As a rule, portal guns make everything better. In the case of Splitgate, the ability for every player to place two ends of a teleporter turns an otherwise average arena FPS into a smart, tactical, team-based shooter in which outthinking your opponents is more important than outgunning them. It just doesn’t do a great job of putting its best maps in the forefront for new players, which may be contributing to a downward spiral of problems stemming from low server populations. It deserves better.
You start each 4v4 round of Domination, King of the Hill, or Team Deathmatch with a portal gun that can place two portals on shiny blue surfaces spread around the map, allowing you to instantly pass between them, or shoot through one to hit an enemy standing near the other. It’s more than just a gimmick because these portals give you far more tactical options than in your average arena shooter. Emerging from a portal on a perfectly timed flank makes me feel very clever indeed, and even if your aim is poor you can still have a big impact on matches through smart positioning.
The developers of Splitgate describe themselves as “passionate fans of Halo”, and it’s easy to see the influence. Guns have little recoil, your sidearm pistol packs a punch, and you can even grab a burst-fire Battle Rifle as one of the pickups that periodically spawn at set points. All of these pickups, from the railgun to the sniper, are uninspired analogues to weapons that have appeared in the Halo series, with nothing to set them apart.
The large, multi-level maps have lots of elevated buildings and platforms that you can reach by holding space to activate your jetpack, but they too are mostly forgettable, at least until you’ve gained enough XP to unlock slightly more original maps in ranked play, which took me around 10 hours (if you’re not after competitive play, then all these maps are available from the start in custom games).
Adding a portal gun to what would’ve been a mediocre arena shooter is an inspired move. The blue surfaces you place portals on are at every corner and chokepoint, letting you get behind enemies, escape danger, or just reposition to a better vantage point. I like using my portals to watch two angles at once when I’m defending a control point, keeping one eye on the point and another on a flanking route, ready to call out and shut down an enemy push.
You conserve momentum through portals, so falling into one will fire you out the other side. If you do this with your exit point placed on an upward-facing surface (a floor, for instance) you’ll soar overhead, which is useful for reaching the one rocket launcher per map that’s perched on a hard-to-reach platform. This weapon obliterates groups of enemies, but the fact you have to go out of your way to find it stops it feeling overpowered.
You can shoot and pass through enemy portals, and destroy them with grenades, but you can’t look through them, which adds another set of decisions to make: if you jump through, you might be walking into a trap – or you might come out behind a straggler, killing them easily. Enemy portals flash when the other team is next to one of them, which is your cue to squeeze the trigger blindly. It’s a smart way to stop players from camping in one spot.
Portals are a flexible system that create plenty of chances to outmaneuver your opponents, even if you can’t out-aim them. When you can instantly warp out of the line of fire and turn the tables, reaction speed is less important than positioning. It’s satisfying when you can predict an enemy’s movements, setting up your portals to catch them off guard: if you see an enemy heading for a control point, placing one portal in a safe spot and another overlooking the point will set up an ambush for when they arrive.
I like how Splitgate encourages you to play the objective, too, because it means you can contribute to your team even if you’re not getting kills. Away from Team Deathmatch and Free For All, which have their own ranked playlists, getting bodies on a control point is often a bigger factor than landing headshots. I’ve had matches where I’ve gone 5-15 but ended top of the leaderboard because I’ve concentrated on capping points, and your ranking is based purely on wins and losses, which stops players peeling off and doing their own thing.
What ends up sapping a lot of Splitgate’s momentum is the fact that the maps look bland, and some simply aren’t fun to play in certain game modes. For example, I enjoy playing King of the Hill on SAW Stadium – a map with a base at either end and an open area in the middle – because the moving control points create different kinds of firefights, whether that’s in the underground tunnels or the flat plane at the top of the map. But on Domination, it simply doesn’t work as well because the middle point is so exposed, which means it rarely changes hands. There aren’t enough maps available to have them be specific to the game mode where they work best, so oftentimes you end up with a mismatch.
Splitgate also limits the maps you’ll see in your first 10 hours or so, gradually introducing its most complex arenas as you level up. Easing new players into this fast-paced physics-bending gameplay is a good idea in theory, but in practise it means that outside of custom games you’ll see the same handful of maps over and over again in ranked play for far too long. Playing on a new set of maps when you reach a certain level also creates another unnecessary difficulty spike: knowing the map layouts is critical in any arena shooter, and being forced to face higher-level players on unfamiliar maps makes me feel like a newbie all over again.
Splitgate also has an upcoming item shop where you’ll be able to spend disco balls on specific cosmetics, but it wasn’t live at the time of this review.
It’s a shame they didn’t just include all the arenas from the start, because those higher-level maps are the most interesting ones. Highwind, for example, is a collection of pagodas with sloped roofs against a forest backdrop, with wooden bridges snaking between buildings. It’s a million miles from the grey walkways of the starter maps, but no more complex, so it would’ve worked well for new players. Instead, it’s locked off until you reach a certain, unspecified level.
Performance can also be patchy: I’ve died a few times because my framerate dropped for no apparent reason, and I’ve also gotten hit markers when it certainly looks as though I’ve missed my shot. In several fights, both me and my enemy have killed each other at exactly the same time, which shouldn’t really happen unless you’re dueling with guns that fire slow-moving projectiles.
Perhaps because of these issues, Splitgate’s player count has been moving in the wrong direction since launch, and now regularly dips below 1,000 concurrent players, according to Steam’s stats. That’s too few to consistently create evenly matched teams in ranked play, and I’ve seen matches where one team has three Rank 1 players while the other has three at Rank 10. Even at higher ranks, the teams rarely feel balanced, and fewer matches go down to the wire than in other shooters. One side will often steamroll their opponents, causing one or more players to quit, which makes it even less fun for the losing side.
It also means you’ll have to wait a long time between rounds. I’ve sat searching for a match for a full five minutes, and sometimes there aren’t even enough players to start a game: you and six others are placed in a lobby waiting for an eighth player that never arrives, and you’re kicked back to the main menu after a 30-second countdown. I once had this happen four times in a row, which was frustrating. But Splitgate is fun enough that its matches are worth waiting for, even if I have to requeue multiple times.
This article was originally published by IGN.COM