If there is one game that has defined the PlayStation brand throughout the ages it's wipEout. Psygnosis's 1995 original arrived alongside Sony's very first console, bringing with it a promise of the future - a vision that was as chic and urban as the twenty-somethings the game's marketing sought to seduce.
More recently wipEout has come to define Sony's first steps into a more digital age. wipEout HD and wipEout Fury brought that future to life in vivid 1080p and at 60 fps, all at a cut price and without the need for a bothersome Blu-ray.
So it's heartening to see Studio Liverpool's racer resuming normal duties in its debut outing on the NGP. wipEout 2048 explores reaches of the handheld that the rest of the current line-up has yet to discover, all the while delivering the closest approximation of an existing PlayStation 3 title. Even better, it does this at the same time as giving the series perhaps its most serious makeover since its inception.
Set four years before the very first wipEout, this a game cast in that most pervasive of cinematic molds: the gritty reboot. Yes, it seems that Christopher Nolan's fingerprints reach all the way to the raceways of the future.
As a prequel wipEout 2048 thrusts a strange new aesthetic on the series, its races taking place before the abstracted backdrops of HD and Fury took hold. A track that zips through a near-future New York shows this off best, the track dancing between the high-rises of Manhattan before making for the city's skyline.
There's a thrilling and surreal edge to the experience of coursing through a familiar backdrop at impossible angles, and Studio Liverpool's track designers play well to this particular novelty. The rhythmical weave of New York's circuit has a show stealing virtuoso moment as the track scales a skyscraper before taking a violent vertical plunge towards the streets.
It's a stomach churning set-piece reminiscent of the first wipEout's gravity-defying leap on Altima VII, and it suggests that Studio Liverpool has cast a fond glance at the series' past while defining its future. That much is explicit in the fact that 2048's championship will climax with a race at Altima VII itself, the game's ending coming at the very moment that the series began.
The development team has clearly got one eye on the future, too. wipEout 2048 does an incredible job of fulfilling the hazy notion of a handheld PS3 in all but name that accompanied the announcement of the NGP. At Sony's recent preview event there was a version of wipEout HD running on the PlayStation 3 for an easy reference point, and 2048 came out favourably from direct comparisons.
The fidelity and sparkle that's ensured wipEout HD is still a visual standout in the PlayStation 3 library is in evidence here. Texture models are crisp and defined and they're maintained to a distant horizon, while depth of field and dynamic lighting bring 2048 in line with its console sister. Indeed, the only area where 2048 takes a hit is in its frame rate, which sees HD's 60 fps halved.
It's not enough of a hit to prevent the two games from playing nicely with each other, and 2048's the first game to offer cross-platform play between the PlayStation 3 and the NGP. At the moment it's confined to a one-on-one demonstration in a controlled environment, but it's impressive nevertheless, and should provide a springboard for what's shaping up to be a varied online suite.
How the game makes use of the NGP's Near application and its other networking abilities remains to be seen – and that's an aspect that's being kept under wraps for petty much all of the handheld's properties right now. However, its straight-up multiplayer features are a more open commodity.
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Mixed in with the regular racing will be objective-based multiplayer. It's a new twist on an old standard, with each player given an objective that'll remain secret from the competition. These could vary massively in tone: do a barrel roll mid-race, for example, kill a certain amount of people or – most devilishly – don't finish first.
The ensuing clash of motivations in multiplayer racing could make for some spicy encounters, and there's a hint of the open-minded chaos that defined some of Project Gotham Racing's online modes.
A fundamental rethink of the strategic backbone of wipEout plays well to this. Power-up pads are now split into two groups, with red pads providing offensive items while green ones cater for a more defensive strategy. Tied into this is a rethinking of the shield; it's now on a dedicated button and is fully rechargeable.
Such minor changes combine with wipEout 2048's other minute revolutions to create the freshest take on the series in some time. Just as Sony's first PlayStation found the perfect partner in wipEout, the NGP now has its own marquee racer to show the world what it's capable of. The future, it seems, is now.