a basic oversight . Even in a full-on arcade racer like Burnout I find it useful. In Split/Second, where cars are heavier and there’s no ability to boost back up to top speed if a turn goes wrong, it’s absolutely necessary. Over and over I’d careen and spin out into walls because I took a turn too fast. And if it makes learning hard, it makes refinement impossible. Even though I drifted perfectly through that corner, did I lose so much speed coming out of it that it would make more sense to slow down a bit more and maintain traction? Who knows?

The single-player is fun for a while, but it wears out its welcome. There aren’t enough tracks. There are 11 on the disc, but a bunch of them overlap so it really feels like there are only half that number. (All this overlap hurts learning, too. Is this the track that follows up this hard right turn with a hard left, or with a gentle right?) Most events are races against either AI cars or against the clock. A few give good practice at dodging, which is appreciated. The events felt unusually hard. I’m not sure if the AI was rubber-banded, or if they just had better cars than me or what, but it generally felt like they were in faster cars than me, and the only way I could keep up was both to drive perfectly and hit them with power plays.

The single player also felt lonely. I didn’t write about it, but I played Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit a few months back. It’s a solid game, but far and away its best feature is something called “Autolog”. It’s essentially an online high-score list comprised just of people on your friends list. Much like the leaderboards in SpaceChem it gives an extra incentive to play well and extra competition to benchmark against. Obviously a game like Split/Second where the track can change each lap is not ideal for this feature, but I still think it would have been nice to have.

The multiplayer I also found quite difficult. I played perhaps a dozen races in the one active room that seemed to be running. I suppose 6-8 players online in a game 18 months after it came out is not bad, but it was, as usual, frustrating when half the room was at maximum level and had clearly been playing the game a lot since it came out. So that clearly made it difficult. But on top of that, there are core elements of the game’s design that, I think, just don’t work well.

Let’s talk about those power plays for a second. The idea is that, instead of having good driving earn boost as in something like Burnout, good driving builds up a meter that lets you alter the track and trigger attacks on other cars. This idea is great in theory. It makes the lap-based races dynamic. The layout of the course on the last lap will likely be very different from the first. More subtly, it alters the risk-topology of the track. Certain areas of the track, while technically being drivable, are dangerous until their power plays have been used up. The placement of power plays at the entrances to corners is particularly smart. Do I slow down to take the curve better, or barrel through to avoid the risk of getting hit by an explosion or whatnot.

This is all great in theory, but it practice, what defeats it is that effectively triggering a power play requires two things that can’t always be depended upon: a useful power play to trigger and a car near enough to use it against. In single player, where the cars spread out fairly evenly, and where competitors don’t trigger a lot of power plays themselves, this works out pretty well. In multiplayer, however, what I found was, first of all, players would spread out much more than in single player, so often I’d be in 5th or 6th place, but out of sight of the player ahead of me, and so there just wouldn’t be anyone near enough to attack. Crashing when you’re neck and neck with a competitor generally means that they’ll be too far ahead to use power plays on when you respawn. This, I think, is the primary source of the spreading out. You can imagine a model where evenly skilled drivers randomly crash and fall back, where this is more likely to happen when they’re close to another driver. My bet is that the drivers will end up spread out very quickly, despite being of the same skill. Having some driver be better than others will just exacerbate the situation, since the better drivers will get ahead and stay ahead.

And even when there was someone close enough, the rate of power play usage early on when everyone was clumped up was so high that there wouldn’t be any power plays left to use in the later laps. More than once, I finished a race with a full energy bar even though I triggered power plays at every single opportunity I had.

But even then, the number of useful power plays is pretty small. All the short-cuts are useful, but they’re useful for spreading the pack out more, and letting people who are already ahead get more ahead. The rock-slides seemed pretty useful, since they’re hard to avoid to begin with, and network issues make them work. But beyond those, there just aren’t very many of the power plays that are hard for experienced human players to dodge. Maybe it’ll slow them down a bit, but not much.

So this all means that the back half of most races was pretty dull, with an emphasis on driving very precisely, and very emphasis on the dynamism and explosions that are supposed to be a core part of the experience. I’d crash once early on, take a bad turn, and then just be out of contact for the rest of the race.

The game’s presentation, on the other hand, is top-notch. It doesn’t really leverage the reality show setting, but otherwise, the music, the sound-design, the graphics, they’re all great. The game feels smooth even at its most hectic. I particularly love that the soundtrack isn’t the usual high-energy rock stuff that’s in a lot of racing games, but is instead original, orchestral compositions. The sound on the power plays is delightful. The way everything goes a little quiet just before a big explosion hits, like the game is holding its breath along with me.

It’s pretty clear why the first series of events take place around the Airport level. The big power play – a plane crashing down a runway head-on into the racers – is spectacular and terrifying, even if it’s actually quite easy to dodge.

The one other note I want to mention is that the game presents an unusually poor experience upon start-up. After what feels like more than usual number of screens of logos and then the auto-save warning, and then a loading screen, we come to the main “Press Start” splash screen. When I press Start at said screen, everyone freezes up for a few seconds while the game loads from the hard drive. It’s deeply disconcerting when my first interaction with the game causes it to, apparently, lock up.

So that’s Split/Second. It’s well made, looks great, but if the goal of an arcade racing game is to provide me with fun (and what else would it be? I’m certainly not playing the game for its compelling plot or interesting characters) then the game has failed, for the most part.

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