How would you go about convincing someone that the one thing missing from the recent crop of first-person shooters is the star of GLADoS’ malevolent funhouse, the portal gun? Me, I don’t think I’d even try – and I’m not sure anyone could have convinced me, either. Well. Until I actually sat down and played Splitgate, that is.
For what it’s worth, there’s a part of me that instinctively (read: stupidly) pushes back against fads and “viral” games. Despite developing the gaming tastes of a 12-year-old in my latter years (all I want to do these days is shoot stuff and watch things explode), Splitgate’s marriage of FPS and portals seemed gimmicky – maybe even a touch gauche. After several merry hours with it, however, I can confidently confirm that the hyperbole is not hyperbole at all: Splitgate is astonishingly good fun.
I’ve racked up thousands of hours in Halo. I like to think it’s a franchise I know inside out. That’s why, the moment I dropped into Splitgate, it felt like home. Forget perks and skills and special abilities; Splitgate is first and foremost an intensely satisfying shooter, where your success comes down not to the weapon you spent the last three months grinding the sublime God Roll for, but just the raw abilities of you and your opponents. And it’s glorious.
Even the most basic FPS accessory, the grenade, won’t help you clock up kills – their only purpose is to destroy enemy portals (and I’ll get to those in a sec). There are no pay-2-win incentives and while yes, there’s a premium battle pass – presumably because this is 2021 and every game on the planet seems to shoehorn one in – they’re purely cosmetic, and they’re purely for you. Beyond the loading sequence in which squads stand stiffly about, waiting to kick-off, no one else can see them; everyone’s in the same bog-standard armour.
There are ten modes, all of which you’ve seen and played elsewhere, most likely: Team Deathmatch. VIP. Team Oddball. Team Shotty Snipers. You know the kind of thing. Initially, you won’t be able to pick and choose – players can only cycle through randomly selected modes until they’ve unlocked Level 10 – and whilst initially I resented this, it actually gave me a good, well-rounded introduction that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. Shotguns in competitive play are the bane of my poor Guardian’s life in Destiny 2, for instance, and I had no desire to relive that horror in Splitgate’s Team Shotty Snipers. A couple of rounds later, though, and I’ve discovered I’m a badass with a shotgun. Go figure.
I do love the old-school weapon limitations, too. For the most part you’ll be fighting with carbines and assault rifles, switching out for SMGs or battle rifles or snipers should you happen across them during the match, but not often. Everyone kicks off with the same loadout. Everyone has the same HP. It’s a delightful palate-cleanser for a genre that’s been getting ever more convoluted with each passing year, and there’s no way you can buy, or grind out, a tactical advantage.
The maps are diverse and appealing, too, and though I’ve never been a fan of misadventure deaths – I’m an expert in plummeting to my doom in all games; it’s just a natural gift, along with my astonishing lack of direction – the various holes and deadends certainly keep me on my toes. Perhaps most importantly, most (if not quite all) levels are super small and delightfully tight, which keeps the tempo high and the adrenaline pumping. You will rarely be far from a fight.
What it doesn’t do quite so well is provide much of a learning curve. Whilst there’s a decent enough tutorial that takes you through the basics, from your very first unranked match, you might be taking on Rank 50 players. I know that’s what happens when there’s no skill-based-matchmaking (and it’s my very unpopular opinion that unranked games are preferable when they’re not skill-based; don’t @ me), but that doesn’t mean it’s not tough to find your feet, and you’ll soon realise that knowing your environs and being able to move nimbly around is as important in Splitgate as pulling off that delicious headshot.
This brings us neatly to the star of Splitgate: portals.
While I’ve spent more time traipsing through Aperture over the years than I care to admit, getting to grips with portals in Splitgate hasn’t been as intuitive for me as I would’ve liked. The action is so frenetic I often find myself playing a straight shooter, and that won’t always get you the K/D you want.
I don’t profess to be an expert at portaling just yet, but the more you play, the more instinctive it becomes. If I hear a fight kicking off to the left of me, I can turn and shoot off a portal in the distance to my right, pop one right behind me, and then head on over to see what the fuss is about. If I emerge triumphant: brilliant! If it goes a bit Pete Tong, though, I’ve got time to slip away, hopefully deleting the portal behind me in time. It makes Splitgate a surprisingly cerebral experience and the better you know the map layout, the more creative you can be, slipping effortlessly in and out of firefights.
Last night, for instance, I came up against one particularly irksome team – well, technically they were awesome, but they destroyed me, so I’m being uncharitable – that perfectly utilised portals on beachfront level Oasis, dipping in and out of them so fluidly I often didn’t even know who was murdering me. Only by the humiliating killcam replay could I see that they were miles away from me, huddled up at the top of the map, using strategically placed portals as sneaky recon tools. It was a masterclass in tactics and another example of how impressive – and exciting – the portalling mechanic truly is.
Right now Splitgate’s in beta, and it’s completely free-to-play on PC, PS4/5, and Xbox One/Series X. It boasts 20 maps, 15 modes, full cross-play, and a ranked mode to boot. And look, I know a game’s price tag has zip to do with its intrinsic value, but if you’ve ever had fun with an old-school Halo game, you owe it to yourself to give this a go. I came into this thinking – admittedly a touch cynically – that if Splitgate was okay, it would at least tide me over until Halo Infinite arrives. Now I’m wondering if I’ll have time to fit Halo Infinite in around my Splitgate sessions.