From the front of the pack to eighth place in only two seconds. This would be the short version of this review. In a blink your car rolls down three times, you hit the fences, fall into the abyss or become a charred piece of metal because of a huge barrel of explosives that landed on your head. Of course, you can't have any realistic demands from a game with such crazy races, its inspiration clearly coming from series like Burnout and focusing on spectacular explosions to take care of your rivals.
Split/Second's producers, Black Rock, made a similar title, Pure, but with ATVs and off-road races, and back when they were called Climax Racing they handled the Moto GP series. So they have quite an experience in creating high-speed entertainment, which is clearly visible in Split/Second even from the first race (or from the tutorial hidden somewhere at the back of the main menu).
Unlike other arcade racers, Split/Second also has some storytelling in the main campaign, structuring the single-player mode like a TV reality show, split into 12 episodes, each with 6 races for 8 players. The tracks are especially designed not only to race and win, but also to blow your rivals in the most spectacular ways possible. Of course, the ending of this first season is “to be continued” and I'm drooling at the prospect of a follow-up where you can control huge vehicles or, who knows, even planes.
How to be a winner
Besides good driving, the main thing that gets you in first place or, on the contrary, throws you behind everybody else, is the power play. Practically, by drifting (controlled sliding of the car in the turns), drafting (stay behind another car, but very close) or jumping you fill three bars placed at the base of the car. With one or two of them filled you can trigger, in certain areas of the track, different events, from explosions to huge cranes sweeping everything off the road.
The most common are the exploding taxis or the barrels of explosives thrown down on the track by helicopters that usually survey the competition. The same helicopters also carry huge trucks and sweep the road with them, cranes crush unlucky competitors and there's even a demolition ball that you really don't want to see stuck on the side of your car.
Just the same you can open up shortcuts, tunnels (or even a plane cut in half) that stay open only for a few seconds. That's usually enough to sneak through and for three or four cars to be crushed behind by the closed gate.
Completely filling up the power bars gives you access to level two "powers" that, on one hand, destroy a lot more real estate and, on the other, can reshape the track significantly. When you see the red icon with a dart in it, don't hesitate to push the button to totally change the face of the level. Huge ships sweep the docks, fall into the water and leave a new way behind, full with burning remains; trains derail down right in the rivals' heads and form a new "road" where you can blow up big rigs, buses or entire buildings; planes crash land and explode, water towers come crumbling down, furnaces or even a pretty realistic copy of the Space Needle (the Seattle television tower).
By far, my favorite is the dam that can be totally and utterly destroyed, preferably in two stages: first only in two areas to throw one or two opponents into the abyss; in the second lap, with a level two power up, totally crumble it to make room for an area with three consecutive jumps. Careful when landing though, going straight into a building is pretty painful for your ranking and the credit count.
Thus, even if there aren’t too many tracks to speak of, the way in which you can reshape them greatly boosts the replay value through the surprise factor. Even though you know exactly where the power plays can be activated and their effects, you can't guess when or if they will be activated by a rival player. This is very important especially in multiplayer, since a human player knows way better to time the power plays for maximum efficiency.
Of course, a wrongly triggered power play can totally miss or even destroy your own car, usually meaning loosing the race or respawning way behind. But the most spectacular moments come in the multiple crushes and totally crazy driving caused by a level two power play, with huge rocks in the middle of the road, remodeled bridges laying across the track and demolished highways. It's almost impossible to avoid all these obstacles, but a success is rewarded with filling the power plays thanks to the "close call" feature. Meaning you were almost dead, but somehow made it through.
All the events from the track can be triggered by any opponent, so you can't be 100% sure that you’ll stay in the front place until the finish line. And even there you're not safe, because there are tracks where a helicopter throws an explosive barrel at you just in front of the finish line. Since I also played Blur, I would have liked to be able to use the power plays behind the car as well. That way, you would partially shake the fear that it will rain planes and you can't do anything but try to avoid disaster, without any opportunity to take revenge if you miraculously make it out alive.