Also available on: PS3
Developers: Midway Studios Newcastle/Tigon Studios
Release date: March 27, 2009
Vin Diesel's movies may not be to everyone's taste, but his gaming record has so far been impeccable. Granted his game studio has only previously helped to develop one game, but that game was the excellent Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. Butcher Bay subtly combined first-person-shooter action with stealth elements in order to create one of the Xbox's finest games. Obviously Wheelman is not a sequel (that is on its way soon), but it is the second game to be co-developed by Diesel's Tigon Studios. Much like Riddick before it, Wheelman utilises numerous gaming mechanics, but unlike Riddick it's not subtle and it's not clever. However, Wheelman is still fairly entertaining despite a number of flaws.
Whether you agree with the comparisons or not, Wheelman at the very least resembles a number of existing video games. Its obvious influence is Grand Theft Auto due to the sandbox gameplay and the ability to take cars at will. The inclusion of turbo boost and big crashes smacks of Burnout, while the over the top arcade driving and high speed pursuits echo the offerings of Driver. Then there's the high speed car jacking and vehicular combat, which is reminiscent of the PSP's Pursuit Force. Add in a little Need For Speed: Undercover, which shares some of the same flaws, and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Wheelman.
That's not to say Wheelman doesn't have any of its own tricks; in fact, one of its few original contributions is one of the most appealing things about the game. Unlike most free-roaming driving games, Wheelman steers clear of stateside in favour of sunny Spain, in particular Barcelona. Despite not being painstakingly accurate, the city of Barcelona is a breath of fresh air, and for a while it really does make for an interesting playground. The makers have successfully captured the city's architecture and landmarks, and with the sun constantly shining the essence of the Mediterranean is clear to behold.
The game begins by instantly showing off the city and the extremely enjoyable driving gameplay courtesy of a high speed police chase. Milo, played by Diesel, is forced into action after his female client draws the attention of the police in her effort to rob a bank. Making quick turns, destroying scenery and ramming cop cars is tremendous fun (the first few times) and the chase is capped off with a brief drive through a building interior and some cinematic four wheel air-time. Ending the mission sparks one of many in-game cut-scenes, with a gang warfare/infiltration storyline that is barely worth following and takes itself far too seriously (similar to Need For Speed: Undercover).
After a couple of missions, Diesel gets to use the high speed car jacking move, which despite being used in Pursuit Force manages to feel fresh due to very few home console equivalents. Driving behind a car or bike and holding the B button sees a red arrow appear above the target vehicle; when the arrow turns green, releasing the button sees Diesel leap into the new vehicle and kick its current driver out, without losing much momentum. With Wheelman placing such a large emphasis on fast paced arcade action, having the car jacking move helps to maintain the sense of speed and motion and generally ensures that you never lose your flow - until you’re forced out on foot that is.
Many vehicle-based sandbox titles have fallen foul on the pedestrian sections and Wheelman is no different. The combat is clumsy and slow and goes against everything that the rest of the game stands for. Despite his obvious athletic prowess, Diesel is unable to jump, let alone dive in and out of cover between firing shots. The auto-aim has a mind of its own and means that you constantly take fire from one of the nearby, moronic enemies when accidentally targeting a distant foe. The graphics also take a turn for the worse, with many of the locations looking rather unspectacular, while the animation is virtually non-existent. Luckily, exercising a bit of caution will see you breeze through these missions easily enough, with Diesel's character able to heal if he steers clear of the bullets for a short time.
Back behind the wheel, the combat is much more fun, and building up your focus bar with dangerous driving allows Diesel to use the slow-mo cyclone move and take some measured shots at his pursuing enemies. This outrageous and unrealistic Hollywood shooting mechanic typifies the Wheelman experience and should have been implemented in the on-foot sections too. Maybe Tigon should have added Max Payne or Stranglehold to its influence list.
Regardless of how much fun the first few sessions with Wheelman prove to be, eventually the wheels start to come off and the game becomes rather tiresome. Using a real-world location means that as a developer you are aesthetically restrained, and pretty soon Barcelona becomes a little bit dull and repetitive. Also, the lack of inhabitants, tourists and traffic means that the city doesn't ever really come alive. These problems were also present in Need For Speed: Undercover, as was the decision to bask the game in perpetual sunlight. It's true that Barcelona looks better under a blue sky, but an in-game clock and a proper day and night cycle would have gone some way towards offering a bit of visual variety. The missions also buckle from the repetitive strain, with too many missions requiring you to battle a relentless onslaught of enemy cars, which is fine, but there’s only so many times you can get a kick out seeing a car spectacularly explode, especially considering the number of times you are forced to make it happen.
Wheelman is a decent offering from Vin Diesel's crew, and at times it draws from its inspirations and creates a game that, in terms of sheer thrills, surpasses the lot. Unfortunately, it also unwittingly adopts many of the flaws set out by its peers, with a poor combat system and a repetitive location and set of missions. As a result of setting the adrenaline-fuelled bar too early, Wheelman is guilty of burning out instead of building to a dramatic and exciting crescendo. Much like Diesel's movies, Wheelman will divide the public; for those who are searching for a realistic, lasting experience with plenty of depth then the game will drive you mad. If on the other hand you fancy some shallow, short-term thrills and spills, then Wheelman is likely to drive you wild.
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