Wheelman is one of those games that, in the first sitting, you’ll play it for 3-4 hours straight, but once you take that disc out of your console, you won’t really feel like putting it back in. The fact that you’ll play it for a few hours at a stretch means that it’s not a bad game, but it also has little to keep you coming back for more. The game promises much – car chases, explosive set pieces, gunplay, vehicular combat and Vin Diesel – and that would seem like a winning combination, but the end result is far from it.
The game star’s Vin Diesel, who plays Milo Burik, a CIA agent sent to Barcelona, Spain, supposedly to bring down the powerful Catalan underworld with his elite driving skills. While there are gun combat segments in the game, well, they suck, and most of the missions rely mainly on driving. And since you’re in the car most of the time, the developers (Vin Diesel’s own Tigon Studios) have added vehicular combat to make things more interesting. First of all, there is the airjack maneuver, which is like a carjack, but in Wheelman, you can jump out of your moving car and get into a moving car ahead of you, thereby retaining the intensity of a frantic car chase. It’s really cool the first few times you pull it off and it’s quite thrilling to escape your burning vehicle and get into another one just in time before it explodes.
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Bring down the Catalan underworld with elite driving skills
The driving in Wheelman is heavily arcade-based; how could it not be when your car can perform melee attacks? Similar to takedowns in Burnout, you can take out enemy/opponent vehicles by slamming them either from the side or back. But while in Burnout this required speed and momentum to get enough force in your attacks, in Wheelman, all you need to do is get alongside the target and push the right stick in its direction. Doing so will violently thrust your vehicle sideways regardless of what speed you’re traveling at or your momentum coming into the attack. It’s not the most realistic-looking maneuver, but then again, it fits right in with all the other over-the-top driving combat features.
Besides the melee attacks, you can perform special attacks from within your vehicle. To be able to use these attacks, you must fill up your focus meter by driving fast, driving clean and performing handbrake turns. Once full, you can use that juice to perform either the aimed shot or the cyclone. In aimed shot, time slows down and you switch to a cockpit view (otherwise unavailable in the game). You then get about 10 seconds in which you can take aim and shoot at your pursuers. This can be done by shooting at the tires or fuel tank, or taking out the driver. In the more chaotic car chases, the aimed shot is a welcome addition to your combat arsenal. The cyclone is similar to the aimed shot, except that your car will spin around 180 degrees first, allowing you to take out vehicles behind you.
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Your car can perform melee attacks
If you’re still reading, you’re probably thinking to yourself that this sounds like a fun game. Unfortunately, this is where the good part ends and it’s all downhill from here. Besides the refreshing vehicle combat features, Wheelman is a mish-mash of successful features picked from popular games and poorly incorporated here on one disc. First up is the open-world action-adventure setting complete with a five-star wanted system straight from Grand Theft Auto. Even the missions and pre-mission cutscenes are reminiscent of GTA, only with a poor script and even worse voice acting; it’s so bad it makes Vin Diesel sound good.
While some of the missions are fun, most of them are just about average. There’s really only two things you can do in vehicle missions – chase and get chased. So all the missions are pretty much variations of these two basic objectives. Variations come in the form of vehicle types, combat sequences and the end goal. And while the driving missions get a little boring at times, they never get nearly as bad as the on-foot gun combat segments. Combat mechanics are so basic that I wonder why they even put them in. Why make me get out of a car and shoot people when I can do it from the car itself? Or better yet, just let me run people over (you can’t do that, by the way). It’s basically duck-auto aim-stand up-shoot and repeat. Repeatedly. To add to that, there are perfectly cubical concrete blocks specially manufactured and placed in the environment just to take cover and insulting your intelligence.
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Duck-auto aim-stand up-shoot and repeat. Repeatedly.
The story isn’t really that great, but there’s enough there to make you see it through to the end. While the story missions seem varied in the start, they don’t really get much better as you progress; instead they only feel more tedious. But there are some cool missions in there. One that particularly stood out for me was a stealth driving mission, where you’re required to drive through narrow alleys and stay under the police radar. And to make things more interesting, there’s a ticking time bomb in the car, and the car doesn’t have brakes; just the handbrake. There are a few other interesting missions as well, but they’re few and far between.
You also have a bunch of optional side-missions. These include checkpoint races, time trials, taxi missions, and rampage, similar to Cost to the State in recent Need for Speed games. Depending on how well you perform in these side missions, you are awarded a grade. Achieving an A or S (highest) grade earns you bonuses such as ammo pick up points or additional armour for your vehicle, allowing it to withstand more punishment. While these incentives should add a reasonable amount of depth to the game, the side missions themselves aren’t really that appealing. Besides, the game never really gets difficult enough for you to require a perk like added vehicle armour, especially with the airjack option available to you. You also earn money in side missions, but there’s no place for you to spend it, so why bother?
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The driving mechanics are, to put it simply – broken
Uninteresting missions aside, the game’s biggest flaw, and one that is inexcusable, is it’s driving mechanics, which are, to put it simply – broken. There isn’t really a large selection of vehicles in Wheelman, so you’ll soon find yourself switching between the same set of wheels. But strangely, the same vehicle seems to handle differently around every turn, so no matter how well you think you’ve mastered car handling, you can never throw your car around a corner and be confident of coming out of it the way you intend to. For a game that is so heavy on car chases, this is a major drawback.
One particularly horrific example of bad vehicle handling is a mission early in the game that involved Burik chasing down a guy on a moped through markets and narrow alleys. It’s a fun chase mission that is thoroughly ruined by the moped’s shocking handling, and even the sight of Vin Diesel riding around on a Vespa doesn’t make up for it. Pushing the left stick even slightly results in the moped making an abrupt 90-degree turn, and more often than not causing you to crash into a wall. Now you could argue that a Vespa has a limited turning radius and would go out of control when sharp turns are attempted. But there’s no place for such handling intricacies in a game that lets you perform melee attacks with your car.
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Though heavily flawed, some might enjoy playing through the story mode
Wheelman is found severely lacking in the technical department as well. Since it employs the Unreal engine, you would expect it to perform well on the Xbox 360 and poorly on the PS3. But in fact, Wheelman performs quite poorly on the 360, so the PS3 version never really stands a chance. Texture pop-in and irregular framerates plague the Xbox 360 version and enivronment design and character models are as bland as they come, so there is really not much positive to talk about in the visual department. All these issues are magnified on the PS3 version, which strangely has a 20 minute mandatory install that doesn’t positively affect the load times and instances of pop-in and framerate drops are even higher than on the 360 version. The soundtrack is possibly the worst I’ve come across in an action game. You’ll hear light Salsa music playing as you speed across Barcelona being chased and shot at by 5 angry Spaniards. You can only switch radio stations when you’re not in a mission and there’s no custom playlist option, so you’re stuck with this sorry excuse for a soundtrack.
Wheelman doesn’t do a very good job of keeping the player hooked. All the best aspects of the game – mainly the car combat – can be experienced early on and they tend to get old after a while. In terms of missions too, the best of them play out early on in the game and they only get more frustrating as you progress. And you just can’t have a broken vehicle mechanic in a game so heavily focused on driving, and this is ultimately the game’s biggest drawback. Still, Wheelman isn’t a bad game. Though heavily flawed, some might enjoy playing through the story mode and the many side missions. But the negatives far outweigh the positive, so think long and hard before you put money down for this game. Or just don’t.
(+) Car combat can be fun
(+) Some clever driving missions
(-) Broken driving mechanic
(-) Very little originality; too many borrowed ideas
(-) Weak, choppy visuals; shocking soundtrack
Developer/Publisher: Tigon Studios/Midway
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Rs 2,499), PlayStation 3 (Rs 2,899)