In the realm of racing games, however, it's a tire-squealing departure from the player's usual point of entry. Ask the sincerely obsessed Kazunori Yamauchi where you fit in, and he'll point to the high-tech cradle behind the wheel. The point, surely, is to make you feel like you're inside a growling machine that sniffs out the perfect racing line on a static course. ("Surely, because I've spent half my life doing this." He wrings his hands.)
Blowing that course to bits, then, is both a spectacular pyrotechnics display and a crass act of rebellion against the unchanging, uncanny component of nearly any racing game. Round and round you go, shaving off a few seconds at every turn until your car slots into a pair of easy-to-follow grooves. It's elegant, but it's safe.
In Split/Second, your opponent will take that complacence for granted and then drop a bridge on you -- or a wrecking ball, or a bundle of steel girders, or a train, or a dam. Everyone and everything is suddenly out to get you. Driving with skill is still important (of course and off course), but now there's an attacking dynamism that forces you to react and improvise at the last/minute. Even a minor explosion can threaten to shake you out of your perfect trajectory and turn that car into an expensive, eye-watering concertina.
Split/Second's other modes find other ways to excite and exit harm's way, and each is steeped in layers of disbelief. You're being chased by a helicopter through a dimly lit power plant. That's ridiculous. You successfully dodged a barrage of eight missiles. Absurd. You completed twenty laps without being smacked in the bumper by an explosive barrel. You just won't believe it. And how is it 3AM already?
The oddest thing about those narrow escapes -- and they're narrow enough to fit into that silly forward-slash in title -- is that you'll sit there on your couch ducking out of the way, even though there's a roof over your head and an airbag right in front of you. You're surrounded by fantastic presentation that looks to have benefited from a movie-sized special effects budget, and an original soundtrack that infuses every race with the urgency of a Bond chase, but you're not inside the car anymore.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is the thing: Split/Second turns you into a car. VROOOOOM!
Joystiq is revealing its 10 favorite games of 2010 throughout the week! Stay tuned for more must-play picks, and take heed as each staffer stands atop a soapbox to defend those games that didn't quite make the cut. Someone will give you a chance, Sonic Free Riders!