WipEout 2048, the latest in the futuristic racing series, opens with a video detailing the evolution of the wheel, from its humble origins in old automobiles to its redundancy in the face of the hoverpads you're about to encounter.
The cinematic acts as a mission statement. It lauds the innovation and talent of those who made the car what it was, and of those who will do the same with future cars (assuming that those future cars are, in fact, sleek, ultra-fast hovercars). It's a love letter to the unfaltering advance of technology, an ode dedicated to the magic of circuits and computers and engines and little flashing lights. It's an attitude that permeates everything in 2048, up to and including the gameplay.
By the time racers hit the 2049 season in singleplayer, their greatest enemy will not be the AI they're racing against, but their own human limitations. It's not the racer’s fault - the ridiculous speed with which races are run, combined with the assault each track mounts on the five senses, means players are going to fall over again and again and again before they have any hope of staying up. If this doesn't sound like you, fine, but don't let the automatic doors clip your fleshy, fallible backside on the way out.
Of course, the challenge of being the only human on the track, and thus the only racer capable of genuine human error, has always been one of the draw-cards of the WipEout series. Nobody plays WipEout because it's easy. While the first couple of races - slow, C-class, weapon-free jaunts through the game's easiest tracks - might not pose much of a challenge, the game soon ramps up the difficulty with faster speeds, tighter corners and sharper, more ruthless competitors.
It's not long before the player is fighting tooth-and-nail to keep within the top three just to pass the course, ramming gracelessly into acute corners and absorbing helpful offensive weapons just to stay alive. It may even get to the point where the Retry button becomes worn out through over-use. To make a gross understatement, it gets tough.
But while the singleplayer campaign is tough, it isn't frustrating. The frenetic, anything-can-happen nature of WipEout means that even when the player is pipped at the post on the final stretch and just misses the pass requirements, the track can be replayed with knowledge and confidence. This means the victories aren't empty – it’s an achievement simply to pass. Humanity has triumphed over these machines with their ridiculous turning skills and their ability to get Quakes every five seconds in a Combat match and damn it we can be proud of that.
2048's fetishisation of future-tech extends beyond the construction of the gameplay and the implications this has for the player. The track designs are beautifully rendered, strikingly coloured and very much in line with 2048's predecessors, mixing a science-fiction brutalism reminiscent of Metropolis with fluid racing lines and plenty of flashy lights – all awash in bright blues, greens and yellows. It's an incredibly good-looking near-future that, most importantly, feels near, particularly on the 'Sol' track: a bright blue course suspended high above a sprawling city by a plethora of concrete columns. That said, 2048 is at its most visually impressive in the Zone events, wiping away all the distinguishing features of the tracks and cars and replacing them with streamlined neon landscapes ripped straight from Tron.
2048's music also gets in on the near-future aesthetic. The vast majority of the tracks are drawn from the dubstep catalogue. While dubstep is easy to hate (I speak from experience), it fits 2048 like a glove, the incessant wub-wubs and bass-drops playing out like music robots would design to induce involuntary adrenaline rushes in listeners.
That said, 2048 isn't perfect, even if its flaws largely seem to fall within the game's futurist worldview. The online multiplayer campaign can be fun in a messy, edge-of-your-seat kind of way, but the way it's set up suggests that the developers didn't have a lot of faith in the quality of person playing multiplayer. Outside of immediate satisfaction of placing in the podium for each event, one succeeds - and progresses through the multiplayer campaign - by meeting the absurdly easy pass requirements for each event.
Getting an Elite Pass, however, can sometimes be as simple as just playing the event and hitting one specific player with a weapon, which is a little insulting at the best of times, neutering the challenge of these sections. But perhaps that's for the best, given that the awful loading times and the waiting periods for events make it difficult to actually get into games in the first place.
Loading times for both singleplayer and multiplayer events can run from thirty seconds to a minute; if the game forces the player to wait for an event to end before participating – as it is wont to do – one can be waiting for up to ten minutes for an actual game. This is problematic at best; at worst, it actively inhibits players from engaging in the online multiplayer components of the game.
WipEout 2048 may not have a particularly challenging multiplayer campaign, and it may have particularly challenging loading times, but that's not to say it's a failure. The singleplayer component alone is worth the time and money, easy to access, difficult to master, and deeply satisfying to play; combined with stunning graphics and the surprising presence of a pervasive artistic statement – rare in video-games generally, let alone racing games – 2048 is a fascinating and entertaining beast.