Thursday, 25 September 2008

Wipeout HD Pleases New And Old Fans Alike

Wipeout HD may be a rehash of other games in the series, but a bargain price and fantastic 1080p visuals should please new and old fans alike.

WipeOut HD Playstation 3 game screenshot
When it launched all the way back in 1995, the original Wipeout was a poster child for the original PlayStation in the West. While games such as F-Zero had come before it, the mix of cutting-edge visuals and a licensed techno soundtrack was a unique take on the futuristic racing genre, and it struck a chord with both hardcore gamers and those who'd never been interested in the hobby before. In the interim, the series has settled on the PSP with Wipeout Pure and Pulse, two games that not only showed off the power of the console, but were great games in their own right. With Wipeout HD, Sony has brought the tracks, ships, and soundtrack of these two games to the PlayStation 3, wrapping it all up in a shiny 1080p graphics at a low £11.99 ($20) price point. The repackaging of existing content means it offers very little new for players of the PSP games, while there are actually fewer campaign modes than in the PSP games. While many fans will have trouble resisting that high-definition makeover, they'll be paying for very little that they haven't played before.

WipeOut HD Playstation 3 game screenshot 2
There are three main components to Wipeout HD: the single-player campaign, an online mode, and racebox for individual races. The single-player mode is structurally identical to Wipeout Pulse on the PSP, with a tiered career structure that increases the speed and AI difficulty as you progress. There are five different event types: single races, multirace competitions, time trials, speed laps, and zone. Most of these are self-explanatory, but zone is a mode in which you gradually increase in speed until your ship takes too much damage and explodes. You'll inevitably prefer some events to others, but the career structure means you don't have to win every race to progress. Points are awarded based on final positions and you have to accrue a certain number of points to open up each successive level. There are only eight different tiers in total, but each one offers more and more races, and you unlock more tracks to play in racebox as you progress. Given that Wipeout Pulse on the PSP also featured an elimination mode though, it's disappointing to see fewer race types in the PS3 version.

WipeOut HD Playstation 3 game screenshot 3
Like its predecessors, Wipeout HD has an incredibly steep difficulty curve. It's relatively easy to win medals on the first go during the first four tiers, but even seasoned players will struggle to do this from the fifth tier onward. Recognising this, Sony has implemented a new pilot assist mode for the first time in a Wipeout game. When it's turned on from the menu, pilot assist automatically steers you away from the edges of the track and generally makes crashing much less of a problem. In fact, it's so effective that you only really need to use your airbrakes for the sharpest corners. While this produces some erratic moves at the faster speeds, it's a welcome feature that certainly helps until you reach the peak of your ability.

WipeOut HD Playstation 3 game screenshot 4
Wipeout HD has both a two-player split-screen mode and eight-player online support. The split-screen mode runs at a noticeably lower frame rate than the single-player mode, and it suffers from some dramatic slowdown when a lot of ships are onscreen. The online mode fares much better in terms of performance, with a well-laid-out lobby system and smooth online racing. Real opponents create much more frantic races, and you get far more action online than you do playing against the AI; you'll find your ship taking much more of a pounding online than off, but when your ship explodes you return to the track a few moments later. The main problem with the multiplayer mode is that it's incredibly limited, with only single races or twelve-race competitions to play. Other than that, the online mode held up well from a technical level, and it also offers voice support.

WipeOut HD Playstation 3 game screenshot 5
There are a number of PlayStation 3-specific features in Wipeout HD, including a motion-based control system. You move the controller to control pitch and steering, or just pitch alone. Wipeout's floaty ships might seem like a perfect candidate for motion-sensitive controls, but it's unlikely that you'll find tilting the Sixaxis controller preferable to using the standard analog stick. It certainly helps land jumps a little more elegantly, but it just doesn't offer the accuracy of movement offered by the standard control scheme. Wipeout HD also has trophy support which gives you an incentive to try out moves such as barrel rolls, and there are unlockables such as the heads-up display from PlayStation classic Wipeout 2097 (known as Wipeout XL in the US). You also get new skins for the ships you use the most, but the feature in Wipeout Pulse where you can design your own decals online hasn't made it to the PS3. The photo mode has been expanded in Wipeout HD, though, allowing you to capture stills from replays and add effects such as exposure and depth of field while saving them in full HD resolution to the PS3 XMB. And while the in-game soundtrack is great for fans of electronica, you can also import your own playlists--created through the XMB from music files you've uploaded to your PS3--and play them sequentially or randomly in-game to introduce a little more variation.

Wipeout has always been about "style as substance", and that tradition follows through to the PlayStation 3 version. From the strikingly clean environments to the imaginative logos and branding, everything about the game exudes effortless cool. Much has been made about the game's 1080p, 60-frames-per-second visuals, with Sony even citing it as one of the reasons for the game's prolonged development time. Thankfully it was well worth the effort, as the finished game has strikingly artistic visuals that are gorgeous to see in motion. This isn't a game that features accurate physics, track deformation, or even weather effects, so all of the console's horsepower is focused on producing super-crisp visuals that move at a blistering speed.

Music is just as important to Wipeout as the visuals, though, and the soundtrack doesn't disappoint. The mix of techno, dub step, and drum and bass fits the game well--but that said, Wipeout HD features exactly the same tunes as Wipeout Pulse. Likewise, all of the tracks and vehicles in Wipeout HD have appeared in the PSP versions of the series. Even though the HD remix offers an incredible amount of extra detail to appreciate, the twists and turns will be incredibly familiar to long-term fans of the series. And although there are zone variations of each track, these were also in the previous games, meaning the lack of anything new to play is definitely Wipeout HD's biggest weakness.

Wipeout HD is a compilation of PSP games running in high definition, and while it looks considerably better for the visual upgrade, there's little new for fans of the series to sink their teeth into. The online mode also looks a little feature-light next to other racers, but it's technically competent and adds more longevity to the already deep single-player experience. The result is essentially an oxymoron--a game that's obviously meant for fans, but one that paradoxically gives them nothing they don't already have. If you're a fan of the series but missed the PSP games then HD is a must-buy, but Wipeout stalwarts could rightfully look at this director's cut as a bit of a cash-in.

* Beautiful visuals and immaculate presentation
* High-value price point
* Deep single-player and competent multiplayer

* Tracks, ships, and music have all appeared before
* Lack of multiplayer modes.

See also on Car Games To Play:
MX vs ATV Untamed Car Game Has a Lot to Keep You Busy
Midnight Club Los Angeles (preview)

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

MX vs. ATV Untamed - Car Game that Has a Lot to Keep You Busy
With high-profile games such as MotorStorm and Dirt already released on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the bar has been raised for recent off-road car racing games. Rainbow Studios' MX vs. ATV Untamed feels a lot like previous entries in the MX vs. ATV series and, as a result, doesn't meet that same standard of quality. Nevertheless, despite its problems, Untamed manages to be a worthwhile and jam-packed off-road racing experience.

MX vs. ATV Untamed
As with previous versions of the MX vs. ATV series, Untamed tosses in a mess of rip-snorting off-road vehicles your way: everything from your standard MX bikes and ATV quad racers, to dune buggies, monster trucks, and even pocket bikes. The different vehicles have their handling quirks--for example, MX bikes are more nimble but less stable than ATVs --but all of the vehicles are governed by Untamed's fast-and-loose take on physics. The result are vehicles that are able to make epic jumps, turn and twist in midair, and, if you're careful, land with four wheels on the ground and minimal damage to vehicle or rider.

MX vs. ATV Untamed screenshot 2
However, landing those jumps can be a dicey prospect. When tackling the largest jumps in the game, you never really know for sure when or if your rider is going to be eating a mouthful of dirt after a nasty-looking crash. Of course, part of this is a result of the game's rhythm-racing concept, in which the player is required to preload jumps by pulling back on the left analog stick and pushing forward at the lip of the jump to add extra height and distance to the jump. Learning when and where you need to preload is one of the skills required for making your way through the game. Unfortunately, Untamed is inconsistent in its approach here. Often what seems to be a perfect approach for a landing will result in a painful-looking and time-wasting spill.

As a result, gameplay in Untamed is an odd mix; the game encourages players to pull off massive jumps and chain together continuous trick combos but, because of the touchy physics, it often seems as if the game is fighting itself, preventing the player from landing those tricks. This is most pointedly felt in the freestyle events in the game's huge X-Cross Tournament single-player mode. The X-Cross Tournament will have you driving every type of vehicle in the game and playing in practically every single mode available as you make your way through a linear tournament.

Unlike the race modes that make up the majority of the X-Cross Tournament, the freestyle events are solely trick-based. Here, racking up trick points is the goal and, unlike the rest of the mode, the game's arcade physics seem bent on preventing you from succeeding at, or indeed enjoying, these freestyle events at all. One peculiar quirk of the X-Cross Tournament is that you can't restart an event once you've begun it, so if you fall behind quickly, you'll still need to finish the event completely before going back and trying again.

If frustration sets in during the X-Cross Tournament, the good news is that you can always move on to something else. Untamed is packed with things to do. In addition to the aforementioned X-Cross, the game has a number of event series (nationals, supercross, supermoto, and so on) to take part in, as well the ability to customize single events of your choosing. Then there are the multiplayer options, including split-screen, LAN play and online play for up to 12 players on the Xbox 360 and eight on the PlayStation 3 version. Though the online racing is straightforward enough, you can also check out some online minigames, such as Snake (think of a dirt-themed version of Tron's light-cycle game) or Tag, which challenges you to grab and keep a ball for a full minute. Each time you're "tagged" by an opponent, the ball changes possession.

Perhaps the starkest difference between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Untamed--apart from the lack of rumble in the Sixaxis controller (which is especially noticeable in an off-road racing game full of bumps and jumps)--are the graphics. The Xbox 360 version looks superior in practically every way, with a superior frame rate, less aliasing, slightly sharper textures, and less graphical pop-in. Playing Untamed on the PS3 will result in some noticeable frame-rate chop in the corners, especially when multiple vehicles are making their way through the turns. Regardless, neither version of Untamed is a graphical showcase, with frequently indistinct textures that are especially noticeable in the lineups before a race begins.

The vehicle roster in Untamed is defined by its variety, and the same can be said for the game's racing environments. The open-door events are the best in the game; they're typically faster and more wide-open, with just enough narrow passages and tricky sections to keep you on your toes. On the other hand, the indoor events, namely the supercross events, are more technical by nature. As a result, supercross events are far more demanding (read: frustrating) because even the smallest mistake can put you off your rhythm or, worse yet, off your bike completely. A couple of new modes can be found in Untamed. One is endurocross, which you can think of it as an indoor supercross course with rocks, ponds, and logs as your obstacles, but it's a bit too plodding to be fun. Nevertheless, Untamed's best, most imaginative tracks are full of drastic elevation changes and challenging, high-speed series of jumps, and these are sure to give race fans the thrill they're looking for. In keeping with the game's "kitchen sink" approach, Untamed has a huge variety of difficulty settings. For example, in the early X-Cross Tournament events, there are nine artificial-intelligence difficulty levels to choose from, though that number shrinks as you progress through the tournament.

With Untamed, the formula for the MX vs. ATV series hasn't changed much, and the car game is at its best when focused on freewheeling, pedal-to-the-metal speed. There are moments of abject frustration--think of the most tedious of the supercross events and practically any freestyle contest--but that frustration is mitigated somewhat by the fact that there's always something else to do in the car game. Sure, it's more of the same with MX vs. ATV Untamed, but at least it's a lot more.

* Fun variety of vehicles
* Outdoor courses are by and large very fun
* Lots to keep you busy in the game

* Not a great-looking game, especially on the PS3
* Landing jumps can be unforgiving
* Several events are more plodding than fun
* Freestyle events don't feel like they fit

See also on Car Games To Play:
car games to play - speed-racer
sega - full auto - burnout with guns

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

GRID (DS) - Keeps You Entertained For Hours
Grid offers a great balance of arcade and simulation racing with enough extras to keep you entertained for hours.

A few months after the release of the console version, Grid comes to the DS with the same mix of simulation and arcade driving that made the original so fun. Fans of the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of GRID

will notice that some features, such as rewinding time, have been cut, but replacement features, such as the track creator, make up for it. That's because Grid does everything a handheld port of a console game should do. Instead of trying to force the DS to do things it isn't capable of, developer Codemasters uses the system's strengths to deliver a game that resembles the console iteration, but feels like a fresh experience of its own.

Much like in the console version, you'll spend your time in Grid hopping around the globe completing races and events in an effort to increase your reputation and become the best driver in the world. You build your reputation by earning medals. Each event offers three medals, though you only need one to move on. Events include a wide variety of activities: races, braking tests, steering and drift challenges, time trials, survival races, blueprint challenges, and more. Winning medals unlocks more events, cars, part upgrades, and track pieces. The CPU drivers start out easy but gradually get tougher as you move on, making it increasingly difficult to snag three medals from every event. The steady stream of unlockables and plethora of events will keep you busy for hours.

GRID screenshot 2
The driving in Grid smoothly blends arcade and simulation racing. From bulky American muscle cars to sporty Japanese coupes, Grid offers a nice variety of licensed vehicles to drive, each of them handling a bit differently. The cars don't drive with as much realism as pure simulation racers do, but the damage system requires you to drive with more precision than the average arcade racer. Cautious breaking and smooth drifting are the keys to success in Grid.

GRID screenshot 3
Despite the chunks of metal that flake off your car when you hit a wall, cosmetic damage isn't something you have to worry about. It's the inside of your car that you'll need to keep an eye on. Icons representing different parts of your car sit on the bottom screen and change from yellow to red depending on the level of damage. Mess up your steering and your car might pull to one side; damage your engine and you'll lose top speed. Rough up your car too much and you might just be taken out of the race. You can stop in the pit to repair your damage, but it takes up so much time that you're better off just learning to drive carefully. Fortunately, as you progress through the game you'll earn various upgrades for your car that make precise driving a little easier.

Upgrades aren't the only thing you'll earn. Successfully beating events will also earn you new track pieces and scenery for the track creator, which is worked into the single-player game in the form of blueprint challenges. In a blueprint challenge, you are given a budget and a checklist of track features, and set loose in the robust track creator. These challenges are never particularly hard, but they do a great job of showing you how to create dynamic tracks. Using the stylus, you simply draw the track out and then add in any special turns, track pieces, or scenery. You can add subtle slopes or sharp inclines, choose the time of day and overall color shade of your track, and even add custom billboards and advertisements. The best part is that after completing your track of terror, you can share it with friends online. Grid already has an impressive number of licensed tracks, so even if you don't take advantage of the superb track creator, you'll still have plenty of challenging courses to keep you busy.

In addition to online track sharing, Grid also offers a number of multiplayer options, in single-card, multicard, and online varieties. Most of the single-player events are also available in multiplayer. You can race with up to three other people, and after doing so you can add them to your friends or rivals list, making the whole friend code thing less of a hassle.

Visually, Grid pushes the DS to its limits. The cars sport plenty of detail, cutting down on the pixelated, muddy textures that plague so many 3D DS games. Your car won't show any cosmetic damage, but if you smash it up enough it will start smoking. The tracks are smartly designed, and the ever-present minimap on the lower screen means you'll always see a turn coming. Backgrounds aren't groundbreaking, but all of the tracks have just enough detail and landmarks to feel unique. You'll race across the hills of San Francisco, the neon lights of Tokyo, the claustrophobic streets of Milan, and more. The only visual hiccups come in the form of a few frame rate hitches, and strange swiveling animations of the CPU cars when you touch them. Like the visuals, the sounds are as about as good as the DS will allow. Roaring engines and screeching tires make up the bulk of the sound effects, while thumping techno music plays in the background.

The single-player game takes six to eight hours to complete, depending on how hard you chase after the medals. The track creator extends the replay value exponentially, giving you plenty to do after you've had your fun with the licensed tracks of the single-player game. With tons of variety, great multiplayer, and hours of replay value, Grid is a handheld port worthy of any racing fan's time.

* Good variety of races and events
* Robust track creator lets you easily make tracks and share them with friends
* Internal damage system encourages precise driving
* Plenty of great-looking licensed cars
* Dedicated friends and rivals list

* Some odd car animations
* Sense of speed is lacking

See also on Car Games To Play:
wipeout-pulse (PSP)
flatout (PSP) - head-on

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