Consoul's Blog Consoul Games: March 2005

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

WipEout Pure

The original WipEout and it's follow-up, WipEout 2097 (aka WipEoutXL) were instrumental in establishing the public's perception of Sony's Playstation as a new breed of games console. The intoxicating blend of futuristic techno-industrial design, hypnotic visuals, incredible speed and killer soundtracks from the cream of the UK's early nineties electronica scene encapsulated the feel of the burgeoning electronic culture that the Sega generation had grown up into. WipEout was a real cultural landmark.

The WipEout franchise has certainly lost much of it's cultural significance over time, and it's widely acknowledged that the last outing, 2002's WipEout Fusion, did not live up to expectations. The fact that Sony didn't even bother to publish it in the US (it was eventually picked up by budget publisher Bam! Entertainment) seemed to signal the death of the series.

Nevertheless, here we are in 2005 and Sony are once again releasing a WipEout game alongside their new console. Fortunately for Sony, WipEout Pure on PSP marks a return to form. WipEout 2097 is popularly regarded as the peak of the series, and the fact that Pure is set in 2197 is significant of Studio Liverpool's desire to bring the game back to its roots. For the most part, they succeed.

Pure certainly looks the business. The intro, menu systems and in-game graphics are all beautifully polished and very reminiscent of the WipEout of old. The overall design takes a more stark stripped-back approach than that acheived by tDR (the Designer's Republic), and successfully plants the old WipEout look within a contemporary future style (if that makes any sense whatsoever).

The in-game graphics are beautiful, featuring lushly detailed craft and courses, liberally sprinkled with impressive lighting and particle effects. The environments can be truly breathtaking at times, such as the Sol 2 course that weaves through the sky high among the clouds. It's the best looking WipEout yet, but the beauty comes at a cost. In racing games based around outlandish speed, the framerate is everything. Sega and Nintendo's comparable uber-fast hover-racing game F-Zero GX springs to mind here. In my experience, it's framerate was always an absolutely rock-solid 60fps even when there were twenty other competitors on screen. Perhaps I've also been spoilt by Ridge Racer on PSP whose silky framerate never faltered. I'm sorry to say that WipEout Pure suffers in this regard, never seeming quite as fluid as Ridge. It's framerate can drop significantly when there's a lot of action on screen, and it's at those exact moments (like when you're flying through an explosion into a corner in between other craft) that you need every frame your eyes can soak up. It doesn't cripple the game by any means, but it's a disappointment nonetheless. WipEout Pure is being hailed as the best looking game on PSP so far, and I don't disagree, but I would have happily sacrificed some background poly-count for a locked 60fps framerate.

The all-important soundtrack line-up fits the bill. Artists include Tiësto, Freq Nasty, Aphex Twin, Röyksopp, and some returning WipEout veterans like Photek and Cold Storage. On the whole, the soundtrack stays true to the feel of the earlier WipEouts (particularly Photek's brilliant "C-Note"), but it just doesn't have the same resonance it once did. The BGM is exactly that - background music; lacking the pounding stand-out tracks that were the signature of the first two games.

Pure offers competitive racing in Single Races and Tournaments. The craft tuning options of Fusion are gone and the game is better for it. The AI is solid and the varied range of weaponry on offer is effective without feeling cheap. There are no more pit lanes. Instead, Pure now gives you the opportunity to either use or absorb any pick-ups to restore a little shield energy. This really improves the gameplay dynamic, so you never feel like you're trying to complete a lap by limping carefully back to the pit lane. The focus stays squarely on speed and rivalry.

I don't want to sound overly critical, but I have to say as a portable console game, Pure could have handled tournament progress better. Despite the fact that your profile is auto-saved at the conclusion of each race, if you shut down the PSP mid-tournament, your tournament progress is not saved. Namco's Ridge Racers on PSP handled this perfectly. I can't imagine why Studio Liverpool didn't take the time to implement the same system in Pure. There's always sleep mode of course, but using sleep mode to maintain tournament progress means you can't listen to MP3s or do anything else with your PSP until you complete the tournament.

Time Trial modes are also available of course, as well as the reworked version of Fusion's Zone mode. Zone mode is WipEout at it's purest. No competitors, no pick-ups, just you and the track going faster and faster until you explode. The zen-like Zone experience is made even purer by taking place on dedicated highly stylized tracks. The real-world scenery of the racing courses is cast aside in favour of ultra-slick minimalist futurism. Thankfully the framerate is much more solid in Zone, as there's much less going on.

In terms of unlockables, Pure is probably the deepest WipEout yet, with extra classes, courses and even a gallery of artwork to unlock, and Studio Liverpool are promising a variety of extra content over the coming months via the (now notorious) download function. If you didn't already have a reason to buy a bigger Memory Stick Duo, this is it. Extra courses are expected to eat up 8MBs of stick space each. Other impressive features include the ability to broadcast and share your records tables wirelessly, and the ability to choose skins to alter the look of the menu system. Despite the ground-breaking interent downloads, Pure's multiplayer is supported in "Ad Hoc" mode only (ie. local multiplayer, not true online).

WipEout Pure reveals it's true nature over time. Your first few races in Vector class will seem painfully slow, but it won't be long before you start cursing your mere mortal reflexes in Rapier class. Right now the gaming press is awash with reviews hailing WipEout Pure as the second coming, and in one sense, it is. Pure has given the WipEout franchise a second lease on life. It's an extremely good game that makes up for the failings of Fusion and delivers what fans of the series have been waiting for. Just try to keep your expectations in check. The new WipEout may be Pure, but it ain't perfect.


Sunday, March 27, 2005


PSP web browsing via Wipeout!

The recently released PSP game Wipeout Pure is capable of downloading extra content from the internet. No downloads are currently available, but some clever folk decided to packet-sniff Wipeout's wireless transmission to determine where the PSP was looking for updates. They then set about fooling the PSP into accessing a different web page, spoofing the location of the actual Wipeout download site.

They found that through a PC-based DNS hack, Wipeout Pure can be tricked into accessing different locations, such as this custom-made web portal to spring-board out to the web. Surprisingly, it appears that Wipeout Pure (or perhaps the PSP’s own firmware) contains a functional web-browser. Despite the lack of a cursor, the D-pad can be used for navigation, and the X button works just like a mouse click. Upon entering a text box, the PSP pops up its built-in “mobile-phone” keyboard interface to allow input. Javascript is supported, though many HTML features (like frames) are not.

Thanks to this simple piece of PC trickery, wireless web-browsing on PSP is a reality already. So now the question is how long until Sony offers an official web-browsing solution?

More details and pictures here and here.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Bland Turismo: The REAL McLaunch story

Last week saw the Australian launch of the 4th installment in Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo series. Since the first Gran Turismo on PSone, the GT series has redefined driving games, delivering the most realistic car racing simulations available on home consoles. The GT series appeals to a broad range of people, including car enthusiasts who may not have any other interest in gaming. Despite its lack of online play or car damage, Gran Turismo 4 is easily the most comprehensive and realistic racing game to date. The launch of Gran Turismo 4 really was one of the most anticipated game releases of recent times. So it was with great interest that I attended the official midnight sales launch last Wednesday night.

The 24-hour McDonalds on Parramatta Road, Stanmore is reportedly the most frequented McDonald's outlet in the southern hemisphere. It's also known as a place where young car enthusiasts like to drive-through and "be seen". No doubt these are the reasons why Sony felt the Stanmore Macca's carpark would be the ideal location to stage their public GT4 launch event.

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There was a large customised GT4 trailer set up in the middle of the car park, loaded with copies of GT4, PS2+GT4 bundles, force-feedback steering wheels and other accessories. Beside the trailer was one of those large light-up roadside signs usually used to indicate roadworks, displaying a running clock to let people know when it was finally midnight. There were about about twenty sales and promo people on hand decked out in GT4 t-shirts and caps. The area around the trailer was blocked off by large plastic barricades presumably to keep the people under control, and a handful of security guys were also around to keep everything orderly. Only one thing was missing: the punters.

When I arrived shortly before 11:30 there was no-one waiting. I thought it would pick up as midnight approached. Five minutes before midnight, only a handful of potential customers had shown up. One of the promotions girls called out to the security guards who were sitting smoking cigarettes across the carpark: "Hey, aren't you guys trained in crowd control?" "Yeah", one responded, "Where's the crowd?"

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Midnight. Sales began. The JB Hi-fi sales staff quickly served the dozen or so people who were waiting, and then went back to chatting amongst themselves. It was clear the event was not having the expected level of impact. At any given moment, at least 90% of the people there were Sony and/or promotions people easily recognisable by the laminated passes around their necks, which presumably gave them exclusive access to...err...the carpark. Very few civilians were about. Given that they weren't real busy, I took the opportunity to have a chat with one of guys from the promotions company.
"It probably could have been promoted more", he said rather obviously.
"I think it was promoted on a website."
That may have been something of an overstatement. As far as I know, the only promotion of the event was a single pinned topic that had been online for 6 days in the GT4 forums on the Australian Playstation site. I politely agreed that the promotion of the event had perhaps been a bit too low-key. I went on to explain that much of the thunder had probably been stolen from the event by the fact that the release date had been broken, and that I had been offered a cheap copy of GT4 earlier that day. "By who?" I didn't say, of course.

Many of Australia's die-hard GT fans had purchased their copies of the game long before Chris Constandinou 'officially' became the first person in Australia to buy the game that night. Despite threats of being given the lowest priority on future releases if they broke the release date on this one, a number of stores had started selling their copies of GT4 as soon as they got them. Everyone likes a store that breaks release dates. Everyone but the store's competition and suppliers anyway.

Sony's official take on the event was that the atmosphere was "electric" and provided an "unforgettable" experience. Hmm. I've got to hand it to the photographer from the official Playstation magazine though. He did his best to get some shots that gave the impression of genuine public interest, by gathering up all the promotions people and having them pretend to be clamouring to buy the game (see below).

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Only seconds after he had taken his photos, the tumbleweeds returned (above). Some dudes turned up at the drive-thru in a convertible Merc. The photographer quickly saw an opportunity and handed them a few cardboard GT4 dummy boxes. "Come're excited!" he said. They weren't that excited though. In a stroke of genius, the photographer summoned the two girls in the tight JB Hi-Fi T-shirts to get in the car with the dudes. Suddenly, the dudes were more enthused. They were encouraged to say "Titties!" instead of "cheese" just in case the ploy had been too subtle.

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I hung around for a couple of hours just to see whether it got any busier. While many of Sony's people were having a good time across the road where Spiderbait were playing at the Annandale, the carpark remained pretty barren. Wednesday nights apparently aren't a big night for Stanmore McDonalds. I had three strangers approach me at different times and ask what was going on. Two of them had never heard of Gran Turismo before. The other one was a stoned teenager who knew what I was talking about and was clearly amused by the unnecessary barricades and security people. "Sucked in" he said as he wandered back off into the darkness.

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I decided it was time for me to wander off into the darkness too, as I had a plane to catch in the morning. I actually felt sorry for the promo and sales people, some of whom were clearly wondering what the hell I had been doing there the whole time, given that I hadn't bought a copy of the game. Despite having turned down the offer of a copy of GT4 earlier that day, I went and bought a copy of the game before I left. And a Quarter Pounder.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Densha de Geek

Mobile Train Simulator + Densha de GO! Tokyo Kyuukou Hen (PSP)

Ever wanted to give up your day job and become a train driver? No, me neither, though the thought of getting paid to drive a vehicle that you don't even have to steer doesn't sound too bad. Add to that the ability to sound a mighty airhorn every so often and the slight possibility that you might derail or otherwise smash into something with an incredible amount of momentum and it all starts to seem more attractive.

Apparently the prospect of driving a train is a great deal more appealing to the people of Japan. No doubt this has something to do with their incredibly efficient rail system. Evidently train driving is popular enough in Japan to support its own genre of games, dominated by the long-running Densha de GO! (Let's go by train) series. There have been over twenty different variations of the Densha de GO! games in arcades and on consoles since the original 1997 title. (Like Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter, it appears that last year's Densha de GO!: Final was not as final as the title suggested.) Getting a train from one station to the next doesn't sound like a great basis for a game, but it's not quite as straightforward as it sounds.

What challenge could such a simplistic gameplay concept offer? Well, I'm glad I asked. There are really two parts to the Densha game mechanics: driving and stopping. Precision control of the throttle and brakes is what the whole game is about. Your ability to control the train is reflected in your score. You have four levels of throttle and seven levels of braking at your disposal, as well as the emergency brake and the ability to throw the train into neutral.

The challenge of driving is to make it to the next station on time while obeying the signals and staying within the speed limits on each section of the line. Sounds simple in theory, but the forces of changing track gradients, varying signals and the sheer momentum of tons of moving steel mean that you'll be constantly tweaking the controls to maintain the optimum speed required to stay on time. And then there's stopping.

Stopping is the real challenge. You're going to need to start breaking hundreds of metres before you even see the station, and then you'll need to smoothly slide in to stop the train dead on the mark. The precision of your stopping position is measured in centimetres. Pull up too late and you'll overshoot the platform. Pull up too early and the doors won't open. Mastering smooth accurate stopping takes a lot of practice. I don't know how many times I've started braking too late and had to resort to slamming on the emergency brake to try to salvage the stop. This inevitably leads to my passengers falling over and my train overshooting the platform anyway. Result: complaining passengers and loss of points.

As it's title suggests, this latest train game on PSP brings together Taito's Densha series and Sony's Train Simulator series in one package, and covers at least three complete lines from Tokyo's Kanto region. You can play in either series' game modes, though the differences appear to be are mostly cosmetic (the HUD is displayed differently). The Train Simulator mode also allows you to sit exams and unlock new lines.

At a glance you'd be forgiven for thinking that this game looks better than Gran Turismo 4. It looks absolutely realistic, because it's graphics are in fact real footage. The entire length of the train lines has been captured on video. The game speeds up and slows down the footage to reflect your speed. This works surprisingly well, rarely looking obvious or choppy. Where previous Densha games used 3D graphics, this game lets you take in the real scenery of Tokyo, and being able to watch the traffic on nearby roads, the live people on the platforms, or other trains passing by, adds enormously to the game's appeal. It looks fantastic on the PSP screen, though some of the subway (ie. underground) sections are admittedly less than awe-inspiring. Games based around live-action FMV are usually an absolute disaster. Not so in this case. This genre couldn't be more perfectly suited to it, and it's been implemented very well. It's all the more impressive to see it in action on a handheld console.

All the sounds of the Tokyo train system have been faithfully reproduced and there's plenty of speech in there too, including on-board announcements, complaining passengers, and tips from the anime conductor girl. You can sound the horns, though depending on the game mode, you may be penalized for improper usage. The game becomes increasingly difficult and throws in new elements (such as level crossings and trackside works) that you'll need to adapt to. While it's quite jap-heavy, it's still reasonably import-friendly to pick up and play. The database sections are full of technical detail on all the different trains and the intricacies of the signal system, though these are totally unintelligible to the non-jap fluent (like myself). Chances of an english language release are slim to nil.

So it looks great, sounds good, and the gameplay is actually challenging. There's just no getting around the fact that this game is extremely geeky. If you can handle that, then you might enjoy this opportunity to see the sights of Tokyo without flying over there. The ability to drive the 8:00am train to Shibuya while you commute to work on the other side of the planet has gotta be worth something.

I'd give this niche title a solid 8/10. It's not for everyone. Hell, it's not for the vast majority of people, but what it sets out to achieve, it delivers with flair. Only you can decide whether this unique PSP title is just your ticket or too off-the-rails. Could this be PSP's first sleeper hit?
(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

I highly recommend watching the official (and superbly zany) japanese promo videos for this game here.