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Levelling Out: WipEout 2048 – Sol I

Each day this week our writer Vaughn will be putting up an article about one particular level, place, moment, in a game that’s really captures the titles essence, but because of this there could be spoilers ahead. It’s called Levelling Out, and it starts today with WipEout 2048.

There are numerous games set in fictional future worlds. Worlds covered in high-industry smog, worlds containing gleaming skyscraper canyons, worlds draped in Blade Runner’s neon haze and Brazil’s 1940s futurism. Some worlds are designed as gloomy totalitarian Orwellian nightmares for you to carry out swift justice against the state in the name of the people. WipEout, however, never dealt with issues so petty as story and setting – at least, not in the same way. It presented a world purpose built for racing. A future where racetracks reigned supreme and the world watched in awe at the action found within anti-gravity racing.

WipEout 2048, the latest in the series so far, takes place at the beginning of the motorsports lifetime and shows the early stages of its meteoric rise to prominence. 2048 benefits from being released last as it allowed the now closed Studio Liverpool to create a believable starting point for their series, and one level showed this evolution better than anything else it had to offer: Sol I.

As every track, bar Sol I, take place on the ground – mixing paved surfaces with grass, suspended bridges and hard-light tracks – in believable futuristic urban environments, Sol I was a drastic change. It tore away from the national parks, the shopping malls and skyscraper valleys. Instead it aimed for the skies. It became a floating symbol of everything that the sport had managed to achieve.

For a series who’s origins can be found in a late night heated Mario Kart session, it’s fitting that WipEout 2048 creates a track so closely inspired by the winding and fantastical Rainbow Road. While Mario Kart’s signature track takes place in the stars, Sol I takes place in the clouds, hung high above the world with a sprawling metropolis below. And, just like Rainbow Road, Sol I is here to test and reward the best anti-gravity racers around.

It’s packed with tight turns and daring shortcuts for those who have the stomach for high-risk jumps, tight spaces and low room for error. By creating a track that is totally barrier free, Studio Liverpool removed the safety net that lesser skilled players could fall back on. They turned those dangerous shortcuts into more obvious and more tantalising routes, just so you’d push yourself further and take the plunge. Every inch of this circuit was made to get your hairs standing on end with excitement. It was made for the WipEout fan.

For those that do manage to effortlessly navigate their way around such a perilous track, you’ll be rewarded with views that take your breath away as you hurtle past at hundreds of miles an hour, hundreds of miles up above the city, suspended in air by only a scant few mega-structures.

Sol I isn’t just an incredible circuit because of the difficulty and visual fidelity on show, it’s the context in which it’s placed. Just like BioShock’s underwater utopia Rapture, Sol I is the Anti-Gravity League’s ideal for what the sport will become. It’s, quite literally, got its head in the clouds; the sky’s the limit for what can be attained. It doesn’t even feature until the 2050 campaign in WipEout 2048, which shows that it clearly wasn’t ready to be unveiled in the sport’s early days. It’s both a triumph of design for its fictional creators, as well as those at Studio Liverpool.

Looking at its successor – which actually came first due to WipEout’s release order – Sol II, you can see the true realisation of what the AGL were aiming to achieve. It’s a fully floating ribbon in the sky. It’s more complete and polished than its prototype thanks to futuristic curves and a clean white aesthetic, but in its completion it’s lost a lot of its character. No longer is it barrier free and its sense of scale is also lost due to being so high up in the clouds that the ground is no longer visible. It still offers skilled players plenty of opportunities to boost and barrel roll around corners, but it’s no longer as risky, or rewarding, as it once was.

In the world of WipEout, Sol II arrived in an age where anti-gravity racing has existed for years already – it’s an established sport. No longer do the AGL have anything left to prove. It no longer needs the daring opportunities found within Sol I to gain attention. It’s already surpassed the stage of Sol I’s ‘sky’s the limit’ philosophy.

As with any creative product, the prototypes are usually more innovative and daring in nature to the more conservative and acceptable release. There is no doubt in my mind that Sol I went through many creative reviews in the meeting rooms at Studio Liverpool. Their desire to encapsulate the idealistic fervor that the AGL had envisioned culminated in the best track that the WipEout series has ever seen: Sol I.

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