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“WipEout Pulse” review

by on Mar.05, 2010, under PSP Game Reviews

Game: WipEout Pulse
Developer: Sony Studio Liverpool

“Patience of a saint” should be listed as a system requirement.

If you thought that Formula 1 and Indy Car racing simulations was the pinnacle of fast-paced, white-knuckle racing, then you have obviously never picked up one of the WipEout series of hover racing games. Back in 1995, the original game mixed supersonic vehicles and high-tech weaponry to create a near perfect synergy of vehicular combat and racing that has remained virtually unchanged through eight follow up titles. With the recent release of WipEout HD for the PS3, I thought I’d take a look at WipEout Pulse, the most recent release from Sony Computer Entertainment for the PSP.

The Game
The year is 2207 and you’re the premier driver for one of eight anti-grav racing teams competing in the FX400 Championship season. Over the course of several hundred events you’ll be tasked with racing your teams hover sled through a variety of challenging courses and race modes. There are seven different event types modelled which focus on either out-driving all other contenders in a race, beating the par speed for a particular track or destroying all other racers through your unrestrained and irresponsible use of vehicular weaponry. Littered across each track are a variety of pads that grant your sled various bonuses when you pass over them. Speed pads grant temporary acceleration boosts for your sled while weapon pads give your craft a variety of guns, mines and bombs that you can deploy to take out opposing racers. Twelve tracks have been provided within the game, each featuring a good mix of sweeping corners and tight bends to challenge both novice and expert pilots. In addition, some courses have 360 degree loops and inverted track sections made from magnetic strips that keep your sled firmly attached to the track surface, granting you temporary dispensation from following the laws of gravity.

Visually, WipEout Pulse is an incredible showcase of the PSP’s graphics horsepower. Each of the tracks has a unique look and feel, with beautifully rendered backdrops surrounding each setting. Even with the gorgeous backgrounds, the developers have managed to push an impressive frame rate out of the console, providing the smoothest racing experience I’ve experienced to date on a hand-held. You can even take screenshots at any stage during and after the race to capture your racing highlights for future posterity. The game interface is consistent and easy to use, following an angular hexagonal motif for the buttons and controls. The menu and informational text can be difficult to read at times but this is more a limitation of the screen resolution and the amount of information that’s been packed into each screen, rather than a poor choice of font.

The provided soundtracks are limited to thumping techno masterpieces that suit the settings that you will be racing through. Fortunately, you can upload your own MP3s as replacement music if you would rather listen to some soothing opera as you race through The Amphiseum in Las Vegas! The in-game sound-effects are more than adequate although you may wish to tweak the individual music and soundtrack volume settings in order to hear them through several of the provided soundtracks!

Gameplay
WipEout Pulse continues to follow the franchise’s focus on high speed racing events rather than all-out vehicular combat. Even when you do pick up the occasional weapon upgrade, they are all “one shot” disposable items that refrain from dominating the game. For those of you who absolutely insist on blowing away the opposition, the “Eliminator” race type has been included in which you can race around a course indefinitely until you achieve the necessary number of kills. There’s a nice mix of dumb-fire, guided and droppable weapons provided but at the speeds you’ll be travelling at you’ll undoubtedly prefer to use guided weaponry more often than not. You can also choose to “absorb” the weapon instead of firing it, which will repair some of the damage that you WILL receive during the race.

You’ll note the capitalized “WILL” in the previous sentence. It’s no typo. WipEout Pulse has, without a doubt, one of the steepest learning curves found in a racing game to date! It has absolutely nothing to do with the controls (you can effectively race using three buttons and the bumpers) and everything to do with the sheer speed that your vehicle will be travelling down each track! There is a multitude of tight bends and 180 degree turns to be found in most arenas and even the slowest sled will be unable to make most turns at full speed using the arrow keys. This is where your air-brakes come into play (controlled by each of the PSP’s bumpers.) Tap one of these and your vehicle maintains the same speed but its cornering ability is greatly enhanced. The trouble is figuring out how much and how regularly you should tap or hold the bumpers in order to make the turn. For your first few races on any new track (or one that you haven’t played in a while) you’ll find yourself ricocheting down the course, bouncing off walls and obstructions like an insane pinball! Suffice it to say that you probably won’t be winning any of these initial events in a hurry.

Mastering each course will take some time and will need to be repeated for each of the four classes of sled as their handling values and top speeds are all subtly different. Time trials are particularly irritating as you have to beat a par time that is generally close to optimum on a particular course. If you miss just a couple of speed pads or hit a wall too many times, you may as well restart the race because you’ve effectively blown any chance of placing in that event. If you have limited self-control or anger management issues, you better try to figure out a way to attach a Wii strap to your PSP as you will be sorely tempted to fling the blessed thing through a window if you play the game for extended periods! For those of you with the requisite discipline and self-composure, the sense of exhilaration and accomplishment you get when you finally manage to complete an event, is well worth the time and effort.

Admittedly, the game could have been even more stressful if you were required to unlock each race event in turn. Sony Studio Liverpool has graciously removed this restriction by presenting collections of race events in a hexagonal grid. By placing 1st, 2nd or 3rd in an event, you automatically unlock all adjacent events, giving you a selection of follow up events to compete in. When you have managed to get enough overall point’s within a grid, a new event grid is unlocked. There are sixteen grids to complete which will easily take you a good 30+ hours of gaming to unlock, although you will probably spend a lot of time on the last few as they are fiendishly demanding, even on the easiest difficulty setting.

As with most console fare, there are plenty of bonuses to unlock. Each of the eight racing teams rewards you with loyalty points each time you race for them. When you’ve garnered enough points, you’ll be able to unlock alternative skins and even concept vehicles! There is also a good chance that the development team are the most anal bunch of coders and artists in the gaming community as they’ve taken statistical analysis to a new level. Literally anything you do within the game is recorded as a stat against your character profile, which you can view between races. They’ve even taken the liberty of recording how long you spend looking at the statistics screen! Multiplayer racing is available for up to eight wireless connected PSP’s although I didn’t get the opportunity to indulge in this gameplay mode as most of my friends decided to buy Nintendo DS’s instead *snif*. You can even upload your scores and profiles to the WipeOut web site to compare your best times and indulge in some vainglorious bragging.

There is very little button mashing involved within the game and the default button layout should suit any gamers style of play. The “look back” button is almost a superfluous addition to the control set, because being distracted for even a split second while you check out your pursuers will result in you slamming into one of the tracks surrounding walls (and potentially costing you the race.) It’s not really needed to assist with droppable weapons either; just deploy a bomb or string of mines as you turn out of a corner and you will pretty well optimize your chances of hitting a tailgater. It would also be nice if there was a way to toggle the “accelerate” button rather than being forced to hold it down while tapping the other adjacent buttons with the same thumb!

Verdict
WipEout Pulse continues the franchise’s consistent record of high quality racing experiences across all platforms. In many respects the game is more like a highly enhanced version of 2005’s WipEout Pure rather than a genuinely unique sequel. While you could argue that each entry in the WipEout franchise has focused more on gradual evolution rather than radical innovation, this practice has ensured that fans of the series remain loyal subscribers to this consistent world of vehicular mayhem. Ultimately, pocket gamer fans of the WipEout universe are going to find it difficult to pass this game by, while newcomers willing to indulge their “inner race-driver” will be playing what is the best hand-held WipEout experience to date.

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