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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Midway
Release Date: March 24, 2009 (US), March 27, 2009 (EU)


PC Review - 'Wheelman'

by Jesse Littlefield on April 21, 2009 @ 4:11 a.m. PDT

Wheelman is an action-adventure title about an expert driver who comes out of retirement to protect a woman from his past.

Vin Diesel is certainly very interesting right now. After seemingly vanishing from entertainment after the disaster that was "The Pacifier," Diesel has come back with yet another "Fast and the Furious" movie, another Riddick game, and now he's playing a driver in Wheelman. It's a game that I wanted to love; the premise shouldn't have worked, but Diesel has just enough cheesy charm that it could have turned out to be a fun title. Unfortunately, all of those neat cheesy concepts are completely overshadowed by clunky execution at just about every turn.

While your character may have the likeness and voice of Diesel, you'll be spending your time in Wheelman as Milo Burik, the persona you take on to go undercover as a wheelman to criminal organizations in Barcelona. A man in a suit explains to you at the start that there's some sort of incredibly dangerous item on the loose in Barcelona, and it's up to you to get it. You'll also get some occasional hints via in-game e-mails that you're on the right side of the law, and that's about as much of the story as you're going to get.

Video games are often knocked for having weak writing when compared to almost every other form of media, and Wheelman is really a perfect example of this phenomenon. When I say that a story is "impossible to follow," that means it wasn't a very interesting story, so keeping track of the various odds and ends can be tough since the player doesn't really care. The story in Wheelman is impossible to follow. I really tried to figure out what was going on in the game, and while some missions have very obvious connections to the others, I was never able to figure out what was going on in the main story.

An extreme example was a mission that didn't have any lead-in. There weren't any cut scenes to vaguely explain the situation to me beforehand, so when I started the mission, I was given a text prompt that told me, "The tube is at the construction site," and I needed to get it. When I got there, a three-way gang war going on, and no one was on my side. Everybody wanted this cardboard tube, and I had absolutely no idea why.

Beyond the incoherent story, Wheelman mimics the concept of Grand Theft Auto and tries to move the focus to driving, with some vehicular combat thrown in for good measure. This is the one area where Wheelman really succeeds. The combat is so over-the-top and ridiculous that for a short while, you can't help but have fun doing absurd things with your car. Your main mode of attack is what the game refers to as "vehicle melee," where a simple button press causes your car to suddenly slam sideways. Apparently every car that Diesel touches gains the ability to turn its tires sideways, and it's fantastic. Trying to fight several cars at once while speeding through the streets of Barcelona is an intense experience and about as thrilling as the game gets.

This starts to wear thin after a while, though, and it can become extremely frustrating as the game wears on. The amount of enemies you have to deal with becomes seemingly infinite during several missions, and the fun quickly wanes. Thankfully, Wheelman gives you several other ridiculous abilities to use. While firing out of your window is pretty standard fare, if you build up enough "focus" from doing crazy stuff like speeding and ramming enemy cars, you can enter two different bullet time modes, which highlight weak points on enemy cars. Shoot the highlighted circles a few times, and the car magically explodes. It's both ridiculous and extremely satisfying.

Did you remember that I said there are two versions of this move? One has you sticking your gun in front of you to shoot, which is great most of the time, but on rare occasions when you manage to build a solid lead on the cars shooting at you, the second version has you spin the car around 180 degrees and go in reverse while you shoot. This move usually produces a childlike grin when you can get it right, but swinging the car back around after that move usually results in you slamming into a wall. This makes the move significantly less bad-ass.

By far the single most absurd thing at your disposal is what's known as "air jacking." Not content to get out of a wrecked car and run over to a fresh one, Milo is apparently capable of climbing onto the hood of his current ride, jumping over to a fresh ride and stealing that at breakneck speeds. While you weren't looking, Milo apparently learned how to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Jumping around between cars is just the kind of crazy stuff that makes the chases in Wheelman enjoyable. Even when your car is down for the count, doing something as ridiculous as taking someone else's car without ever touching the ground keeps the chase going and looks cool in the process.

That is about where the positives end for Wheelman.

Let's talk about the AI during these car chases. As long as you keep moving, enemies will chase you down, pull up alongside you, shoot at you and ram you. When you decide to slow down or get out of your car, things go south in a hurry. Enemies take far too long to regain their bearings, so it's easy to get ahead of the enemy by driving like an old lady for 10 seconds. Even worse is that the enemy is at a complete loss when you decide to get out of your car and run around on foot. Some of them will still shoot at you, but stopping, getting out and running over to a new car is a surprisingly effective tactic.

Trying to control these battles is not exactly easy either. While you have a few options for using the keyboard, none of them feel particularly good, especially when you have to switch between using the arrow keys for car combat to the mouse when you need to use a gun. Thankfully, Wheelman supports the Xbox 360 controller, so if you can plug it into your computer, the controls are much better.

As for the mission structure, there are a ton of things to do in Barcelona, but none of it requires that you do any exploring. You can bring up the city map at any time and click on any task. Regardless of whether it's a main mission or side mission, you're instantly teleported to the location and inserted into the mission. There are a variety of side missions, but none of them are very interesting so it's difficult to find the motivation to keep going.

As far as story missions go, Wheelman suffers in largely the same way that most sandbox games suffer from mission design. Every mission boils down to driving somewhere, getting out of your car and shooting a bunch of people, and driving somewhere else. Sometimes, you're even chased. Wheelman is no exception to this rule, which is a real shame because the part where you get out of the car is underwhelming. The on-foot gunplay is some of the least inspired, bland and dull combat I've seen in a shooter in the last year. No one told the developers that the on-foot combat needed work, so they stuck it in just about every mission, which is unfortunate because it's a real sore spot. The AI is sub-par, the gunplay is sub-par, the animations are laughable, and the difficulty is nonexistent.

Wheelman runs on the Unreal 3 engine, which often means you don't have to try very hard to get visual gold for your game, but Wheelman manages to alternate between the higher end of average-looking and muddy and bland. Cut scenes are the strongest part of the visual experience, so although the script was impossible to follow, careful attention was given to ensure that these setups would be visually striking. Once you get in the game, all kinds of things start to go wrong — choppy animations, collision bugs, muddy textures and physics bugs — none of it really meshes. The city doesn't even manage to capture much interest; it's clean and colorful, but it doesn't really stand out as being memorable. Much of the city also features banners that are riddled with advertising. If there's one thing that I learned during my treks through Barcelona, it's that "The Spirit" comes out on DVD and Blu-ray soon.

On the audio front, Diesel is about the only thing the game has going for it. His cheesy one-liners are what he specializes in, and the game makes good use of it. Everyone else is overacting with heavy accents, just to let you know that you're in Europe. The sounds of the city are hardly noticeable, and although there are several radio stations that you can listen to, they take a back seat to the action and end up being completely forgettable.

With a main story that will take most gamers about eight hours to complete — assuming you don't give up on it before then — there really isn't a reason for you to keep playing once you've finished it. There's also no multiplayer component, which is extremely disappointing because the vehicular combat was just ripe for multiplayer goodness.

It's probably a good thing that Midway handed Wheelman to Ubisoft when it did because Midway needs games that will sell and make a profit right now, and Wheelman is not that title. I can't recommend it at its current price point. The car combat is fun for a couple of hours, but everything else is riddled with so many problems. Unless you're a strange soul who can't get enough of the muscle-bound actor, there's no reason to give this game a second glance.

Score: 5.8/10


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