At the risk of labouring an already witless introductory riff, now they're cheating. It's my third visit to Black Rock to catch up with Split/Second, the racing game where everyone can set off explosions and route-changing demolitions by filling a "powerplay" bar with the proceeds of skilful driving, and despite visit two having been a hands-on, I'm now told by developers Nick Baynes and Paul Glancey that they've scrapped the handling model and built a new one. Thanks guys.
"We've not lost the immediate pick-up-and-play nature of it, but we've stripped it down so the underlying handling of the car is much more realistic," says game director Baynes, with no hint of an apology. "If you imagine [the E3 build] was handling with loads of driving aids turned on, we turned them all off, made sure it was really accurate, so it was almost Forza-esque in terms of spinning out on corners. Then by having that as a base we gradually put more aids back on again to ensure that that underlying subtlety is there to take advantage of, while the aids can help the less experienced players out."
Redeveloping the handling has made an impact elsewhere, too. Previously, nearby explosions would knock you off your stride and fishtail the rear end of the car, but Black Rock felt this was a bit pre-canned, whereas now the cars react to real physics and the revised handling forces you to improvise to continue pointing in the right direction. It turns out that this has been a theme for the developer for a while: they want the game to be unpredictable without it becoming frustrating, and much of their efforts at the moment seem to be focused on this.
For example, the powerplays. There are a huge variety of these across the three tracks I've seen - from radar towers crashing across the track and buses cartwheeling into your path on the airport lap, to aircraft carriers listing and sliding planes across your path and containers whipping around at the docks - but recent revisions have seen a greater injection of variety into the way they play out. "A good example is the cars that get thrown across the track," says Baynes. "Right now they do the same animation every time, but we want it so you can learn that they're going to get thrown in a certain direction but there's an element of whether they'll clear the entire road, or hit the wall and bounce back. For subsequent laps it means the layout's slightly different in terms of where the debris fell... We didn't want it to feel like a fairground ride."
Another example is in car damage, which no one has really seen yet. Baynes says that body parts can flap and hinge, and every body panel can deform based on the force and angle of impact, so you can wrap cars around whatever you hit. But you can also rip the car into pieces. So there's variety, but after I rant for a few seconds about how weapons should be banned in WipEout HD (much as I love it), Baynes picks up on the need to avoid frustration. "The goal is that when you get good enough, whatever gets thrown your way, you should be able to deal with it," he says. "It devalues the race when you're taken out at the last minute. With the helicopter dropping explosives, for example, if that happened all the time it would be s***."
Split/Second's AI walks perhaps the most precarious variation on this tightrope, having to satisfy the game's appetite for destruction without calling its methods into question. "We have this dynamic competition-balancing system," design director Paul Glancey begins, before Baynes interjects to point out that that "isn't just a facy word for rubber-banding". "Rather than fairly crude things like making sure there's always a bunch of guys clustered around you, we do things like speed balancing but also skill balancing," says Glancey, "so we can get them exhibit more or less skill when it comes to things like cornering. When we do that, we have less requirement to do really obvious, fudgy, nasty stuff."
The latest builds of the game also do a better job of visually justifying the things that happen to you. When you're knocked sideways by the edge of an explosion, for example, there's a visible impulse wave that breaks over you. Dust also clouds across the track obscuring your vision in the aftermath of a building collapse, and objects scattered around the base of a detonation are strewn across the track. While there are still apexes to look out for and key layout changes to note and react to on subsequent laps, the dynamic debris and particle effects give you more than just the opposition cars to worry about.
Split/Second's core idea also means that Black Rock can change things up considerably between environments, and even between different tracks set in the same area. "I think sometimes, when people ask questions about tracks and you say you're creating multiple tracks in the same environment, they wonder about how much re-use there is, and hopefully this shows that they're in the same environment but they're very different tracks," says Baynes. It certainly does. The docks move away from the airport level's emphasis on explosions, collapsing buildings and flying objects, toward containers being whipped around on loose crane cables instead, and huge ships coming into play several times across the different routes. On one lap you race under a tanker in dry dock with very little vertical clearance; on the next lap you drop it on someone's head, and the route changes to take you through the interior.
Baynes also hints at other game modes besides the core single-player campaign, which will play out as a TV season of 24 episodes, each with a unique make-up of events. He won't say what the other events are, but it's easy to imagine where they might go. "When you do other game modes, more often than not they're built around the core game mechanics, just being treated in a slightly different way," he says. "Look at all the modes in Gotham - they're using the standard game mechanics, just changing the rules. Because we've got a unique mechanic for a racing game, it's given us some unusual ideas for modes. It's been interesting."
Those other modes may also factor in to how Split/Second handles campaign difficulty, and again it's about balancing variety against accessibility. "What we want with this game is that people don't hit big barriers where you have to be hardcore to complete it," says Baynes. "There's lots of secrets to unlock, and new vehicles and powerplays to unlock, and game modes that spin off from the main TV season - and they're the kind of thing you get if you're a Eurogamer reader and go through and finish first in episodes." What a suck-up.
As for multiplayer, Split/Second is now promising two-player split-screen, of which we don't see enough in modern racers, and the developer says it's approaching online modes with longevity in mind. But what does that mean? Perks? Unlockable Alsatians running alongside the car? "Games like Modern Warfare are being played online a year after release, and a lot of racing games don't have that, so we've looked at things online so there's a reason to go back weekly, and a reason to go back and try to progress in a certain way." Woof. One way of keeping people connected may be ratings on crashes, which Black Rock hopes to let you record and share.
With all that in mind, I'm inclined to forgive them for throwing the original handling in the bin, and given the concept it's good to hear Baynes and Glancey restate their case about balancing the game so often and so passionately. "We've got this tool that enables us to track the way races played out [for development purposes]," Baynes mentions, just before we wind things up, "so we can see where every single car was throughout every stage of the race and at every corner: where they crashed, when they used power, which powerplays they triggered, which took them out. The goal is that with focus-testing and this we can make sure it's fair and fun. One of the knife-edge things with this game is making sure it's not frustrating, but making it feel like you're on the edge of your seat. The more we can tune that the better."
Split/Second is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 next year.