Remember a time before Apex Legends and Warzone, where multiplayer shooters were less focused on faux-military realism and more on arcadey swashbuckling? Splitgate remembers, taking a page from the deathmatch book Halo and Unreal wrote and adding its own chapter with portals. There are moments of brilliance thanks to being able to pop out of nowhere to score an unexpected kill, but you also have to deal with run-of-the-mill weapon selection, and slog through a repetitive first few hours before it opens up.
Splitgate is a rebrand and relaunch of Splitgate: Arena Warfare, which launched on PC in 2019. It’s now cross-platform on Xbox and PlayStation and free-to-play, leading to an influx of new content and new blood, but the main idea is the same: Every match begins with a pair of starter weapons – for most match types, that’s a slow-firing carbine and a fully automatic assault rifle – and an awesome Portal Launcher strapped to your wrists. The guns are all the standard fare, such as ballistic firearms like carbine rifles and shotguns, and then sci-fi weapons like the plasma rifle and the railgun. They’re competent if not very creative, and they all lack any significant flavor you haven’t tasted in a hundred different shooters going back to Quake III. That said, they’re cliches for a reason: most of these weapons feel distinct and useful, and it’ll be easy to find a favorite among them.
A favorite next to the Portal Launcher, of course, because it’s hard not to fall in love with it immediately. If you’ve played Valve’s Portal games, you have an idea how this works: Scattered across every map are blue-textured panels on walls, ceilings, and floors that can have one of your portal ends projected on it. When both gates are open you can pass through, creating your own escape routes and ambushes. You can travel through allied and enemy portals as well, but you can’t see through them, so you’ll never know what kind of tactical advantage the enemy is gaining through their gateway – or if traveling through it is setting you up to get ambushed.
Portals offer great flexibility in any given game. They can get you across large lengths of the map in an instant, or you can use them to set up flanks and give yourself new shooting vectors to attack oncomers through. Personally, I mostly use them defensively, covering up my own mediocre twitch-shooting skills by dropping one end near the spawn point and the other near my forward position to use as a quick getaway when things get too spicy.
But a lot of folks are much more aggressive and creative than that, and that element of surprise can make even the more mundane of Splitgate’s game modes more exciting than the average shooter. A round of King of the Hill is way more dangerous when the enemy doesn’t even need to be in the same room to clear it out. High-pressure Showdown matches get even more hectic when you can create your own overwatch windows.
Splitgate Official Screenshots
That’s a blessing because you’ll be stuck playing a truncated list of game modes for the first couple of hours of play, and I can’t imagine those being much more than mediocre without this dynamic feature. And even when the playlist opens up to the full range of modes you’ll likely have seen many of these modes before, so Splitgate earns all of its kudos by applying its gimmick to existing shooter designs.
To be fair, maps are pretty varied, both in physical layout and weapon arrangement. Arenas like the volcano-side Lavawell and the beachfront Oasis have great angles for long-range weapons, whereas tighter spaces like the industrial Impact are perfect for shotgunning through the competition. Not every map feels perfect for every mode, though. Some of the larger maps can make games that involve chasing single targets, like VIP or Oddball, feel way slower and longer than they do on more intimate maps.
The maps are also the best looking feature of Splitgate. Club Silo is an easy favorite for me based on its color palette and disco theme alone. Many of the character models are pretty bland science-fiction soldier types, but an increasing number of odd and interesting skins for both players and weapons have been popping up in the in-game shop. If you’re willing to drop some real-life money, you can turn your weapons into water guns and yourself into a cat man or an elf.
Of course, none of that matters if you can’t actually play, which has been an issue during the open beta because the servers are buckling under the load of people attempting to log in. That’s why Splitgate recently pushed back its official launch date from July 27 to some time this month. The open beta session (which, for a free-to-play game with a functioning cash shop, is effectively a soft launch) has been a bit of a mess, both on consoles and Steam, with servers going down sporadically and sometimes for periods as long as several days. The PS5 version has queue times upwards of 90 minutes to get into the servers. And despite that crushing demand, even when you are logged in the wait time between games can be sporadic. Sometimes you are queued up pretty quickly, other times you can sit for a few minutes before getting to play.
1047 Games is clearly aware of this issue and specifically delayed the official launch to address it, and we’re holding off on giving Splitgate a final score until we can experience it without those annoying stop-and-start issues. But if I had to score it now…