Name: The Wheelman
Genre: Driving, Action
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
The industry was shocked when The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay outperformed most other shooters of its time, considering it was developed by Starbreeze and newcomer Tigon Studios, founded by actor Vin Diesel. We soon learned that, apparently, Vin Diesel really likes video games. Years passed, Microsoft never added Butcher Bay to the list of backwards compatible titles on the Xbox 360, and Tigon continued making games with Diesel's likeness. One was a remake of Butcher Bay, entitled Escape from Dark Athena, and the other was The Wheelman. Instead of simply creating another action title based on one of his movies, the developer decided to attempt to build a full franchise with The Wheelman, featuring a digitized Vin Diesel racing around the criminal underworld of Barcelona as an undercover federal agent. However, in order for the series to branch out into movies, comics, books, and whatever else Tigon hopes to achieve, the game itself has to peeform first, and The Wheelman often finds itself forgetting to disengage the parking break, burning rubber and blowing smoke instead of actually speeding off.
A well modeled Vin Diesel plays Milo Burik, an agent sent to infiltrate Barcelona's seedy underbelly for unknown reasons. Eventually, it turns out that some important government information has been taken and is being passed around by different gangs in the city, and it's up to Milo to find it. Throughout the game, Milo creates alliances with different members of large criminal organizations, using them to get closer to his goals, which seem entirely secondary to jumping on cars. It's hard to keep up with exactly what is going on at any given time due to terrible storytelling, made much worse by the lack of likable characters.
For the most part, no one in the game has any real personality, spattering out terrible dialogue and corny catchphrases in place of any sort of character development. Milo might actually be the largest offender, and most of Vin Diesel's lines are heavy-handed driving references. Before long, you'll start to suspect that Diesel might have penned the script himself, scribbling down catch-phrases and asking someone else to build a story around lines such as "You'll always know where I am... behind the wheel" and "A wheelman always knows when to stop... and when to go." There's little inflection in his voice, even for Vin, and it sounds as if they might have just used rejected Riddick voicework captured during Dark Athena's recording sessions.
That doesn't have to be an issue, though, and The Wheelman was built as an action game first and foremost, more in the vein of The Fast & The Furious than The Departed. Tremendously bad scripts and abysmal V.O. can actually add a bit of charm to a game that doesn't take itself too seriously, and there are many times when it looks like it might fall in to that category. It turns out that Milo isn't just one of the best wheelmen to ever set foot in Barcelona, he's also a god damned superhero. Well, not literally, but some of the moves he's capable of are over-the-top even by action game standards. Inside of a vehicle, the controls are amazingly tight, and after a few minutes it's easy to pull off remarkable acts from behind the wheel, drifting around bends and swerving between traffic with cinematic precision. When not evading other vehicles, Milo can smash into adjacent cars by tapping the right stick in a direction, creating a "Car-Fu" element that works very well. After a few smashes, a dramatic camera will show the car being enveloped in flames, ripping apart, and flipping through the air. This camera trick is used constantly during the game, and sets it apart from most other open-world titles by putting a focus on the unrealistic side of The Wheelman. Nearly all of the story missions and most of the side jobs involve either trying to escape by smashing enemies' cars to pieces or trying to pursue by smashing enemies' cars to pieces, and although it might become repetitive there's definitely entertainment value.
Besides slamming vehicles, there are a few other ways to take care of other drivers, some more creative than others. After filling up the Focus Gauge, Boosting, Precise Shot, and the 180° Cyclone can be accessed, allowing Milo to slow down time and either aim carefully at cars in front of him or spin around, firing at anyone behind. These action moves pale in comparison to what might be the most outlandish of his abilities: Airjacking. As he approaches the rear of a car, Milo can lean out of the door, waiting for the red meter above the target to turn green. Once it does, he makes a colossal leap from the hood, flies through the air, and lands atop the speeding vehicle. After kicking out the driver, he takes control, essentially carjacking from the air… get it? During car chases the action promised in the game's premise is delivered, and there are few games on the market that can give The Wheelman any real competition when it comes to vehicular action.
It's easiest to look at The Wheelman as two different games: one that doesn't take itself seriously, and is "an action-packed thrill ride," and one that takes itself too seriously, and struggles to maintain relevance. Anytime The Wheelman thinks itself anything more than an outrageous driving game is when there are issues with the gameplay. As mentioned earlier, crashing into enemy vehicles will scratch the paint, break the windows, and smash off large chunks of the body, until it is finally sent flying through the air to an explosive Burnout-styled finish. Though rewarding, these cinematic scenes are stunted by shining a spotlight on one of the Wheelman's largest issues: its ESRB rating.
Nearly every mission involves smashing apart vehicles, and quite often it's the Barcelonian Police force that finds itself exposed to Milo's vehicular attacks. As it bursts into flames the bodies of the officers fly out and smash into the ground. Then, they stand up, and continue firing their weapons. Civilians also seem completely immune to death, and will dive out of the way of speeding vehicles, even if it means jumping through other cars. There's death in the game - great gobs of it - but it seems Midway pulled back when it came to taking down police or civilians. In line with the game's story it makes sense, since Burik's superiors wouldn't be too happy hearing that he's rolling around and killing cops, but there are other workarounds. How about, for instance, 3/4 of the story's missions don't involve destroying cop cars during high-speed pursuits? How about there's more of an emphasis on simply eluding police or avoiding collateral damage, as opposed to the game's insistence on driving down sidewalks through office buildings? It might sound malicious and a little bit disturbing, but it feels like making an open world action game with a Teen-Rating might be missing the point. I never thought myself as too much of a deviant, but every time a civilian jumps out of the way of my bumper I consider reaching over for Grand Theft Auto IV.
Besides that admitted nit-pick, Milo's superpowers apparently meet their kryptonite when he's on foot, and the gunplay is downright painful. It isn't difficult, because for there to be a challenge there would have to be challenging enemies, it's just boring, slow, and meticulous. He can't jump, he runs like an idiot, and the aiming system might actually be too simplified. The instruction booklet says that Milo can take cover and fire from it, but in reality it's just a fancy way of saying he can crouch, and there's no difference in crouching behind a wall and crouching in the middle of an empty street.
It would have been much better if they would have went any other way with it, either making him incredibly weak when outside out of vehicles, or maintaining his superhuman status when on foot. The idea of allowing him to have different versions of his Focus powers outside of the car seems like it could have been the best option, and imagining Milo kicking off of one enemy and tackling another for Airjacking, slowing down time and lining up a few headshots with Precise shots, and spinning in circles, guns blazing for 180° Cyclone might have been enough to improve the game dramatically. Instead, it appears to be tacked on out of some sort of misplaced obligation to connect the game more to the Grand Theft Auto series, when it should have strayed away from that formula in favor of something fresh.
In other words, something about The Wheelman doesn't feel entirely finished. It could be the graphics, which look sloppy and fall victim to all of the downfalls of the Unreal 3 engine. Texture pop-ins are almost constant, and they don't even look that good once they are fully displayed. It could be the glitches, which aren't really game breaking, but will occasionally rear their ugly heads, causing a motorcycle to make an unnatural flip or bending and contorting an enemy's body. It could also be the lack of multiplayer, which might have been the game's saving grace. Driving at breakneck speeds and smashing into enemies' cars online could have been great fun, and it's upsetting that Tigon decided not to add it to the game. Then again, it might actually just be the ideas behind the game, which feel as though they weren't fully thought out.
The Wheelman promises high-octane action and it usually delivers; but the thrills are somewhat cheap and hollow. During long gameplay sessions even the craziest of the action can become boring, and there's little lasting appeal outside of smashing cars and jumping off of motorcycles. The speed might be enough for some, but others will quickly be turned off by the many faults, which sometimes Airjack the game and crash it into a wall. In trying to create more than a video game, Tigon has somehow managed to restrict themselves. Hopefully they've learned from their mistakes, and will know, in the future, to focus on one thing at a time.