Developed by struggling Midway, and almost suffering cancellation until Ubisoft stepped in, Wheelman is the next gaming project from Vin Diesel.
Taking a break from his, erm… recent silver screen efforts, Diesel stars in this GTA-inspired romp around the gorgeous city of Barcelona. He plays Milo Burik, an undercover government agent sent to infiltrate the seedy criminal underbelly of the city. His cover is that of a wheelman, and using this identity, he quickly finds himself involved with every crime organisation in the area.
I’ll say right from the off, that the story is about as interesting as watching the entire My Family box set (but maybe not as fatal), so I won’t spend any more time on it, aside from saying that this doesn’t bode well for the promised Wheelman movie.
The game, using the Unreal engine, takes the familiar GTA-style form. As Milo, you have to go from mission to mission, performing criminal acts to win trust and respect, while trying to find more information from the various gangs. These missions vary from escort duty, forcing information out of people, rescuing gang members, or just wasting groups of foes for the hell of it. You’ll do this both in vehicles and on foot.
The big selling point of Wheelman is the car-based combat, and this is fortunate as it’s actually very enjoyable. While in a car, Milo has the almost supernatural ability to quickly force the car left or right, slamming into opponents. This damages them, and can be used to force them into walls or oncoming traffic. Damage the enemy enough and you’ll be able to perform a finishing move, resulting in a bullet-time kill cam in the style of Burnout. Be warned though, as the enemy can also use this move, so be ready to take evasive action.
This simple addition makes car chases and combat genuinely different and enjoyable, mainly thanks to the simple control system that you can use to pull these moves off. That’s not all Milo can do when behind the wheel, though.
As well as shunting vehicles, Milo can use a powerful turbo boost to speed away from foes, and can use the slo-mo aiming mode, where the camera moves behind Milo’s head, and you can aim for a vehicle’s weak spot to take it out in one shot. This is useful, and impressive, but not as much as what will undoubtedly become the game’s signature move – the Cyclone.
Destined to be robbed and used elsewhere, this move sees the action slow down, and Milo spins the car around 180 degrees while still in motion. This then gives you the chance to take out enemies behind you before spinning back around and carrying on. This may sound like a control nightmare, but it’s actually very easy to pull off, and is a great addition.
Another ability you’ll be using a lot of is the ‘airjack’ manoeuvre. Ripped blatantly from Sony’s PSP title, Pursuit Force, this move lets you jump from one vehicle to another, instantly kicking out the previous occupier and letting you take control. This is used in some missions where you have to stop a particular target from fleeing, but can also be used at any time. You’ll find it most useful when in a hectic chase and you need a new car as your current ride has taken too much damage.
These moves (aside from the side ramming and airjacking) all require your focus meter to be charged before you can use them. You do this by driving like a maniac, slamming into other cars and obstacles, and generally speeding along like a demon.
As well as combat on the road, Wheelman also features on-foot combat. This works is an almost identical way to GTA 4, right down to the aiming system. You always have a pistol (with infinite ammo), and can grab more powerful weapons such as SMGs or rifles. Actual controls and combat here are very basic, but work well enough, and serve to break up the vehicle-based play.
It’s in a vehicle where the game’s heart is, though, and you’ll be spending most of your time behind the wheel. When you’re not engaging in a story mission, you can tackle one of the many side missions (there are over 100). These diversions include street races, driving a taxi, stealing cars to order, getting packages from one place to another in strict time limits and so on.
Sadly, many of these side missions are a little uninspired and dull, having been done before hundreds of times over (often better than here). In particular, the street racing stands out as a major problem. The course layouts are just plain confusing, with no indication of where to go, save some checkpoints marked on the map. However, to check these you need to bring up the PDA screen, pausing the action. This isn’t a good idea in the middle of a street race, and you’re usually left taking the wrong turning, or hanging back so you can follow the AI cars. A route marked on your onscreen mini-map would have made all the difference. This is a real shame, as coupling the street races with the car combat moves, and having an easier to follow route, could have made these side missions a game in their own right. Ah, well.
Completing side missions unlocks new weapons, garages (where you can re-spray your car to avoid the police) and improves your driving abilities, so there’s an incentive to attempt as many as you can, even if they become a little dull after so many almost identical challenges.
Graphically, Wheelman is a real looker, and both character and vehicle models look great. The bright, sunny and attractive setting of Barcelona is a nice change, but I do prefer the more detailed and gritty Liberty City setting, and found Wheelman‘s world to be bland and uninteresting on the whole.
It’s hard to review Wheelman without mentioning GTA, as there are so many similarities. I’ve already commented on on-foot combat, and the general GTA-feel, and there are other elements taken from Rockstar’s title. Another blatant nod to GTA is the police avoidance. When Milo is wanted by the police, you see a flashing red and blue circle appear on the map to indicate the police search zone. To escape them, you have to leave this zone, and then remain unseen for a while. This is the exact same system used in GTA 4.
This idea appropriation isn’t always a bad thing, though, and I don’t want to be overly harsh, as all developers are guilty of cribbing idea from other sources. Midway has made great use of elements from other titles, and on the whole they all work well. Of greater concern to me are the controls…
For a driving game, Wheelman‘s controls are very, very loose. Milo is seemingly almost incapable of starting a car without wheel spinning for half an hour, and it’s practically impossible to avoid smashing into anyone and everything when racing along at high speed. Making tight turns, handbrake or otherwise, usually involves even more wheel spinning, while your targets get away. When games like GTA 4 and Saints Row feature far more refined systems, there’s no real excuse for this. You do get used to the system eventually, but you never feel the same amount of control as you do in rival games.
Wheelman is a good game overall, and there’s a lot to like about it. At the same time, it not all that interesting, has a few damaging issues, and, aside from the unique car combat moves, doesn’t really offer anything new, and certainly can’t hope to stand up to the likes of Saints Row or GTA. Still, it’s worth a punt, especially if you’re a fan of GTA-style titles, and like some high speed, Hollywood car chases.