I’m pretty sure no one thought Psygnosis would be Sony’s ace in the hole when they made the leap to console manufacturer. Not to downplay the many great games they’ve made over the years but around 94-95 I imagine most people still thought of them as the company that made the Lemmings games. However the move to 3-d allowed many developers to reinvent themselves and in the early days of polygonal graphics Psygnosis were responsible for some of the most creative titles in the PlayStation library. One title in particular exuded a level of style and visual polish virtually unheard of to that point and would be the example that all games in the futuristic racing genre would be compared against, Wipeout.
Prior to Wipeout there really weren’t too many entrants in this particular racing niche. F-Zero, Top Gear 3000, Crash and Burn, and Rock & Roll Racing were pretty much it outside of a few obscure outliers. While F-Zero would firmly establish the genre Wipeout would come to define it. This was one of the brightest stars of the PlayStation lineup during Christmas of 1995 and between its thumping techno soundtrack and excellent graphic design would go a long way toward establishing the nascent PlayStation as a credible contender in the hardware race.
Psygnosis teamed up with graphic design studio the Designer’s Republic to not only design the packaging and promotional art but its numerous logos as well. The game’s front end menus and various team logos are some of the slickest in the industry and lend its far flung future scenario an air of authenticity.
The anti-gravity racing league of the game is divided into four teams, each with two different ships to choose from. All ships are rated in terms of acceleration, top speed, mass, and turning with each team’s ships kind of falling into a beginner/advanced motif. The game’s six tracks follow the Mario Kart model of awarding points based on position, from first down to fifth place out of eight contestants. However if you don’t place within the top three you’ll have to use a continue to try again or quit and start over. Another similar feature are the touch panels scattered on the ground of each track which will award one of five weapons as they cycle through the icons. They’re a nice gesture and feature some spiffy special effects but don’t feel as well integrated as the sequels due to the uneven nature of the tracks.
The hovercraft you pilot never touch the ground and as such handle differently than you are expecting. They bob and weave on a cushion of air and as such are prone to the laws of gravity. Flying uphill without pointing your nose upward will result in a loss of speed while leaning into a hill will build momentum. For tight turns you’ll have to rely on the air brakes, which will take a lot longer than most gamers are accustomed to. This was released long before anyone conceived of the idea of a dual shock controller and as a result the control suffers from the PlayStation’s lame digital pad.
It can’t be stressed enough how important mastering the air brakes is to progressing in the game. The courses cover a range of terrain, from forests and industrialized zones to coastal seas and deep canyons. There are sharp corners at every turn and the standard racing game technique of lightly tapping the accelerator simply does not apply here; you can look forward to slamming into every wall if you try. Leaning into the turn in advance will net the best results but it will take a while to attain any sort of familiarity with the system.
Between the game’s digital controls and its unforgiving air breaking the original Wipeout is one of the toughest racing games you’ll likely come across. There is next to no margin for error as you’ll likely never even see the first place driver’s trail if you crash into two or three walls. Crashing will force you into a complete stop and it takes a few seconds to build back up to speed, seconds you can’t afford to lose. You’ll have to memorize every corner and speed bump to ever hope to advance. Replaying tracks until you’ve learned their layout is standard procedure for any game but for some reason it feels like a fruitless endeavor due to how finicky the air brakes can be. The steep learning curve means you’ll definitely get your money’s worth but the game could have been more forgiving to ease you into its mechanics.
Wipeout was one of the brightest graphical highlights of 1995 but some of its visual luster has been lost over the ensuing years. The draw distance is very short with the latter half of each track practically assembling before your eyes. Through the use of some smart texture work the game has a clean look devoid of the heavy pixelation of pre-N64 games. The game’s soundtrack features a range of the UK’s most popular techno artists and enhances the game’s undulating courses with bass heavy beats that perfectly accentuate the on screen action. The sound effects on the other hand are heavily subdued and are nearly inaudible outside of the voice work announcing each weapon.
For its time Wipeout was the most advanced racing game available outside of the arcade. But like most early 3d efforts it has been eclipsed by its far superior sequels. The lack of a dedicated multiplayer mode (you need a link cable, two copies of the game and two TVs. Yeah) and its punishing difficulty means you’re better off picking up Wipeout XL or 3 instead.