I’ve noticed that a lot of the most interesting games tend to come about when someone attempts to combine seemingly unrelated concepts. Like how Battle Chef Brigade is a mix of Match 3 and Platformer, or how Actraiser is a mix of Civilization Management and… also Platformer. I’m sure you can think of some examples too. 1047 Games has thrown their combat helmet into this niche field of combining two different genres with Splitgate. An arena shooter, but everyone has the portal gun from Portal.
To be honest, that’s all I should need to say about the game. That description alone should tell you whether Splitgate is for you or not. But it would be negligent of me to not discuss the game in more detail. Also, I’d probably get fired. So let’s dive a little deeper, shall we?
Speedy Thing Goes In, Speedy Thing Goes Out
Arena Shooters, if you aren’t familiar, are shooter games with a heavy emphasize on your mobility and how quick you can think on your feet. You’re probably familiar with the recent DOOM games, or the Unreal Tournament series. Stuff like that. Splitgate’s arenas are all themed differently with interesting aesthetics. There’s a bazaar at a desert oasis. There’s a flying fortress connected through non-OSHA compliant walkways. There’s an underwater city.
Moving through these environments is accomplished primarily through two ways. First of all, you have your portal gun. It’s in the title, after all. You can open a portal on certain surfaces, connecting the two portals you have access to. Not only can you move through these portals, but you can shoot through them. While, due to technical limitations, you can only see through your own portals, you can use anyone’s active portals. Including your enemies’. This drastically alters how you think about gunfights, since a cornered opponent might have teleported away, or you might use a portal to flank them. This is the central conceit of the game, and almost every gunfight in the game will in some way involve the portals.
Your other means of traversal is a jetpack, because this game is approximately 87.2% Rule of Cool.
Your arsenal in Splitgate is extremely varied. You have your standard weapons, like machine guns, shotguns, pistols, the works. And you’ve got some more fantastical weapons, like a railgun that can kill multiple enemies in a line, the rocket launcher, and, of course, the baseball bat. That last one is the deadliest weapon in the game. What weapons you use is dependent on your game mode. Some limit you to two specific weapons, some start you with a specific loadout, but other weapons can be found around the arena. Sometimes you get random weapons every time you respawn. It’s entirely dependent on the game mode.
The game modes are where Splitgate really shines. There are in total about fourteen casual game modes with an additional fifteenth in rotation, in addition to the Ranked modes. There is also the option to create custom lobbies with gameplay modifiers. Thing like adjusting how much boost you get from your jetpack, what weapons you have, big head mode. Usual stuff.
Other than the game modes that are the exact same but with or without teams, every game mode makes you think about the arena you’re in differently. The SWAT mode, where any headshot is an instant kill, encourages you to stay in groups for example. While Fiesta, which gives everyone random weapons, quickly devolves into map-wide chaos. VIP modes turn into chase sequences but with portals. It’s frankly incredible how much the game mode alone can alter the way you interact with the same arena.
And there are plenty of arenas in Splitgate. I mentioned some of them before. The arenas are well designed to have differences in kind. That is to say, the same two players in a shootout with the same two guns will play out very differently in two different locations. For example, the Oasis map has a tower at each end and very little cover on the sides. But there’s a lot of cover in the middle, a narrow underground section beneath the center, and two open platforms behind each tower.
That’s not to say the game is perfect, however. Despite having access to the damage numbers of each weapon, it sometimes feels like they aren’t as effective as they should be, or even were previously. Some of the weapons are somewhat unwieldy as well. I’m still not entirely certain how the rockets from the rocket launcher drop off, and I have on multiple occasions misfired the railgun because I have misread the charging HUD icon while focused on the gunfight that I’m in and reacted to an audio or visual cue that doesn’t correspond to the gun being ready for use. The default carbine, a weapon you start with in most game modes, is possibly my least favorite gun in the game and I hate being forced into it until I can find something better, functionally limiting me to a single weapon.
Shiny Guns, Scenic Maps
Splitgate’s aesthetic is perfectly serviceable, and the game looks great. However, it’s also nothing to write home about. Nothing looks bad, don’t get me wrong, but nothing stands out as being especially gorgeous either. None of the particles really take my breath away or emphasize the power of the weapons, but at the same time they aren’t distracting or actively obscuring my vision.
Splitgate uses an interestingly bright color pallet. The world is vibrant and colorful in a way you don’t usually see in shooters. It makes everything feel a little less serious. More on that later. At the same time, the colors aren’t distracting. Even the cosmetic skins have never tripped me up into attacking an ally by mistake.
Environments are clean but not sterile, if that makes sense. The arenas all feel like places that see frequent use without being covered in filth or grime. It’s a balance you rarely see executed well in sci-fi settings. It’s usually a pristine white with perfectly clean surfaces everywhere, or everything is coated in a thick layer of filth. So it’s refreshing to see Splitgate’s approach to their world.
If there’s lore to Splitgate, it’s locked down tighter than Fort Knox. I’m fairly certain that Splitgate is an in-universe sporting event, but that’s only because some arenas will have their own score displays on the walls, or a blimp flying past in the distance rolling ads. I think I even saw a poster for the Splitgate sport once. But there’s no justification for anything happening. That isn’t at all a problem, and I doubt most of the target audience will care, but if you’re used to or expecting your multiplayer games to have a token explanation for who you’re fighting and why: don’t.
Now I’m probably biased when it comes to Audio, because I’m about 90% sure that Warframe has forever raised my standards for audio design in video games, but Splitgate’s sound design leaves me wanting. Most of the guns sound punchy enough, but not all of them. I can’t always tell where footsteps are coming from when I’m listening for them. Some guns sound like they’re at least somewhat close by whenever anyone fires them, regardless of distance. However, every weapon and the portal gun have their own sounds so you can use audio cues to determine things about your enemies. I’ve also had a recurring issue where the announcer doesn’t actually announce anything at the start of a match.
Splitgate is a game that isn’t afraid to not take itself seriously. Getting enough kills is called a ‘Killection Agency.’ The aforementioned game mode called Fiesta. One of the possible character models is a cat that looks like a grizzled detective wearing powered armor. They just wrapped up a holiday event called ‘Splitmas,’ complete with imagery of their heavily armored characters wearing Santa hats and carrying presents through portals. I got an achievement on Steam called ‘SMG Goes Brrr.’ This tongue-in-cheek humor is present in most elements of the game, just subtle enough to get a laugh out of me every time it pops up again unexpectedly without overstaying its welcome and becoming annoying. My personal favorite is the gag mode where everyone has a big head, maxed out movement speed, and baseball bats.
For all of Splitgate’s strengths, it has some of the most aggressive microtransactions I have ever seen. Which is especially impressive given that from what I can tell, the only thing you can actually get with real money is more cosmetics.
Like most games of its ilk, Splitgate has daily and weekly challenges to encourage you to play every day. Completing these challenges earns you lootboxes. And I will never say anything positive about lootboxes, no matter the coat of paint. Admittedly, opening lootboxes by hurling them through an infinite fall portal loop to build momentum until it smashes against the ground is at least an interesting coat of paint.
There’s a Battle Pass system, that gives you more challenges, which earn you XP or lootboxes. I don’t know of any benefit to XP other than unlocking the competitive game modes and getting more lootboxes. The real problem with the Battle Passes is that you can complete challenges for the Premium Battle Pass without buying it. You are then stuck with a notification of having a completed challenge to claim your reward for, but you can’t until you shill out for the Premium Battle Pass, with the number of ‘unclaimed rewards’ steadily increasing until the Battle Pass expires or you throw your hands up and say, “Enough already!” and buy it just to make the notifications go away.
There are free cosmetics you can acquire by completing weapon challenges, usually killing X number of enemies or dealing X amount of damage with each weapon, getting rarer cosmetics as that number increases. But it’s clear that you are expected to customize yourself by paying real money. Nowhere was this more clear than when one of my daily challenges involved using multiple cosmetics for one item. If I hadn’t unlocked another cosmetic for that item, I wouldn’t have been able to complete the allegedly ‘free’ challenge without paying up.
At the very least, you can’t buy lootboxes. You buy whatever cosmetic you want individually. The lootboxes are only given out through challenges.
Splitgate is an excellent free-to-play shooter, and if you’re into that, you’re sure to have a great time with the game. There aren’t very many experiences like it. Pulling off anything resembling competence is such a satisfying feeling. When you do well at Splitgate, you feel like an unstoppable warrior. And as someone who isn’t very good at shooters, I’ve been known to do some pretty cool things by accident. Repeatedly.