It'll be almost two and a half years since WipEout Pure by the time the latest PSP incarnation of Sony's Liverpool-borne future racer hovers into view. In an industry increasingly built on yearly sequels, that's a dangerous gap. Thankfully, based on an excessive amount of time spent hammering around the solo mode, it looks like Pulse continues the series tradition of franchise refinement rather than total reboot.
There are a lot of changes - some minor, some fairly major - but none have been allowed to dilute the essence of the game. After a few wobbles on the PS2, the series is back in rude health and looking darn slinky. Obviously we'll need to wait for WipEout HD for the real eye candy, but Pulse is no slouch. I'm actually a big fan of the way the game looks on the PSP screen, the way the relentless forwards rush pulls your eyes into the screen until it dominates your vision. It's a neat optical illusion, and one that shows you don't need a 42" plasma to have your socks knocked off. Graphically speaking.
Control is another area where the "ain't broke, don't fix it" ethos is evident. Steering is still smooth and intuitive, with both weapon deployment and weapon absorbing within easy thumb stretching distance of the accelerator. The air brakes remain on the shoulder buttons, completing a control map that couldn't be simpler and easier to grasp. As someone who never quite gelled with the previous console editions, it still feels like the PSP was designed for WipEout, and not the other way around.
So what has changed? Most obviously, there are twenty four new tracks to master, each evoking some of the classic WipEout feel but adding new twists and turns when you least expect it. As always, victory only comes once you've memorised each course, worked out the optimum combination of steering and air brakes to slingshot your way around some devilish chicanes and taught yourself to hit each and every boost pad along the way.
The way you access races has changed as well. Events are grouped together as connected hexagonal grids. To begin with, only a few are available. Qualify in an event - from straight up racing to time trials and speed laps - and you unlock access to the adjacent events. Clock up enough points in each grouping and you can move on to the next batch of challenges. This is great news for newcomers to the game, since you can now sample much more of the game without expert reflexes, while the new training mode is a long overdue addition. Once you've got the skills required, you can go back and tackle the events that foxed you before, unlocking additional vehicles and tracks as you go.
Also new to the game are some truly impressive gravity defying moments where the track banks at impossible 90 degree angles, or does a complete loop-the-loop. This is thanks to Mag-Strip technology (it's short for Magic Stripes, obviously) which locks the vehicles to the track for the duration of the stunt. Previous WipEouts avoided such rollercoaster madness, and I was a touch concerned that their inclusion would upset the delicate racing balance, but they actually work incredibly well in practice. As well as delivering some memorable "woah" moments, they also offer tactical advantages as you use the enforced gravity to attempt overtaking manoeuvres that could be deadly on the open track. And as if to compensate for the indignity of temporarily gluing you to the ground, there seem to be more jumps and humps scattered around the rest of the tracks than usual, along with some absolutely hair-raising elevated sections without crash barriers. For every moment you spend suspended vertically, holding down your lunch, there'll be others where you soar through the air like a missile, praying you've not overshot the track completely.
There's also a new race team to play as - EG-X - though their initial vehicle is a slightly disappointing addition to the line-up. With only middling statistics, it's neither a speed wagon for the hardcore nor a reliable all-rounder for beginners. No doubt its subtle charms will reveal themselves over long-term play. New weapons also enter the fray, though it's too early to tell if they'll prove as essential as the old favourites. Additions such as the energy leech, which siphons energy from rivals to reinforce your own hull, sound great in theory but have proved fiddly to master in practice. Like most things WipEout-related, the benefits are geared more towards the patient.
So as a single-player experience it's safe to say that Pulse takes everything that worked in Pure - a game that caused Tom to blurt out gobs of praise like "compulsive" and "excellence" in his distinctive sensual baritone - and sexes it up even more. More challenging courses, more flexible tournaments, more intense gameplay. Fans of the series are justified in their anticipation.
What we can't comment on is a whole host of other features that are still being polished off up in Liverpool, not least of which is the exhaustive multiplayer options. Eight player matches over ad-hoc or infrastructure connections are but the beginning. You'll apparently also be able to come up with your own tournaments, mixing and matching from the available courses, and share them wirelessly with friends. The website that will allow you to create your own vehicle skins, Forza 2 style, and download them to your PSP has yet to be activated. Even the option to create your own custom soundtrack from your memory stick remains hidden behind a tantalising grey menu option. Lots of potential, teasingly out of view for now.
At the moment, and based solely on the single player experience, WipEout Pulse is looking like an impeccably designed slice of futuristic racing. You'd expect nothing less really. There are a couple of quirky niggles - such as the way it's possible to fly through solid buildings if you jump too far - but those are hardly enough to quell the excitement. When it's unveiled in all its glory in September, assuming Sony Liverpool manages to pull off all the features promised, it could well be the first game to truly take full advantage of the PSP as a wireless multimedia device. That, more than any racing buzz, is something worth looking forward to.