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Splitgate review: a raucous FPS that's much more than Halo meets Portal

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You might have heard Splitgate described as "Halo meets Portal", a useful shorthand for those of us with brains too tired to describe it more colourfully as "a gun learns physics" or "Benny Hill gets a battle rifle". However you describe it, Splitgate is a belter of a multiplayer arena shooter, born of gimmickry, yet graduating with honours, it's a grin-delivering game of tight, gun gymnastics and wacky Loony Tunes doorways, and just the right amount of frustrating to make you sweat and launch into another scramble for the bazooka in the middle of the map.

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Any trailer will reveal at once how it works. At its most vanilla, you're racking up kills in a team deathmatch using carbines, plasma rifles, shotguns, SMGs, rocket launchers - all the usual suspects (most of them with a familiar Halo "pop"). But you're also flicking out portals with a tap of a button. You can only place portals on certain blue mesh surfaces. But there's no cooldown for the ability, and you can close portals with a tap. You also get special grenades that blast away enemy portals, which will appear as red ovals on a wall, filling you with unease. Unease because you can't see what's on the other side of any portal that isn't your own. You can only see that it's there. A crucial veil that makes portal shootouts unpredictable, clever and frequently daft.

The laws of momentum that govern the puzzles of GlaDOS are also present. It isn't long before the heroic possibilities of such a device make themselves clear. You can do flanky stuff, sure, putting a portal behind your enemies and stepping through to shoot them in the bum. A panicked portal is also the perfect escape mechanism, pooping one right at your feet to Wile E Coyote out of trouble. But what about bwooping a portal just in front of your enemy's feet? With the other end opening into a big instakill pit? What about leaping into an enemy portal far below to fly out at hilarious speed and donk them in the spine with a novelty baseball bat? The biggest revelation when playing Splitgate is that, so long as you are using the portals as often as possible, you will perform many of these feats completely by accident.

Turns out glowing holes in spacetime are the perfect compliment to a pure battle rifle gunfight. But some purity still exists, with a few modes offering quicker deaths than others. In the familiar Swat mode, a single headshot can kill, leading to tense corners and a lot of portal-based second-guessing every time you hear a "vwwwip" behind you. The same goes for the trigger-wild menace of "Shotty-Snipers", where every gun feels instantly deadly so long as you judge correctly which of the two to use in any given encounter. Takedown and Showdown modes add even more stress to the mix, by chucking you into an elimination style, three-on-three contest of reflexes in clean, confined murderboxes.

The player fires their gun at another competitor in Splitgate

These two modes are my least favourite. They are high stakes. I feel like a letdown if I don't pull my weight, or die early. Plus the six maps ringfenced for Showdowns all have the same clinical art style, despite having different layouts, their generic names ranging from "Simulation Alpha" to "Simulation Foxtrot". It's hard to tell the difference between these small, shiny arenas, especially when starting out. When portals make every map a quantum warren of death, I really want a houseplant or a vending machine to remind me which part of the maze I'm dying in.

Thankfully, that sameyness is not true of the other maps. Highwind is a multi-floored treehouse that feels like Halo 2's Lockout suspended in a forest canopy. Excellent. Stadium's open bowl and exposed central platform are offset by ratty little chambers beneath the arena, perfect for scuttling around like a cockroach with a submachine gun. Impact is a crusty, crashlanded spacecraft, with the imperial purple palette of a certain alien alliance that rhymes with "Wovenant". Forgone Destruction is a cubic stone temple with lots of staircases and a big watery pit in the middle. Don't fall in the big pit.

All these maps would be classy works of shooter geometry, at home in any arena murderfest even without the portal-ready surfaces scattered around. I have favourites already. Oasis is a beaut. A sandy island with lots of open space and high pillars upon which to blip a sniper's nest. It's gratifying to get a few distant kills before the other team realise what you're doing and fire blindly into your boopholes above, or lob interruptive grenades to lock down your shenanigans and assault your position. Later, you can use the game's neat replay editor to see how the back of your dome was microwaved by some Bugs Bunny with a megalaser.

These locales are great in straight-laced deathmatches, but they shine in the chaos of various "Rumble" modes. Basically, it looks like the developers of Splitgate wrote, "What modes should we have?" at the top of a whiteboard one day and came back next day to find every classic game mode in 20 years of FPS history written underneath. Oddball is the gun rugby familiar to Halo fans, Fiesta has randomised weapons, Contamination is an infection-style mode of bat-wielding zombies and gun-toting humans. The list goes on. You can also build games with custom rules, low gravity, infinite ammo. One of the options is "big head mode". Big head mode! You absolute japer, where have you been? It's been decades.

The player wields a big baseball bat in Splitgate
The BFB bat is a force to be reckoned with.

Naturally, there are some disappointments woven into this free-to-play fabric. Weapon pickup can be a bit unruly. The rocket launcher could also do with a bit more splash, if you ask this explosion liker. Likewise, the melee attack feels weak, not because it doesn't do decent damage (it chews up half a health bar) but because it often lands "flat".

See, there's a magnetism to the melee attack of a Spartan from Halo. A little oomph of forward momentum, a little tracking, before the knuckle or elbow crunches down. That's also technically present in Splitgate, but often it doesn't "activate" and the resulting punch feels like a dull slap. (The gleeful exception is when you hit somebody with the BFB, a chunky baseball bat with one-hit-kill heft. That's got the whack-magnets, all right.)

There's also the issue of bots. You play against these as a new player, or when they fill the spot of players who abandon a match. Personally, I'm fine with it. Robots are people, too. But the game never explicitly tells you this, which leads to the nagging feeling it is luring you in with softplay, making you feel like, yes, finally, a video game you are good at, when in reality JumboKiller and BulletLarry are just crash test dummies with plasma rifles and bad eyesight. Tutorialising by bot can help players learn the ins and outs, but it can also look like seven patronising consecutive wins in Fortnite. You get a false sense of the game as it will truly be, once the bloodgates open and the real killers come snorting out.

And when that happens, the competition can be fierce. There is no accounting for headshot wizards. Some matches will pass with barely a portal cast as twitchy demons concentrate solely on getting their murders up. But this is part of the hybrid's charm. Every player is going to fall somewhere on that spectrum between Master Chief and Chell, with some distracted by every shiny oval they spy and others racing for the battle rifle and teabagging every subsequent corpse (there is a "Teabag Confirmed" mode where this is a requirement). I'd say if you aren't using portals as much as possible, you're missing out on the fun. What do you value more? A clean KDR or a hilarious ragdoll death through an interdimensional rift in spacetime?

Luckily, Splitgate has both covered. It will always be described as "Halo meets Portal" and not "John 117 discovers the art of MC Escher" or "Elmer Fudd gets a 360 no-scope". And that's fine. How a shooter is glibly summarised doesn't matter when it's got this many split-seconds of satisfaction. When you headshot a poor sap across the map just as he steps through his portal and then see the limp corpse fall right in front of you, you aren't thinking, "Huh, neat gimmick". You're thinking: "Ha ha ha ha ha". And then you're being biffed 30 feet into the air by an ambusher with a Big Flipping Bat.

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