The Wipeout series has become one of the PlayStation's more memorable series since its launch in 1995. Developed by Psygnosis and featuring a stylish design provided by Designer's Republic, the Wipeout series has broken new ground in terms of presentation and style. The series has seen an impressive mix of style and substance that offered gamers a unique experience with its combination of beautiful graphics, engaging gameplay, and techno soundtracks. The series has kept to the same general look and feel throughout its various installments on the PlayStation, but that will change with the release of its newest installment, Wipeout Fusion, for the PlayStation 2. Offering the gorgeous visuals and excellent music we've come to expect from the series, the game also makes some significant improvements and additions to the gameplay. From what we've seen so far, the game should please Wipeout fans who have followed the series for the last seven years.
Both visually and acoustically, the game measures up to our expectations--the graphics and music support the game's atmosphere in a memorable way. While Good Technology is responsible for Wipeout Fusion's visual design, it still is very much in line with the design of previous installments in the series. Players who wished for a bigger drawing distance or even more spectacular special effects will be pleased by what's on display now that the game is on hardware with considerable visual muscle. The graphics rush by at a stunning 50 frames per second (PAL, remember), and slowdown only occurs in the very rare occasions when there's too much going on at once. No slowdown is apparent in the two-player multiplayer mode, even when you use a horizontally split screen and 10 other pilots. Needless to say, the visual effects of the weapons look great, with light beams and smoke trails filling the screen almost nonstop. An interesting new addition to the gameplay in Wipeout Fusion is the inclusion of free-form areas in tracks. They place you in a relatively open field, with rocks that you must navigate around scattered everywhere. Imagine having 10 ships ahead of you and five behind you firing rockets at your ship, and you'll get an idea of how mad things can get. When you come into an open area, your vision is also hindered by all the ships kicking up dirt ahead of you. Blizzards, which occur on certain levels in the game, have a similar effect on your vision. Also, there are a lot of gameplay elements you won't be aware of at first, such as the effect of damage on your ship's handling. The more your ship is damaged, the worse it handles, and while you won't notice it while your ship energy is going down, you can feel it instantly after you've recharged the shields and the ship gets a speed boost.
Fortunately, Wipeout Fusion's improvements extend beyond the series' visuals. You'll find plenty of improvements within your first few minutes of play. One of the first things you'll notice is that the game is much more character-focused this time out. The inclusion of distinct characters adds another dimension, as there are significant differences between each rider. Every team has two pilots, and each one has a name, a face, and a personality, providing you with a better feel for who's actually in each glider and giving the game a lot more personality.
After selecting a character, you'll dive into the anti-gravity league, which will have you competing in high-speed races and engaging opponents in close battles for first place. As you win races, you'll earn credits that you use to upgrade your ship's handling, speed, acceleration, stability, and more. Furthermore, when you finish a league (consisting of three consecutive races on different tracks) in first place, you'll unlock new challenges, new weapons, new teams, and the next league. Every league is faster than the one that preceded it, and you'll find it necessary to constantly upgrade your ship in order to keep pace with the other racers. The further you progress, the more you'll be amazed by the game's sheer sense of speed. The only downside is that all the action may send gamers with weaker constitutions reaching for Dramamine.
League play also emphasizes another aspect of the series, one that has become increasingly important throughout Wipeout's evolution: combat. This time out, combat is not just a side effect of having weapons lying around on the tracks--it actually has quite a bit of strategic importance. You can focus on placing first and earn 12 points for the win, or you can instead focus on eliminating a bunch of other pilots and score the same 12 points even if you finish last. As in previous installments, pilots are out of the race when their shield energy runs out and their ship blows up. If that happens to be you, you're left with zero points for the race. But, for each other pilot you eliminate, you earn points. As a result, you can still collect as many league points as someone who finished the race but failed to score any eliminations. This aspect is a very clever tweak on the part of Studio Liverpool, because it allows players to win even if they get off to a bad start in a race or they're constantly being shot down throughout the proceedings. Some ships are actually better suited to combat than to racing, so you'll be able to choose a ship that suits your play strategy. This aspect smoothly balances out the gameplay in Wipeout Fusion.
Those of you who don't like the career-oriented league mode can dive right into the action with the arcade mode, which has you master one track after another, including the variations, such as mirrored versions. Whenever you finish a race in first place, you'll unlock new tracks, new weapons, and new pilots, much like in the league mode. Additionally, there are zone and time-trial modes that you can unlock. From the start, you can also enter the challenge mode, where you need to complete specific tasks in order to progress. These can include racing a lap in under 50 seconds, eliminating at least three contestants, placing first in a race, or surviving for six laps with 16 pilots on the track. Completing challenges, ranking high in the league, and progressing through the arcade mode will also unlock numerous pictures in the art gallery, including sketches of the tracks and characters, as well as rendered artwork of the ships and environments. Cheat codes can also be entered in a separate screen.
As in previous Wipeout titles, multiplayer is very important aspect of Wipeout Fusion. Two players can battle it out in the league and arcade modes against up to 10 computer opponents. You'll also be able to choose how the screen is split--either horizontally or vertically--when playing with an opponent. To keep things fun, the game will respawn you on the track if you get taken out, rather than force you to sit there and watch your friend play through. You can even put together custom leagues on your own and select which tracks you want included in the circuits. You'll also be able to specify race and win conditions once you unlock the option menu in the game. You'll be able to race through the leagues cooperatively as well, which is quite a nice touch.
So, while Europe is usually the last to get many of the games and hardware systems, Americans will envy Europeans for a change when Wipeout Fusion hits store shelves on February 8. Import fans looking for a speed rush should definitely keep an eye on this title, as it truly delivers on its promises. While Europeans should ready their controllers, we are still waiting for an official confirmation of Sony Computer Entertainment America on whether we'll see Wipeout Fusion in the States anytime soon. At the present time, the title still hasn't been officially picked up by SCEA for US release. We'll keep you posted.