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."
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