In the candlelit bowels of a sinister temple, a group of shadowy figures have gathered in a circle. With their eyes shut in fierce concentration, the hooded monks of Awesome Play are chanting in a long-forgotten language - possibly BASIC. In the centre of the room there stands a terrifying figure - Grand High Priest Archer MacLean. In one hand he clutches the hide of a helpless goat; in the other he holds a sacrificial dagger, forged from pure steel.
In a moment, when the chanting reaches its peak, MacLean will cut the throat of the beast. Blood will spill to the floor, flowing over the ancient runes of Arkhaid Raysing and resurrecting the Spirit of Mycro Ma'sheens. Then the monster known as Wheelspin will be brought to life, a creature designed to infiltrate every Wii in the land through the dark majick of eight player split-screen races.
If you don't know who Archer MacLean is, now might be a good time to brush up on your gaming history. He's something of an industry legend, a British developer who's been making games for over 25 years. Over the years his hits have included Dropzone, IK+ and Jimmy White's Whirlwind Snooker, but more recently he's best known for Archer Maclean's Mercury - a highly original puzzler for the PSP. However, Wheelspin is quite a different kettle of fish - a sci-fi racing game that blends elements of Rollcage, Wipeout and Mario Kart - along with a hefty helping of Codemasters' Micro Machines games.
Put simply, Wheelspin sees you racing customisable cars around a variety of futuristic tracks that somewhat resemble rollercoaster tracks. There are three game types to work through - solo time trials, multi-car races and a Mario Kart-like battle mode - with each mode being represented as one side of a triangular pyramid; as you switch between modes, you'll see the pyramid rotate on screen. At the start of the game you'll only have access to the lowest tier of events in each category, but as you complete races and battles you'll gradually reveal more challenges. This content is actually unlocked through the accumulation of Zone points: when you hit a certain speed, the screen distorts and you start to clock up Zone points - although of course the real challenge is not reaching this velocity, but maintaining it.
That all sounds rather technical, but once you actually start to play Wheelspin it's clear the game has been built with accessibility firmly in mind. The game is played with a Wii remote held sideways, with the 1 and 2 buttons controlling your acceleration and break, while the D-pad is called into service for weapon use and handbreak turns. Steering is conducted entirely by titling the pad left and right, and this takes a few moments to get used to. Once you've had a bit of practice, you'll find the controls work very well, leaving you to focus on cavorting around the tracks at speed.
While Wheelspin's graphics are relatively simple in their design, they're delivered via a sleek 60 FPS framerate. The resulting smoothness may have been part of the reason I found myself thinking of Wipeout as I played, although the twisty-turny tracks undoubtedly also played a part in this. The track I played in Cologne featured loop-the-loops, jumps and a section that involved driving around the inner walls of a pipe with massive holes in its sides. It's highly likely that you'll mess-up and crash at some point during a Wheelspin race, but when this happens you can reset yourself on the track by simply hitting the A button. These resurrections only take a few seconds, so you shouldn't be punished too heavily if you do happen to come a cropper.
As it happens, there are times when you'll pretty much have to crash to get the most out of a Wheelspin track, because there are collectibles hidden in awkward spots in every race, and some of them can only be reached by bravely driving into oblivion. Despite the speed of the action, this a racer more focused on having a blast than with obsessing over perfect lap times. That's not to say that the game lacks a sense of competition, however: as you make progress you'll build up something called an APEX score, based upon several aspects of your performance and your placing in races. This is Wheelspin's equivalent to a rank in CoD 4 or to a gamerscore in SF IV, and Awesome Play are hoping that the system will work as a similar gauge of skill.
While I've only had a chance to play Wheelspin alone - and for a relatively brief period of time - I can already see the potential this game has for multiplayer hijinx. There's a reason why I referenced Micro Machines earlier, and it's not just because the game's zoomed-out perspective makes the cars look small. No, it's because there's a similar feeling of barely-restrained anarchy underneath the all the speed. You only get a whiff of it in single-player (usually as you fudge up a tricky curve for the umpteenth time and go hurtling to your doom), but when played with friends I can easily imagine that races could get very chaotic. And in another nod to the Machines of old, the whole game can be played with up to eight people on a single screen, with half the players using nunchuks for control. I've not seen it for myself yet, and i'd imagine you'd need a massive TV for it to work well, but it's an undeniably appealing option. Hopefully this feature will somewhat make up for the lack of online play.
Still, there's a lot to like about Wheelspin. There are features that I've barely touched on - the arena battle modes for one, and the spread of vehicles with their hundreds of skins and upgrades. At its core, however, Wheelspin is about high speed pick-up-and-play gameplay, and while my first hands-on experience was admittedly brief, I'm already feeling fairly positive about this project. Wheelspin will certainly be quite retro in many regards, but with Archer MacLean on board, this can only be a good thing.
Wheelspin, to be published by Bethesda, is scheduled for release this autumn only on Wii.