Splitgate makes me cackle. A lot. It’s an arena shooter that puts cheeky, seemingly unfair kills on a pedestal – then implores you to dance around that pedestal, portalling about with the pent-up aggression of a testing facility victim who’s been handed an assault rifle. There are no puzzles here, though, unless you count the split-second calculation involved in whacking a portal at just the right angle to get the jump on a would-be assailant. Or the more relaxed, long-term calculation of just slapping a portal down in a high place, popping another somewhere relatively safe, then picking off your opponents as they scurry beneath you, like shooting fish in a barrel through a one-way mirror. It feels disgusting. It feels great. Thanks to some snazzy map design, though, it rarely feels cheap.
Describing Splitgate as “Quake meets Portal” is both accurate and reductive. It’s wearing Halo’s coat, for starters: everyone dresses as a chunky marine, then goes jetpacking around sci-fi environments of various flavours. You’ve got Arena, a symmetrical amphitheatre that leaves no doubt you’re inside the blood sport of the future. There’s Highwind, where you scrap around a massive treehouse-come-pagoda that screams ‘Kashyyyk meets Japan’. Then most recently (and most impressively) there’s Karmen, a space hangar where getting killed treats you to a spectacular fall down to the glittering planet below.
Those are my highlights, but it’s worth stressing upfront that not all the maps succeed. Those that do strike a careful balance between open areas and closed-off corridors, each facilitating a different kind of portal-enhanced combat. You want both: a mix of open area domination and crafty close-quarters brawls. On top of that, there’s the issue of quantity – if there are too many portable-surfaces – as you can only teleport on specific walls – it becomes too hard to get your bearings. Too few, and fights devolve into conventional, albeit competent, slugging matches. I don’t envy the level designers, and it’s remarkable that developers 1047 Games have managed to strike the balance as finely as they have.
Handing a portal gun to every player in an arena shooter is a recipe for confusion, so the maps have to actively counter that. The game’s predicated on the idea that anyone can be shot from anywhere, so the maps have to simultaneously sell that idea and make it so you can’t *really* be shot from any angle – or at least, not one that you couldn’t have reasonably thought to cover.
That brings us back to my opening scenario, where I’m lording it above the ants beneath me. It’s a paradox. Those moments where I’ve got my eye in the sky are when I feel most unstoppable, and yet I’m anything but. A skilled opponent can simply find a discreet spot to watch my portal. They won’t be able to see through it, but they don’t need to: they can just pull their trigger the moment their crosshair turns red. That mechanic transforms ‘sky camping’ from OP rage-fuel into a calculated risk, yet shooting from on high still feels outrageous in the moment. It’s a game built around wallhacks, where the cheekiest tactics still leave room for counterplay. With some rudimentary map knowledge, it’s often not hard to guess where someone might be squirreled away, too. Ambushes abound.
There are still moments of frustration, of course. Splitgate is still a game where death can and does come instantly and unexpectedly, but that hardly stings when the salve of a respawn arrives almost as quickly. In the epoch of the Battle Royale, where death equates to elimination, that’s a refreshing change of pace. Fast-paced arena shooters thrust you into such a different mentality, where a setback loses you seconds of action rather than ten or more minutes of looting. The best of Splitgate’s maps minimise those deaths that leave you with the sour tang of helplessness, and Splitgate’s nature as an arena shooter means that tang is soon replaced with the sweet thrill of a multi-kill.
Even when you’re struggling, at least it’s often funny. I’ve found myself cackling when I’m on the business end of a sniper rifle too, as I watch my killer elaborately hop through a chain of both team’s portals to get the drop on me. Some of the best scraps can turn into Benny Hill slapstick, with marines chasing each other through halls of improbably connected doors straight out of Scooby Doo. It’s hard to feel too salty in a scenario that’s so blatantly silly. You’re larking about in a playground that anyone can rip interdimensional holes in, not battling for grim survival in a po-faced simulation of war. It’s a context that makes kills that seem outrageous feel like part of the fun, no matter which side of the barrel you’re on.
That said, I don’t mean to undersell the tactical side of Splitgate. There are plenty of wild chaotic free-for-alls, but also plenty of moments that make you feel like a genius. Tricking people is one of my favourite things to do in video games, and the glee of trickery gets heightened when it unravels in electric real-time against enemies who sometimes seem to forget they’ve got a portal gun. Popping a portal behind someone and simply shooting them through it provides a basic hit of smarty-pants dopamine, but that’s just the most basic trick in your arsenal. You can bamboozle people by portalling to the other side of a room immediately before they come in guns-blazing, or else fake them out with portals that you’ve no intention of entering. It’s a beautiful combination of cerebral mind-game with intense twitch-shooting, marrying the joys of Quake to fights that don’t just leave your fingers feeling clever.
There’s this fundamental sense that you’re breaking the rules. They’re the rules from other video games, though, where seeing and shooting people through walls amounts to literal cheating. Splitgate lets you lap that forbidden fruit while ensuring other players have ways to put you in your place – as I’m increasingly finding out. I’m running up against more and more people who don’t fall for the old tricks, players who know to keep a vigilant crosshair over a portal opening up from on-high. There comes a point where you can’t outsmart people who can simply outshoot you, too, as I’ve found when I’ve got the drop on someone only for them to whip round and evaporate me.
There’s also another plane of portal-based chicanery, one I’ve only begun to access. It’s possible to put a portal down, step through it – but only just – fire off another portal, then step back through your first one. It’s a tactic that lets you cross a map in seconds, and it has the potential to be barbaric. I dread to think what people might be capable of in a few months time, popping up from any portal-able crevice they can get line of sight on. There’s every chance the bar will rise off puttingly high, as often happens with multiplayer games of all stripes once they’ve been out for a while.
For now though, Splitgate’s in a happy place. The latest map is the strongest showing yet, which bodes well for future arenas. I’m not going to stop cackling anytime soon, and I’d encourage you to jump in while there are still chumps who don’t know when to watch the skies. Cheaters never prosper, but Splitgate can make you feel like one who does.
Splitgate is free to play and out now.