Split/Second

Project got 'em!

I'm cheating - again! The first time we saw Split/Second it was for GDC at the end of March, and we saw it in Brighton. This time - the first hands-on - is the E3 demo. Never mind the fact E3 isn't for another month; I'm still perched on a sofa in a Black Rock demo room flanked by cabinets full of PS2 and Xbox racing games (Dakar 2! GTC Africa!), while design director Paul Glancey talks me through half a dozen attempts to conquer the airport lap playable demo. I conquer it twice, and manage a couple of other respectable placings.

E3 will tell Black Rock a lot about where it's going with Split/Second. A diverse, tens-of-thousands-strong audience of industry folk, it's a cauldron of snapshots, all of which have value, even if some of them will emphasise the dangers of playing five minutes of an unfinished game out of context. "The test will be E3, because obviously you have a very mixed group of players," Glancey acknowledges with some understatement.

He needn't worry too much, however, because six or seven runthroughs of the Split/Second demo may throw up a lot of conflicting accounts, but when it comes together - when you kiss the apex at ferocious speed, and glide clear of opposition cars that have been uprooted by an explosion you set off - the idea of a racing game where you can trigger your own set-pieces really works, and they know that's what they're aiming for already.

So how are they doing? Last time we got to look, this time we get to touch. The sense of speed is the first thing that hits you, and it's something with which I hit myself repeatedly over the first few laps. Like the faster vehicles in Burnout Paradise or PGR, Split/Second's sleek sportscars hurtle down the track precariously, particularly with the discomfiting shake of the camera addling your senses. Cornering is muscular, demanding subtle correction and more braking than you expect. Initially there's a lot of understeer that I struggle to master.

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Racing through the smoky aftermath of a powerplay is worrying, but the game already knows not to punish you here.

Drifting plays more of a role than the hands-off demos communicate, too. You have to pump out a lot of speed into sharper turns, and maintaining positive momentum is satisfyingly difficult, even though the airport lap only throws up a few serious corners per lap. After bashing against each of them and gradually learning how far to push the back of the car out on subsequent attempts, I get Glancey to show me, and if anything the confidence with which he grazes the nose past the inside crash barrier is more encouraging than playing the demo. It's because he's not just competent, he's good; but it emphasises that while being good at driving in Split/Second is an art, it also isn't an end. If you can hit every apex in PGR, you can win those platinum medals. If you can hit every apex in Split/Second, you still have to worry about powerplays.

Powerplays, in case you missed the first half, are the set-piece attacks and demolitions that you can activate from behind the wheel. By driving well - with drifts, drafts and whatnot - you build up a three-stage powerplay bar locked to the underside of your car's bumper in a modest heads-up display. Blue icons then appear on items of scenery for regular powerplays, and red icons are highlighted if you have all three stages full.

The timing window for each is narrow - depending on your speed, obviously - but even with your eyes locked to the vanishing point by the intensity of the drive, you can work out most of what's about to happen: there's going to be a big f***ing explosion, and it's going to trash whatever the debris hits. In the case of regular powerplays, that means an explosive barrel launched from a helicopter is going to land on the car in front, or the carcass of a bus is about to be hurled in from the sideline. Super powerplays - the red ones - are going to bring the house down, or at least the entire airport terminal, and they're going to change the route.

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