Friday, 7 November 2014

Overrated! #7

Wipeout (1996)
By: Psygnosis Genre: Racing Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Sega Saturn
Also Available For: PlayStation, PC
Download For: PlayStation Network

Well, it's certainly a pretty cool title screen...
Developers had been experimenting with futuristic racing games for some time already before Nintendo came along and gifted us with the mighty F-Zero. Mighty as it was, though, being a Nintendo game, it was just a little too cartoony and colourful for some tough and manly gamers of the time. Luckily for them, Nintendo's superb game was sufficiently popular that the years that immediately followed it saw many developers rushing to try and topple it from its throne, and most of those were far more serious and 'realistic'. The most successful of these by some margin was Wipeout by British studio, Psygnosis, and it's a game that was immediately hailed by near enough everyone as the game that had finally made gaming acceptable, even 'cool'. As I would hope anyone reading this would know, however, that's no guarantee of it actually being enjoyable.

The distinctive and attractive starting grid...
Indeed, our civilisation in general is full of people enduring all sorts of crapness in a desperate attempt to be 'cool' and I long looked upon Wipeout with scornful eyes for this reason. Of course, it could also have been because it was helping the pesky PlayStation outsell my beloved Saturn, who knows? All I knew was, I didn't like it. Despite being a launch title for Sony's machine, though, and being pivotal in its early success, it was later ported to the Saturn and PC, and it's the former of these that I'm taking a look at here (see 'special note' below). Regardless of which version you play, there's not too much in the way of a back-story as you might expect. It's set in the year 2052 and features a racing series called the F3600 anti-gravity racing league - a series in which you are now able to participate. And that's about it.

These twisty-turny bits are fairly typical of most courses...
That's okay though, racing games don't really need stories to be any good, and you do at least get a few choices here before shredding the tarmac (or whatever the road is made of). Firstly, there are two classes - the scarily named Venom and Rapier (easy and hard). Then you can choose from three play modes - Championship Race, Single Race (arcade mode), and Time Trial. Next you get to choose from four teams - AG Systems, Auricom, Qirex, and Feisar, all of whom offer their own unique 'craft' which each differ in their thrust, top speed, mass, and turning ability. Lastly, you can choose between the two 'pilots' employed by each team which... doesn't seem to make much difference if truth be told, besides the colour scheme of their craft. Once you've made all your choices it's time to climb into your floaty, triangular 'craft' of choice!

Hmmm... these are 'anti-gravity' courses, right?
There are six circuit-based courses in total, located in various places around the world and they are all available from the off. The Single Race and Time Attack modes hold few surprises, and sadly there's no multi-player mode available here (even the PS1 game couldn't cope with a split-screen mode, offering instead a link-up mode, but the Saturn version doesn't have that either), so it's likely to be the good old Championship mode where you will spend much of your time. It offers a a series of races - six, oddly enough - which offer points based on your placing and are contested by all eight pilots. You'll only qualify for the next race, however, if you finish in the top three, regardless of how many points you may already have (as I discovered after three straight victories).

Eeek, a split - quick, decide which way!
One thing that may help or hinder your attempts to win races is something that misguided Wipeout fanboys often lord over their more logical F-Zero counterparts, and that's weapons! Both series' share 'boost plates', which are blue here, incidentally, but Wipeout features different coloured equivalents as well, which gift you with a random power-up from the seven available. These can only be used once each time you collect them but include mines and several types of missile (some explosive ones, one that messes up control systems, etc) as well as a turbo boost and a shield to protect you from attacks by the other racers who can unsurprisingly also use most of the power-ups too. There's nothing terribly innovative to wish for as far as they are concerned though, and I'm still not sure I like weapons in driving/racing games anyway.

Brrr, this icy course is based in Greenland...
They are usually great fun to use, obviously, especially in multi-player modes (which doesn't apply here), but often get tiresome when used on you (to say the least). Happily, the AI here isn't too bad in that respect but the other racers rarely make mistakes either, and that obviously means... neither can you! At least after the easier first couple of courses, anyway, and there are two things that severely diminish my enthusiasm for trying. First is the control of the craft. It's not a complicated set up - there are buttons to accelerate, use power-ups, and changing the view, the shoulder buttons deploy 'air brakes' on the corresponding side of the craft, and left and right obviously steer it. The trouble is, they feel surprisingly weighty to heave left and right which is rather ironic considering they're floaty hover craft things.

The pre-race course profile isn't as thorough as it looks...
Sadly, the kind of instant precision control I'm used to as an F-Zero fan is noticeably absent. I realise Psygnosis couldn't really duplicate the controls of Nintendo's game but some kind of responsive set-up would've been nice, especially since even grazing another racer or the side of the course/scenery will effectively result in a dead-stop every time, and that gets old very quickly! That brings me to the other problem - the courses. You might well think their comparatively small number (the six mentioned plus a secret seventh one) would be balanced by some amazingly well-crafted designs but that's unfortunately not the case. Most of them have one of two nice sections including some lovely sweeping curves and chicanes (as in a couple of the screenshots) but they're usually accompanied by some really sharp turns or series of turns and getting round these cleanly is next to impossible.

Fooom! Trying to take second place as we enter a tunnel...
Well, without slowing down almost to a stop, at least, and hitting the sides does that anyway so you might as well just bash and bump your way around the sharp corners without worrying too much - hardly an approach that demands the greatest skill. The worst thing about the courses, though, is that they're just not all that exciting or memorable, at least not when you consider the infinite possibilities the game's setting allows. They're very hilly and that can be great in a racing game, but here it seems just as much about masking an unimpressive draw distance as it does about interesting course design. Aside from that the graphics are pretty good, employing a distinctive style which is definitely (and deliberately, no doubt) different to that of Nintendo's series. The colours are mostly quite dull, with everything being much more realistic (as much as a futuristic game can be, anyway), but there is the odd glimpse of an eye-catching piece of scenery here and there.

One of the more memorable sections...
This Saturn version is not quite as nice to look at as the more well-known PS1 version though - the transparencies and lighting aren't great and the whole game looks as though it's had a very thin net curtain draped over it. It also runs at a mere 20fps compared to the PS1's 30fps and it doesn't sound the same either. Indeed, aside from the moody visuals, one of things that made the PS1 game so 'cool' was its soundtrack of 'bangin' dance/trance 'choons' which are, for licensing reasons, absent from the Saturn game, having been replaced by an all-new (though similar in style) soundtrack by Cold Storage. It doesn't stand out as much as the original but the new tunes are good and still suit the game well. The distinctive sound effects are much quieter here though, for some reason, which means the music is about all you can hear. I guess that was the point!

Hit the blue boost pad to fly past this back-marker...
Ever since its first appearance in the film Hackers (in a nightclub of course), Wipeout has always been all about the 'cool' and its massive success reflects the change it helped bring about in the gaming industry. It's definitely a game to be respected for that, but it's just not especially enjoyable to play as far as I'm concerned. For the most part, the action is shallow and unrefined and as an actual racing game it's severely lacking - it's not very exciting to play and it's not a tremendous amount of fun either, it was just the right kind of game on the right system at the right time. Yes, if someone happened to see you playing Wipeout you'd definitely seem 'cooler' than if you were playing F-Zero, and it's not a terrible game by any means - those looking for a less colourful, less cartoony equivalent to F-Zero may well love it, but I'm not too concerned with looking cool and for me Wipeout is all style and not enough substance.

RKS Score: 6/10

Special Note: Wipeout is of course best known as a PS1 title and that was the version I wanted to review, but alas, it doesn't seem to work on my PS1 emulator so I was unable to grab screen shots for it. Good old Saturn never lets me down though :)


  1. I played this years ago and found it rather frustrating and not much fun. I played on a PC which was admittedly rather underpowered even for the time, a 486 in fact. More recently I played a conversion on my Xperia PLAY (Android). In both cases I really couldn't control the craft at all and never came close to winning any race. It seems the slightest deviation from centre of the track and you touch the side and slow to zero. So unforgiving, I just don't know why this was such a big thing. Sure gfx looked great but no fun to play...

    However, I did LOVE the music and used to play the CD ROM just as if it was a music CD (the first few tracks were just music so you could put the game CD in a CD player). That was the best use I found for it!

  2. It was such a big thing because it looked nice and was cool, that's it! I agree, it could've been a nice alternative to the F-Zero series if the controls and racing mechanics were tightened a bit. Still, the music was great as you say!

    Looks like I've already incurred someone's wrath for not giving this a glowing review though (over on FB)!

  3. I like to think of Wipeout as 'Powerdrome done right' rather than a bad F-Zero rip off, especially since Powerdrome came first.

    The first in the series has undoubtedly dated somewhat, but in it's day it was visually and aurally stunning (at least if you played the proper version and not the Saturn knock off).

    Ideally you want to look at later iterations though. The sequel fixed the biggest game breaker - the near total loss of speed if you scrape the sides. From 2097/XL onwards, it's possible to graze things and throw out a few sparks without much speed reduction.

    With practice you won't be hitting the sides anyway. Judicious use of air brakes and nose tilt when cornering allays any suggestion of imprecise control in the hands of a skilled player. These aren't F-Zero's floaty cars you're piloting, they're far more complex beasts and need to be tamed.

    Wipeout 2097 also introduced possibly the most fun weapon in the series, the Quake Disruptor, which causes the whole track to 'wave' upwards as it rolls along, causing any competitors in it's path to be scattered. Hugely satisfying when deployed correctly.

    I've seen others suggest Wipeout 3/Wip3out as the better game, but I've always preferred 2097 personally (though you may not have guessed). Wipeout 3 is a strange one in the PS1 catalogue, since it runs in high resolution and offers a widescreen mode. Something about that high res display just doesn't sit right with me, though if you want split screen multiplayer this is the one to go for.

    Stranger still, Europe was treated to a revamped rerelease of Wipeout 3 less than a year later. If you plan to check out this entry in the series, then Wipeout 3 Special Edition is the one to go for. This contains not only the original game content, but also 8 tracks from previous releases, alongside a few tweaks and bugfixes. You can even combine split screen and link play for 4 players!

    I somehow skipped the PS2's Wipeout Fusion (I own it, just never played it for some odd reason), but I strongly recommend getting one (or both) of the PSP games, Wipeout Pure & Pulse. As early titles, they didn't half show off the system and still hold up very well, having a crisp, clean aesthetic that are further emphasised in their Zone mode. You know, now I think about it, these might just be my favourite versions after all, but Antiriad Pure would be a stupid username.

  4. Hi Mr Ant, thanks for the comment - I think it's the longest one I've ever had! :P

    The point regarding the inferiority of the Saturn version of Wipeout has been made by a few people since I posted this. I have, however, played both the PS1 and Saturn versions quite extensively and, while the Saturn game looks (and sounds) a little worse, I firmly believe that the gameplay faults are present in both versions. Besides, flashy visuals aren't so important to us retro gamers, right?

    I understand the plus points of the game as well though, including its nice graphics, and, as I mentioned in the review, I certainly respect the game, I just don't enjoy playing it a great deal.

    I've also got and played 2097, Wipeout 3, and one of the PSP ones (Pure I think) and quite like them all. You're right that they improve on the original game and I'm sure I'll review them at some point and mention that point. I maintain, however, that as far as pure, blindingly fast, precision-controlled *racing* is concerned, the Wipeout series in general is inferior to the F-Zero series, especially the stunning N64 game.

    But hey, I know how much many gamers love the Wipeout series and I'm certainly not trying to make anyone change their mind - the gaming world has room both series' after all :)