Everything about the game looks and feels like it's really coming together in advance of its May 18 release, with the online component being the final -- and, from this hands-on preview, important -- piece of the experience. During the demo event, I played the multiplayer "Survival" mode and competed in several straight-up races against seven other players via Xbox Live (although they were stationed in the same room). Calling any race "straight-up" in Split/Second, however, just isn't accurate at all.
The game did not appear to suffer from the added load of eight real players racing simultaneously online. The visuals -- amazing explosions, collapsing buildings, debris everywhere -- don't appear any different than in single-player mode, nor is the sense of speed compromised one bit.
My standard races took place on four courses: Airport Terminal, Storm Drain, Dry Dock and Construction Site. Each offered its own unique opportunities to knock other players out of the race momentarily, or alter the course route entirely (while dealing damage to competitors, of course). This was stuff I'd played before on my own, but activating wrecking balls and sending buses flying into my opponents was all the more satisfying when I could hear their yelps, cursing and general cries of misery.
The surprise of the evening preview was in how much I enjoyed playing Survival, which I had previously only seen demoed – something that in no way conveys how cool the mode really is. It follows a really basic premise, but it's also supremely challenging.
All eight players race around a variant of the Storm Drain venue (basically a recreation of the L.A. River; a huge concrete aqueduct). Joining the racers in this space are big-rig towing trailers that launch volleys of blue and red barrels. To truly excel in Survival, you have to avoid all of them, although you can hit a blue barrel and not get wrecked – it just disorientates you. Red barrels mean an instant wreck if you strike one.
I found the mode especially fun because of its focus on precision driving ("threading the needle" between barrels) and playing dirty (knocking opponents into barrels whenever possible). Points are also awarded for passing the tracker trailers, though getting too close to them is almost always disastrous. Additionally, a score multiplier is applied as you avoid near-death wrecks. At the end of the match, the player with the highest point total takes first place.
So, if I sound enthused over what I played, it's because I genuinely am. Black Rock made the excellent ATV racer Pure and now looks to shake up the arcade racing genre with Split/Second. So far, the forecast indicates that lightning just might strike twice for the developer.