Not fast enough. Not furious enough
Since the release of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay on the original Xbox in 2004, Tigon Studios and their founder, Hollywood star - Vin Diesel, have set the standard for videogame movie tie-ins. Their latest project, Wheelman, stars Diesel once again, but takes a very different direction and also produces vastly different results.
You play as Milo Burik (Vin Diesel in voice and appearance), an undercover CIA agent and "wheelman," essentially a high-end getaway driver. Your role is to infiltrate various gangs and criminal factions in the real-world city of Barcelona in Spain. The developers clearly put a lot of effort into making sure the architecture in their virtual city matches the real city's iconic landmarks. As you drive through Catalunya's capital you'll notice famous landmarks such as Sagrada Família and Casa Milà. However, while the buildings are true to life some liberties have been taken with the street layout, most notably in the roads being much wider than in real life, in order to make chases through traffic a little easier. That said, they need not have bothered widening the streets because there is very little traffic and pedestrians compared to other open-world games, like GTA IV, so virtual Barca ends up feeling a little empty by comparison.
The seemingly thinly populated city may have come as a result of using Unreal Engine 3 to render the game's open-world. Unreal 3 is normally saved for high detail, smaller, closed environments - and it shows in Wheelman. Environmental textures are often functional enough, but sometimes stray into the downright ugly, while the relatively low resolution character models are most definitely sub-par. There are some strange proportional issues as well. Vin's over-designed chest pecks look distinctly "man-boob" like from some angles! On the other hand, the vehicles look pretty good, but obviously more effort has spent on modelling the 1 or 2 licensed cars, rather than on the much more common unlicensed vehicles.
In gameplay terms Wheelman is structured very similarly to other car-chase games, such as Driver and True Crime, though it certainly has its own gimmicks to set it apart. Most prominent of these is "vehicle melee" which has you using the right stick to slam your car into your enemies, effectively using it as a weapon.
You also have a couple of special moves which will immediately have you thinking of the highway chase in The Matrix Reloaded. "Aim Shot" allows you to shoot forwards through your own windscreen in first person, helping you to pinpoint enemy fuel tanks for quick kills. "Cyclone" performs the same function, but spins you 180 degrees to aim at enemy's car bonnets, or even the driver himself. They most definitely achieve their goal of changing the way you think about car chases in games, but after you've seen them a few times they can start to feel repetitive. Finally there's "Air Jack" which allows you to jump from car-to-car at high speed, Just Cause style, to change out of a damaged vehicle without stopping.
The core handling model is very arcadey, encouraging epic drifts and handbrake turns as well as ludicrous slow-mo jumps and explosions, but it's nothing you haven't seen before and its stiffness makes navigating through traffic on a motorbike unnecessarily difficult. However, as soon as you step out of a car you quickly realise that the driving is definitely Wheelman's strength.
On-foot control is exceptionally bad considering this game runs on the same engine that powers Gears of War. The cover system requires back-to-basics use of the crouch button and the animation is really lacking in polish. Shooting is solid enough and the aiming is reminiscent of GTA IV, but the enemies you'll be shooting at aren't exactly the smartest. When you're out of the car the game feels distinctly "last-gen."
On top of the story driven missions you get a whole raft of side missions, which are often more entertaining than the story. These include taxi fares, races, fugitive chases (point to point chases), rampages (destroying a certain amount of road side objects) and contracts (take out a specific enemy vehicle). Completing these objectives will upgrade some of your abilities, such as your car's durability, but you can very easily finish the game without ever doing them.
Wrapped around the gameplay is a story that you've probably seen before in countless action films and you'll be hard pressed to feel emotionally connected to any of the characters. There are a couple of events later in the game that are clearly supposed to pull at your heart strings, but frankly the storytelling was so disjointed that I was still struggling to figure out who everyone was. On top of all this, the voice acting is really poor, even Vin Diesel himself sounds robotic.
In the last act of the story the game tries to present the player with a sense of choice by offering 3 missions, only 1 of which you can play, but the story makes no sense so you're unlikely to feel the impact of your decision. Besides, whichever choice you make ultimately results in you undertaking a structurally identical mission anyway, just in a different part of the city and with a different character dying at the end of it.
My other major gripe with the game is that it can be very buggy. Very occasionally you'll see traffic spawn out of thin air and during my review playthrough I experienced one glitch that broke the game entirely. I failed a mission by being pulled from my car by a police officer, but upon reloading a checkpoint the animation of the cop pulling me from the vehicle just kept on repeating over and over again. The only solution was to restart the mission (which I was already 10-15 minutes into) from the beginning.
It can't be denied that Wheelman is fantastically entertaining at times, but it's all buried under a steaming pile of glitches and action movie clichés that make it difficult to ever get truly immersed in. Factor in its short length and lack of multiplayer and you've got a title that's good for a rainy weekend's gaming, but not much more.