Wheelman (PlayStation 3, PC, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Midway Studios Newcastle/Tigon Studios
Publisher: Midway Games/Ubisoft
Released: March 24, 2009
MSRP: $59.99/$49.99 [PC]
Wheelman opens with cuts of Milo, the protagonist, sitting in his car, checking his surroundings with a cool gaze. The camera becomes his eyes. He observes a man on a cell phone who nervously turns and walks away. He looks left -- a cop car with two policemen. They stare, obviously curious about the massive and bald Italian-American man chilling in his car outside an important building. The camera cuts to a woman. She has just stolen a briefcase from, uh, a building. As she walks out, the alarm system ignites in a series of high-pitched squeals. She runs to Milo’s car.
“Venga, Venga, Venga,” screams the female character as she jumps into the vehicle.
The first mission begins, and Midway Games’ Wheelman hits on all cylinders. I’m running from the police, smashing into their cars and breaking through barriers. I’m drifting around corners, jamming the handbrake to slide around the tricky spots. I’m jumping from a massive ramp into the interior of an office building, where I begin tossing desks and computers aside with my car. And then I’m home free, escorting the pretty flamenco dancer to a safe haven.
It’s the over-the-top, cinematic missions like this one that make Wheelman enjoyable. However, Wheelman schizophrenically kills the good vibe by tossing in too many obstacles, enemies and objectives as it progresses. In the end, it’s a game that tries to do too much, when really all it had to do to stay fun is to keep it simple and perhaps a bit predictable.
Wheelman is an open-world action title (think Grand Theft Auto, Godfather, Mafia, Crackdown, etc.). The familiar staples include: wonky out-of-the-car controls, map system, tons of side missions, irreverent characters, carjacking, silly physics, and plenty of environmental destruction. Where Wheelman expands upon that and becomes its own title is -- you may have guessed it -- the behind-the-wheel action.
Let’s start with the driving, then. As the title of the game suggests, Milo is a wheelman, capable of handling whatever vehicle-oriented mission that is given to him. You, on the other hand, are merely a player in Milo's shoes. The driving has a bit of a learning curve. It took a few minutes to get used to the arcade-oriented physics of the cars, but once I became familiar, I found myself having a bit of a love affair with the game with the driving alone.
But Wheelman isn’t just about getting somewhere fast. It’s about doing it with style and violence. Whenever you hit a big ramp -- there are quite a few -- time slows and the camera pans around the vehicle’s exterior. Surprisingly, I never tired of the effect. It’s nice to be rewarded for doing something inspiring to begin with. The cinematic flair doesn’t stop there -- it also extends to the action. Milo can crunch cars with an interesting and satisfying car-based melee system. When an opposing vehicle gets within your sphere of influence, you can smash the car by flicking the right analog stick in the direction of the vehicle. If you drill an opposing car enough, it will turn into a fireball, slow motion-style.
As you hit the big jumps and destroy objects in the environment, a special ability meter fills. It’s called Focus, and when initiated, time crawls and the camera enters into a tight third-person view of Milo inside his vehicle. A new targeting system is displayed, allowing you to aim at and destroy vehicles or explosive barrel-laden obstructions with ease.
Another little cinematic touch is a special move called Air Jacking. Instead of having to bail from your car and run to another, you can orient Milo behind an opposing vehicle and steal it while driving. Once initiated, Milo leaps from his vehicle to the opposing one, spilling its driver on the pavement. It’s hilarious and deeply satisfying.
These additions to a GTA-style game are certainly welcome, and I was glad to find that Wheelman decided to use the same mission structure. Main story missions can be started whenever you desire, allowing you to free roam around Barcelona. While that sounds great, I found that Barcelona lacks any sort of personality. The AI wanders aimlessly, as do its drivers. It's a boring place without a mission in progress.
The side missions, however, give you extra stuff to do and, at the very least, aid the main story. Every time you complete a side mission, you’re given a boost on the ability it’s tied to. Some missions require you to wreck environmental objects with a time frame, Air Jack a target vehicle, or even taxi a person to a location on the map. Some are needlessly hard when you take into account the enemy AI and its garbage speed advantage. For whatever reason, every car driven by the AI is faster than yours. You could literally have the same model of car and it’s still quicker. This makes the racing side missions practically pointless, and often makes the main story missions lose luster.
Speaking of main story missions, let’s just get this out of the way: Wheelman’s story is a mess. Milo is some sort of supercop from the United States who comes to Bacelona to, uh, do something. Don’t get me wrong -- each mission is prefaced with story elements, but they’re thrown together haphazardly. After completing the game, I became even more confused. All I know for sure is that the poorly textured Milo can drive fast and doesn’t mind killing gang members ... because he’s a cop. I think.
My biggest qualm with the game is the momentum-reducing moments. Wheelman is a fast-paced game and when it loses that pace, there’s absolutely nothing to enjoy about it. And it happens entirely too much. The enemy AI often forms a box around you. When it keeps its distance, you can deal with the confrontation; however, whenever you smash a wall or slow down due to traffic, the AI clusters around your car and rains all sorts of hell upon your vehicle. As most missions are timed to some degree, this is a serious issue. There are many lost seconds whenever you’re forced to push your way through three vehicles clogging your path to the open road.
There are also plenty of shoddy design choices. One level has you sneak with a car. While it sounds interesting, it’s not. It’s frustrating and utterly pointless. Another mission, midway through the game, is a segmented boss battle of sorts. One portion has you on foot, battling through legions of dumb soldiers with a clunky cover mechanic. The other two are epic chase scenes that could be awesome if the enemies didn’t respawn and crowd your car at all times. It took me two hours to beat this mission thanks to GTA-style sandbox ridiculousness and unneeded extra enemies.
And bad design also works its way into the gunplay. The on-foot missions are terrible. You can duck and pop from behind objects, but there’s really no point -- the AI will just stand around and allow you to crack their skulls. In the car, it’s a mess. Whenever you narrow a reticule on an enemy’s tyre in an attempt to slow them down (shooting tires never works; they’re always faster than you) it takes several shots to bust the tire. Even though the reticule is firmly placed on the tire, you have to shoot until it turns red, and only then can the target be hit. It’s odd and ineffective.
Wheelman is a blast when the tempo is fast, the violence is at a low, and you’re nailing all the corners while pursuing an objective. The cinematic flair adds to these charming traits. However, Wheelman feels like a dud much too often when you’re crowded by a bunch of cheap enemy vehicles, are forced to get out of the car, or have to stumble through a variety of poorly designed missions. It’s a damn shame when you experience the detractions, because when the game moves, it really moves.
If you’re looking for a GTA-style title with Vin Diesel in it, then you’ve found your game. If you’re looking for an open-world, arcade-style racer, then you may want to look elsewhere. Wheelman flirts on the buggy side and the over-the-top, cinematic action is often bogged down by silly additions and weird design decisions.
Score: 6 -- Alright (6s may be slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.)
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