Going back to the days of the original PlayStation, Wipeout has been the game that gets made when Sony wants to show off. That ambition has never been more apparent than in Wipeout 2048, which is clearly meant to show the new Vita at its best. For the most part it does just that, but there are a few noticeable dents in what ought to be the showcase game for Sony's new handheld.
To their credit, SCE Liverpool has done their best to shake things up a bit with this one. Wipeout 2048 is a prequel, meaning that the ultra-futuristic look of the later entries in the series is (mostly) out. Instead, you'll be racing across more conventional locales like the Brooklyn Bridge. It's hardly a traditional racer though, which is most apparent in moments like racing over the Empire State Building.
These environments are Wipeout 2048's biggest selling point compared to its predecessors. Sony's Liverpool Studio has always been an ambitious studio -- Wipeout HD was a high water mark for the PlayStation 3 in terms of graphics -- and they've clearly relished their first experience with the Vita. It's not always apparent when you're whipping through a stage, but the environments look every bit as good as the PS3 games, maybe ever better. An impressive achievement at this early date.
The visual glory comes at a price though. Wipeout 2048 runs at 30 frames per second -- a step down from the franchise's traditional 60 FPS. The Vita version's rough edges aren't always apparent, you can sense them when you're playing. They were most apparent when we went back to Wipeout HD and immediately felt a sense of relief. Yes, Wipeout is known for its visual fidelity as much as its sense of speed, but it still feels odd to trade textures for framerate on a handheld platform.
Other changes become apparent the more you play. Past modes such as the rail shooter-like Detonator have been cut, and tournament events are gone too. It's also a bit harder to control this time around; though whether that's down to the Vita's smaller thumbstick or the actual design is unclear. Liverpool seems to have noticed though, because the tracks are somewhat wider now. We count that last bit as a positive though, if only because they ease the franchise's notorious difficult just a bit.
Things have changed for the online mode as well; though thankfully, they are also generally for the better. Liverpool has opted to experiment with race objectives this time around, with some interesting results. They can range from simply completing the event to executing a barrel roll; and in a strange twist, they can include intentionally losing a race as well. Make of what you will of that last, but it's pretty hilarious to see an opponent cruising toward a win abruptly decelerate and politely wait for you to pass them. But then, it's not really in the spirit of Wipeout's traditionally hyper-competitive play either.
All that said, the online campaign is a credit to Wipeout. It's well-executed in addition to being highly accessible, and it's quite easy to get a race going. In fact, the interface in general is excellent -- a clean, shiny, touchscreen-driven menu system that is a pleasure to behold. Clearly, this game is as much about showing off the hardware as much as being a quality racing game.
Thus, Wipeout 2048 stands with Uncharted as one of the Vita's best launch titles. It's still Wipeout, after all, and when it really gets moving, it's easy to leave behind any misgivings and just roll with it. As the game progresses, there's a sense that Liverpool is moving steadily into familiar territory. And when we at last reach the likes of Sol, Liverpool seems to really cut loose with the design, throwing in terrifying drops and all manner of other devious tricks.
But there's also no denying that Liverpool has overextended itself just a bit with Wipeout 2048. At its best, it's incredibly fast and beautiful; breathless, even. The little compromises chip away at the experience though, from the framerate to the slightly chunkier handling. It’s a tremendous racer as always; but as far as grand ambitions go, Liverpool has fallen a tiny bit short.