Given the acclaim heaped upon The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay by both fans and critics alike, you could be forgiven for thinking that the latest game to feature the macho mug of Vin Diesel would be anticipated with bated breath. However, any buzz generated by Wheelman seems to have been dismissed by gamers in many quarters, replaced by a general apathy towards Ubisoft’s Fast and Furious-‘em up. Upon actually playing the game this negativity cannot be entirely washed away, but Wheelman is not quite the Driv3r-style debacle some had predicted.
Having said that, there are several things Wheelman does have in common with Driver and its sequels. An undercover cop with the driving skills of an urban Lewis Hamilton, infiltrating the criminal underworld in a real-life city setting; it all sounds rather familiar. The premise itself is lifted straight from Reflections Interactive’s Driver games, and one can’t help but wonder if Ubisoft are using this as a chance to rebrand a broken franchise after the duel disappointment of Driv3r and Driver: Parallel Lines (the only Driver game released since Ubisoft took over Reflections). If so it would theoretically make sound business sense, as would having a Hollywood action star being the one to put the pedal to the metal. This is why it is baffling to find that Wheelman falls into many of the same old traps as its spiritual predecessors.
“On-foot sections are unsatisfying, with Vin displaying all the lithe athleticism of an overweight baboon with rickets”On-foot sections, for starters, are unsatisfying, with Vin displaying all the lithe athleticism of an overweight baboon with rickets. Let’s just say the gunplay on offer here won’t be giving Gears of War 2 any sleepless nights. These on-foot combat set pieces are perfunctory at best, and serve as a fruitless attempt to break up the repetitive nature of the game. Thankfully they are fairly infrequent occurrences. In many ways they are a reminder of the unnecessary stealth sections that were shoehorned into many games on previous-gen consoles, purely because some hapless market research bod decided “that’s what the kids want these days”. We’ve all seen worse examples of third-person shooting than offered by Wheelman, but there’s nothing here that’s going to leave a lasting impression.
The real-world setting of Barcelona sounds intriguing, but is not handled to its full potential. It’s not a bad playground, just a little uninspired, and in truth it seems as if the developers spun a globe and stuck a pin in at random. You could be anywhere in the world, which seems a waste of an interesting choice of backdrop. As many of the characters speak in Spanish, it’s also very difficult to read English subtitles whilst engaged in a full-blown gang-war at 100 miles per hour.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. After the (relatively) more realistic vehicle handling of GTA IV, which many players found difficult to get to grips with, a lot of people will find the OTT physics and arcade-style handling on display here a welcome injection of Nitrous Oxide. I expect to see the erstwhile Mr. Diesel in the film adaptation of Crazy Taxi any day now. Vehicles are muchos fun to drive, if a little lightweight when it comes to steering, and some impressive feats of speed can be achieved as you swerve in and out of traffic.
“Impacts are satisfyingly weighty when timed correctly, and feel aggressive enough to sate even the most ardent auto-maniac’s bloodlust”But the most impressive aspect of the game has to be the much publicised in-car attacks available. Most basic are the standard “melee” moves, which, with a quick flick of the right analogue stick, send your vehicle careening sideways or forwards into opposing vehicles (or innocent motorists, shop fronts and unfortunate passersby if your aim isn’t so good). The impacts are satisfyingly weighty when timed correctly, and feel aggressive enough to sate even the most ardent auto-maniac’s bloodlust. Driving heavy vehicles like trucks and vans is especially enjoyable, as you cut through swarms of gang cars, crunching them up like aluminium cans. After a few solid hits most enemy vehicles are ready to be “finished off”, indicated by a flashing icon above them, and one final collision will send them into an explosive death-roll or hurtling into buildings at a nicely cinematic angle. The intro mission is a great example of this Burnout-fashion vehicular violence, and has you destroying police cars in fine style. Unfortunately much of the rest of the game does not live up to the level of excitement set by this opening level.
In addition to melee attacks, you will unlock a few other moves fairly early on in the story. The most useful of these is the “Air Jack”. When driving, this allows you to leap from your car onto any other vehicle, yank the driver out of his seat and assume control. It’s easy enough to pull off, by driving directly behind your target and holding down B until the icon flashes green. Release B and Bob’s your uncle, one fresh shiny motor car is yours for the very reasonable price of absolutely nada. Very handy if enemy gunmen have just turned your sports car into Swiss cheese with automatic weapons.
Other moves require you to build up a “Focus” meter by driving at high speeds, avoiding traffic, destroying obstacles, drifting and performing handbrake turns before they can be activated. Once you have enough juice in the meter you can give yourself a turbo boost by holding down the A button, or perform one of two special attacking manoeuvres. The “Aimed Shot” does exactly what it says on the tin, and effectively works like a super-powered version of bullet-time, allowing the Dieselmeister to destroy enemy cars with one well-placed pistol shot. The “Cyclone” manoeuvre is essentially the same as the Aimed Shot, but with a twist (literally). Rather than just shooting ahead, this move involves spinning your vehicle 180°, then using the bullet-time attack to fire through your own windscreen, before spinning back to your original position. It’s a great move, and is all activated at the touch of a button, leaving you to blast away at will. All these special attacks are entertaining to pull off even after you’ve done so dozens of times, which is a laudable achievement in itself.
Additionally you can fire your handgun from any vehicle using the left bumper, and use submachine guns when riding motorcycles. Maintain a steady position behind your intended target for long enough and the crosshairs turn red, indicating you’ve locked on to an enemy’s tyre or a gunman riding shotgun. This is a novel idea, if a little tricky to pull off sometimes in the heat of battle, and a refined version of this would certainly make a welcome addition to games like GTA and Saints Row. All in all, the in-car combat in Wheelman is fairly competent, which is a necessity as you spend 90% of your time behind the wheel.
As for why you’re behind the wheel…well, it beats the hell out of me. Wheelman suffers from a virtually incoherent narrative, not because it’s particularly complex, but because nothing is properly explained. It feels as if big chunks of storyline are missing. Characters drift in and out, and most are so derivative and dull that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, and almost impossible to give a flying Ferrari about any of them. Speaking of which, Vinnie D’s alter ego in Wheelman (going by the name of Milo Buric, which sounds suspiciously like a certain Slavic resident of Liberty City) is not the most charismatic of heroes. This is due in large part to the fact that, performance wise, Vin seems to be “phoning it in”, as they say. This comes as something of a surprise given that his company Tigon Studios is involved with the game’s development. Maybe games are not quite the labour of love that ol’ VD would have us believe. Whatever the reason, all these factors serve to dislocate the player from the story, which in turn waters down the action, as you simply don’t care why you’re undertaking most of the tasks at hand.
“The lack of realistic AI throws you out of the game completely”Also frustrating is the way in which all too often your enemies follow the same pre-ordained routes around the city. Scripted events are supposed to be there to add excitement and ideally throw up some interesting set pieces, which doesn’t happen often enough in Wheelman. You’ll have to restart quite a few missions numerous times, and any charm wears off pretty quickly when you’ve chased the same car over the same patch of tarmac for the umpteenth time. On one particular job I couldn’t catch my target for love nor money, and the thrill of the chase was somewhat ruined by the fact that he kept driving around the same mile or so long loop. This lack of realistic AI throws you out of the game completely; why would anyone in their right mind, when trying to evade a psychopathic skinhead who keeps ramming your car, keep driving round in a circle?
Some areas seem to have been Turtle-Waxed to near perfection, while others could do with T-cutting. Cut scenes, for example, sometimes look moderately impressive, yet others with different lighting effects make the character models look very shoddy indeed. The in-game music also suffers from such inconsistency, as while a lot of it is competently performed, it is on the whole fairly anonymous. Which sums up the game in general, really.
Completing story tasks unlocks numerous side missions, such as taxi jobs, Hot Potato (chase around a small area picking up and dropping off packages), Rampage (cause as much damage as possible in a given time limit), Fugitive (evade pursuers to get to a safe house), Made to Order (Air Jack a specific vehicle), Street Showdown (races in which you can aggressively take down your opponents) and Contracts (destroy a bullet-proof vehicle). Most of these are mildly diverting at first, but soon become dull as repetition sets in. Getting “S” grades on these unlocks bonuses like vehicle upgrades, weapon caches and garages to repair your vehicles. You won’t have much cause to use these things however, as weapons and ammo are plentiful and there is little difference between many of the vehicles, so if you’re driving a busted old hooptie it’s easier to Air Jack a new ride than drive to a garage.
“Just when it should be hitting top gear it is knocked back into neutral by inconsistencies and average execution”One feature that will be appreciated by many people is the ability to warp instantly to the mission of your choice simply by clicking on it on your GPS screen. Having to drive for several minutes just to begin a mission is something that gamers have complained about in sand-box games like GTA for years, so many people will welcome this as a handy addition. However it does mean that you don’t get to naturally take in routes and shortcuts around Barcelona like you do in other games, and again adds to the general sense of detachment from proceedings.
This could have been an inspired game, and it certainly contains some original touches and good ideas. However, just when it should be hitting top gear it is knocked back into neutral by inconsistencies and average execution. While it is worth a rental and a few hours of your time, Wheelman is ultimately a frustrating experience.