I'm not a big fan of racing games. I'll admit if I play a good one, but just in terms of personal preference I don't care for the genre. Like most sports games, I never fully understood what the appeal was. With the limitless possibility virtual worlds afford, why settle for recreating competitive automobile racing exactly as it exists in the real world? Why bother with wheels? Why bother with gravity? Aren't videogames the perfect place to let our imaginations go wild? The racing games I've always liked where the ones that did exactly that. I remember playing F-Zero on the old Super Nintendo and wondering how anyone could choose a conventional racer over its crazy hovercrafts that go 1000kph on race-tracks suspended in the stratosphere. However, it wasn't until I played WipEout on the PlayStation that I realized so-called "no-wheels" racers could match the meticulousness and detail of their realistic counterparts. WipEout wasn't just about the rush of going impossibly fast with imaginary technology, it was about its own aesthetic of movement, music, and strategic competition. It was about style, and that style is what has been refined and redefined throughout all the previous WipEout games. Now, with WipEout Fusion, the series has finally made the leap to PlayStation 2, proving once again that this franchise knows how to reinvent itself without abandoning the aesthetic sensibilities that continue to give it a unique and winning personality.
Like the three previous WipEout games (WipEout, WipEout XL, and WipEout 3, all for the PlayStation) WipEout Fusion is set in a futuristic world where the "Anti-Gravity Race League" is an extreme sport that garners world wide attention. Different international teams, each featuring their own unique aircraft, compete in high-speed races where practically all methods of attaining victory are considered fair sportsmanship. The ships are outfitted with high-tech weapons systems, shields, and propulsion devices that eradicate any notion of safety. In the end, it's all about making it to the finish line alive and looking cool as you do it.
It's not easy to explain how WipEout Fusion distinguishes itself from its predecessors. At a glance it appears the same aside from the obviously enhanced graphics. The game begins with only a few vehicles and tracks to choose from which must be completed to unlock additional ones. The basic format of the races is the same. Several ships attempt to reach the finish while making use of "weapon pads," which are glowing sections of the track that activate a vehicle's offensive or defensive capabilities for short periods of time. Homing missiles, shields, landmines, and a host of other things can be used to strategically slow down, cripple, or completely destroy the competition as well as protect oneself from harm.
Like the previous installments, WipEout Fusion combines these familiar elements with new features and a new format to create a unique tone. WipEout 3 distinguished itself from WipEout XL's dark mood and compact features with a much lighter atmosphere and endless options. WipEout Fusion feels like a healthy combination of both approaches with some new elements that prevent it from becoming derivative.
The biggest improvement is how the game is organized. WipEout 3 added a slew of tracks, ships, and other features but without a clear direction to guide the player to experiencing them all. WipEout Fusion, like WipEout XL, provides a much tighter format that gives the player a clear sense of goals without limiting his or her options overall. The game is now separated into five modes: arcade, league, challenge, zone, and time trial. Some of these have appeared in the series before, but now they each have a distinct purpose in the overall scope of the game. Arcade mode is a straightforward competitive racing venue that unlocks different courses. Challenge mode allows the player to unlock new weapons by passing a number of special tests (survival, elimination, etc.) designed for each ship. League mode is the game's primary mode where the player is given a series of races to complete for a cumulative score. Moving up in the league unlocks new ships that can then be used in arcade, challenge, or time trial mode. Also, league mode allows the player to upgrade his or her ship that can then be used in other modes as well. Zone mode is a new addition to the series and doesn't reflect on any other mode. It's an endurance test where the player is given a ship that can accelerate but not slow down, satisfying any appetite for pure speed (an insanity) players may have when all other features have been exhausted. In addition to all these features, the game has a handy "progression" chart that keeps track of what percentage of each mode the player has completed as well as access to an art gallery that grows as additional features are unlocked.
There is another interesting addition in WipEout Fusion: human beings. For the first time in the series, there are pilots with names and faces that the player can choose from. There are two pilots per vehicle-type, one that each vehicle begins with and one that can be unlocked in league mode, and they each have their own abilities that affect how the aircraft can be up-graded. While it seemed inevitable that characters would enter the WipEout franchise at some point, it does mark a sharp departure from the abstract imagery that pervades the rest of the series. There was always a weird purity to WipEout because you never saw the pilots. It was easy to imagine the game taking place in a totally virtual world that consisted of only gut-thumping techno music and geometric shapes, and this contributed to the strong sense of style for which the series was famous. Now, with a group of colorful comic book characters thrown into the mix, that style has lost a bit of its abstract edge.
One element that does remain the same is the stylistic reliance on music. As any fan of the series will tell you, WipEout's superb techno-funk soundtracks are the glue that holds the experience together and sets the tone that can be seen reflected in the gameplay of each installment. The songs in this game, over all, feel a bit harsher than WipEout 3's more breezy selections, but this reflects WipEout Fusion's greater reliance on strategic combat as an integral element of racing. As the bizarre, almost creepy intro makes clear, the whole attitude of WipEout Fusion is visceral, violent, and with a touch of madness to keep it all in good fun.
This extra oomph doesn't come without its price, though. Unlike WipEout 3, which was technically without fault, WipEout Fusion occasionally experiences weird glitches. Most of the time its fine, but when things get especially hairy in combat players may find themselves flying off the track for no apparent reason or falling through the track into limbo. Functionally, I found none of these occurrences to hamper the balance of the game since A) the game always sets you back onto the track immediately and B) never does so in a way that results in an unfair advantage or disadvantage. Even so, they are awkward technical flaws that tarnish an otherwise faultless game.
If I had a dime for how many times I've heard a reviewer say a game is the "best yet" in a series I'd be a rich man. Personally, I think this comment is abused because it often only means a sequel contains all the same elements from the previous game but enhanced. Although this is an accurate description of WipEout Fusion to an extent, I am comfortable calling it the best game of the series—even better than the fan favorite WipEout XL—because it is, indeed, its own game. Like the other three WipEout games, it has its own personality and its own attitude that prevent it from becoming a mere update of existing conventions. The way it interweaves all its elements together insures players will get the most out of the experience and allow their skill to grow gradually and comfortably without ever crowding them with too many options. Overall, it achieves a unique balance no other game of the series can claim, while the racing venues themselves remain unique in their emphasis on strategy over speed. And of course, through it all you've got that funky WipEout vibe that makes it pulse and live. Ignoring all other considerations, WipEout Fusion is a guttural experience of sight and sound designed to rock you till your mortal mind is driven insane. Frankly, I can't think of a better way to lose it.