At first glance, Wheelspin--to be released as SpeedZone in the US--looks like a very odd title for Bethesda to be publishing. First of all, it's an arcade racer, worlds apart from the publisher's best-known role-playing game products. Second, it's on the Wii, which is a first for the firm. It's not an entirely home-grown product, though; the design has been led by industry veteran Archer Mclean of Awesome Play, and the title got picked up by Bethesda because it seemed to be a perfect way for the firm to get in on the opportunity presented by the Wii, making it one of the last major publishers to jump on Nintendo's bandwagon.
Wheelspin is a sci-fi arcade racer very much in the vein of Sony's venerable Wipeout franchise. It involves racing at ludicrous speeds around a range of space-age tracks replete with banked corners, loop-the-loops, and plenty of opportunities to hurl yourself into oblivion. Thankfully, oblivion isn't the horrible fate that it initially sounds; rapid rolling restarts mean that you never lose a huge amount of time if you end up hurtling into infinity. The major difference from Wipeout--other than the game's look--is that all of your vehicles have wheels and proper engines, complete with growling engines; the combination of the pumping electronic soundtrack, sweeping tracks weaving through asteroids, and a roaring V8 engine makes for a fun if initially disconcerting experience.
That the game uses more traditional physics than Wipeout is noticeable fairly quickly: different areas of the track have varying amounts of grip--including muddy and snowy patches on the edge of some tracks--and steering is much more of an issue as you try to move swiftly from one side of the track to another to pass over the boost pads.
Steering is, in the default control setup at least, controlled by tilting the Wii Remote, as in Mario Kart and other such games. Acceleration and braking are controlled with the 1 and 2 buttons on the remote's face, while down on the D pad activates the hand brake, which is required for some of the sharper turns.
The controls seem responsive, though steering takes a little getting used to at the higher speeds. One of the cars we got to try out was hitting 450-odd miles an hour down straights, so managing steering when you hit sharp bends is rather tricky, but it certainly seems likely to be manageable.
After a blast around a couple of tracks in the game's solo mode--essentially time trials--we got to see two other modes: Battle and Race. Race is fairly self-explanatory: seven other cars join you to hurtle around the various courses at breakneck speed. There is rubber-banding to ensure that even if you're rather incompetent you've still got a chance to catch up and overtake the field, which may irritate racing purists.
Battle mode harks back to the ballon-popping fun of Super Mario Kart. You race around enclosed arenas, which are littered with power-ups, which come in three types--defensive, guns, and heavy weapons. Your weapons show up on your vehicle as you pick them up. For instance, if you grab a laser chaingun, you'll see it pop up mounted on the side of your chassis before you track down your opponents and open fire with your fairly limited ammo supply. Homing missiles fall into the heavy-weapons category and were just as satisfying to use as red shells of old.
After seeing all the modes in single-player, we got to see Wheelspin's party piece, its local split-screen multiplayer. We only got to test four-player split screen, but we did see a brief demo of the eight-player split, which will be an option only for those with the largest of televisions--the screen is split up into nine segments, with the central slot in the three-by-three grid being taken up by the track overview.
While Wheelspin isn't the prettiest racing game you'll ever see, it does seem technically well set at this stage; it was running at a solid and high frame rate, even with four players racing or blasting each other to bits. The designs are also ambitious, with tracks weaving through shattered asteroids on show, as well as one level inspired by the movie Tron, with Tetrominos hanging in the sky.
Wheelspin looks set to fill a gap in the racing market, especially for those looking for a little bit more than is offered by the simplistic fare on the Wii, without leaving those looking for a quick and easy experience behind. Watch this space for more on the game as its launch approaches.