When I saw Wipeout XL for the first time, I saw the future--and not some far-flung, dilithium-crystal-powered future, but something sooner, and something extrapolated from the world as I knew it. It was all pan-Eurasian corporate sponsors, techno music, and energy drinks, and it was all so frightfully new. My experiences with most other futuristic racing games (save for the criminally underrated Extreme-G III) since then have taught me that my connection with Wipeout XL was a right-place, right-time situation that could not be recreated. Still, 12 years later I still harbor a general fondness for Wipeout, and while the PlayStation Network release of Wipeout HD isn't a mind-expanding experience, it's a slick package that reminds me exactly why I loved Wipeout in the first place.
It's worth noting that Wipeout HD is less a full new entry in the series than it is a high-definition compilation of bits and pieces from Wipeout Pure and Wipeout Pulse for the PSP, which were themselves brimming with designs that dated back to the original Wipeout. While not nearly as exciting as an all-new Wipeout game, the series aesthetic translates to a crisp HD display so well that it's kind of difficult to imagine how the series made do before 1080p. Some of the track designs feel a little safe, and the sleek graphical style loses a bit of its luster when you're not burying the needle, but the ships look sharp and the frame rate is rock-solid. The music of Wipeout XL was as significant as anything else about that game, if not more so. Wipeout HD may not feature huge acts like The Prodigy, Daft Punk, or The Chemical Brothers, but there are still plenty of chilly synths, warbley bass tones, and thumping backbeats to race to.
With so much of its content recycled from past Wipeout games, it's unsurprising that the game doesn't really take many chances with the gameplay. The single-player campaign will throw standard race, time trial, speed lap, tournament, and zone races at you as you work your way up to faster and scarier speed classes. It seems like virtually every memorable team sponsor and ship design from the series has been crammed in here, and in addition to each having unique performance stats, you'll also earn loyalty points whenever you race for that team. Accumulate enough loyalty points for a particular team, and you'll unlock fun extras like different ship skins and classic Wipeout HUD designs, though I found playing Wipeout HD with the old Wipeout XL heads-up to be jarring.
The game's challenge level reinforces the old-school feel of Wipeout HD, in that it can be quite demanding. If you haven't played a Wipeout game before, get ready for a bit of a learning curve, simply because nothing really handles the way Wipeout does. The futuristic hovercraft you pilot have a floaty quality to them that can make hard turns difficult, something that's compounded by the fact that they can go fast as hell. Wipeout HD offers training wheels in the form of the Pilot Assist feature, which helps you maintain your momentum by automatically steering you away from the walls. The game also features entirely optional SIXAXIS controls, but they are beyond useless after the initial speed class.
If you're an experienced Wipeout player who understands the importance of judicious use of air brakes, you'll probably find the Pilot Assist feature hurts more than it helps. While I firmly believe that negotiating impossibly serpentine tracks with squirrely hovercraft at sci-fi speeds is integral to the Wipeout experience, I'm also not going to begrudge one's desire for a more accessible experience. The problem with Pilot Assist is that you can use it both online and off, and there's no way to filter online races based on whether Pilot Assist is active. You have no way of knowing if the guy that's beating you is just really good, or whether he's under the influence of performance-enhancing robots.
The biggest problem with Wipeout HD is repetition. Eight tracks is a fine start, and a decent value for a game that's being sold for $19.99, but after running them forwards and backwards dozens of times, they can get old, though it's nothing that some DLC couldn't cure. Either way, this is more of a nostalgia trip than a reinvention of the wheel, but it's a well-produced one that might just snag a few new fans along the way.