You’ve got to love Split/Second: Velocity. While other, more po-faced racers are influenced by real motorsports, classic marques or the hip-hop styles of underground street-racing, Split Second’s key influences are the big dumb-ass action movies of Jerry Bruckheimer, Tony Scott and Michael Bay.
While Need for Speed references The Fast and the Furious, and Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo argue over which game can do the most realistic leather interiors, Split/Second is busy trying to reshape the car chases of Con Air and Bad Boys 2 into the bastard child of Burnout, with bigger bangs.
It’s silly, artificial, and superficial and almost utterly lacking in the kind of engine-tinkering, open-world, online customisation nonsense that passes for depth in today’s racers. Some people will tell you that this superficiality is the game’s major fault, but answer me this: would you turn down a weekend with Megan Fox just because commitment wasn’t on the cards?
The premise is simultaneously gloriously dumb and brilliantly inventive. Basically, some nutty TV producers in the States have created a blockbuster TV show where eight racers drive through a huge action-movie set as everything blows up around them. The trick is that each racer has a gauge that fills up as they pull off breathtaking drift-turns, jumps and other feats.
Fill the gauge enough, and when you see a blue icon above a rival car, you can trigger a "power-play": an explosion or calamity that – fingers crossed – will blast them from the track. The effects will be momentary, but should give you enough room to pass them and leave them in the dust. Fill the gauge to the max, and you get to trigger a massive explosion that alters the track for the rest of a race.
Bridges twist and fall to open alternative routes. Skyscrapers collapse so you can race through their burnt-out interiors and leap off the end. It’s crazy, spectacular stuff, and it all takes place at blistering speeds that leave most racing games looking like they’re not trying quite hard enough.
The main single-player campaign is divided into episodes, with each episode consisting of a number of events. Good results in events earn you points, and by earning points you can a) unlock more cars to drive and b) unlock the "elite" races that provide the climax for the current episode, and open up next week’s instalment.
Cleverly, there’s more than just racing to do here. As episodes go on, the show rewards its hungry audience with new spins on the formula, like time trials on tracks where everything that can explode does as you race through, and battles against barrel-belching trucks and missile-firing helicopters.
What makes the game work is an exquisite sense of balance. The AI is tough enough to make you work for a top three position, but the game never forces you to grind away at individual races, and you always feel like you’re being challenged just enough to make things interesting. You soon learn that while other racer’s power-plays can wipe you off the track, there is always some way of avoiding them if you pay attention and react quickly and precisely when you need to.
Luckily, the handling is superb - not realistic, as such, but gritty and demanding, and ideal for the game’s action movie dynamics. The cars are fictional, but they resemble real-world classics and have a cool modern style, and you’ll soon find certain vehicles that suit certain types of event. The tracks cover a range of downtown, dockside, coastal and industrial settings, and each contains a wide selection of things that blow up and alternate routes.
Split/Second is also a fantastically polished game. Even were this a conventional racer the graphics would be stunning, with fantastically detailed tracks, rich lighting and a gorgeous, ultra-smooth frame rate, but when you throw in the explosions, the dust splatters and a range of brilliant, cinematic special effects, the cumulative results are dazzling.
If you’re familiar with the cinematic works of Messrs Bruckheimer, Bay and Scott, then you’ll find many echoes of their style replicated with skill, and not a little genuine love. The sound, meanwhile, is incredible. From the urgent, action-movie music to the various clangs, thuds, bangs and blasts, Split/Second sounds like the biggest, most overblown blockbuster you’ve ever seen on a cinema screen. If you want to give your home cinema system a workout, you won’t do much better than this.
If Split/Second has a problem, it’s that it’s going to be over sooner than you’d like. With twelve episodes it will probably take you 8 to 10 hours to see everything the game has to offer and gather as many of the achievements and bonus objectives as possible, but Split/Second doesn’t have the longevity of a Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo. It doesn’t help that it’s a horrendously more-ish game. You need a strong will to resist the next episode after the preview you’ll get on polishing off the current one.
Set against this, however, is the fact that Split/Second makes a great multiplayer option. You can play split-screen or online, and whichever way you go the mixture of high-speed racing and brutal power-plays makes for an impressively action-packed time.
Racing purists will turn their noses up and moan about how the power-plays negate any need for cornering skill and finesse, but I have my fingers in my ears and I’m not listening. I strongly suggest you do the same.
Young, dumb and full of fun, the new bad-boy of arcade racing is the most exciting thing to happen to the genre since Burnout: Paradise or Motorstorm. It’s a spectacular game, undeniably superficial, but the gameplay is every bit as polished as the presentation. It won’t last forever, but what good time ever does?