Version tested: Xbox 360
Here's the elevator pitch, Mr Bruckheimer: a brutal racing TV show, a merciless media motorsport in which contestants have to dodge traps, explosions and stage-managed catastrophes - hazards which they earn the right to trigger on each other through stylish driving. The scene: airports, power plants, dams, dockyards, anywhere that can be rigged to blow so the rubble, concrete and twisted metal can rain from the sky. The stars: sleek supercars, rugged pickups and menacing muscle cars hell-bent on taking each other down.
It's triple-threat reality TV, Mr Bruckhiemer. It's Pop Idol with dynamite, the X Factor with its foot on the gas. It's got everything: Speed! Explosions! Er, more speed and explosions!
Like the Hollywood movies and TV spectaculars it emulates, Split/Second: Velocity is a simple proposition. It presents a single idea that's bold, brash and basic, one that anyone could understand. It's the ultimate in high concept videogaming with just one arch twist, the TV show conceit that puts its gleeful, apparently unrefined stupidity in quote marks (as well as serving family-conscious publisher Disney with a useful disclaimer - it's all just for show, kids).
While that gimmick gives Split/Second its contemporary mass-media sheen and grants it a little ironic distance, its blunt style also reminds you of a simpler time in gaming when arcade racers like this ruled the land and only needed the promise of speed and spectacle to get by. They didn't need complex progression or even depth. They just needed to be fast, loud, exciting and fun.
Split/Second is all those things. And while at first it might seem worryingly lightweight, its purity is in the end a deep breath of fresh air - while its refinement, faultless execution and awesome visuals keep you coming back long after you thought you'd have exhausted its basic appeal to your adrenaline gland.
Even those quote marks around the one-syllable exclamation of Split/Second's gameplay are impeccably crafted. Brighton's Black Rock Studio has imagined the forceful pace of American primetime TV made with the limitless budget of a summer blockbuster film, and it's a totally convincing fantasy.
The look is perfect, a saturated wash of post-processed teal and orange under a glowering Tony Scott / Top Gear filter that turns blue skies black and any light into a smouldering, smoggy sunset. The camera shudders with handheld panic at speed and leans dramatically into every corner. A booming synthesised orchestra climaxes bombastically under every race as if Hans Zimmer has personally scored your performance. Smash cut to CG logo; Michael Bay would be proud.
It's a class-leading presentation, and what a spectacle it frames. Every race track is a series of photogenic opportunities for pyrotechnic disaster on an astonishing scale. Power-plant smokestacks implode and crumble, cutting off one route and creating another. Bridges collapse, mountainsides are blown out and whole trains topple off elevated tracks, scattering debris across the road and reshaping the racing line. Air freighters land on the race track and helicopters drop dumper trucks on your rivals. Cruise liners topple into aircraft carriers to form the world's most expensive short-cut. It's so over-the-top it's almost funny - in fact, it often is funny, with hazards exhibiting as much slapstick comic timing as they do visual fireworks.
The biggest of these unnatural disasters are often triggered by some unseen race director to dramatically reshape your race and ensure you get bang for buck. But you'll get your own chance to set them off, as well as many smaller hazards; each track is laced with dozens of explosive charges that can change the route, block short cuts, create temporary or permanent obstacles, or send the burning carcasses of buses, trucks and cars bouncing across the road. Attack helicopters hover in wait at certain points, ready to bomb the competitors.
These are called Power Plays, and you earn the power needed to deploy them (or open temporary shortcuts) predominantly by drifting your car around corners, but also by drafting behind rivals and performing jumps. Icons appear over opponents' cars when they're near a hazard and then a well-timed button press is all that's needed to wreck them. There's usually a chance you'll wreck yourself too, if you're not careful. Timing a power play isn't a precise science, but it's instinctive and fair, and very rewarding when you pull off multiple wrecks.
If power plays were a purely digital, wreck-or-survive thing, they'd be hard to time at Split/Second's relentless pace. But they're a lot subtler than they sound. If they're not a direct hit, there are still the changes they make to the track and the racing line - and there are also the blast waves of the explosions to deal with, which can knock you off course, slow you down or create a careening domino effect that will wreck you a corner or two down the line.
These considerations are then held in a meticulously-maintained balance with the stats of the cars. A car with great strength will resist blast waves more easily; with a high drift rating will earn power plays more quickly; and with good acceleration will recover faster from attacks or overcooked drifts. Top speed is the trickiest stat to take advantage of, since it means limiting your drifting and maintaining momentum through corners and hazards.
All of Split/Second's cars look fantastic, and they each have a distinctive character, their own roaring exhaust note, and a well-defined but not exclusive strength. The cars are unlocked at a steady pace through the season mode, and although you'll start to settle on personal favourites later on - with some being suited to particular events - they're all so well-balanced and controllable that it's great fun trying them all out.
Even the tough, tank-like pickups exhibit pretty nimble handling, which seems strange at first, but it's a function of Split/Second's eventful track design. Tough corners are few and far between, but you need to be able to negotiate sudden hazards cleanly, so sharp steering response is a baseline requirement rather than a bonus. Instead, the depth and nuance in Split/Second's handling resides entirely in its wonderful drifting.
This is the slowest part of the game to reveal its charms - in fact, probably the only slow part in a game that otherwise operates entirely at face value. It's not as immediately exhilarating as the infinite full-pelt powersliding of a Ridge Racer or an OutRun, but it has something approaching the tactile finesse of a Project Gotham - easy to grasp but hard to master, requiring a soft touch with both throttle and brake to balance the car through the corner without touching the barriers or losing too much speed (drifting slows you, as a necessary counterpoint to the power it earns).
In this, as in every aspect of its controls, difficulty and design, Split/Second is an absolute masterpiece of tuning. It's very easy for an action racer such as this to end up capricious and frustrating, but somehow the AI maintains a close race without obvious rubber-banding, and there's always a last-lap turnaround that makes the result seem both hard-fought and fair. Difficulty spikes are surprisingly rare.
In fact, Black Rock has balanced its game with such perfectionism that, at first, it's almost a problem. Despite its incredible polish and noisy bombast, Split/Second can make a slightly underwhelming first impression: because your path through the early stages of single-player is so effortlessly smooth, because the races feel a little too stage-managed, because there are no obviously deep gameplay systems or structural time-sinks to get stuck into.
It's undeniable that it's a slender game. The single-player season, broken into 12 TV-style episodes, is well-paced and really starts to bite in its second half, extending itself through the need to go back and improve your results in earlier events. Needing to come at least third in the tough Elite Race that ends each episode is an effective check on your progress, but it still won't take you long to chew through the whole thing.
Besides straight racing and a standard elimination mode, there are a few extra modes of play. Detonator is a one-lap time trial amid the thundering chaos of all the most destructive hazards the game can throw at you. In Survival, you need to dodge explosive barrels falling off articulated trucks while passing them to keep a score combo going.
Air Strike involves threading your way through targeted missile strikes from a chopper, again with a score bonus for survival; Air Revenge is a variant of the latter which sees you earning power to send the missiles back where they came from. They all work perfectly well and are thoroughly enjoyable to play, but don't quite have enough depth and are a little too hectic and random to work as long-term score attack or time attack challenges.
Similarly, mutliplayer is a riot, but it's hard to imagine being sustained by it in the long term. Race, Elimination and Survival are available here, but only straight racing seems to be sticking with players, and beyond earning some meaningless credits and improving your online ranking there's nothing to reward your efforts. Tight and mean, with sudden reversals of fortune, Split/Second works by far the best in a party with friends - so the full split-screen support for local play is especially welcome.
If structural longevity is your primary concern, then Split/Second is not the game for you. But it's actually to Black Rock's great credit that it hasn't stretched this unashamedly and gloriously dumb game beyond its means. Instead, it has focused on making a simple game shine with the attention to detail and sumptuous presentation usually only spent on sprawling epics.
Split/Second requires exactly the right combination of skill, memory and reflexes from you while maintaining a permanent high of tactile feedback, sensory assault and knife-edge excitement. If that's Black Rock's elevator pitch for a modern arcade racer: sold.
8 / 10