WIPEOUT PURE / Sony / PSP
Wipeout Pure was a launch title for the PSP, and also the sixth entry in the overall series. The series is basically Psygnosis' take on F-Zero for the Sony family of game systems, but to be fair the original PS1/PC installment actually beat the first 3D F-Zero to market. So it's fair to say that these two series are the dual pioneers of the futuristic magnetic hovercar racing genre.
Anyway. I've played the first game for PS1 and the first entry for the PS2 (Wipeout Fusion) prior to this, and generally found them to be inferior to the F-Zero games for a few reasons. Wipeout Pure doesn't go all the way in closing the gap, but it was a step forward. Though some core problems with the design are still present, at least a couple of glaring issues from previous entries are fixed here.
So it's the usual setup for these things, we're in the unspecific cyberpunk-tinged future where giant corporations seem to own everything and the rabble are amused by dangerous and violent high-speed races. The major difference from F-Zero is that Wipeout races are loaded with Mario Kart-style weapons. There are homing rockets, a "disorienter" that changes the driver's controls for a few seconds, mines, bombs and so on.
Another difference is that steering (and general track design) is more precise and finicky. High-level performance means hitting most of the speed boosts on any given track, as well as mastering the game's touchy handbrake-turn system (as any kind of collision leads to massive deceleration). You have to use the shoulder button that corresponds to the direction you're turning in this one, or the car will lock up. There isn't much visual feedback from your vehicle to see how sharply you're turning, however, so it's basically a case of just playing the game for a couple of hours to get an inherent feel for it. The game also doesn't ever mention that you can double-tap the shoulder button to do an even harder turn, at the price of almost completely losing your momentum. The double-tap isn't often useful, but there are a couple of tracks that have super-sharp corners where it is virtually mandatory.
The main issue with Wipeout Pure is that it's basically trying to do two different types of racer at once, and the results are predictably mixed. You have the "party game" chaos of a Mario Kart game with all sorts of weapons flying around, but it's also a highly precise racing game where any kind of colliding with the wall or otherwise being stopped puts a major dent in your chances of winning. The game modes where you just race by yourself on a track, like Time Trial or Zone, thus actually play to the game's strength much better than the meat-or-potatoes races do.
Starting out with Zone mode is a great idea as it not only emphasizes learning the game's unique cornering controls, but also rewards you with the Zone car (superior to all the starting cars) when you get a gold medal in each of the four tracks. It's the quickest way to get access to a very good car, but it is a fairly stiff challenge. Zone forces you to constantly accelerate and the speed picks up as time goes on; the challenge is in lasting as long as you can before your shields get ground down from repeated contact with the walls. So it's actually best to try to avoid speed boosts in this mode, and this is the one area of the game where the D-pad is superior for control as you want to be as slow and precise as possible.
From there, switch to using the analog nub and move to Time Trial mode to learn the right habits for the actual races. The overall flow of the game is to rack up gold medals in all of these different modes, which in turn unlock more tracks and tournaments and cars as you hit certain thresholds. Of course, there is also a multiplayer mode which was actually supposed to be pretty good, but unless you have friends with PSPs this is likely going to be useless to you.
One big issue with the previous games was fixed here: getting Assploded in the middle of a race due to running out of shield power is much less of a concern. Shields are more generous in general, and in addition you can press the O button while carrying a weapon to "absorb" it in return for a decent chunk of shield restoration. You may find yourself doing this a lot by default as power-ups are inexplicably represented by some squiggly rune that is in most cases unintuitive; after hours of playing the game I still wasn't sure what most of them were after picking them up.
The car designs are plain and uninspiring, but the backgrounds look nice for an early PSP release. The package has held up pretty decently on the whole. Wipeout games are also famous for their electronica soundtracks and this one is no exception; fans of the genre seem to love grooving on these games with a pair of good headphones, but I'm not really into electronica so honestly the whole thing is forgettable mush to me.
The full-on races with eight cars are best on the easier tracks, with the inherent design flaws becoming more of an anchor as the difficulty goes up. The more precision you need to beat the computer drivers, the more untenable the weapons-based chaos becomes. You're forever clipping a corner and slowing down immensely only to have some asshat shove a rocket up your pooper just as you're starting to get up to speed (of course, the enemies seem to unload their weapon stash on YOU AND YOU ONLY whenever you're in range). Some later tracks also have very frequent changes in elevation, which are a major advantage for the computer as you can't see speed boosts and weapons pickups coming.
Wipeout Pure is still a little too finicky and clumsy for my tastes, but it was still the most enjoyable entry of the series thus far. Not a bad little racer and maybe not a bad pickup for a few bucks.
* Gameplay Video