One of the two new titles debuting at Midway's Gamers Day was The Wheelman, now simply Wheelman, a Hollywood-style title developed along with action star and famous gamer, Vin Diesel. What sets Wheelman apart from virtually all other open world titles is that it's about the driving aspect first and foremost. You can get out of your car and explore the city, and occasionally get into gunfights with bad guys, but success in most missions involves driving skillfully from point A to point B without being captured by cops or shot to pieces by rivals. What this means in practice is that Wheelman, in its current pre-alpha state, has basically the best controls of any open world title this reporter has ever played. Wheelman is tight, responsive, and accurate; the vague feeling that you're actually pushing around a rocket-powered shopping cart that plagues even high-quality open world games like Saint's Row is utterly gone. At heart, Wheelman handles like a solid racing or driving title, more arcade than simulation, and that's exactly the right feel for the game's tone and story.
Wheelman appears to be one of the first games to take most of its story and engine beats from the best of Hollywood car chases. The developers specifically name-dropped the famous chase scenes from "The French Connection" and "Ronin," and parts of the gameplay segments were also obviously reminiscent of "The Italian Job." Wheelman manages to emulate this very specific type of action scene with remarkable authenticity. The game's streets are lined with pedestrians to avoid and public property to smash. Car models show damage, but can't be destroyed (after all, the car doesn't fall apart until after the chase). Streets are lined with convenient ramps, and you can wreck as much of the random traffic around you as you please. Perhaps best of all, Midway has implemented some gameplay mechanics that let you implement the aggressive driving tactics that usually play a role in movie chase scenes. Midway calls the unique part of this system "Vehicle Melee," and it's a surprisingly simple affair.
While driving, you use fairly standard driving controls for a 360 game. The right trigger accelerates, the left trigger is brake and reverse, and the left analog stick steers. To engage in Vehicle Melee, a player simply tilts the right analog stick to the left or right, which makes your car jerk suddenly left or right. If you release the analog stick, the car swerves back into its starting position, and if you hold it, you can use the Vehicle Melee to rapidly swap lanes or avoid obstacles. During a chase, you can essentially run down the stamina of enemy cars by bumping into them or making them crash into things. Once they're softened up, a single hit in Vehicle Melee can send them exploding off the road. Even if it's a fresh opponent, you can easily use Vehicle Melee to send him crashing into walls, obstacles and oncoming traffic. It's an especially handy way to dispose of a car that's pulling up alongside you so a gunman can lean out and pepper your car with fire.
You, of course, have the option of leaning out of your own car and shooting at drivers. This is a far less efficient way to get rid of your opponents than Vehicle Melee, and mostly ignorable in actual vehicle combat — until your meter is full. By smashing into property and opponents during chases, you fill up a small meter in the lower-left corner of the screen. When it reaches the red line, you can perform a "super shot" with your gun that slows down everything into bullet time. Pressing up lets you shoot in front of you, and down lets you shoot behind. If you line up a shot perfectly with a flashing target over the hoods of enemy cars while in bullet time, you'll be able to use a single bullet to make the car explode in a ball of fire that wipes out anything nearby. The effect is impressive and deeply satisfying, and it nicely breaks up longer chase scenes. Using your super shots efficiently can make a big difference in how difficult a chase is overall, especially if lightweight vehicles like motorcycles are involved. While most cars take multiple hits to "soften up", a single strike in Vehicle Melee or a single well-placed shot is enough to dispatch a motorcycle and its rider.
The first of the Wheelman demo levels was the game's initial level, called "Frantic," where you must simply drive an accomplice away from a bank robbery safely. This level consists entirely of learning car chase basics, and having to follow the shouted directions of your NPC passenger. A few moments in the sequence were scripted, but so spectacularly choreographed they felt highly rewarding. The chase's ending, which involved taking your car off the road and barging through an empty office building, even manages to be highly memorable by the genre's standards.
It is possible to get out of your car in Wheelman to explore the world on foot, and the second demo mission requires it for a segment of the action. "Introducing Benito," as the title implies, calls for you to rescue a character named Benito and deliver him to a gang leader who has business with him. Benito is in the hands of a rival gang that isn't happy with him, so you'll have to shoot Benito's way free.
Wheelman's shooting controls are simple and workable, if not especially inspired. They work, more or less, like the standard shooting controls for every 360 open world title to date. You can crouch to take cover behind crates and other objects, but this mechanic isn't elaborate or even especially essential. What is pleasant is that your character can only carry two guns at once. While you can toggle between them freely, you need to focus more on conserving ammo than you do in more gunfight-heavy open world titles. This makes the shootouts feel more significant and more like a movie action scene than the usual video game fare.
Wheelman takes place entirely within the Spanish city of Barcelona, which the development team has taken great pains to map out with some accuracy. Major landmarks and architectural styles have been meticulously matched, and the assortment of licensed and original vehicles for the game is patterned after the vehicles one might actually see on the streets of Barcelona. Likewise, the pedestrian and traffic patterns are based roughly on the rhythms of movement in the actual city. Never having been to Barcelona, it's hard to say how accurate the game's mapping of the city is. It certainly feels like a distinctly European setting in terms of architecture and the wide open plazas that dot the city's heart, and there is a sequence where you drive through a bullfighting ring.
It's impossible to judge the visuals of Wheelman fairly, as the game build offered for play was pre-alpha and clearly had most of its work put into getting the physics and controls tight. Many textures were unfinished, although to the game's credit, clipping errors were nonexistent. Characters and cars were already moving with convincing animation patterns, lacking only the polish required for spectacle. What was impressive, when you could hear it, was the game's score. Instead of the usual sludge of generic licensed songs that plague open world games, Wheelman had an original soundtrack clearly inspired by the music of the actual classic car chase films, and it perfectly captured the way a good film uses music. Tracks were purely instrumental, monumental during major car chases and then light and airy during relaxed scenes. Moving toward enemies provoked tense music, while bursts of action called for suitable bursts of brass and heavy synth bass. The music did a lot to help imagine the finished product while playing the early version, and in the final game could prove to be a marvelous finishing touch. The voice acting, provided by Diesel and a less noteworthy but no less talented stable, was also unusually good as these sorts of games go.
Open world is a saturated genre on the 360, and with Grand Theft Auto IV about to hit, players are going to finally be able to play a new installment in the series that fathered the genre. New open world titles need to demonstrate extremely high-production values and a certain amount of originality if they want to stand out from the pack. With its tight driving controls and impressive reproduction of the feel of a Hollywood chase movie, Wheelman has a good chance of standing out in the crowded genre; it only needs to get properly tweaked, polished and finished up before release.
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