WipEout 2048 – Hands-On Preview

Launching with Sony’s new Vita handheld is the latest, and tenth, entry in Sony’s long-running arcade racer series WipEout. The series has become synonymous with Sony console and handheld launches going right back to the original Playstation, and is well known amongst gamers both for its fast-paced action and techno soundtrack, as well as providing a showcase of the initial graphics clout of each new edition of Playstation hardware.

Faced with the prospect not only of a significant milestone in the franchise history, but also of demonstrating the abilities of the most powerful and feature-laden handheld gaming system ever made, Sony owned developers SCEE Studio Liverpool were forced to address the issue of how to update one of the most iconic Playstation brands without repeating themselves and simply releasing a rehashed version of the games that have come before it. It’s no secret that the last few entries in the WipEout series have seemed like the same game that came before, re-skinned with newer and shinier textures accordingly, but essentially much of the same.

To breathe new life into it, the developers have decided to take the sixteen year old racer back to its roots. 2048 is set thirty-seven years into our future, as implied by the title, but approximately fifty years before the setting of the original game on the first Playstation. It represents the dawn of the hover racer motorsport – “season one” as it were – and the designers have found a number of ways to reflect this.

Rather than being solely focused on dedicated racetracks, the action now comes frequently down to street level. The circuits are now much wider as a result, and are designed around a philosophy of three distinct levels of architecture. The first of these, the lowest level, is simply a city street the way you’d see today were you to visit New York or any other American east coast metropolis. It is crowded with buildings as recognisable as the ones many of us currently live and work in. Above this, in the middle layer, are the skyscrapers of the near future – modern glass and metal constructs of a slightly less industrial aesthetic than the bricks and mortar surrounding and supporting them from the ground below, and which we’ve begun to see erected in the more affluent and populated cities of today. Finally, the highest level is where the designers have taken the look of previous WipEout games and backwards engineered them, with visible signs of ongoing construction and obvious joins where these wholly science fiction monoliths are bolted onto the upper reaches of the middle layer.

Racing on these new tracks, all of which are new and built from the ground up for WipEout 2048, and to take advantage of the Vita GPU, you get to see all three of these layers at various points on each. Starting generally at the bottom on broad main roads and boulevards, you slowly snake your way higher, with corners becoming ever more perilous and the room for error gradually less, before peaking at the zenith and plunging at breakneck speed back down into the bowels of the urban landscape. It’s a rollercoaster that you control, at least on each of the four tracks demoed at the Sony Conference and later at the presentation I attended dedicated to the game. In the final game there are promised to be six more on top of these, giving the game ten circuits in all. This might not sound much in comparison to similar examples within the genre, but each is a lengthy affair with numerous possible routes, as there are especially technical and challenging shortcuts present to challenge particularly skilful players.

The winding and multi-approached angle of the course design ethos, along with the new wider track gauge, result in a game that is better suited to highly aggressive racing. Previously the series demanded victory through precise cornering and out-racing your opponents, with a lessened impact on the final results from the token weapons on offer. Now however, there is a much wider selection of “creative driving aids” at the player’s disposal, also now split into two separate classes – offensive and defensive, with the pickups on the track colour coded to reflect which you’re gaining. Green for defence (shields, rear-dropping mines, and the like), and yellow for offense (rockets, homing missiles, and machine guns etc.). How traditional WipEout fans will react to this change in emphasis within the gameplay style remains to be seen, but it does work extremely well when stood against other, more traditional, examples of arcade racing coupled with frantic combat.

Perhaps the most surprising reflection of this game’s intention to set itself out as the genesis of the franchise’s chronology comes in a form of loose continuity – one of the tracks in the game, included in the demos I played, was the Sol course seen in many of the older WipEout games. Except it also wasn’t. The dev team took the version from the previous game and took it apart at various points. There are massive construction robots and half-finished areas on the upper level, so that it’s just recognisable enough as the most famous of WipEout’s races, but also distinct and new.

It isn’t just the tracks either. The ships are smaller, more manoeuvrable, and generally feel like a precursor to the old ones. They’re more nimble, but less powerful (though still blisteringly fast, I hasten to add) and more fragile. Shields are no longer a separate and integral thing, but occupy the weapon slot until activated automatically through receiving enemy attacks, or absorbed to free the slot up for a more offensive option at the cost of your safety net. It’s the little details too – things that probably go overlooked by all but the most observant. The engines look and sound different to the stock colours and effects of the past, to show how they are a different and more rudimentary technology.

The game looks bloody stunning. Without exaggeration, it puts Burnout Paradise on the Xbox 360 to absolute shame. It runs at 720p, has more objects and effects on screen than many a racer I’ve played, and shows absolutely no signs of slowdown or framerate ripping. It’s just consistently smooth. On the Vita’s built-in touchscreen it looks incredible as a handheld game. With the HDMI cable plugged into a large LED telly it looks incredible simply as a game. There are two views when playing, and the first person one is genuinely stomach churning to behold when rushing headlong around a tight turn or over the edge of a long drop.

The sound too is impressive. The series’ long association with techno music is still alive and well, with Sony having commissioned a number of well-respected artists (so I was told) to produce the soundtrack. I’ll readily admit that I know cock all really about techno, it’s just not my thing, but it’s not intrusive or shows much sign of distortion and even I had some vague recollection of hearing the names of the musicians involved before.

All of the Vita’s unique features are catered for to greater or lesser degrees, and with varying success. There’s full support for online play and party mode, cross-platform support for the PS3 enabling you to play against people playing the PSN WipEout title, and the camera takes a shot of players before each race to display when they win a race or score/receive a direct weapon hit, akin to the aforementioned Burnout Paradise’s Xbox Live camera integration. The touchscreen can be tapped to fire weapons rather than using the face buttons. And finally the entire game can be controlled with a combination of the six-axis motion sensing gyroscopes for steering and the rear touchpad for acceleration, though I just didn’t get on with this at all and quickly switched back to analogue sticks and face buttons.

All in all, WipEout 2048 is looking really, really impressive. The dev team claim that it’s the biggest WipEout ever, and from what I’ve seen and actually been allowed to play I’m inclined to agree. This promises not only to be a great reboot of an ageing franchise, but a great game overall.

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  1. Ste Ste says:

    Holy crap, I’m impressed. It’s becoming more and more obvious that I must own a Vita when it is released. Awesome.

  2. Edward Edward says:

    Never actually been one for Wipeout (always been more of an F-Zero fan), but it certainly sounds interesting that they’re taking it back to its roots. Glad to see Sony are putting some actual work into their Vita titles, too.

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