I'm cheating. Technically this is a Game Developers Conference preview - the first opportunity to sit down and experience Black Rock's brand new racing game - but I'm not in San Francisco, I'm two minutes up the road from our office, sitting behind black-out curtains in the Disney studio's conference room, as Split/Second argues that Pure was anything but a fluke.
It's another simple but ingenious variation on an established racing game model: impressive driving - drifts, drafting, jumps and near misses - feeds into a three-stage power bar, each segment of which allows you to set off an explosion, called a powerplay, to bring the likes of radio control towers, freeways and burnt-out cars down on your opponents. Some of these explosions also alter the track layout, so there's a basic layer of mid-race strategy: do I risk trying to smash up the guy ahead of me, or open a new path to try and cut down his lead?
It sounds contrived, but then it's meant to be: you're one of the stars of a reality TV show set in a city that's been rigged with explosives, and the single-player game plays out like a series, episode by episode, at the end of which you'll hopefully win. But it's primarily to films that Black Rock has turned for inspiration, and not just in the settings (the teaser trailer's storm drains are pure Terminator 2), but specifically in terms of the gameplay and explosions.
Or, to be more precise, controlled demolitions. For the biggest set-pieces, like a freeway collapse, the developers plant their explosives to initiate a predictable chain of events, before Havok physics takes over to worry about the precise details. Don't worry though, because periphery events can afford to be more dynamic. And in fact, don't worry at all, because the goal - as common to Black Rock's game as it was to the effects artists on Michael Bay's childhood-shredding Transformers film, is for memorably choreographed explosive events. In any case, the gradual accumulation of new powerplays means that course design won't just vary on the fly, but that your options become more elaborate as you progress through the game.
On a first spin through the demo track, for instance - along the swooping elevated carriageways snaking around an airport - the husks of toasted cars are hurled from their naked launch stations on crash barriers at the flick of a switch, and a radar tower topples and bursts as it tastes asphalt. On a subsequent playthrough with "super powerplays" unlocked, the entire front of the terminal disintegrates in a flash of light and a rush of particle effects, generously revealing the slumping concrete arches and hooded entryways as they cave into your path. Super powerplays will use up the whole power bar, so it's a big commitment, but you'll probably struggle to restrain yourself the first time around.
A lap later, the collapse has altered the track layout and sent you through the terminal rather than around it, while another event sends you off down the runway itself and through some hangars, where a hydraulic steel press lends you a shortcut if you can avoid its crushing jaws. A lot of the time though, it's less of a question of taking advantage and more of taking evasive action; the second time you head down the runway, it's into the face of a cargo plane landing in a belly-flop and grinding towards you, and hopefully into your rearview.
At the moment, with about 50 per cent of the visual effects and lighting in place, it's all bleached tarmac under midday sun; bright, bold and detailed enough to sit at the same table as Project Gotham Racing 4, if not GRID or Burnout Paradise. But Black Rock has a lot of refinement in mind, and again it plays into what they call "cinematic realism": saturation effects, and varied use of colour, designed to impregnate the visuals with gloss and vibrancy. The artists have a tool that allows them to screenshot the game, tinker with it in Photoshop to get the effect they want, and then plug those settings back into the engine, and the results should be closer to Michael Mann's oppressive Miami Vice than regional TV news and wedding videos.
Midday is also going out the window (and going on outside the window - did I mention Brighton's lovely?), in favour of the kind of deferred lighting techniques so far only used - to Black Rock's knowledge anyway - in Killzone 2. The idea is to have a far greater number of light sources than traditionally practical, and make everything interact with them properly, so you can have a massive, saturated flashpoint halfway up the screen bleeding into cooler shades at the periphery, and everywhere in-between.
Black Rock only has a target render to show for this so far, but the difference is considerable: there's far more heat and intensity at the heart of every explosion, and they nuzzle subtly with richer smoke effects. The team's currently working on what happens when you plough through the smoke, although it's still being prototyped. Remember when we all thought Pure looked a bit too good to be true, and it wasn't? We're told to keep that in mind.
Sound is easier to demo though, so it's across the hall to the audio booth to hear the developer claim it's gone further than anyone to bind the roar of a V8 to the way you accelerate and brake. Rather than capture loops at different pitches, the studio's split the sounds into tiny chunks, which it moves between dynamically in response to analogue input. There's still a bit of tweaking to be done for gear ratios and deceleration, but it's a satisfying, if subtle development. Less subtle is the traditional movie approach for sound effects. Just as Indy's whipcrack is a tree snapping, the sagging face of the airport is a roaring lion and the spitting bricks are gunshots.
How it feels to play remains a closely guarded secret, but the speed and cornering are visually reminiscent of Criterion's games - cars dragged mercilessly forward, writhing into drifts that swing back into line before they get too lateral - and the AI is in progress. With the added complexity of environmental destruction, Black Rock's still looking at its options, but aims to keep things tight (you need enemies on-screen to smash up with the powerplays, after all), without succumbing to blatant rubber-banding.
But the game already makes a lot of sense in snapshot form. The controls are simple (triggers to stop and go, analogue to steer), and the selection process for explosions is automatic. Whenever you can set something off, it's highlighted for you, and the only overlap should be the two different types of powerplay, each of which has its own button. There are also plenty of nice touches, like the HUD, where your power-bar, lap counter and race position are all stamped to your back bumper rather than spread around the screen.
That said, there's a long way to go - all the way to early 2010 - so things like multiplayer are still question marks, although online and local options are very likely. I suggest that one person could set off explosions while others try to avoid them, and get a deadpanned "yes, I suppose you could do that", too, with a smile. It sounds like it might be fun; interesting, but uncomplicated, and that seems to be Split/Second all over, except, as with Pure, it's a deliberate simplicity that hides depth and consideration. In the same way that Pure was considerably more than an ATV game with trick jumps, Split/Second looks to be more than an arcade racing game with explosions.
Split/Second is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 early next year.