Daze of Future Present

Wipeout 2048 gets there, but makes mistakes along the way.
Author: Vincent Ingenito
Published: February 25, 2012
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I made many a fond memory with the original Wipeout on the PS1. See, I was one of those genetic freaks who didn't find Mario Kart to be all that and the proverbial bag of chips. Call me a purist, but I like my racing games to be about racing and the way Mario Kart seemed to punish the best driver on the course with rubber band AI in single player and an overemphasis on weapon pickups in multiplayer always rubbed me the wrong way. There was a purity to Wipeout, both in its looks and its mechanics that immediately grabbed me. Weapon pickups were sparse, and its unique physics were demanding, yet rewarding to master. The architecture of the buildings around the tracks evoked a cold, strangely believable distant future and the original techno soundtrack highlighted this mood memorably.

Having played every entry in the series, I was eager to see whether Wipeout 2048 would bring me back to the good old days or not. When all the stars align properly, it can be one hell of a Wipeout, but it can just as often be disappointing due to several snafus that detract from the experience. While it's by no means a bad game, Wipeout 2048 suffers from just enough niggling, smaller issues to keep it from being a great one.

Wipeout 2048 is intended as a prequel of sorts, showing the early years of the Anti-Gravity Racing League (AGRL). This theme of historical origins is conveyed very well, starting with an eloquently written prologue in the manual, continuing through into a nifty intro movie and finally, the tracks themselves. The color palette is intentionally muted, and largely void of the pulsing electronic glow the series is known for. Racetracks snake through stadiums and urban cityscapes that look far more indicative of the 21st century than a theoretical 22nd one, which makes sense given the time frame. For the first time that I can remember, Studio Liverpool even managed to incorporate some flora, sprinkling tracks with with the odd patch of grass or body of water here and there. I can certainly appreciate the level of follow through shown by the developers in bringing this unique vision of an existing universe to life, but I'm afraid the results are a mixed bag.

On the plus side, it helps the excellent looking racecrafts stand out. They are the most alien looking piece of the visual package and their designs run the gamut from sleek, curvy contours to aggressive, angular lines, and feature some wildly differing propulsion and stabilization solutions. This really helps sell the idea that these crafts represent new, experimental science heralding the start of an a era of technological revolution. The juxtaposition of these clearly futuristic constructs with environments that look more believably contemporary gives Wipeout 2048 a strong sense of time and place.

It also creates its share of gameplay issues, however. For starters, it puts some unwelcome constraints on track design. Aside from a couple of notable exceptions such as Sol, most of the tracks lack the roller coaster style thrill ride sensibilities the franchise is so well known for. Instead, the tracks are saturated with a seemingly endless series of narrow corridors and tricky chicanes, rarely giving way to open straights or gentle banks. This is where the more grounded use of color becomes a problem. Making out turns and obstacles can be very difficult, especially in areas with greenery of any kind. This poses a fairly big issue, since Wipeout's unique physics demand perfect anticipation of even basic turns in order to stay off the wall. The problem only worsens as you move up to the higher classes where everything moves faster, demanding even more precision and affording far less leeway for error. Having a perfect lap tarnished because you can't see the edges of a turn properly can be infuriating.

The issue reaches peak annoyance during the ill-conceived combat events, where the focus shifts from picking clean racing lines and skillfully navigating them, to simply grabbing weapon pickups and firing them at whoever is in front of you. This encourages all contestants to stay tightly packed together and slow down to ensure that you grab and use every one of the weapon pads littered across the track. The result is a never ending mess of exhaust lines and sub-standard weapon effects that not only looks ugly, but slows the framerate while making it virtually impossible to see anything in front of you, turns and enemy mines alike. Visual issues aside, I never enjoy modes like this because they essentially ask you to stop playing the game you want to play and play something else. Every combat event opens with the same warning. “DON'T RACE!”, the game exclaims. Dammit Wipeout! You're supposed to be a racing game! I want my zoom zoom with a side of boom boom, not the other way around!

Thankfully, the open campaign structure allows you to mostly avoid these events, and the other ones fare much better. You play through the first 3 years of the AGRL, competing in races, time trials and a unique challenge type called “Zone”. During these races, your craft constantly accelerates automatically, leaving you to concentrate on steering. The track is divided into several zones and the goal is to clear as many of them as possible until your ship sustains critical damage. Every few zones, the speed class increases and can actually exceed the fastest race class in the game. The visuals receive an overhaul during Zone Challenges too, shedding its sensible grays and rust tones for psychedelic pinks, purples and blues. Not only is it a refreshing change of pace, but it alleviates the visibility issues the regular tracks are some times prone to and reaches the kind of breakneck speeds that long time Wipeout fans fiend for.
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