There’s something to be said for how fundamental the racing genre is to gaming as a whole. Going back to the arcades and the days of Pole Position to the next-gen magnificence that we expect from Forza Horizon 5, the genre has experienced numerous new franchises and IP, from AAA down to the indie level. Racing at its core has been pivotal enough in the history of gaming for RPGs to incorporate it in side missions, whether it be on horseback or even go-karts. Even now, titles like Inertial Drift, F1 2021 and the Assetto Corsa series add to the wealth of franchises like Forza Horizon, Forza Motorsport, Need for Speed and Gran Turismo that continue along like an endless journey on the M5.
Sadly, one title that hardly got the chance to shine was Split/Second, a thrilling racer from 2010 released on PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and later on the PSP. Designed by Black Rock Studio and published by Disney Interactive, players would race around sprawling urban tracks with the added bonus of filling a power meter to enable ‘power plays’, events that could be used to take out other drivers. These ranged from exploding taxis on the small scale to track-changing collapsing bridges and plane crashes, giving the game a chaotic yet exhilarating thrill to its racing. This, alongside some innovative track design requiring multiple routes and even adding shortcuts. While these aspects were indeed innovative and the game critically lauded, this was not reflected in its sales and eventually led to it falling into obscurity.
Given the title was recently on sale on the Xbox Store for £3, the oft-forgotten racer found a number Twitter users remembering it. As someone who played it at the time, I was more than happy to take advantage of said sale, and replaying was a delight. It’s strange to see an older racing game where the sense of speed and controls don’t feel aged and uncomfortable. Simply put, the only age Split/Second shows in 2021 is in the pixel count. Otherwise, it’s still ridiculous fun. The power plays feel massive and truly challenging to deal with in a delightful way. And while the likes of Forza and Gran Turismo may still be going strong, there are plenty of game design elements that modern racers could, and probably should, adopt from Split/Second.
Doing A Lot With A Little
For one, consider the most unique aspect of Split/Second‘s presentation… its HUD:
As you can see in this image above, the HUD is minimalistic to say the least, the power meter flanked with the race position and nothing else. Given the game itself is not a heavy simulation of racing, this works excellently, with the game then occasionally communicating time differences between you and the car in front. Doing so works not only practically to allow the player to process all the racing happening but also lets the player get immersed much easier as a result. Whilst more technical and detailed racers like the Forza Horizon franchise do need more detail, they can sometimes feel cluttered with the amount of information on screen. In Split/Second, that’s far from the case.
Along with some top notch racing, the team at Black Rock knew how to produce excellent additional game modes to add to the core game. Further modes included dodging missiles fired from a helicopter in a score attack mode, time trials with explosions galore and even an elimination mode. The various modes were an example of how to take the aforementioned driving and playing with the format in creative ways, giving Split/Second a wonderful sense of irreverent chaos.
There’s plenty to be said for its excellent track design. Having enough in the power meter gave access to shortcuts through garages and warehouses as well as even using the aforementioned highest-level power plays to create gigantic set pieces ranging from collapsing towers to silo explosions. As a result, tracks have the complexity to be changed completely and have interweaving shortcuts to reward drifting. That’s made accessible given the game’s penchant for mixing up the corner width from sharp road turns to wider, swooping arches. Split/Second makes overtaking on corners and straights completely possible, which is brilliant for racing enthusiasts. This issue crops up in a number of tracks in Need for Speed: Heat in which not giving that variation makes it feel like corner overtaking is much more tricky than it should be.
Just Falling Short
But for all the praise I can heap on it, Split/Second remains consigned to a cult classic racer as opposed to the franchise it deserved to be. Despite being received positively at the time from critics; with an 8/10 from Eurogamer and an 8.5/10 in IGN, it sadly lacked in hard sales numbers, mustering 86,000 units sold in the first 12 days. The overall figures weren’t enough, with a teased sequel that would ultimately be cancelled with Disney, the company’s bosses, changing tact and wanting to focus on “freemium” content. The switch led to redundancies and eventually, the closure of Black Rock.
But with the racing formula firmly established, critical acclaim from reviewers and the game itself adding its own contributions to the genre, what could have caused such low sales? I believe it may have come from a simple congestion issue. Namely, the initial release date of May 18th 2010. Those with excellent memory will know that Split/Second was undoubtedly facing some stiff competition. That same date, a certain Red Dead Redemption would also come out, now firmly established as a juggernaut of gaming. As would Alan Wake, and while that may too have fallen into the cult classic category, its beguiling story led to a fervent fan base and multiple spiritual successors.
It would also be caught between a rock and a hard place before and after its release date. A week prior, also saw the release of Skate 3 and Lost Planet 2 and the following week saw another competing racer in Blur coming out. Fair to say, it was always going to struggle amongst some of these established names and franchises. By year’s end, it felt like an unlucky footnote in a year including the previously mentioned titles as well as Mass Effect 2, Halo: Reach, Super Mario Galaxy 2 and a whole host of critically acclaimed games.
Regardless, its a shame Split/Second didn’t get the sequel it truly deserved. Hopefully it lives on through influencing other racers to try new things and take risks in order to keep the genre as alive as its always been.
Words by Alex Green