WipEout 2048 (Vita Hands-on Preview)

A Sony console just wouldn’t be right without a WipEout game and the new PlayStation Vita handheld is more than capable of doing the series justice for its tenth title. In our developer session at Gamescom 2011, we were lucky enough to enjoy a presentation from Sony’s Studio Liverpool team and then get a play for ourselves.

Set just 37 years from now, at the “dawn of the sport,” four years before the original PS1 game set in 2052. It’s the first season of the sport, just after anti-gravity was invented. At this rate, it’s highly doubtful we’ll see technology leap forwards as much in the next 37 years, seeing as we’ll all be forced to plod along in hybrids at misery MPH. That’s why we’ll always love games like this as do Studio Liverpool who are keen to emphasise the importance of the time setting of the game compared to the other games in the series:

“It’s not just a kind of wrapper we’ve put over the game. It’s a key philosophy of how we’ve designed WipEout 2048 as a game experience. It’s almost shaped everything from our visual direction to our gameplay.”

Because we’ve made the tracks wider and smoother, the gameplay balance is much more about combat racing and engagement with the other competitors in the race, not necessarily just the challenge of the track.”

Don’t worry, the tracks haven’t been dumbed down for the sake of action. The tight turns, level changes and nose lifting/dropping are still an essential part of the WipEout formula. It is noticeable how you seem to have more time to line-up shots (on the tracks available today at least), and the number of pickup pads has increased, making it less frustrating when you fly between two of them without grabbing anything.

One of the new features for this title is the alterations to the weapon pads. You still fly over the illuminated stars to collect one. But now you can choose to pick up a weapon (yellow star) or a defensive device (green star) instead of the lucky dip we’re used to. This is useful if you’re trying to make your way through the pack, needing to blast your opponents out of the way with rockets, lock-on missiles, machine guns and quake waves. Conversely, if you’re out in front you’ll want to be defensive and pick up shields, turbo boosts and mines. Obviously, a change of tactical pickups may be in order, such as going for the green items when you’re behind in the hope that you might get a turbo boost or an autopilot cruise. Any items can be absorbed to restore some of your ship’s health too if you’re in danger of detonating like a Nascar made of C4.

Another new feature is the Skill Cuts; short cuts through a dangerous section of track, such as a narrow part with no safety barriers or various angled drops. Navigate them well and they might earn you an extra position, mess them up and you could end up even farther behind. So you’ll want to make sure you have the ideal control setup selected, but more on that later.

Graphically the game is pushing some serious numbers. The Sony Studio Liverpool boys tell us the game is pushing about 250,000 polygons per frame, which is comparable to many home console titles. The detail is impressive at sky-high sections of track, right down to the tarmac surface far below.

One of the key tracks available is Sol, a predecessor to the Sol 2 track of past games. It’s still under construction, strung between two skyscrapers with giant spiderbots working away. It might be the building sight for the familiar Sol 2, but it feels new and fresh. It starts on the ground level -as will be a theme in the game-, on civilian road tarmac no less, complete with road paint markings. It’s not long before the track starts to ascend, most notably with a vertical climb up the side of a skyscraper. The view towards the top is show-all-your-friends impressive, especially through the glass section of track, watching as the city falls away beneath you. There’s not much time to enjoy the view though as the curvy track has numerous sections without safety barriers. With ten exclusive tracks in the full game, it’s going to be a wild ride if they can match this one.

The Vita hardware itself handles WipEout 2048 with ease. There are multiple control setups for all tastes. Traditional fans can look forward to using the shoulder buttons for left and right air-breaking (it’s the only way, folks). If that sounds like a faff you can use R to accelerate and L for braking with both airbrakes assigned to the square button, it works well enough, but experts will notice the slight lack of tweakability going into corners. It’s an excellent starting point though for newcomers and those out of practice. The gyro accelerators get in on the act for some motion controlled-steering, which in its current form is too wild and over-sensitive and no match for a d-pad or analogue stick. The rear-touch pad can be used by clamping your fingers down on it to accelerate, but this is nowhere near as reliable as using the X or R buttons. Barrel rolls are still here with a cheeky waggle of the analogue stick during the jumps for a boost on landing. A tad nausea inducing if you play with the first-person view though.

The Vita’s wealth of technical capabilities are to be tested extensively. Multiplayer parties can be set up, complete with voice chat and simple one-button race joining when an invite is received. Some Burnout Paradise-style augmented reality features are included via the front-facing camera, mainly gurning shots when you get a victory, or an anger shot of someone you blast with a missile. PS3 cross play will be included, with the Vita game you’ll be able to jump into any of the multiplayer modes of WipEout HD and the Furyexpansion. You’ll be using the PS3 ships, but with a Vita control setup.

The music will feature some remixed tracks from the original WipEout, including the likes of Orbital, Leftfield and Underworld, and other artists including Death Mouse will provide newer tracks. Never mind the tunes though; they’ll have to be amazing to avoid being switched off in favour of the incredible sound effects. This is shaping up to be the best sounding WipEout game yet. Thanks to the racing vehicles comparatively prototype nature, the engine noise is hungry for power and louder than the smooth sophisticated sci-fi hum of before. There’s a dangerous whining noise that chases your ears around the track, in fact, it reminded me of a passing Speeder Bike from Return of the Jedi. On top of that, every time you hit one of the speed boost arrows it sounds like you’re smashing your way to heaven using hell’s own shotgun, especially when you’re storming up the side of a skyscraper. I found myself actively pursuing boost arrows over weapons just to hear the noise; such is the addictive audio cacophony of violence.

Standard racing is all that’s available to play at the moment, but the final version of the game will support many more modes, including those deliciously violent ones from the Fury expansion pack. The Zone mode will be included once again, with some changes loosely described as a “psychedelic jigsaw party” by the development team. If it’s half as mesmerizingly out there as the PS3 Zone modes, we’d say our eyes are in for a treat.

WipEout 2048 will be released in 2012 around the same launch window as the PS Vita.

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