When you fire up Formula Fusion, the first thought that will probably pop into your head is “Wow, this looks a lot like WipEout!” Any similarities are no coincidence – that’s because the team at Middlesbrough-based start-up studio R8 Games are primarily made up of former Psygonosis Leeds Studio developers who worked on the underrated WipEout 3, along with industry veterans whose credits include Colin McRae, AutoClub Revolution, Carmageddon and Midnight Club. It's worth noting however that the original developers aren't affiliated with the project – WipEout's co-creator Nick Burcombe went on to establish Playrise Digital, a Liverpool-based studio best known for the hit mobile Table Top Racing series.
With no sign of an official WipEout sequel in the works, we’ve started to see a flurry of futuristic racing games from indie developers attempting to get anti-gravity racers back on track. Games such as Radial G: Racing Evolved, Redout and Fast Racing Neo are all due to land this year, all bearing more than a passing resemblence to WipEout and F-Zero, but Formula Fusion comes the closest to capturing the spirit of WipEout since Sony Studio Liverpool was shut down in 2012 which sent shock waves throughout the games industry, effectively wiping out the fabled franchise.
Recently released on Steam Early Access, the alpha build represents a very early stage of Formula Fusion's development. As such, no attempts have been made to hide the fact it’s still work-in-progress: game crashes are frequent, and there’s still a lot of optimisation, graphical effects and additional content still to be added before the final release next year.
Even the menus are basic at best, with limited settings that prevent you from adjusting the graphics beyond low, medium and high presets if you need to improve the performance. You even have to manually type in the resolution. I know, first world problems. I had to stick with the low detail setting to retain a 1080p resolution and a smooth frame rate, but I was still able to achieve a fairly solid 60 fps. Performance seems to vary across different setups, but this is expected at this early stage where the developers are still optimising the game for different configurations.
So what do you get for the £14.99 asking price? Suffice to say, not a lot at this stage. Indeed, the base package is very light on content, to say the least: the current Early Access build only includes one craft and one location set in New York city with three track variations, along with arbitrary race and time trial modes.
Fortunately, what little content is available shows early signs of encouragement that Formula Fusion will live up to WipEout’s legacy, with familiar fast paced racing that’s as fun and thrilling as it is deceptively challenging.
If like me you were always completely inept at controlling the craft in WipEout, you'll once again spend most of your time grinding against the nearest wall if you don’t modulate your speed. The entry level craft included in the alpha build handles responsively with an Xbox One controller but is noticeably slow and heavy to maneuver, requiring you to anticipate every corner early, and there’s a greater emphasis on timing the twin air brakes to swing the tail out and use the momentum to turn into the tighter corners. Formula Fusion retains the challenge of the earlier WipEout games, yet the tighter controls feel more intuitive, making it easier to predict braking points.
The reworked physics compliment the terrific track design. Successfully navigating the turbulent turns of the New York city circuit requires a lot of skill if you want to finish with a fast time or respectable race position, while the narrow design reminiscent of the first WipEout game forces you to be strategic when overtaking opponents – you really have to meticulously memorise the layout of the track and remember braking points and boost pad locations to maximise your speed, but it’s very rewarding when you get into a flow, blast through every boost pad and glide into every twist and turn at full speed. The default craft may be slow and cumbersome to control, but this allows you to get to grips with the physics and master the controls – pass every boost pad, and the sense of speed is gratifying, recalling the intensity of past WipEout games.
My only gripe is that the track design is a tad too conservative, lacking some of WipEout’s extreme rollercoaster-esque elevation changes, banked corners and corkscrews that made the series so exhilarating to play. Still, it's fine as a beginners course, and we’ve yet to see what Formula Fusion’s remaining tracks have to offer. Indeed, R8 Games are inviting the community to help influence the design of the tracks by releasing experimental tracks, giving players the opportunity to vote for the best tracks to feature in the final game.
As in WipeOut, Mario Kart-style weapon power-ups also play a role in Formula Fusion. Currently only a couple of weapons can be equipped, including rockets you can fire at opponents by picking up a power-up and holding the fire button to lock onto the target, although the unfinished visual effects when you take someone out leave a lot to be desired right now. Mercifully, power-ups are no longer random either which helps alleviate any potential frustration, as the weapon types are set when you equip them before a race.
The spirit of WipEout lives on in Formula Fusion’s futuristic dystopian setting, but R8 Games seem to be going for a grittier visual style that harks back to WipEout 2097’s dingy, neon-lit cityscapes compared to the considerably more colourful courses found in recent entries. Amplifying this is the return of renowned graphic design studio The Designers Republic, who played a key part in conceptualising WipEout’s iconic style and underpinning narrative up until WipEout 3.
Formula Fusion is set in the year 2075 – if you try to connect it to WipEout's timeline, Formula Fusion takes place somewhere between the original WipEout and WipEout 2097 when the anti-gravity sport was still in its infancy after evolving from Formula One, which would explain the urban design. Then again, Formula Fusion is probably meant to be treated as a series reboot with no relation to WipEout, even if we all know it's intended to be a spiritual successor.
But it’s the night time circuit where Formula Fusion’s visuals truly shine, as the atmospheric city lights and trackside billboards cast dynamic reflections on your craft and wet patches on the track, although my lowered graphics settings probably don’t do it justice.
Of course, no anti-gravity racer is complete without a thumping soundtrack; a staple of WipEout that famously made it a fixture in UK nightclubs during the '90s rave culture scene. Formula Fusion is set to continue this trend.
Accompanying the action in the Early Access build are two electronica tracks from unsigned artists Snareophobe and Soundwaves and Escapades, and while the limited selection soon becomes repetitive (the repetition of the “in the future” lyric becomes particularly grating after several repated listens), they were undeniably infectious and compliment the futuristic setting. Don’t be surprised if you still find yourself humming the songs hours after play.
And if the available tracks aren’t to your taste or you’re worried Formula Fusion’s soundtrack won’t live up to the standard set in WipEout, the final game will feature music from acclaimed artists CoLD SToRAGE and Dub FX who contributed to the original WipEout soundtracks that still hold up well today. R8 Games are also still actively inviting artists to produce music for Formula Fusion.
R8 Games have big plans for Formula Fusion in the future. Despite failing to achieve their stretch goals on Kickstarter, the developers are working to secure a console release (WipEout is synonymous with the PlayStation brand having appeared on every previous console, so it would be a shame not to see Formula Fusion make it to PS4), as well as introducing multiple craft classes with researchable upgrades, 22 tracks set in 7 themed zones, split screen and online multiplayer including eSports and even the possibility of VR support, so you can expect plenty of content updates to come before the planned PC release early next year.
But in the here and now? For the asking price, Formula Fusion is difficult to recommend in its current unpolished, barebones state. Yes, Early Access games are normally light on content initially, but the high asking price is hard to justify for such a paltry package. Was Formula Fusion released on Early Access too soon? Quite possibly. Is the package too expensive at this point for what you get? Absolutely, although the recent price reduction from £22.99 to £14.99 does help sweeten the deal.
However, if you consider yourself a WipEout fan and want to help support the developers, Formula Fusion is well worth the investment – particularly as this is likely the closest we're going to get to a true WipEout spiritual successor any time soon.
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