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The comparisons between Split/Second Velocity and Burnout were always inevitable. But then to make them is to actually miss the point somewhat. Sure, the two games have a considerable number of similarities, but on the same token, each of them also has enough of its own unique blueprint and DNA such that it should be held in great esteem on its own merits.
What’s also become evident too, is that Black Rock Studio, now curiously part of Disney Interactive Studios, has, seemingly out of the blue, developed quite the reputation for producing unique and distinctive racing titles. First there was Pure with its ridiculous stunt-based ATV antics, and now we have its follow-up: Split/Second Velocity which features a glorious combination of adrenalin-fuelled racing and dynamic and exciting set-pieces.
But then this shouldn’t really come as a surprise because if you actually investigate Black Rock’s softography, you’ll notice it actually has a fine heritage for producing quality racers, somewhat under the radar. My radar at least. Its back-catalogue includes ATV Offroad Fury: Blazin’ Trails, ATV Quad Power Racing 2, Hot Wheels:Stunt Track Challenge, Hot Wheels World Race and MotoGP ’06 and ’07. It’s also apparent that as the company has grown and developed, it’s also mastered the art of coming up with shorter and snappier titles for its games.
So, the fact that Pure was such a good racer, as well as its soon-to-be-fully-addressed successor, shouldn’t really come as a surprise. In fact, and I say this with no hint of irony and quite sincerely, that I now rank Black Rock Studio up there with Bizarre Creations, Codemasters, Criterion and Evolution Studio as being among the best in the business at creating the best racing games and racing engines in the world.
And, while I’m clearly biased, is it any coincidence that all of the aforementioned are British companies? There’s obviously something ingrained in our DNA.
So, what makes Split/Second Velocity so different to Burnout Paradise? While Criterion’s racer was all about spectacular and devastatingly brutal crashes in addition to the multitude of opportunities offered up by its open world, Split/Second Velocity offers a much tighter and more focused experience that revolves around its lavish and explosive set-pieces.
The core mechanics are fairly simple. Most of the time you’ll take part in traditional 2 or 3 lap races with Championship points awarded for finishing in as high a position as possible. What makes Split/Second Velocity really stand out though, is its power-play system.
Every time you drift around a corner, draft behind an opponent or grab big air, your power-play meter begins to fill up. It’s divided into 2 main levels with 2 blue chunks making up the first part, while the final third glows an ominous shade of red and pulses to indicate you’ve earned the right to utilise the ultimate power-up.
At various pre-determined points in each level, assuming you have enough power-play energy of course, you can trigger an attack or scripted event that should hopefully wreck your opponent’s car and swing the momentum back in your favour.
With two levels of power-play, attacks can range from quick and mildly disruptive - a helicopter firing missiles at your opponents; to devastating and bewildering - a jumbo jet falling out of the Sky, hurtling towards you at breakneck speeds and actually changing the layout of the track.
You can also detonate explosions in nearby buildings, trigger giant dumper trucks that suddenly reverse onto the race track in front of your opponents, demolish suspension bridges as you’re actually racing across them, crumple enormous radio towers and, perhaps my favourite, trigger a side-swipe from an enormous digger that’s not unlike one of the vehicles from 80s cartoon Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. Watching it careen across the road before taking out multiple opponents never gets old and is genuinely terrifying when used against you.
Learning each level inside out and figuring out when and where to use the ultimate power-plays quickly becomes key to success and you’ll load each new level expectantly and eager to see what fantastic set-piece is next.
And it’s these set-pieces that really make the game.
Visually Split/Second Velocity is astonishing. Black Rock has created a quite awesome game engine. Everything ticks by at a blistering pace. The explosions, smoke and physics effects are consistently authentic and incredible and the sense of speed and power as you motor through the numerous levels set across 24 episodes is nothing short of monumental.
The introductions to each new episode are delivered dead-pan in a Saturday night TV style with enthusiastic voice-overs revealing that “Tonight on Split/Second Velocity something awesome will happen”. It’s very smart, very stylish and really well presented.
The game’s HUD, or lack thereof, is also brilliantly and intelligently designed as it manages to be both immersive and informative. Instead of decorating the screen borders with all the typical racing paraphernalia, instead, your position within the race, power-play meter and lap counter are all positioned directly underneath your car. This is a clever move because your focus is always hard-set on your car, so why force your eyes to move to the edges of the screen?
There’s also a subtle but hugely effective visual effect that’s employed whenever you’re drafting behind an opponent’s car. The air changes to a thin mist and its aerodynamic flow over your car’s body is beautifully rendered, which when combined with the thumping soundtrack and quite brilliant sound effects makes for a hugely immersive experience.
In addition to the standard racing modes, there’s also elimination events whereby after a set time, as the name would suggest, whoever is in last place is eliminated. Detonator mode is just you against the clock as the AI automatically triggers power-plays around you.
There's also two variants of survival mode . The first sees you racing tracks with a chopper-gunner flying overhead. Every so often it will unleash holy-hell in the form of homing missiles each of which locks onto a certain area of the track, usually on the racing line. Avoid enough waves of missiles without using up your 3 lives to progress. The second variant sees you racing alongside giant oil tankers that drop blue barrels in order to slow you down, as well as explosive red barrels which if collided with use up one of your lives.
For all that Split/Second Velocity has going for it, it’s certainly not without its flaws. And it’s these flaws that unfortunately slam the brakes on and stop this pimped-out hot-rod just short of the finish-line and a much sought after 5/5.
First of all, due to the predictable nature of Split/Second Velocity’s set-pieces and high-level power-plays, the impact of each spectacle is diluted somewhat on each additional play-through. Like any good action movie, the first time you see it, it blows you away and leaves you flabbergasted. But each and every watch thereafter has a reduced impact as familiarity eventually leads first to predictability and eventually boredom. These grandiose set-pieces are genuinely compelling and exhilarating the first few times you see them, but if you fail a track repeatedly, the illusion is somewhat spoiled as events occur almost identically to your last play-through. This is especially evident on the detonator levels which see you racing against the clock avoiding pre-determined power-plays that occur at exactly the same time in exactly the same place on each additional play-through. With achievements and medals that reward finishing first on each and every track, you will inevitably repeat tracks over and over, but to do so slightly tarnishes the memory of those early experiences.
The few ways in which it’s possible to build up your power-play meter also eventually become limiting. With only drafting, drifting and big-air effective, perhaps taking more of a leaf out of Burnout Paradise’s book would have been wiser. I couldn’t help but feel like I ought to have been able to earn more power by grinding opponents, by side-swiping them, by vertical takedowns or by multiple wreckages. I also wanted to be able to perform barrel rolls or 360 spins. But then of course to do so would have drawn even more comparisons to Criterion’s opus.
Multiplayer is also not without its problems, though thankfully the biggest of which is nothing that can’t be rectified with a bit of patience. The game’s online infrastructure is sound, with all the key game modes accounted for, and no performance issues whatsoever. But driving my level 2 car against everyone else’s level 10 cars meant I was soon left for dust. Not enabling the option to lock everyone’s cars to the same level seems a bit of a mis-step. Thankfully, the more you play the single player game, the better cars you unlock and it’s not too long before everyone’s on equal footing.
Overall then, Split/Second Velocity is game that you owe it to yourself to play. Yes it's slightly shallow and there are genuine concerns overs its longevity, but then these are issues that can easily be resolved by substantial DLC, which is surely inevitable. There's no other racer quite like it for sheer thrills, spills and excitement and I await Black Rock Studio's next games with eager anticipation.