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Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t seems like an eternity since Criterion’s last “Burnout” game, when in reality, it’s only been about two years. While we all wait for the next installment in the hugely popular arcade racer franchise, Black Rock has dutifully stepped in to quench our need for speed with some fast-paced, action-packed racing. “Split/Second” may not have the built-in audience of “Burnout,” but it doesn’t feel like the first chapter of a new series, either. The game is positively beaming with confidence, as well as it should, because although "Split/Second" doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, it's such a blast to play that you’ll gladly forgive some of the game’s shortcomings.
You play as a contestant on the titular reality show, a “Death Race”-type competition minus all the criminals, machine guns and dead bodies. In fact, apart from a never ending supply of car wrecks, nothing bad ever happens in the world of “Split/Second” because, well, the game is published by Disney. That’s probably a good thing, too, because for as much vehicular carnage that takes place over the course of the game, no one would survive a single race. Your goal is to make it through all 12 episodes (each comprised of four challenges, a bonus round, and a final race) and emerge as the season champion.
There’s a variety of challenges that make up each episode, and you’ll have to play them all at some point in the season. More standard races (like Elimination, where the last-place car is eliminated at the end of a countdown until only the winner remains) pit you against a pack of seven other contestants, while challenges like Survival (pass up a fleet of 18-wheel big rigs dropping explosive containers) and Air Attack (dodge missiles from a helicopter) are a fight against the clock for the best time. Where you finish in each challenge determines the number of credits you earn, which are then used to unlock the Elite Race at the end of the episode, as well as new cars to use in the future.
While the time trial challenges are a nice break from the regular races, they don’t really take advantage of what sets the game apart from other arcade racers. “Split/Second” is all about crashes, and more specifically, you causing them. You can try to win on speed alone, but it’s not going to get you anywhere when your fellow competitors aren’t playing by the same rules. From igniting explosions to dropping barricades to collapsing entire buildings, you control the environment around you by using Power Plays. Every track is lined with these race-changing traps, and can be triggered whenever you see the Power Play icon above your opponents’ cars. But before you can start blowing shit up, you have to fill your Power Bar by completing specific driving skills like drifting, drafting, jumping, and even dodging a Power Play that has been triggered in your path. So even if you’re not very good at drifting, there are countless other ways to fill your Power Bar.
The game definitely keeps you on your toes, as you never quite know what to expect. CPU vehicles are always out for blood (even if they’re in dead last), and just because you’re the one who triggered the Power Play doesn’t mean you won’t be affected by it. In fact, this is often the cause of a majority of your wrecks, because it’s impossible to anticipate where all the destruction is going to end up on the track. Perhaps more frustrating is the fact that your opponents always seem to drive perfectly (especially in the Elite Races), almost always using faster and stronger cars, taking the best route to the finish line, and never crashing unless directly caused by one of your Power Plays.
The gimmick of triggering these Power Plays certainly becomes less special each time you do it, and that’s the biggest problem plaguing “Split/Second.” It’s not an incredibly deep game, and although they’ve tacked on an online multiplayer mode with a decent ranking system, by the time you’ve unlocked the cars necessary to seriously compete, you may be sick of the one-dimensional gameplay. Nevertheless, it’s a cool spin on the genre that’s great in small doses. “Split/Second” isn’t the kind of game you’ll be playing for weeks, but the pick-up-and-play nature of the title makes it easy to come back to without missing a beat. And really, that’s about all you can ask for from an arcade racer.