Wheelman is one of those games that many people had probably forgotten about. It was announced back in 2006, which may as well be a century ago in game land, slipping on and off the radar as it hit development delay after development delay. There was even a point when, due to Midway’s financial hiccups, it looked like we’d never get to see Vin Diesel be fast and furious all over the streets of Barcelona until Ubisoft stepped in with its codpiece of justice to give a brother a publishing hand.
Did the tumultuous development, delays and developer money troubles end up sending this to the junkyard or was the high-octane, Diesel-powered machine too strong to be stopped? Or maybe it’s like a Honda Civic?
Wheelman puts you in control of Milo Burik (Vin Diesel), an undercover agent sent to Barcelona to investigate gang activity and attempt to put a stop to it. I’ve spoiled nothing about the story since it takes the game about 2 minutes to inform you Milo is not some questionable character selling his services to the highest bidder. Then again, the story isn’t really something that will blow your mind or put you into deep thought afterwards, but more on that later. The focus of the game is action: be it on 4-wheels, 2-wheels or on-foot; by bullets or driving heavy metal up someone’s ass. Think of it as the dream Michael Bay would wake from knowing exactly why he’s sporting morning wood.
The basic meat of the game has you running (driving is more appropriate) missions, in an open-world rendering of Barcelona, involving cars going boom-boom with a few on-foot, third-person shooter sections thrown in to mix things up. A handy GPS map allows you to skip seeing the sights on the way to the killing by simply selecting the mission you want. Most of the time you don’t even need to be in something with an engine to quick-select, although certain side missions require it.
While there’s standard car bashing, shooting of tyres (European spelling used in-game) and passengers in the driving action, some nifty abilities are at your disposal behind the wheel. The right stick foregoes the standard camera control for a left/right/forward ramming mechanic that breaks things real good and the d-pad activates two special moves called Aimed Shot and Cyclone Shot. The former simply slows down time letting you shoot weak points for quick takedowns while the latter spins your ride 180 degrees to take out bogies on your six. And if you’re bored of whatever you’re driving (or it’s on fire), the action can be kept rolling by fluidly leaping from one vehicle to another; what the game calls “air jacking.” If you’ve ever played Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice on PSP it’s very, very similar.
At the start, Wheelman is an absolute blast. It’s very much ridiculous in a super fun, over-the-top kind of way that will make you grin ear-to-ear. However, it’s not long before the shine wears off and you see how thin an experience it really is.
One of the biggest problems is the experience should have been linear. Now, I’m all for open-ended games with plenty of exploration and fun things to do, but Wheelman feels like it’s only set in an open world because all the kids are doing it; there’s no vertical exploration whatsoever or even jumping and really nothing to do beyond the main missions, which can be accessed without driving to and from.
There are side missions such as stealing/delivering cars, accruing X amount of monetary damage to the city, pretending you’re a taxi (this needs to stop being in every game of this type), etc. that will grant “upgrades” (I didn’t notice much difference, honestly) to your car damage, strength, focus meter (used to pull off special moves) and unlock weapon caches but they don’t feel like they belong for any reason other than to artificially expand the playtime. I know it’s a videogame and videogames need to be just that sometimes, but when the main character is working undercover trying to infiltrate gangs, why would he want to draw attention to himself by being a menace to society? There are also stunt jumps to hit and cat statues to destroy littered about that don’t do anything besides score trophies/achievements.
The city itself feels a little off as well. Vehicles can be hard to come by and you can stand in the middle of the street, shoot everyone but nobody dies, bleeds or fights back. It pisses off the cops something fierce, but even they don’t die; their tiny AI brains Keystone Kop gang rape you until you are incapacitated. It’s like Vin Diesel is trapped in some virtual pergatory where there are no hospitals and things don’t make sense.
If you can get past the lifeless feeling to the city there’s still the actual missions to deal with — all 6 hours worth. At first it’s a lot of fun smashing cars, pulling off super moves and shooting out tyres but after a little bit it all becomes very repetitive and frustrating. The mission types have only a few variations with no real standouts. The enemy cars themselves rubber band worse than Mario Kart Wii and no matter how many tyres get shot out it has absolutely no affect. To make matters more annoying, enemy vehicles cannot be air jacked but, if you were to ditch your ride during a mission, taking one of theirs on-foot isn’t a problem. It’s never explained but that virtual pergatory idea is sounding mighty good. The third-person shooter sections don’t help to amp up the excitement any since there’s no challenge to them. Targets are auto-locked and have the accuracy of Stormtroopers making it sadly easy to run into danger and come out victorious.
There’s really nothing great to say about the game graphically either. Zipping by at mach 5, things look fine with plenty of bloom to give it a romantic sheen, but when things slow down, the ugly textures and jaggies come out to play. The characters are kind of creepy with lifeless gazes and the animation for Vin Diesel makes him look like Jon Voight’s character, Mr. Sir, from Holes. And the story, well, you’ve seen it before. It’s littered with nothing but one-dimensional characters that offer no emotional attachment or sympathy.
Wheelman is like playing a second rate action movie. You love it for its guilty pleasures, cliches and Michael Dudikoff-ness but by the time it’s halfway over, you’re more than a little bored waiting for something exciting to happen. Unfortunately, it never comes and you realize you’ve wasted your time.
+ Like playing an action movie
+ Car combat is a lot of fun
+ Vin Diesel on a Vespa
– Open world feels forced, pointless and ugly
– Terrible AI and rubber banding
– Throwaway story