Fast and furious racing that's just a touch infuriating
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a racing game that moves too fast. One such game is Wipeout HD, the latest from Sony's futuristic hovercraft racing series. A series always known for moving at insane speeds -- 600 mph being the average -- the action is often hard to follow. Turns arrive without notice, your craft ramming into them time after time; explosives go off all over constantly, covering the scene in a flurry of lights as participants rub against each other and the rails; the camera making drastic, sudden changes in perspective, loosing sight of your vehicle for a second or two in the process. It's incredibly overwhelming, especially on difficulty levels higher than "novice."
The chaotic landscape may intimidate, and frustrate, but that exhilarating, out-of-control nature is also the very appeal of Wipeout HD. It's not often you get the chance to move faster than a hundred miles per hour, if that. Though HD is technically a new installment, its content is lifted from previous Wipeouts, making this a sort of "best of" entry. If you've up to this point played Wipeout religiously, unless the prospect of online play sounds appealing to you, there is therefore little to coax you to buy. For new players, however, there's plenty of worth -- just don't expect to get the hang of playing Wipeout quickly.
Why the warning? Because Wipeout HD is not very friendly toward new players. Apart from the game moving at incredible speeds, which makes steering hard enough, the driving mechanics are... different. You don't have a traditional drift function -- just oversensitive airbrakes that jerk you hard toward the right or left by pressing the lower trigger button associated with the direction (L2 and R2), which steer you into a wall rather than safely around tight corners, oftentimes. Learning how to use the airbrakes is an exercise in patience. The game doesn't give you any assistance -- not counting that poor steering assist -- its in-game guide only stating what they do, leaving you to fend for yourself. At first, you might think that these brakes are be used around most corners due to the slow nature of your vehicle's turning; you'd be wrong, too. As the game says, it's best used around especially tight turns.
Granted, the difference between those and normal turns is a very fine line. What appears to be a tight turn is actually something you can get through without aid of the airbrakes, or vice versa. Trial-and-error, as you can probably imagine, is constant presence. And once you do learn how to navigate, when you graduate to higher speed classes (there's four in all: Venom, Flash, Rapier, and Phantom) you have to re-learn how to navigate the tracks because the vehicles handle very differently at different speeds, forcing you to change how you approach each and every twist and turn. At Phantom, for instance, every thing moves at binding speeds -- literally. Your craft moves at what can only be described as hyper-speed. The out-of-control feel I mentioned earlier? That speed class is the very epitome of out-of-control racing. Where you once had to start making turns very close to the arrival of corners, you now have to start turning very much ahead of their arrival, because waiting any longer than that results in endless crashes into the walls, not only slowing you down but also damaging your craft considerably.
Little known fact about Wipeout: it's got a touch of Mario Kart-esque car combat in it. Weapons are lain about the road in the form of lighted, red colored panels. Driving over them grants you a random weapon, such as a homing rocket, a Gatling gun, a small speed boost, or a leech beam with which to drain another racer's energy. In Mario Kart fashion, these weapons are thrown about almost constantly. You and your opponents are almost always pummeled by attacks, coming ever so close to the brink of elimination as your energy quickly depletes into critical condition. The only break you receive from the onslaught is when you're either in the very front of the pack, ahead by a number of seconds, or, more often, very far behind the pack. Being involved in such mayhem is very thrilling, although.
Weaving through the dense pack of racers and their bombardment of weaponry with ease is one of the game's highs. You wouldn't expect that to be possible when you move at speeds upward of 600 mph, but when you've mastered it, Wipeout HD delivers well on that thrill, and makes working the matter of mastering the mechanics worthwhile.
Learning how to drive properly in Wipeout HD is hard, but not impossible (it certainly teeters on that border, though). It's like learning to ride a bike. You fall off a lot, but each time you climb back on you slowly get better and better. Course, there's a lot more steps here, what with the speed classes and the reverse versions of tracks that further force you to change how you approach a given track, but once you get the hang of it it's a blast! Frustration often threatens to make you call it quits (almost happened to me plenty of times), which is where you wish that the mechanics weren't so nuanced and the AI so unfathomably good, but the payoff is worthwhile.
Luckily, when the AI becomes too much, you can just jump online and have a fairer chance. Single-races and tournaments are both available for you to partake in online; a much bearer set of modes than what's presented in the campaign, which sees the usual suite of racing modes like time trials and speeds laps enter the mix. Most interesting of the offline modes is Zones -- an electric visual feast that sees you charged with hitting boost pads to continuously gain speed until certain marks are reached, the colors of the environment changing all the while. It's gameplay is very lax for most of any session, only getting difficult once you've nearly surpassed the usual top speed, so it's stunning visual style is the primary draw. Getting back to the online, though, the game is still nicely populated, so finding a game is never difficult. Online play runs smoothly as well, with no noticeable lag present. Multiplayer is also available locally through split-screen play.
If I had to summarize Wipeout HD, it would be as a rather mixed game. The fast, out-of-control pace at which the game moves entertains greatly, certainly. At the same time, it also infuriates. It's a fantastic game, don't get me wrong; it's just got a lot of frustrating qualities. For long-time fans, it's easy to recommend Wipeout HD. The presence of online play and the chance to see select favorites from previous games in glorious HD is an enticing proposition. For newbies, it's not a bad place to start, but it's also a rather unfriendly game toward players of that sort. It's certainly worth outlasting the trials and tribulations of mastering Wipeout, though, for in terms of high-octane action, few deliver as strongly as Wipeout.