Racing games on handheld systems can be a tough sell—with a smaller screen and lower hardware horsepower, it can be difficult to convey the sense of speed that makes great racing games great. The new PlayStation Vita handheld seems designed to address the racing genre head-on—its processing power is closer to a current-gen console than any handheld before it, and its sizable OLED screen seems custom-made for driving games.
And so hey, look at that: Here's WipEout 2048, a blisteringly fast futuristic racing game from SCE Liverpool, and it's one of the strongest Vita launch-titles I've played.
Note: This review is partially incomplete, because I haven't been able to truly plumb the game's online modes. In a week or so, I'll have a better sense of how the various online campaigns work, as well as the cross-play between other Vitas and PlayStation 3s, and I will update my review accordingly. With that said, I think I've seen enough of the game to give some firm thoughts on how it shapes up. Let's do this one likes/dislikes-style.
WHAT I LIKED
Float like a hummingbird. The vehicles in WipEout 2048 float above the ground, and their frictionless feel is wholly different than either, say, Forza or Mario Kart. The whole thing is almost equal parts racing and flying game, which results in a light-feeling, exhilarating experience.
Sting like a hornet. Combat mode is a blast—rather than concerning themselves with winning a race, players must grab as many good powerups as possible and achieve hits against their opponents to get a high score. The weapons are fun to use, partly because they're difficult to use—everything is happening so quickly that a perfectly placed rockit-hit feels all the more satisfying and rewarding.
So F***ing Fast. I've never felt a sense of speed from a handheld game like I do from WipEout 2048. The framerate doesn't hit the 60fps smoothness of most racing games, but it's snappy enough, and the tubular design of the tracks combines with the Vita's humongous screen to impart a fantastic, at-times harrowing sense of speed and vertigo. In fact, WipEout 2048 feels even faster and crazier than its console counterpart. That's not always for the good, but the sense of chaos and franticness is hugely enjoyable for the most part.
Eye-Popper. WipEout 2048 is a splendid graphical showcase for the Vita—it's an explosion of color and motion, a freakout dream of speed and flashing lights. It'll turn heads, and is a simple way to demonstrate to your friends what Sony is talking about when they talk about portable HD gaming.
Cool Campaign Design. The single-player campaign in WipEout 2048 is a branching affair, with multiple event-types extending out from a main track. It plays out over three years—as of this review I'm midway through the second year, 2049, and I've already put a good chunk of hours into the game. Each level has a unique challenge, which keeps things interesting. Some are straightforward, like "get at least 4th place" or "score this many points," but others are more demanding, forcing you to use only a certain type of vehicle or stick to certain parts of the track.
So Fresh, So Clean. I like nice, clean presentation in a racing game, and WipEout 2048 has that. The touch-screen is well implemented throughout the menus, and everything looks and sounds nice. The menus can be somewhat labyrinthine and unintuitive (we'll get to that), but browsing them is aesthetically pleasing.
Cruel Mistress. WipEout 2048 is welcomely difficult, a game that really pushes you to learn each track, master each turn, and carefully plan to get the most out of your power-ups. Of course, all of that is happening at breakneck speed, so you'd better pay attention, learn quick, and be ready to fail and try again. Personally, I enjoy the steep difficulty.
Kick Out The Jams. WipEout 2048 has one hell of a good soundtrack, with rave-ish tracks from Orbital, deadmau5, The Chemical Brothers, and many other electronic-music luminaries pulsing and pushing the races forward. The sound design is fantastic as well, and the driving whine of the vehicles combines with the squanching electronic beats to make WipEout 2048 a headphones-required experience. In some of the trippier levels, particularly the neon-colored "zone mode," the music and on-screen action can induce a sort of video game synesthesia that is as startling as it is cool.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE
Chaos Theory. There is a frenetic sense of fun to WipEout 2048, but that comes at a price—sometimes, there's simply too much visual noise onscreen. The game is set in a halfway-future New York, and there is a good deal more going on in the backdrop design than there was in the console-based WipEout HD. This can be cool, and I sense that this is at least in part the visual chaos is on purpose, but the occasionally over-designed backdrops can conspire to make you blow turns and junctions. Split-seconds count in this game, so that sort of thing can feel inordinately frustrating.
We're Waiting… The loading screens in WipEout 2048 are a drag, plain and simple. Every time you start a new race, it takes upwards of a minute for the level to load; that would be acceptable (if annoying) on a home console, but on the go, a minute of downtime between menu and gameplay feels like an eternity. Oftentimes I'll get on the bus, pick a level, and be a significant way into my commute before I finally start playing.
Maze-Like Menus. The game's user interface is clean and nice-looking, but it can feel unintuitive from a user interface level, and lacks some functions that would have been appreciated. Notably, there is no way to change vehicles once you've started loading a race, nor is there a way to back out—the loading screen has no "cancel" button. So, if you start a race with a sub-optimal vehicle, you have to start the race, quit out, change racers, and load it all over again. If you lose a race and want to switch up your vehicle, you have to do the same. It's a surprising shortcoming and feels like one of the game's few concessions to the Vita's limitations.
Motion Controls. The motion controls in WipEout 2048 aren't bad, but they aren't great either, and so far I've found that the tracks require more precision than the accelerometer-based steering allows. Steering with motion control is both fun and functional, but it costs too much of a performance edge.
Confusing Multiplayer. I have not had that much of a chance to play WipEout 2048's online multiplayer, so I'll be back to update this part of the review once more people are online and it's easier to find a match. But for now, I can say that while the multiplayer is indeed functional, it's a bit confusing—I paired up with Stephen Totilo to find a match and at first, both of our Vitas crashed and became temporarily inoperable. Then, we had a very hard time figuring out how to start a match with just the two of us racing. The "Online Career" mode appears to only be playable by groups of four people, and only through cross-play can two players race one another. Even then, I'm not exactly sure if it's possible, or how to just set up a race with your PlayStation Network party.
I'll spend more time with the multiplayer and update this review after I have. For now—it works, it's fun to race against other people, but some of the menus and matchmaking feel overly opaque and confusing.
THE FINAL WORD
This final word is not quiiite final, since as I mentioned above, I haven't played enough of the online multiplayer to get a real feel for it. But I get the sense that once more people are playing the game it will be easy to find people to play with online, and the races will get a good deal more interesting against human opponents. I will update this review with my deeper multiplayer impressions as soon as I've had more time to dig into it.
Even with that caveat, WipEout 2048 is an easy game to recommend. It's a faster-than-hell racer that makes full use of the Vita's graphical prowess. It has a fleshed-out single-player campaign, a whole host of race-modes and unlockable vehicles, and a fantastic, pulse-quickening soundtrack. At its best (and it's very often at its best), WipEout 2048 is a riot of a good time, a strong racer in its own right and a worthy, muscular launch-title for the PlayStation Vita.