The Price of Portability - Wipeout Pure and Pulse
After the disappointment of Wipeout on the PS2, it seemed that a game called Wipeout Pure would have to be the greatest WipEout in a very long time. And so it was, but it didn’t exactly have any competition.
The first Wipeout released in UMD format, for the PSP, Pure starts off with a crystal-clear, pristine intro video and the title in a lovely font reminding us how cool the WipEout series is supposed to be. The menus make long-time Wipeout pilots feel right at home, as everything is set up in linear fashion, holding that Wipeout look with katakana writing here and there on the screens. Included in the game is unlockable artwork, some of which look almost like Designers Republic posters.
Pure is, however, definitely not a pure WipEout game. It boasts an impressive 28 tracks and 21 different ships, but the actual game play does not stay true to the first WipEouts. Race craft do not seem to float so much as run above the track in a straight line. Turning feels much different than the rear-swinging crafts of WipEouts gone by, as though the craft instead pivot on their centres. Lest one feel too hard done by with the changed physics of the game, which do feel better on the faster speeds, there is also the introduction of a new game play element - barrel rolls. Although the game still has the traditional turbo pick-up, barrel rolls were added as a manoeuvre to get a turbo in exchange for shield energy by barrel rolling a craft in mid-air. Believability aside, barrel rolls gave the advantage to the craft with stronger shields, since they could perform more barrel rolls. The side-shift is another added racing tactic (side-shifting of a sort was possible in previous games, but in Pure it is done "automatically" by the ship with a double tap of the airbrake).
Pure added a fifth race speed, fitting between Venom and Rapier - "Flash". Besides the non-traditional speed class name, anyone can do the math to see why five speed classes is not a good idea (28 tracks x 5 speeds, done in both Time Trial and Single Race, plus Tournaments.... all equals wasted living time). On the plus side, Pure solved the dilemma of pits-ruining-raceline by allowing pilots to absorb weapon pick-ups in exchange for shield energy. There are no pits at all in this game, keeping the races at full throttle. The game kept Zone mode and its insane speeds, which is available in one special Zone ship on four bland, CG-look tracks. A major part of Wipeout Pure’s appeal is the option of up to eight competitors racing multiplayer through the PSP’s ad-hoc feature. Although intended for same-room gamers, the geniuses of X-Link Kai allowed Pure pilots to race anyone anywhere on Kai. Pure was the very first WipEout game ever to allow live, online racing. The online racing was admittedly far from perfect, but what did you expect?
After Wipeout Pure went Platinum and made a slew of new WipEout fans in the process, what would be next? Wipeout Pulse, the second itineration of WipEout-on-the-PSP, was awaited with much excitement, for Pulse was designed to work for online play, with a dedicated infrastructure mode - no more of this tunnelling and laggy stuff.
Pulse fired up with a fast, dark, high-tempo intro that sadly ended with a talking-trashcan-voice "welcoming" the player to Wipeout Pulse. Finding tie-ins between Pulse and the classic WipEouts is harder than it has any right to be; instead of linear menus, and speed classes being unlocked one at a time, Pulse introduced a grid-style system which forced players to play modes many wouldn’t have, such as Time Trial, Speed Lap, and Eliminator. The grid system works well at producing an experienced pilot, but only if they decide to stick with it right to the end and not simply keep playing what they already have available.
Pulse dumped the traditional "beginners’ class" of Vector in favour of the new Pure addition, Flash - a class some feel is unnecessary while others feel it is a handy stepping-stone up to Rapier speeds. The handling of Pulse seems a bit more WipEout than Pure’s did, likely partly due to the increase in speed in the classes. Phantom class in Pulse is noticeably faster than it was in Pure. To the disgust of some and delight of others, Pulse kept the barrel rolls from Pure, (along with the uncontroversial side-shifts), making the shield energy drain from each barrel roll fair for every ship. No longer are the weakly shielded ships at a disadvantage when it comes to the number of barrel rolls possible.
Unfortunately the controversy of barrel rolls is exacerbated in Pulse, due to the high number of places where one may gain enough air to barrel roll. Instead of looking for the fastest racing line, it’s all about looking for the bumpiest racing line. Online players seem to be in three classes - those not using barrel rolls at all, those using a few at obvious places, or the very hard-core gamers who know every potential spot for attempting one. Thus the barrel rolls divide an already small online gaming community into tiny fractions. If that wasn’t problem enough already, the game itself does not always allow a barrel roll even though the player has performed the input correctly.
Another controversial element was introduced in the form of mag-strips, which hold the craft in Pulse to the track wherever they have been placed. Their use to allow vertical drops and loops worked well - however their use to prevent excessive barrel rolling merely emphasized the absurdity of the barrel roll as a game mechanic, and made such lengths of track rather boring (Moa Therma mag-strips, for example). The handling of the crafts on mag-strips feels very much like the lockdown of Wipeout Fusion.
A definite step in the right direction was made with the tracks available for Zone mode - the regular race tracks are simply redone in CG-look, and are raceable with the Zone ship, so Zone mode becomes a wonderful way to practice racing the regular tracks at high speed.
Perhaps the most shockingly well-done part of Pulse is the fairly even competition between ships. The teams are so balanced in this game that any ship could win a multiplayer race at Phantom speeds. The AI has also been granted an IQ boost in this game, which the player can tone down to Easy or Medium if they wish. Setting the AI to Hard gives the player a real test of patience and ability.
Lovely features are the in-game photo mode and the custom ship skins - artistic types can spend hours designing their own livery to use in-game, and more hours yet snapping flattering shots of their craft mid-race.
Where Pulse fails miserably is in its code. Where there are those who will defend barrel rolls, mag-strips, and Flash-instead-of-Vector, no one can deny that the buggy game play in Pulse is absolutely miserable. Add to that regular screen tearing at faster speeds, and some tracks which are so dark you have to sit in full sun to play them, and you’ll understand why Pulse was put back in its case by frustrated gamers. What of the dedicated infrastructure mode that had fans foaming at the mouth? It works beautifully when it works, but sadly the PSP’s vulnerability to custom firmwares left Pulse and its online play wide open to hackers, who corrupted the user base with their cheats. Then, there is the little matter of even being able to race those you see online - European owners who manage to navigate Sony’s PS Store have the privilege of buying extra content in the form of tracks and ships. North American owners are still waiting for the DLC promised on the game’s package, so those who want to race the downloaded tracks online have a very limited number of possible competitors.
In the end, WipEout Pure and Pulse are still the only viable way to take multiplayer WipEout wherever you want to, from the bathtub to the moon (although to my knowledge, no one has take WipEout off of planet Earth just yet, and multiplayer bathtub WipEout sounds more than terrifying). But, be aware that this portability comes at a price beyond the cost of a PSP and the games - it comes at the sacrifice of true WipEout game play.
Isadora Allen / Medusa