Review: Wheelman

Wheelman.jpg Vin Diesel’s Wheelman is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the year for me thus far. Frankly, given Midway’s struggles and the game’s troubled development cycle, I expected the game to flat out suck. I’m talking suck on the level of Driv3r. But surprise, surprise, the game doesn’t suck at all. In fact, it’s a straight blast to play.

As a new entry in the open-world genre, Wheelman finds itself in a tough spot, especially among jaded gamers and reviewers still in too much of a love affair with Grand Theft Auto IV, which is probably why you haven’t seen that many positive reviews for this game. Unfairly, this game is going to be compared to games like GTA IV and even Saints Row 2 and generally ripped apart for not being as “sandboxy” as either of those titles. But in reality it’s a very different type of experience and really can’t be lumped in with any other game.

Now sure, Wheelman does have some obvious similarities to GTA. You’re exploring an open city environment taking on random jobs for different gang factions. And Vin Diesel’s character is named Milo Burik, which sounds way too similar to GTA IV’s Niko Bellic to me.

However, as a whole the gameplay is vastly different. Wheelman is actually more akin to open-world racers like Burnout Paradise and Test Drive Unlimited crossed with Sony’s PSP action series Pursuit Force. You are cruising around an exotic city – Barcelona in this case – but the missions are much more focused and the game has the flair of arcade-style games like Crazy Taxi and Spy Hunter. You also won’t find the most riveting of storylines here. The plot is about as deep as a Fast and the Furious flick.

On-foot gunplay does play a secondary role throughout the game, and while certainly nothing special the third-person shooter mechanics are competent enough to hold your attention during the shooting bits. But for the most part, Wheelman is a game about driving, and behind the wheel is where this game shines.

Cruising around Barcelona is a joy. The driving controls are excellent, the sense of speed exhilarating, and the damage modeling impressive. Basically, this game is like playing through one Hollywood blockbuster car chase scene after another. “All I need is a fast car and a place to go.” That in-game quote from the virtual lips of Vin Diesel pretty much summarizes what this game is all about.

What’s more, Wheelman pulls out some new tricks other open-world games don’t have. In this game, cars are more than just a means of escape, they are weapons. While driving you can flick the right analog stick and perform a quick left, right or forward charge that is essentially a vehicular melee attack (this mechanic also doubles as a helpful evasion technique). Vin Diesel’s character also has the skills of a Pursuit Force agent. As Milo, you can airjack other cars – do this by driving up behind another vehicle until an arrow indicator turns green, then you can leap from your ride to the next – and perform some crazy slow-mo gunplay actions from behind the wheel using Focus power earned by drifting, causing damage and driving at high speeds.

Another subtle feature I really appreciated is the ability to jump directly into story missions from the map screen. The game uses the genre-standard PDA map interface with GPS navigation, but if you don’t feel like driving back and forth across the city mission after mission you can simply pop open the PDA and select the next mission. Tedious backtracking between missions is a big pet peeve of mine in open-world games, so it’s nice to finally have the option to skip through all the unnecessary travel.

The only real flaw holding Wheelman back is its absurd rubber band AI. All the different vehicles you get to commandeer have appropriate physics and control how they should – motorcycles are quick and nimble, sports cars can turn on a dime and are the best for drifting, trucks weave through traffic more sluggishly and are tougher to turn, etc. – but the type of vehicle doesn’t make any difference when it comes to speed. You can be going full speed in the fastest sports car yet a boxy van loaded with enemies will always stay right on your tail. In a way I do understand why the game was designed this way. It’s an action game and having enemy chasers constantly on your tail promotes action. But at the same time, a game like this should also reward your abilities as a wheelman, so if you’re skilled enough to leave pursuers in your dust you should be able to do so without the game essentially cheating to keep you engaged with the enemy.

Unless rubber band AI is an unforgivable pet peeve of yours, Wheelman is a game I heartily recommend. What it lacks in storytelling depth and true sandbox immersion it more than makes up for in cinematic thrills and pure entertainment value. A pleasant surprise indeed!

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Pros:
+ Exhilarating sense of speed and pacing
+ Smooth driving mechanics
+ Intuitive PDA interface; gotta love the quick-travel option!
+ Good amount of side missions to keep you busy once the story ends

Cons:
– Cheap rubber band AI
– Uninspired story

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available on PC and PS3
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Midway/Tigon
Release Date: 3/24/09
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!