Version tested: PSP
WipEout Pure does a lot of capitalising.
It capitalises on the fact that the last PS2 WipEout game, Fusion, was a bit of a letdown. It does this by using most of the things we've liked about the series to date and dumping most of the things we've not. People will buy it because of this.
It joins Ridge Racer in capitalising on the PSP's ability to do proper 3D racing games properly - the "proper X games properly" proposition obviously being one of the PSP's key selling points right now. People will buy it because of this, too.
It capitalises on the PSP's networking functions. Not just in terms of offering eight-player wireless racing modes, which it does nicely enough, but also by promising downloadable content, which has already started in Japan and should keep on going for some time yet. People will... Well, you get it.
Finally, it capitalises the letter E. People probably won't buy it because of this, but, since we like it, we're going to allow it anyway. "WipEout Pure" it is. Those crazy kids with their music and their fast hats.
As the name implies, Pure is an attempt to resurrect a once-proud series seemingly polluted by "change for the sake of change" by going back to basics. The result is a game much closer to the popular originals in mechanical terms, and yet the quality of the design throughout (right down to the reskinnable menus which, like Ridge Racer, look sharp and expertly designed) and Studio Liverpool's thoughtful pillaging from multiple 'Outs means that it's distinctly its own game too.
It's simple but it's also distinctive, and that's why it's so good. You take control of a futuristic hover-ship thingy (of which there are plenty, including unlockables, each of which trades off things like speed and acceleration against durability and the like) and zoom around futuristic courses at increasingly ridiculous speeds. The handling is somewhere between ice racing and driving a futuristic JCB backwards at 500mph, with a lot of inertia to overcome in judging corners and airbrake-drifting to work into the scheme of things, and the tracks are claustrophobic, sometimes-branching affairs that loop up, around and about, splicing neon with nature to create a distinctive futuristic look that's been the series' trademark since the beginning. Except with more particle effects.
Along the way you take advantage of boost pads on the ground, and collect power-ups like rockets, shields and so on in order to try and put your opponents at a disadvantage. The power-up system is ingenious. As ever, one of the key considerations while racing is the health of your craft, which doesn't take too kindly to being rammed into things or shot by missiles (which happens a lot in both cases), but instead of using F-Zero-style recharging pit lanes along the home straight to rebuild your energy levels, Pure lets you choose to absorb power-ups for a health-hit instead of using them. In other words, as you get better you'll find you're able to make more use of power-ups, but even if you're still learning you won't spend half the time limping back round to the pit lane because you ran into a wall of somebody else's unavoidable explosives.
All of which sets the game up very nicely for what follows, and the rest of the game structure falls almost perfectly into line. Each of the tracks stands up to repeated play, and repeated play is what you'll throw at them, because the multi-race Tournaments unlock more Tournaments, the collect-all-the-golds Single Race mode unlocks things like Classic tracks (reskinned versions of what they're quite right to call classic track designs), the similar gold-hunting pursuits of Time Trial amount to another "one more go-er", and the increasing speeds of the five classes means each of the tracks takes on a different feel the further you get into the game.
And WipEout Pure is hard, which is perversely helpful in keeping you plugging away. It's so expertly structured with so much to do and unlock, and so unlike anything other than WipEout and a handful of other pretenders, that you don't mind going at everything repeatedly. At least not until the meaning of the "almost" bit of the first line of the last paragraph becomes apparent, but let's save that for a bit later.
First, more things I like: It's easier to keep your ships (hover-craft, hover-ships, hover-thingies - I'm aiming for a level of consistency diametrically opposed to the game's) pointing in the right direction. There's a boost-start trick that is simple enough to do but easy enough to cock up that you'll have to pay proper attention. The ships are no longer tethered to the track by magic, so when you go flying off a jump you really go flying off a jump - and there's a clever left-right-left barrel roll trick that, if you have time to perform it between take off and landing, gives you a handy speed boost when you touch down. Meanwhile, the power-ups can be fierce, but you get a fair enough spread of them as you go - and the shield and auto-pilot power-ups now let you pick up more items while they're in use. Also, the auto-pilot is a bit more auto-Top Gun than auto-Drunken Fool, and is a great thing to keep in stock as you head into that unforgiving right-angle chicane section.
Oh, and you can change your choice of view even when you're on the Pause menu. That actually sums up WipEout Pure rather aptly - it's so obviously brilliant an idea that it's bizarre we don't see it more often. WipEout Pure is full of obviously brilliant ideas that we haven't seen often enough in concert.
For example, Zone mode, in which you race through four small courses (unlocking them as you gain medals), which have been stripped of their neon flamboyance and decked out in a simple palette of airy whites, blues and light greys. Here the goal is simply to keep going for as long as possible at an involuntarily awesome speed, which increases with each passing lap, in the complete absence of health-replenishing power-up pads. It might sound like one of those afterthought extras that just about works, but the reality is that it's both sufficiently different and samey that it works very well on its own. There's a real trick to being good at it, and with bonus points for clear zones, laps, and highest speeds, there's plenty of reason to keep plugging away.
Keeping on with the theme of obvious brilliance - WipEout's visuals and audio. Pure has already been called the best-looking PSP game to date, and although Ridge Racer puts up some strong competition that claim is still justifiable. The level of detail on the craft/ships/wotsits alone is magnificent, right down to the little airbrake flaps, while the tracks themselves are resplendent with impressive textural detail and myriad impressive effects. There are wobbly shafts of light streaking through to a glass tunnel on the ocean floor; the softening glare of the sun as you exit a tunnel; a skyline teeming with atmospheric activity; spitting rain on the camera lens; distortion; particle effects galore; and gloooorious explosive effects. The bubble of doom that expands from the heart of one of the power-ups is one of my favourite things on the PSP full stop.
(And "bubble of doom" is one of my favourite expressions ever, for that matter. Good games always inspire silly little phrases that warm your gaming heart, don't they? I bet you've got some of your own.)
The soundtrack, meanwhile, is stocked with the sorts of things that made WipEout a bit of a "club classic" back in the day. To be honest, they're a bit lost on this writer, but the number of testimonials I've had from people to whom this stuff is religion suggests Studio Liverpool got the tone and balance just right. The volume is certainly right; there are more tunes on here than you'll find on the average CD, anyway.
But, ah. It's finally time to revisit that "almost" from earlier, and "volume" is a good word to come in on. To put it mildly, WipEout Pure likey munchy battery. Between the ear-busting throbs of the music and the constant disc access, you're going to need to absorb the national grid's power-ups on a regular basis to keep playing. Indeed, technical issues are some of the most irritating things about WipEout Pure; the load times are pretty worrying, and for all its peerless technical elegance it didn't occur to anyone that getting booted out and having to re-establish race parameters whenever you finish a multiplayer race might be a bad thing. Fortunately none of these is a show-stopping issue (the only thing that comes close is the ever-so-slight dip in frame rate during ridiculously hectic sections), but they upset me from time to time.
On the track, too, there's a gnawing stupidity at work here and there. The computer-controlled racers have a galling habit of overtaking you right from the off - boosted start or not - and then gradually succumbing to their own prescribed degree of rubbishness as the race wears on. Accordingly, the finishing order can feel a bit pre-ordained on the shorter four-race Tournaments, meaning that you really can't afford to drop points in two races without having to scrape the gold medal at the end. Mind you, this isn't so much of a problem on the longer tournaments, where the consistent placings are broken up a bit. Plus, you can use a boost power-up to zoom off that final ramp and bounce off the tops of their heads into first place. So HA.
And, frankly, none of the things I'm complaining about have stopped me plugging away at WipEout Pure. Which makes me wonder what has been stopping people plugging away at it, because it's not all smiles and twinkling bells around and about, is it?
Well, for one, I reckon people have a threshold for what they'll accept in terms of waiting for control input to take effect when waggling that analogue nub at an impending turn. Judging the distance is part of the fun for me, but others will probably wonder why futuristic racing ship-cars can't just, you know, turn when they're ordered to. And I bet those people also won't like the little spike of frustration that you get from losing a lot of your speed to a collision with the wall or someone's power-up; WipEout Pure is certainly less accessible than it might be in that regard. Which is something to bear in mind.
But then so are so many great things. For example, I'm not about to start ignoring a girl I like because she doesn't want to suck my face off after five minutes of inane conversation. Once you get into it, WipEout Pure is compulsive in all the ways a good racing game should be, and that's no fluke. Studio Liverpool has come up with a near-perfect equation for this sort of game, layering everything up in a manner that keeps you coming back hour after hour, with enough tracks to beat under subtly but crucially different circumstances that you never find yourself tiring of a well-beaten track. And all with an albino cherry on top in the shape of Zone.
Yep, WipEout Pure certainly does a lot of capitalising. We suggest you reciprocate by digging out your credit card and capitalising on its excellence.
9 / 10