Back in the day, Wipeout was thought to represent the convergence of videogames and mainstream entertainment, and it helped to make it socially acceptable to have a games console in your front room. Having established PlayStation as the clubber's companion and laced the games with contemporary soundtracks though, Sony discovered that Wipeout was able to fend off all-comers, including superior games such as Nintendo's F-Zero X, without actually improving upon the ageing formula at its heart. Ironically, while Wipeout Fusion's advertising campaign hints at a vastly improved game with an incomparable approach to futuristic racing involving mapping it around known landmarks, Sony's development studios apparently lack the innovation borne of their marketing allies, because no such remodelled London track exists within the game. Instead players are faced with another Wipeout game, cast from the same mould with none of the groundbreaking aspects of its predecessors. Anti-gravity racing is, as per usual, the focus of the game, and although Sony has elected not to turn the game into a futuristic NASCAR simulation a la Extreme G3, the game does bolt along at a commendable pace, and thanks to some tweaked physics it feels better than ever. That said, coming at the game after a week in Wipeout boot camp to get my trembling fingers up to speed, I was stunned by the initial difficulty of placing in any of the races. One of Fusion's biggest flaws is the overemphasized combat element, which hands racers the ability to take down their soon-to-be-erstwhile competition within metres of the chequered flag. In fact, I placed sixth in both of my opening races and failed to finish the third at all after receiving a rocket to the proverbial crypt. Switch off the weapons though and you can steadily acclimatize yourself. The handling takes a bit of getting used to, with your back end sliding out through even the slightest of turns and often connecting with the unforgiving barriers at the side of each course. One or two unfriendly clashes and a spin could leave you out of the race, confirming Fusion as the Monaco Grand Prix of Wipeout games, with half the field limping home or not making it to the end at all.
Tougher Than Leather
As you progress, the importance of airbrakes becomes clear and the tightly designed courses feel a lot more homely. In fact, after a few hours' teething I was thoroughly enjoying myself, wielding my Dual Shock one-handed along straights and singing boisterously. Which is a good thing, because the soundtrack feels like a practical joke. Gone are the ruthless baritones of Firestarter, replaced with more traditional techno vibes, none of which floated my anti-grav Auricom. With the music set to mute and The Fat of the Land reverberating around my room though, I found myself adjusting to the unpleasantness of being shot repeatedly within inches of victory, and dealt out a number of equally nasty fates. With these stop-start beginnings long forgotten, Fusion becomes a fairly serious undertaking. Settling down with the game involves picking from a number of fairly self-explanatory modes, with arcade, league, elimination, time trial, endurance and 'zone' options available. My skills now adequately honed, I was in it for the long haul, and that's what I got. Across these various activities there are a total of 32 ships to unlock with 16 different pilots and 45 tracks, which steadily improve as the game wears on and are all available in a mirror image configuration as well. The two-player mode is so accessible as to be fiercely competitive, and perfectly capable of driving a wedge through any relationship. In terms of AI behaviour, Fusion's weapon-clad enemies are uncompromisingly harsh, perfectly happy to ruin several laps of hard work with one well-placed, totally unavoidable rocket. Route-finding AI seems to be up to scratch, with racers picking logical routes through open areas and around obstacles, and the faster fliers finding a path through the field with inimitable success. Unfortunately, this means less spectacular clustered crashes to mop the highway with, and more racers succumbing to weapons fire and the practically magnetic race barriers than anything else.
All things considered, races never fail to excite. The problem is that Fusion offers little to fans of the series beyond its improved graphics engine (admittedly with spangly particle effects) and unforgiving race dynamic, and we're not in the business of rewarding people who put in the bare minimum. Wipeout Fusion feels like a glitzy 2097 with floaty physics, and the track design, however sumptuously detailed with transparency effects, dust kicking up, sprawling highly-detailed vistas and a smooth framerate, is ultimately nothing more than a seasonal update. Play the game in two-player mode and you sacrifice quite a bit of that extravagant detail, and it's easier to see the game for what it really is: the staggered transition of a popular franchise onto a system already dominated by superior derivatives. Wipeout virgins should definitely apply, but for the rest of us, it's time to dig out Wipeout 2097, I think.