Psygnosis’ historic franchise gets off to a rocky start with an uneven learning curve, but it’s masked in a gorgeous and often rewarding package.
World-building & Story
Set in the (now somewhat nearer) future, WipEout follows the anti-gravity racing championships in 2052 as a number of different teams compete for supremacy. That’s all there is to it – this is a racing game after all – so there’s no focus on plot or character development (even though you do get to select from a couple of ship drivers per manufacturer, something removed from later entries).
What’s most unique here is the world that’s crafted – this is a dark, grittier future removed from the clean, bright colours of later entries such as Pure and Pulse. You’re more likely to find tracks winding through the mountains or gritty urban streets than you are to see them on rollercoasters in the sky – which creates a very different, almost dystopian feel and is really fun to discover as you unlock each track.
Presentation & Sound
A very early rough draft of what would lately become the template for some of the prettiest games on PS1, WipEout is held back by its early 3D roots which have some elements that really don’t look too fantastic today. Still, it’s an impressive technical achievement for the time and is perfectly adequate even now.
Everything here has a fairly blocky look, which is oddly nostalgic if you did start gaming in the fifth generation as I did. Ships for example look decent enough, with distinct design elements between each manufacturer to make them look different enough. Weapon effects aren’t entirely there yet and lack any impact – missiles simply whimper along the ground leaving a minor trail and mines don’t stand out against the ground, which is somewhat disappointing.
That leaves the tracks themselves to be both the best and worst part of the presentation. The first thing you’ll notice is the amount of pop-in – whole pieces of the upcoming ground just appear out of nowhere, but thankfulky WipEout is fast enough that this isn’t much of a concern when playing. If you do get chance to look around, you can at least appreciate the variety at play here – you’ll race through a number of locations each with their own lighting and background elements, which are simplistic but work pretty well.
Sound is undoubtedly where the game excels – the soundtrack is among my favourite in gaming, a brilliant selection of songs from Cold Storage. He manages to nail the gritty feel of the tracks while simultaneously delivering some catchy electronic tunes that’ll get stuck in your head long after playing. The rest of the racing noises are less spectacular, although I did enjoy the robotic-ness of the announcer to help hammer home the futuristic setting.
Gameplay & Content
An early take on the futuristic racing genre worlds away from the heavily grounded gameplay of F-Zero, WipEout is its own beast that sadly has a fair share of issues. There’s a very solid basis here which as history has shown is refined beautifully over two sequels and there’s still fun to be had, but sadly the final product is rougher than you might like.
The first thing you’re going to want to do upon booting up on Vita is change the inputs to ‘control scheme f’. The default controls use the rear touch pad for airbrakes which is completely inadequate, but thankfully two of the alternative schemes assign these to the left and right triggers which feels much more natural.
Speaking of airbrakes, these are central to the experience – WipEout is an interesting hybrid of weapons-based racing and more intricate driving mechanics, set apart by the fact that it uses two separate brakes instead of one. By using air resistance from a left or right choice when racing, you can help guide your ship through tight corners and narrow corners which theoretically affords much better control – although things don’t quite play out like that.
Your average race will be a labyrinth of winding corridors and tight turns, littered with speed boost pads which are needed to help keep pace with the rest of the pack. WipEout is a very challenging game at the best of time, made moreso by its mechanics – hitting a wall or barrier will cause your ship to lose all momentum and you’ll often find yourself bouncing off both the walls and floor during a collision, completely destroying your chances of finishing in a good position. There’s some very strange physics at play here that take a good while to get used to.
To counteract this challenge you need judicious use of the airbrakes, but a large amount of success comes from track knowledge so you can anticipate an upcoming tight corner to prepare for it and adjust your speed accordingly. It cultivates quite a high skill level but more than anything the mechanics just feel slightly unfair – races are rarely a graceful challenge like in something like Ridge Racer, more like a frustrating combination of crashes and hoping for the best.
A little variety is injected through the use of collectable weapon pads which are scattered all over and allow you to throw the standard missiles and mines at your foes. Again, being hit by something make you lose all momentum which is somewhat irritating and the more inventive weaponry from later entries such as quakes are missing, leading to the selection here feeling somewhat stilted.
You can select from single races, time trials or championships and there is a decent progression as you slowly practice the tracks in single races to be able do better in the championships and unlock new speeds and courses, but it’s slow and obtuse compared to modern sensibilities. That said, a large amount of content is available from the outset meaning you’ll still be able to see a lot of the game no matter how good you are and the feeling of achievement upon finally conquering a difficult track is great.
There’s a good game here underneath some frustration and unpolished mechanics. I wouldn’t write off WipEout today especially if you’re interested in exploring the franchise’s origins, but it is a relic of its time which you have to persevere with to get the most out of it.
WipEout is a smartly designed game with a killer soundtrack and some rewarding gameplay if you stick with it and play the way it wants you to. Outside of this, some of the graphical elements haven’t held up and there’s a layer of frustration in getting used to its unique physics – it’s a good time, but definitely with some caveats.