Here’s the elevator pitch that likely got the arcade-style racer Split/Second green-lit: “Okay, so it’s The Running Man meets Mario Kart, only anything that can blow up will. Wait, no. Everything will explode. And it doesn’t have to make sense, because it’s a fake reality show… We better add more explosions.” This dynamic is refreshing, because as the racing genre has gotten more photo-realistic in its presentation, an injection of ridiculousness has been needed to balance out all that boring realism. After all, we can drive in real life, but Driver’s Ed never covered what to do when a helicopter is carpet-bombing the road ahead of you. Split/Second does.
Yes, the lazy “it’s set in a TV show” device is overdue for retirement in gaming stories, but that tired aspect quickly fades to the background after the tutorial, emerging only when an over-the-top narrator gets players jazzed for the next set of courses, or the next season. The tracks are as over-the-top as plausibility allows, ranging from a still-active nuclear plant to a troublingly flammable airport complete with planes zipping around the track. Without the rubber-banding AI, the unexpected boats and other exploding elements might level the playing field, but suspiciously, the only sure way to land yourself in fifth place is to zoom ahead to first. Similarly, much of Split/Second’s hook is the “power play” dynamic, which allows you to trigger an explosion from, say, a flaming truck that suddenly crashes, or an overhead chopper that somehow drops an explosion on other racers. If you aren’t careful, you’ll just sabotage yourself, particularly in the later levels, when your opponents aren’t shy about using the same tactics against you.
One instance where the on-road blasts are interesting is when you’re shrewdly given the option to change the course if you’re in one of the higher positions near the end of the race. Basically, you trigger a seismic event that creates a new fork in the road for all the racers to go down. Usually, though, this backfires, and an easy lead quickly crumbles into a no-contest defeat. Too bad the courses are reused so many times—don’t be fooled by the time of day—which only lessens the white-knuckle tension so effortlessly created earlier. But regardless of what the rules of the road mandate, at least here you can destroy that jerk who just cut you off.