Hovering over the pack.
Those new to gaming might wonder why there's so much hubbub surrounding Wipeout Pure as a launch title for the PSP. And for good reason - the once proud racing series barely made any noise at all on the PS2 thanks to only one release, and that one slipped under the radar pretty quietly.
I suppose a brief history lesson is in order, then, although I'll cut right to the Cliff Notes and say that the three Wipeout games on the original Playstation absolutely rocked. The original was itself a launch title in 1995, although most gamers will remember its sequel, the unforgettable Wipeout XL, as the crowning achievement of the series. So far ahead of its time was Wipeout XL that the next two games never managed to live up to it, and we all wondered what had become of our beloved techno racer.
Well, well, look what the cat dragged in.
Gamers geeky or decrepit enough to remember the good old days should rejoice. Hearkening back to its roots, Wipeout Pure shows off the PSP's power with arguably the best visuals of any launch title while injecting some fresh life back into this trusty jalopy.
The game picks up right on cue by dropping you into fast, futuristic hovercrafts and flinging you through lean, twisting circuit races dotted with weapon pickups and turbo boosts. Your job is to somehow survive the blazing speed, enemy racers and unforgiving track walls long enough to cross the finish line in one piece, a task much easier said than done.
The eight ships vary in terms of speed, acceleration, shields and handling, but there is no customization to speak of. Beginners will stick with the tighter handling craft while experts will likely opt for the faster ones. The first few races are fairly tame, but as you open up higher race classes (there are five available), you'll begin to understand the awesome nature of this beast.
And the only way to tame it is to master the art of airbraking. Mapped to the shoulder buttons, the airbrakes are really the only way to avoid slamming into walls. Since your craft has limited shields, you can only take so many bumps and bruises before you blow up, which, to say the least, can have a profoundly negative effect on your time. The new ability to 'sidestep' helps a bit here – it's a handy mini-strafe that can realign your craft horizontally and is perfect for last minute adjustments.
Even so, you'll likely take a good pounding from opposing racers. Wipeout Pure rehashes most of the weapons from earlier Wipeouts, including the handy super shield and auto pilot along with the devastating guided missiles and mines. Some of these are a bit overpowered, but not to the point of feeling cheap.
As before, you can only hold one weapon at a time, so you'll have to choose carefully. Perhaps to become more eco-friendly, Wipeout Pure now lets you ingest weapons to replenish your shields. This replaces the pit stop charge-up found in the earlier games and works well by injecting the race with some new strategy. Otherwise, it all boils down to becoming intimately familiar with the game's 16 tracks, several of which are classic remakes. Learning the location of every turbo and weapon pad becomes tantamount to success at the later speed levels, which can be very difficult even for vets of the older games.
There's a nice degree of depth to the single-player. In addition to Single Races and Tournaments (a series of races in a row in which you score points based on how you place), Wipeout Pure lets you race against your own ghost in Time Trial or leisurely check out the tracks in Free Play. New to the series is Zone mode, which places you in a special ship on one of four tracks that force you to constantly accelerate. You don't have weapons or any other racers to contend with, just the speed of your craft and the walls, which is more than enough as you gain speed and start winging around corners like a bat out of hell. It's decent fun and hints at the intensity of the highest speed level, although the long-term value of the Zone is suspect.
Wipeout Pure also comes with Ad Hoc wi-fi multiplayer, which works well enough for up to 8 players in the direct vicinity. Unfortunately, it's one of the launch titles with no real online support – you cannot take it online and race against other people. The only Infrastructure option is the ability to download new content, but currently you just get a big 'coming soon' sign. Presumably you'll be able to access new ships, skins and tracks, but that's a hefty presumption.
There is no ambiguity, though, when it comes to Wipeout Pure's graphical prowess. Clearly the most beautiful PSP launch title, it's a visual showstopper. The tracks curl and twist through futuristic cityscapes brimming with incidental animations. The cool ship design is aided by a wide color palette that takes advantage of the awesome PSP screen with vibrant explosions and weapon particle effects. Hardcore fans will be pleased at the three camera angles, including the harrowing first-person barfo-vision. Though the framerate occasionally dips a bit, that's somewhat expected out of a handheld racer, and I've never seen a handheld racer do anywhere close to what this one does.
It also sounds great thanks to another solid, understated techno soundtrack. The rest of the audio is fine and does a decent job getting you in the mood for the inevitably frantic speeds.
And that's really what Wipeout Pure is all about. The joy of careening down gorgeous, devilishly designed tracks, hitting the sweet spot in a hairpin turn and taking out an enemy with a well-laid mine makes a welcome comeback. The lack of online play and the sheer difficulty for newbies keeps it from attaining GR gold, but we're just happy to see it back on the podium where it belongs.