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Wipeout Pulse

Wipeout Pulse coverThe long-running Wipeout racing series has its roots deep in the history of the PlayStation. Its first incarnation was a slightly dodgy affair that held the promise of 3D antigravity racing, and despite a number of problems it went on to become a hit as the first non-Japanese PlayStation game. Wipeout 2097, or Wipeout XL as it was known in North America, was an amazing upgrade that fulfilled the promise and became what is still widely considered a watershed game. After a number of sequels, and a strangely weak showing on the PS2 with Wipeout Fusion, the series seemed to have gone on hiatus for a number of years. And then when the PSP launched in March 2005, like a fiery vodka-and-Red-Bull-fuelled techno phoenix, Wipeout Pure appeared, and it was the very best version of Wipeout ever made.

The series has never been known for radical departures in gameplay. After the fanfare following XL, the designers were probably loathe to mess with what was widely considered a Very Good Thing. Thus the franchise has become the epitome of iterative game design. Each Wipeout is essentially the same thing: futuristic antigravity racing with rapid-fire combat and an edgy, electronica-fused atmosphere. What you historically got in new versions has been a mix of further refinements to craft handling, weapon tweaking, and track design. This is what made Pure special; for the series, it was the evolutionary equivalent of a shark. An absurdly optimized killing machine, nearly perfect in form and consequently at an impasse. Nothing more could really be done with the franchise in the way of gameplay without adding new base capabilities to the hardware that had become feasible in the post-PS2 days. Namely, online multiplayer.

So when I tell you that Wipeout Pulse is the ridiculously polished, online-capable, super-tweaked version of Wipeout Pure, I want you to understand where I am coming from. It is a game that has been in the works, in some form or another, for 13 years. It is probably the finest handheld racing game ever made by the hand of man. And I say this with all due reverence to the Burnouts, Ridge Racers, and Mario Carts of the world. Those are fine games. But this is Wipeout.


The game is not for everybody – indeed, one of the key traits it has maintained for all these years is that it will unrepentingly kick your ass up and down the track. Sometimes you will have a run where it seems as if you are the lone target, weathering a ridiculous flurry of Mines, Rockets and, most horrifying of all, the dreaded Quake weapon. Other times, you will squeak out a spectacular win by a tenth of a second. If combat racing is not your style of game, there are no efforts here to reach out to a more casual audience, beyond the almost-reasonable speeds of the initial Venom class of races. It’s approachable enough for a newcomer who’s willing to put in the time to practice a bit, but could easily be daunting for someone looking for breezier racing. You need to really concentrate to come in first place. And if you didn’t like the earlier games you probably won’t like this. I’d maintain that you might have something wrong with you, something that needs therapy or perhaps even surgery, but hey, to each his own. (Freak.)

Let us dig into what has changed in Wipeout Pulse.

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Online component. This is the first time the series has ever been able to utilize a net connection, and if any game ever deserved it, it’s this one. Both ad-hoc and infrastructure modes are supported for up to 8 players. A basic lobby system is present – nothing too fancy, but it gets the job done – and it’s easy to find other players with the auto-match feature or set up your own race sets. Online play was extremely smooth after a brief pause at the start while all of the players sync up, keeping the action consistently fast and lag-free. The game does not feature voice chat, although this can be forgiven considering the number of people in the world with a PSP headset and a copy of Pulse who are online right now can probably be counted on one hand. Connections to players in other ‘universes’, i.e. Europe vs. North America vs. Japan, are also not possible, due to the usual lag issues. At the end of the race you wait for players to have a chance to finish flying (because I kicked their asses, you see) and then you are returned to the lobby for another go or configuration changes.

Your race scores can be synced to the newly-opened wipeout-game.com, which also features some interesting new wrinkles. The site contains a skin editor which allows you to paint your own skin textures for your favourite racers, or download user-created ones already made. It’s somewhat clunky in execution, but it does allow the use of cut-and-paste from the clipboard, so do yourself a favour and break out something more sophisticated if you intend to pimp out your ship*. This site will also be the repository for ghost ships which can be downloaded and installed to your memorystick for a holographic time-shifted race with another player. Also, like Pure, downloadable content packs will be available for Pulse. Sadly it looks like the free ride is over and Sony will be charging for the latter, with no word on pricing yet. Both the wipeout-game.com site and Wipeout Pulse’s online lobby use your PSN ID credentials to log in.

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Custom soundtracks. Another feature that practically begs to be implemented in a game like Pulse. The soundtrack that the game ships with is what I’d call “fairly good”, although I’m not here to review the tunes. Suffice it to say the selection is in keeping with the Wipeout tradition – a mix of techno, house, breakbeat and DnB from the likes of Aphex Twin, Orbital and Kraftwerk. By creating a folder named WIPEOUT within your MUSIC folder on the PSP’s memorystick, you can add an additional 30 tracks to the base soundtrack. (The manual specifies MP3 files but it will play AAC files as well.) This is a fantastic feature; I only wish it was a little friendlier to set up. But once your songs are copied over, you can further tweak your playlist within the game menus.

Photo mode. This seems like a bit of a bonus feature of the PSP’s firmware rather than an integrated game function, but it works well enough. At the end of each race the ships continue to fly the course on autopilot, and the user is given the option of moving the camera around and pausing the action to save a “photo”, which becomes a JPEG file accessible from the PSP’s main interface. This can also be triggered at any time during a race from the pause menu. It doesn’t add anything to the game, but it does let you show off the excellent graphics, and goes well with the custom skin function to fulfil all of your vanity needs. (All game images in this review are unaltered shots taken with this mode and exported from the XMB.)

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MagLock and Black and White runs. The new philosophy of track design in Pulse is that each track is reversible, known as White (forward) and Black (reverse) runs. This automatically doubles the number of tracks of course, and can seem like a cheap way to extend the variety of tracks. Thankfully it appears that the Studio Liverpool team has gone back and made significant additions and tweaks to the tracks so that they can be played faithfully in either direction without incident. The “MagLock” is simply a writerly conceit that explains why the ships don’t fall off some of the tracks that now feature 360º loops and long straightaways on the ceiling: magnetic tendrils automatically hold your craft in place while flying over these sections of the track. Whatever, it looks cool.

The new tracks themselves are also some of the finer additions to the franchise. They manage to cover a range of styles, from the wider free-running turns of Wipeout 3’s tracks to some of the more technical hairpin circuits that were in XL. The setpieces look as stunning as ever, featuring a wide variety of trippy environments and locales like sprawling turbo wind farms, hyper-rich floating island chains, and abandoned research parks. The MagLock strips are put to good cinematic effect – it is not unusual to see an opponent racing towards you overhead as the track does a split-S at the far bend, for instance. Pulse manages to run at a wonderfully fluid framerate while throwing around some seriously hectic scenery. You are flying several hundred kilometres per hour, after all.

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Shuriken, Repulsor and Cannon. The famous Eliminator mode has returned with a vengeance – and that mode was totally full of vengeance before, so this is, like, some kind of crazy super-vengeance. Eliminator is a race that doesn’t care about time, it only cares about how many opponents you blow off the track. Weapon pickups are much more bountiful, everything hits much harder, and the ships themselves even sport a flat bare metal treatment to reinforce the fact that they will be blown apart. The Shuriken and Repulsor weapons are unique to this mode. Shuriken fires a bouncing disc projectile down the track, damaging all whom it touches. The Repulsor is a combination local bomb and area-of-effect disruptor that throws opponents out of their groove while doing damage at the same time. Finally, the Cannon is a new weapon available in all modes, and replaces the Disruptor Bolt from Pure; it allows 30 shots either as individual bursts or a single volley. Of course the old Wipeout standby weapons of Missiles, Bombs, Quakes, Leech Beams and the like are all present, as well as the Autopilot, Turbo and Shield pickups. It wouldn’t be Wipeout without those.

Zone Mode available for all tracks. Another favourite for fans of the series, Zone features a stark “synthetic” re-creation of a track for training purposes, and puts you on it alone with no weapons. The craft accelerates continuously over time, and never ends. This becomes like a rodeo mode for Wipeout. Death is certain. The only thing that matters is how long you can hang on. In Pulse there were three specially constructed tracks for Zone, but Pulse uses the regular tracks.

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Finally, rounding out the new features are a couple of additional modes: Single Race, which is just a best-of-three Time Trial race for single lap times; and Head-to-Head, which allows for ad-hoc Eliminator play locally with friends.

In terms of level progression, Pulse has adopted a series of hexagonal race “grids”. These are like a mixed salad of race modes in the standard Race Campaign, and are obviously meant to introduce players to each of the facets gradually without overwhelming you them with options. Finishing most of the races (”cells”) in a grid will unlock the next grid up the ladder, and new tracks to race on. The Racebox mode serves as an alternative to the Campaign as a grid editor – you can set up any combination of tracks or modes you like with impunity, and save those sets for later use in single- or multiplayer.

As for gameplay tweaks to the ships themselves, there are some curious new additions. Notably the ability to side-shift. This is brand new to Wipeout, and could actually be a major change to how the game plays, if only I could remember to try and use it. Side-shift allows the player to do just that – basically a lane-change without moving the nose of the ship left or right. The default control scheme is to double-tap the airbrake (shoulder) button to do this. I’ve been playing Wipeout for so many years that I find it hard to become accustomed to using this trick. It certainly could be extremely useful, particularly when you see a row of mines coming up fast or a missile lock on your ass. Alternatively you can set the controls to use left shoulder as side-shift and right-shoulder for all airbrake moves (following the stick motion), but that’s even weirder. The crucial absorption mechanic for pick-ups that debuted in Pure has also been maintained – if you hated driving through the pits in previous Wipeouts to restore your shields, it’s time to try it again. Also held over from Pure is the barrel-roll trick which gives you a speed boost when flying off high drops, but be careful: this time around you can’t just spam it on every jump as it will cost you some shield energy. Probably a good balance tweak.

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The tracking of loyalty points for the various teams is also a nice little touch that adds a mild RPG aspect to the game. Playing and racing well with any particular ship will award points at the end of the race, which build up over time and unlock new ship skins and other bonuses.

Unfortunately the downloadable content packs, which are frustratingly detailed and pictured on the Wipeout Pulse official site, are not yet available as of this writing in North America. I have no idea what they are waiting for. These packs will add two new teams to the roster, three returning teams from previous games, and four new tracks.

All in all, the Wipeout Pulse package amounts to a magnificent amount of fan-service. For $30, I have no trouble recommending it to anyone except determined haters of racers or PSPs. When the game is firing on all cylinders, there is nothing like it: the beats, eyeball-shredding speed, split-second reactions, the pop-futuristic vibe. It is a deeply satisfying combat racing experience.

(** This editor is built in Shockwave, you’ll need the plug-in. Intel Mac users need a workaround – click here.)


POSTSCRIPT REGARDING WIPEOUT HD

If you are lucky enough to own both a PSP and a PS3, there is something you should be aware of. I feel that this review would be remiss in not mentioning Wipeout HD, seeing as that and Pulse are set to appear within six months of each other.

Wipeout HD is basically a high-def reworking of the PSP games. It will be a PSN exclusive downloadable title for PS3, featuring two tracks from Pulse and six from Pure. It will also contain many of the features of Pulse, including online play, custom soundtracks, Photo Mode, and all the regular game modes. If you would prefer to do your Wipeout racing in high def with a sixaxis, rather than on a PSP screen with an analog nub (and aren’t so enamoured that you want both), I’d have to recommend waiting for Wipeout HD. The offical release date is not yet known but it is expected to drop sometime between May and July 2008, and will probably cost around $40. The official site and all known details are here. It runs at 1080p/60FPS. The screens are fucking astonishing.

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