Version tested: PSP
According to those splendid websites that go around counting all the review scores, WipEout Pure is the second best game on the PSP. Ever. That's not bad for the seventh game in a clubby racing series that's definitely had its uppers and downers. Lucky number eight, due out for Christmas, remembers to drink lots of water and has a jolly old time too.
At its core, it's still the same old WipEout: pilot your fragile ship around very fast courses over and over again until you know where all the boost pads are and you've worked out how to air-brake through the tight corners without scraping the sides. But thanks to a cleverly reworked single-player game, it's a lot easier to get on with.
The campaign is split into a series of "grids", which are basically Blockbusters boards of hexagons, where each hexagon is an event. Every time you complete one, it unlocks the hexagons adjacent to it, giving you lots of options. Complete most of the events in a grid to a decent standard and you unlock the next grid. Can I have an 'E' please, Bob?
Best of all, no two pills are the same [surely "hexagons"? - Ed]. Some are races or race tournaments, where you tussle with seven AI opponents over a few laps, using power-ups like rockets, the new energy drainer or deadly mines to make things easier. Others are variations on time trials - there's one where you have to beat a cumulative time over several laps, while another is about setting an average lap time over seven.
Then there's the old favourite from Pure, called Zone, where the colour scheme switches to a beautifully slick Tron world of whites and greys or reds and oranges and you have to try and stave off damage for as long as possible while your ship steadily accelerates from sub-Venom speeds to super-Phantom. Zone used to have its own specific tracks, but now it's part of the main game, reflecting its popularity.
New to the mix is Elimination, which surprisingly isn't the age-old thing of the loser getting bumped off at the end of each lap, but a sort of race deathmatch, where power-ups are abundant but you can no longer use them to heal your ship, and the idea is to obliterate your fellow racers repeatedly until you reach a target number of kills.
Initially a bit alarming and frustrating, Elimination actually grows to be rather good, and also serves the useful purpose of teaching you how best to use the power-ups, too. That's typical of WipEout though - a series that has you whimpering in the corner for hours and then snapping out of it and wondering why you were so depressed and nauseous and why is it morning and how did I end up in a police station?
It's not shy about having you redo the same tracks over and over, and you shouldn't be shy about it either, because they're all very good. They have new bits too, like the Mag-Strips, which bind you to the track so you can do loops and go upside down (you can still steer), intensifying the feeling of speed and precariousness.
After a while the game does clever things with them, too, like only putting a Mag-Strip on one half of the track, so you can either zoom over the top of a hill on strips or make yourself go flying up to a special shortcut route that's harder to race but has more boost arrows.
Tracks are also full of tricky hairpins, chicanes and tight corners, forcing you to get on that air-brake, which allows you to pull round dangerous corners without easing off the accelerator. Learning not to scrape the sides is paramount, so it helps that the steering feels tighter than it was in Pure - especially on the elevated sections where they get rid of the guardrails.
Mag-Strips haven't ruled out jumps either, with plenty around, including a very cruel one that bounces you over the start/finish line and into a sharp left-hander. Fortunately, as with Pure, you can heal your ship by choosing to absorb a power-up rather than deploying it - it worked before, and it works now.
Graphically, Dan Whitehead has already drawn attention to the way the visuals pull your eyes into the screen. Key to that is the consistent frame-rate, and the two and a half years since Pure have also taught Sony a few new tricks elsewhere in the PSP's circuitry, allowing for much more detailed tracks and ships, neat translucent surfaces and bigger explosions. Graphically it shames just about every other PSP developer and the entire PS2 back catalogue, with room left for custom skins that you can design yourself on the official website and then import into races, including multiplayer.
This now includes online gameplay, although we've been unable to get this working on our (otherwise complete) review code. Local wireless play is still there too, supporting up to eight players, and even includes an option to play a kind of LAN game where you all connect to a router rather than a single player, the upshot of which is smoother gameplay. As with Pure, the plan is to support Pulse with downloadable content.
Even without the online and multiplayer elements, Pulse is still slicker than Gordon Gecko, and with more share options. "Race Box" lets you create your own custom tournaments and races (and grids), and you can also view all your stats, customise soundtracks, and visit the website to download content directly. They've even dumped the instruction manual there in text form, which is handier than making you go on the Internet to read it or carrying a book around.
There's very little wrong with it, really. One odd thing is the new "loyalty" system for ships: basically, if you use the same team for ages, you get loyalty points, which unlock bonuses. So what's the point of trying out the others? It's also a bit of a pain when you fly off the unguarded track bits and it respawns you facing the same edge at high speed. But that doesn't happen very often, and that's about it. The repetition of track usage ought to be annoying, but it didn't upset me because the more you play them the better you get at them, and the better you are at WipEout the more exhilarating it is. A bigger problem is that it hasn't taken WipEout in any boldly new or interesting directions.
So really it comes down to how much it bothers us that this is "just" a better version of WipEout Pure. The answer is enough to stop it achieving top marks in a much more populated genre than the one WipEout originally entered, but not enough to stop it winning us over.
This isn't a Ridge Racers 2 style situation where the engine, content and campaign are virtually indistinguishable; WipEout Pulse is faster, better looking, tighter to control, full of new content and much better arranged than its predecessor. Its impact probably won't be as keenly felt as its launch title predecessor, but even if it can't replace Pure at the top of the Metacritic listings, it will certainly replace Pure in your PSP UMD slots - and there it shall stay.
The only other thing to say is that PS3 owners may want to hang on for WipEout HD, which threatens to do what Pulse does in high resolution at 60 frames per second. If it manages that, we'll be laughing, and Sony's Liverpool studio will be responsible for two of the best PlayStation racers of the year rather than just one.
8 / 10