‘WipEout Pulse’ is impressive

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In the world of futuristic, high-speed hover racing games, two opposite forms have co-existed for years: the ludicrous velocity and punishing difficulty of Nintendo’s “F-Zero” series and the more combat-oriented “WipEout” series from Sony. Both camps have their loyal fans, but “WipEout Pulse” might just be the most sincere form of fan service for either party to date.

Not much about the gameplay in “Pulse” deviates from its predecessor on the PSP, “WipEout Pure.” The series lives and dies by a set of particular rules: 1. Negotiate turns by pitching the ship instead of braking. 2. Hit boost pads to gain precious seconds. 3. Use rockets, mines and earthquakes to hassle your opponents. 4. Be prepared to move really, really fast.

“Pulse” ditches the linear progression of previous games for a grid-based structure.

Getting gold medals in every single event won’t happen overnight. Once players eventually conquer the career, though, Studio Liverpool offers Racebox: a mode where players create their own grids of events. Every parameter, from the prohibition of weapons to the required time to beat for a gold medal, can be manipulated.

The game offers several distinct types of events, though most of them fall into one of two categories: solo and competitive. Eliminator is the most interesting new addition, where victory goes to the ship that incapacitates the most opponents. It’s good for a few thrills but doesn’t fit particularly well into “WipEout”’s narrow point-to-point tracks.

Speaking of tracks, the ones in “Pulse” sport mostly cosmetic changes (and the environments sport impressive detail), but the diverse and diverging paths of “Pure”’s tracks appear to have been left behind in favor of more straightforward and disappointing me-too layouts.

A photo mode probably doesn’t spring to mind as the first thing people would want out of a PSP game, but lo and behold, “Pulse” has it. Taking screenshots from any angle or perspective gives players a chance to check out the nice scenery they usually miss while racing. Custom soundtracks, a surprisingly underutilized feature in PSP games, can also be implemented should players tire of the included techno music from established artists.

And now, the one feature fans have patiently awaited for years: online multiplayer. Unfortunately, while gameplay over Wi-Fi functions properly and finally gives series’ fans a taste of real competition, the poorly designed online interface itself usually brings down the experience. On the bright side, players can show off their customized and unlocked ship skins online.

If this review reads suspiciously like a features list, then Studio Liverpool has done its job. “WipEout Pulse” represents the team’s most focused and complete effort on the series to date by taking advantage of everything the PSP has to offer.

If the core gameplay wasn’t still so damn fun, there wouldn’t be much else to discuss beyond the new features. I suppose the title of “best portable racing game ever made” will have to suffice.

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