Gamers will forever associate the name Wipeout with Psygnosis' futuristic racing series, but in the world of primetime TV, Wipeout means wacky announcers, massive pratfalls and Big Red Balls. Based on ABC's hit US game show (which our UK readers will recognize as Total Wipeout) Wipeout 3 brings the slapstick spirit of the show to the Wii U's launch line-up. A low challenge level and lacklustre presentation hold it back from being a recommendation for everyone, but fun multiplayer - including excellent asymmetrical play with the GamePad - means series fans will find Wipeout 3 easy to fall for.
The basic gameplay is very simple: after selecting a suitably wacky contestant, you'll run, jump, duck and slide through elaborate obstacle courses, trying to reach the goal as fast as possible. The controls are even simpler, as Wipeout 3 restricts your movement to one plane - forward and back. That sounds limiting, but it actually fits quite well. As the game's name implies, much of the fun comes from the wipe outs, and those are a lot more spectacular when they come from your character being gut-checked by a swinging red ball than from your accidentally walking off a platform by tilting your analog stick north-by-northwest. Precision platforming this is not, and we appreciate that the gameplay sticks to its strengths. It also makes for an easy game to pick up and play for younger and less experienced gamers, so anyone will be able to join in; besides the analog stick (or D-pad), there's a button each for jumping, ducking, and sliding, and everything is responsive and smooth.
Wipeout 3 features 12 themed episodes of four short courses each (including the final "Wipeout Zone"), which is a marked improvement over previous games in the series. You'll be able to faceplant on Valentine's Day, Polynesian, wild west, and school-themed courses, so even though the obstacles remain similar, each episode feels different. While you're avoiding pop-out candy hearts and vengeful foam tiki gods, you'll find Sonic-esque rings strewn about the courses, and completing episodes will net you XP and the rather unfortunately named "Ballsy Bucks". Amassing enough XP will lead to a global "level up", opening up new characters and equipment customization options. There are helmets, gloves, and boots to spend your Ballsy Bucks on, and higher-level gear will improve your running and swimming speed, stamina, and balance.
The TV show's hosts - John Anderson and John Henson - reprise their roles for the video game, and their intentionally cheesy, ball-joke-heavy commentary goes a long way towards making it feel like an interactive version of the show. There's also full voice acting for every contestant, and though the caricatured, stereotyped characters initially available lack the personality of real-life Wipeout warriors, those that are unlocked as you play fare much better. You'll eventually be able to play as the two Johns, a bitter badger, and even a stick figure; just be prepared to stick it out with a milquetoast cast for the first few rounds.
You can run through the 12 episodes alone in the single-player mode, which is a good way to learn the courses if you're serious about your Wipeout, but Wipeout 3 is definitely best when played with friends. In a first for the series, the Wipeout Party mode features simultaneous split-screen multiplayer, so there's no waiting for your turn - everybody gets to play at once. There's an unfortunate frame-rate hit, but it's still lots of fun to run the gauntlet as a group, watching your fellow contestants flounder helplessly on the trademark Big Red Balls or being knocked unceremoniously into the water by a windmill's errant blade.
The standard multiplayer is fun enough, but the real ace up Wipeout 3's sleeve is undoubtedly Trap Attack, which lets up to four Wii Remote players race through the obstacle courses while one all-powerful GamePad player gets to gleefully control the obstacles. As the trap-master you can trigger doors, swing pendulums, tilt platforms, start mud showers, and generally wreak all kinds of havoc upon your fellow players, even pelting them with tennis balls by tapping the touch screen. It's a great use of the Wii U's asymmetrical multiplayer capabilities, a perfect fit for the game, and a blast with friends.
Unfortunately, like the show it's based on, there're quite a few bumps along the way with Wipeout 3. One problem that's immediately apparent in single-player mode is that there's very little challenge in the game. As in the show, you're ostensibly shooting for a good time, but there's literally no way to fail apart from simply giving up (manually, by quitting the game) before reaching the finish line. No matter how long a course takes you, you'll make it through to the next round. There's an optimistically named "Black & Blue" difficulty level, but even then it just means it might take a few more tries to get past a few obstacles. The difficulty isn't an issue in multiplayer, where you'll either be racing your friends or trying to smash them into oblivion with the GamePad, but it does take away from the single-player mode.
Even aside from the flat-lining difficulty, Wipeout 3 is pretty lonely as a single-player experience. The only character you'll ever see is your own, and you'll never know how your time stacks up against your phantom competitors, because the between-round "leaderboards" don't actually feature any ranking or time data of any kind, only portraits of the lucky contestants. It can definitely be fun for a while, and the leveling-up system and purchasing equipment do give some sense of progression, but the lack of any direct (or indirect, really) competition means that single-player won't be enough to carry the game for most people.
Another sadly missed opportunity is the wipe out replays. What should be a hilarious look back at the spine-realigning falls is turned into a jarringly dull and skippable exercise by camera angles that are less punchy than the normal behind-the-back view. Sometimes you'll watch your tiny contestant's messy mistake from an angle so wide you'll have to squint to see them, and other times the camera will get stuck behind an obstacle. The "helmet cam" view is the best of the bunch, but even that doesn't work as well as it sounds.
In terms of presentation, Wipeout 3 has the distinct feel of a budget title. The graphics look fine if you're focused on the character and the course, but pull back from the benevolently myopic camera angle and you'll see startlingly sparse backdrops that wouldn't look out of place in the PS2 era. The water and mud in each course are unresponsive and static, looking and acting like textures rather than environmental elements. Even the trampolines and Wipeout's iconic Big Red Balls give no indication of springiness, which has the odd effect of making the contestants' frequent full-body contact with them seem bone-crushingly painful. The soundtrack is largely forgettable, and while the voice acting is welcome and very well done, the ludicrously poor lip-syncing approaches early-Godzilla levels of apathy.
In spite of its many faults, Wipeout 3 succeeds in something many licensed games fail spectacularly at: being a decent game that fans of the series will enjoy. Thanks to the fully voiced, on-point commentary and colourful courses, it really does feel like playing the show, and the Trap Attack mode makes excellent use of the Wii U's GamePad for hectic, heckling multiplayer fun. Most people will want to wait for the price to take a pratfall before considering picking this up for parties, but anyone who knows their Yule Log Jam from their Trampoline Sweepers will have a blast.