If you somehow haven't had the pleasure since the PSOne days, the Wipeout brand of racing offers a futuristic, almost too-sleek-for-its-own-good style of antigravity racing on sprawling, sci-fi tracks pulsing with techno grooves, wherein each racing vehicle seems to look like the orgy-child of an elongated Klingon starship, Kaneda's bike from Akira
, but sans
the wheels, and a pair of needlenosed pliers from the 2023 Sharper Image catalog. You get weapons, too. And walls. Beyond a certain speed, it's hard to tell which is more potentially threatening.
The smooth, speed-rush gameplay hasn't changed all that much, but Pulse immediately takes the shackles off racers who have what it takes (or like to think they do): None of that hand-holding, work-your-way-up-through-the-sissy-race-classes stuff this time. Instead, wannabe Speed Racers are thrown goggles-first into a new Grid scheme that is subdivided into race "cells," wherein each cell represents a different race event. Beat a cell and you'll avail yourself of still more race events, until you're able to unlock a new Grid, and onward.
The single-player race campaign offers 16 Grids of between 8 and 16 self-contained challenges, which include single races, time trials, full tournaments and Zone challenges. Won medals unlock new racing classes, tracks and competition types (head-to-head, speed-lap, Eliminator). It can be a bit overwhelming, but thankfully it's not necessary to take the Gold in every last race to advance in the game. Heck, you can even blow off some events, if you must... but if you're a completionist, you'll be here a while.
All the available racer types are insanely fast -- think nothing of doing 400+ km/h and more -- and is helped out along the dizzying anti-grav racetracks by speed-boost pads, power-ups (accel and weapons) and racer-stabilizing magnet strips that allow extravagant track features like complete loops and barf-bag drops. Pickups and track elements are nice, but don't rely on them; when your ships are cranked up and there are hairpins and switchbacks barreling up on you at three times the speed of a mag-lev train, your reflexes are still your best bet for not getting intimate with a wall. Before long, you're going to absolutely need
to know your power-up race lines and the locations of any available shortcuts; near the end of the game, the difficulty gives no quarter.
In this spirit, Zone and Elimination are both aptly-named modes. For the first, you really do have to be in the proverbial "zone" as your ship barrels down a track absolutely lousy
with speed-booster pads, faster and faster whether you like it or not, with the goal of clearing as many zones as you can before you become one with a guard wall. Elimination is just what it sounds like -- it's about taking out more foes (with rockets, "Quake" attacks, or what have you) faster than your opponent does, while actually surviving the race yourself, period.
Unfortunately, there are only 12 race tracks in the game (technically more, if you want to count the "White" and "Black" reversed courses). The good news is that you'll soon know these courses intimately, and will find yourself deftly air-braking the trickier corners as second nature; the bad news is that you'll end up seeing these tracks again and again, even in the earlier Grids. Balm for this: There will be new tracks available in the form of downloadable content. And speaking of "new tracks," players who tire of the soundtrack from techno staples like Mason, Aphex Twin or Kraftwerk can tag up music track playlists of their own from their PSP Memory Stick.
Wipeout Pulse also handles online multiplayer for up to 8 competitors (infrastructure and ad hoc), and it all runs smoothly. The downsides are minimal, but they're there, the most glaring, annoying and senseless is found in the racecraft auto-pilot, which should
be your bestest, bestest friend on some of the more wicked tracks, and indeed has been in past Wipeout games, but here in Pulse the autopilot refuses to take advantage of some of the most obvious boost-pad race-lines. In a game this demanding, a few seconds of absolutely-reliable, autopilot breathing-room -- and maybe a few weapon pickups, to boot -- is asking too much. Oh well.
Still, if you overlook some small issues, it's a solid if demanding game, and fills the PSP owner's need-for-speed fix like nothing else currently out there.