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Wipeout 2048 (PS Vita)

Sonyís transformative racing franchise returns for the launch of its PS Vita Handheld in typically brilliant style, mixing the beautiful and brutal in an exhilarating packing. Paradoxically, itís a prequel that takes place in the future, which doesnít make sense until you start playing it. Fast racing, invigorating power-ups and ingenious play modes overlap one another, with short bursts of play that are well-suited to portable play, either solo or online. Aesthetically brilliant from beginning to end, addictively structured and smooth playing, Wipeout 2048 is definitely a showpiece for the new hardware and must-purchase for owners of the new console.

   Safely in the hands of developers Studio Liverpool, who have guided this franchise since they were still part of the legendary Psygnosis, Wipeout has consistently delivered one of the most engaging, exhilarating and intense racing experiences on Playstation consoles for more than 15 years. Owners of the new PS Vita handheld should probably know what to expect from the series, but this time around, there are some interesting diversions from the usual path. Wipeout 2048 takes a slightly different direction than previous installments. Instead of solely focusing on the future, this edition takes a step back to the first anti-gravity racing competition. This gives the game a dirtier, more rustic appeal. Instead of looking completely futuristic as you glide over sleek cityscapes, 2048 brings a more urban and contemporary feel, with buildings made of bricks and stone, mixed with more modern structures to give the game a cool look. The ships themselves are a little less sleek as well, but still have the trademark design lines and styles that would follow in the later races. Whatís most interesting about 2048 is its gameplay which is still fast as ever, but adds some huge drops and steep climbs to the mix. Another interesting aspect of the game comes in the road surfaces that mix traditional Wipeout tubing with concrete and even grassy surfaces as some points. It makes for a more interesting game aesthetically, and these additional surfaces make the races more challenging. As the prototype of all the races that would follow, many of the hallmarks of the series are here in slightly less polished form.

As you might expect, the gameís weapons systems remain quite extensive and easy to use. When you race along the track, youíll be able to glide over a variety of power-pads. These can perform one of several different functions. They can act as speed boosts, giving you an immediate jump on your rivals and thrusting you into the lead. Chaining several of these can propel you forward massively, while missing some can leave you far behind the pack. More interestingly, there are loads of weapons pads in the game, each one allows you to use a different attack. Many of the traditional weapons, such as the machine guns, mines and blasts can be quite effective at close range, but require you to target the opponent, while others like the wave, and proton bombs can unleash their powers on several different rivals simultaneously. One of the more interesting weapons in Wipeout 2048 is the leach-beam, which allows you to suck power from a nearby opponent and add it to your own, giving you an effective advantage. Another thing you need to consider when using weapons is the fact that you can instead use the absorb function where their energy is transferred to your ship instead, which is useful when youíre running low on power and in danger of losing the race. All of these strategies are made even more challenging given the speed at which the races unfold, requiring you to make near instant decisions on their use. There arenít many new weapons this time around, but its fun to see many of the old favorites return.

Of course, it wouldnít be a true Wipeout title without its trademark techno soundtrack, and this time around, the mix of artists and tracks is outstanding. Featuring an array of well-known names such as Chemical Brothers, FSOL and other acts, one of the more interesting aspects of the new game is the fact that many of the tracks, such as Orbitalís classic ĎPetrolí not only appeared in some of the first Wipeout titles, but appear here in remixed form, giving a fresh coat of paint to these familiar elements. Itís a strange paradox, but the 2048 aims to move the series forward by looking back. Speaking of which the gameís controls also offer some new twists on the familiar style of the original. Players can choose form one of several different configurations, including a classic control scheme where you use the analog control pad to steer, face buttons to accelerate and use weapons, while the shift keys implement the airbrakes. Players can also choose a second configuration thatís more like traditional racing games, but less effective in practice. Most interestingly, thereís an entirely new mode that takes full advantage of some of Vitaís more innovative hardware features. This is the tilt and touch mode and as the name implies, allows you to use the system itself to steer the ship around the track, while the back touch buttons control the shipís acceleration and other options. Itís a fairly interesting idea that does indeed work, but it takes some getting used to, and the steep learning curve will make it a bit frustrating to new players who will probably find themselves bumping up against the edges of the track or falling into the abyss more than theyíd like. This mode is probably not going to please everyone, and to be honest, itís not as precise or intuitive as standard controls, but its still fun to use for a short time until the novelty wears off. At which point, most players will probably revert to the standard controls and not return to the touch ones much at all.

One of the most interesting features of Wipeout 2048ís interface are the menus that appear between rounds. These are always accessible using the Vitaís touch screen interface. Players can also change options and go online easily using this method, which makes for a nice change of pace from the usual scrolling types seen in most racing game. After you get on the track, things take some getting used to, since there are nuances, such as the airbrakes, weapons use and recharging that most standard racing games donít have. Once you get familiarized with Wipeout 2048ís controls, youíll find the ships to retain their remarkable responsiveness, though how much depends on which you use. As in previous games, you have a number of these to choose from, with different manufacturers offering different modes. Each ship class has a different specialty, with some offering speed, while others focus on agility or weapons. Switching between them between races is very important and can make a huge difference between winning and losing an event. Making the choice easier is the fact that most race types are strictly defined beforehand and they donít generally blend together. This system gives Wipeout 2048 plenty of depth and challenge, increasing its replay value and offering players a good variety of ships to control as they progress through the game.

While the console editions of the game enjoyed an extended playtime with gamers, there are a different set of parameters in play with a handheld version. Wipeout 2048 includes all the standard modes youíve come to expect, such as racing and time attack. Players can choose to race solo or go against rival players, using the online pass that allows you to compete in a number of different game modes, with either nearby players or those online. The structure and win conditions of most stages are fairly easy to understand, and you can pass them easily by meeting minimum requirements such as finishing first or beating the fastest lap. Itís not always going to be about racing for position, since there are also combat modes where your objective is to earn points by destroying rival ships. In this mode, your advancement is based on your score, not where you finish, which gives these modes a very different feel from the normal racing modes. The game also includes more interesting Wipeout style modes such as the trademark Zone mode where your interest is in survival as you navigate through a tricky course solo. Interestingly, the game paints the courses in bright primary colors and shapes, which change and glow in different colors as you race through the stages. Things get progressively faster which each lap, and surviving through the required number of checkpoints becomes increasingly difficult. This mode is quite challenging, and also perfectly suited to online play. Opening new races and challenges occurs when you successfully complete each stage, and some of them also have the added benefit of unlocking additional ships and upgrades. Most of the modes in Wipeout 2048 unfold at a very quick pace, taking only a few minutes per turn, making them well-suited for quick bursts of portable play.

You can definitely tell that a lot of work and thought has gone into how the game looks and feels. Aesthetically, its one of the best looking games on PS Vita so far, and its increased texture mapping works to its benefit in creating a coherent and believable sci-fi racing experience. The gameís races unfold at a high rate of speed that can become almost blinding, but this relentless, unforgiving intensity has always one of Wipeoutís main draws. This installment doesnít let down in this department, and this continues the tradition of making the new game faster and sleeker than previous installments. Its gameplay is definitely challenging, particularly in the later stages where the requirements become stricter while your opponents grow smarter and more aggressive. This makes the game challenging and along with its flood of unlockable content and extras you can earn, keeps you motivated to keep playing for quite some time. Returning for a moment to reality, there are a few mis-steps, such as the awkward touch controls and the long load times between rounds that can be annoying, but they donít tarnish the gameís overall quality. Wipeout has always been one of the Sonyís flagship titles and this slick, inventive installment wonít disappoint PS Vita owners.

Ė Michael Palisano

Grade: A

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