Posted by Jamie O'Neill
FEISARis, not Surfaris
Republished on Thursday, 4th December 2014: We're bringing this review back from the archives to celebrate the PSone's big 20th Anniversary this week. The original text follows.
Originally published on Saturday, 12th October 2013: When the magazine reviews of WipEout landed a month after its September 1995 release, Ultimate Future Games noted it had “set the benchmark for hover-racing games”, and EDGE praised it as having “the most impressive graphics yet seen on the PlayStation”. Racing games have consistently provided a technical yardstick for the visual progression of a new console generation, and two racers set a high PlayStation precedent for 32-bit console graphical fidelity. If Ridge Racer was your brash, loud-mouthed, but ultimately shallow drifter buddy, then WipEout contributed a touch of sci-fi style and sophistication. It was your clubbing friend with an astute sense of identity, which focussed upon roller-coaster racing, bespoke design, and a specific taste in dance music.
It wasn’t an accident that WipEout used the futuristic racing battlefield to gauge the early technical possibilities of PlayStation. It succeeded in what Crash ‘n Burn couldn’t achieve as a 1993 3DO pack-in title, but F-Zero managed to accomplish through showcasing Mode 7 during the launch of the Super Famicom. Psygnosis, who later became SCE Studio Liverpool, had already demonstrated creative talent during the 16-bit era, especially on Atari ST and Amiga, so it wasn’t a surprise that it set the standard on PlayStation. It’s also conceivable to notice a link between Amiga and Atari ST racing games, like the elevated tracks of Stunt Car Racer or the futuristic racing in Powerdrome, as possible reference points that provided inspiration for the F3600 anti-gravity sport of WipEout.
It can be tempting to judge the content of an eighteen year old launch game harshly, with WipEout only including six main tracks and a seventh secret bonus course, and the PlayStation Network version confined to a single-player experience. Yet, there is still value in rekindling your memories of the impact of the original, by returning to the perspective of it as a September 1995 launch title. Therefore, before climbing back into the cockpit of an anti-gravity racing craft from the year 2052, it’s worth treating yourself to a read of Push Square’s excellently exhaustive The Making of WipEout feature as a retro practise session first.
Sony gamers are well accustomed to the template of WipEout games, but it’s impressive how much of the setting, style, and vision of the original game had established its character, and framed its design for the rest of the series. Once again, this can be attributed to the clear and focussed development ambition of Psygnosis, mixed with the might and influence of Sony as a multimedia company. Each minute detail of the presentation is fine-tuned, from the additional packaging and graphic design by The Designers Republic, to the inclusion of tracks by famous dance artists in its soundtrack.
The greatest achievement by Psygnosis is that the exuberance lavished on Blade Runner-esque neon signs, corporate logos, ship icons, and thumping dance tunes manages to gel so well with the futuristic setting and anti-gravity racing based gameplay. If you set the soundtrack to shuffle, it’s extraordinary that amongst Leftfield’s ‘Afro Ride’, The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Chemical Beats’ and Orbital’s ‘Wipeout’, it’s the in-house audio work of Psygnosis’ own Tim Wright that provides the dominant musical beat to the majority of your races. It’d be interesting to ask a gamer with no prior knowledge of either WipEout or dance music to choose their favourite track, because it’s Wright’s own tunes as CoLD SToRAGE that are arguably the most fitting. ‘Cairodrome’ is instantly catchy, ‘Operatique’ pulsates with each banked turn, and ‘Transvaal’ draws comparisons to Yuzo Koshiro’s compositions in the Streets of Rage series.
A modern eye may highlight the way trees or mountains pop-up in the horizon, but Psygnosis was implementing track design ideas and techniques to minimise draw distance woes in 1995. It’s the work of conceptual artist Jim Bowers at creating a futuristic backdrop, combined with natural landscapes, which has ensured that the visual design of many of the elevated seven tracks will remain memorable to a retro gamer. Racing through the lush green German hills of Terramax is particularly colourful and vivid, plus it shares its beaming blue skies with the sandy American cliffs and vast canyon walls, which frame the desert venue Arridos IV. Once you travel to Russia, the power stations and smog pipes of the murky green night-time track Korodera add contrast to previously brighter settings. If you know the areas surrounding Psygnosis’ Liverpool base, you can almost sense their artists glancing from an M56 drive at the industrial town of Runcorn for inspiration.
The attention to detail becomes increasingly apparent after you beat the Venom class, and race all six tracks again on the Rapier difficulty setting. Alongside a faster, more intense racing experience, the Rapier class alters the time of day for each race. This gives the tougher difficulty of Rapier a darker mood, as Karbonis and Terramax are set to a star filled night sky, plus Korodera has a new deep burgundy colour scheme, and Arridos IV has a blistering desert sunset. Psygnosis also leave its strongest artistic design until last, as Greenland’s icy blue SilverStream caves with dangling stalactites are impressive enough in Venom, but brandish the aurora rays of the northern lights dancing around its pink skies on the Rapier setting. This is before you finally unlock the seventh FireStar track and leave Earth for the dusty, burnt orange rocky terrain of Mars. Regardless of PlayStation’s youth, WipEout was a showcase title to demonstrate the console’s horsepower in 1995.
Control is tight using the D-pad, before the days of PlayStation analogue sticks, although the heavy, bobbing feeling of the swaying craft requires an adjustment period, if you’re less accustomed to traditional WipEout games. Two viewpoints are available: the external view that’s set behind your ship is less intense, but the internal cockpit perspective conveys a greater sensation of a roller-coaster thrill ride. The camera shakes and veers more dramatically with the curvature of the course in the cockpit view, especially as your hovering craft inexplicably slides on SilverStream’s artificial crystal surface. SilverStream is also a strong example of how Psygnosis has implemented sharpness in the track design to balance the difficulty, as you’re forced to master the L2 and R2 air-brakes to navigate its severe hairpin bends.
The most compelling aspect of the gameplay comes from a desire to flawlessly glide around tracks, without colliding into walls or opponents. The game uses a multicoloured speed bar that reaches an intense yellow peak to signify when you’re hanging onto a perfect run, and this encourages players to get into a mental zone of being liberal with air-brakes and maximizing glowing blue chevron speed-up pads. You will appreciate the friendlier earlier venues, as climbing the 359m summit of Altima and snaking along the banked run through Karbonis are gentle introductions preceding more challenging track design later on. There is a sense of purity in WipEout’s original design: you can achieve a turbo start as the race begins, but you can’t implement stunts for a boost off jumps, and there is no health meter that needs to be managed or recharged by squandering weapons.
WipEout’s weapon and power-up system draws favourable comparisons to the original Super Mario Kart, because its balance is tight and unfussy. A single power-up can’t cheapen the experience by suddenly catapulting you from last place, to lead the pack of eight racers. Missiles and shock wave weapons have a homing reticule, but rockets are WipEout’s equivalent of a green shell, where the careful aim of the player determines the accuracy of a hit. Mines are the only weapon that can be fired backwards, and if you activate a protective shield you can’t launch other weapons until it has dispersed. There are no flamboyant game-changing power-ups like a blue shell, lightning bolt, or an all-star move in WipEout. The most beneficial collectible is the turbo boost, and even then it’s best saved for a straight road, like the chequerboard final lap stretch.
There is also no rubber-banding computer assisted catch-up system, and you may find that even the initial Venom class is more difficult than you remember. With aggressive craft AI blocking and slowing down your ship, it could take longer than you expected to unlock Rapier class and the seventh FireStar track. At least you receive three stars, which thankfully aren't spread over the entire championship, but represent three separate attempts to qualify on each new track. Alongside the main championship mode, you can learn the layout of each of the six venues in a single race against seven other opponents, or practice using a time trial that clears the track of pesky opponents.
You choose one of two pilots from four teams, and the unique statistics of each craft adds to the re-playability and balance of the game’s difficulty. Therefore, to acquire top acceleration and a tighter turning circle you may choose an AG Systems or FEISAR ship, but experts may forego control and acceleration for a stronger top speed of a craft by Auricom Research or Qirex Industries. The original game had a two-player mode, which was accessible through initializing a serial link-up of two PlayStation consoles, so it’s unsurprising with the bare bones depictions of PSone titles on the PlayStation Network that multiplayer has been dropped, but it’s still disappointing.
Issue 21 of EDGE magazine featured an earlier preview of WipEout, as a cover feature in June 1995. It serves as a reminder of Psygnosis’ technical achievements with this launch title, as Nick Burcombe discussed his role as game designer and the team’s achievements with a more consistent target frame-rate of 30 frames-per-second, improved draw distance techniques, and the gut-wrenching impact of the cockpit view. The magazine also noted that work didn’t start in earnest on WipEout until March 1995, which suggests its main body of development time was a meagre seven months before its September release. WipEout’s technical achievements may appear slightly diminished after eighteen years, but it’s still far too stylish to be moth-eaten, even if Ultimate Future Games succumbed to over-exaggeration when they described it as a game that “makes F-Zero seem like Pong”.
Psygnosis created a roller-coaster ride of a futuristic anti-gravity racing game, which ascended above other September 1995 launch titles as an early technical showcase of the graphical horsepower of the PSone. WipEout peaked even higher with a sense of sci-fi style and clubbing chic through graphic design by The Designers Republic and in-house musical compositions by CoLD SToRAGE, which easily ride high alongside well-known dance acts. The only dips setting it in decline are an inescapable ageing process, and the lack of multiplayer. The six main tracks are boosted by a faster, tougher Rapier class difficulty setting and a secret FireStar venue. There is purity in this game, bolstered by attention to detail, so it built a dependable track structure on which further additions in the series could climb.