The Wheelman Review (PS3)

Big Vinnie Diesel’s movie career’s been a bit quiet of late hasn’t it? Perhaps it’s because he’s been stuck in the voice-over booth recording his laconic growling for the new Riddick game and this, Midway Newcastle and Tigon Productions’ long gestating open-world driving game, Wheelman.

Set on the sun drenched streets of Barcelona, Wheelman drops you straight into the shoes of Vin’s tough guy driver for hire, the titular Wheelman also known as Milo Burik. The story set-up is completely none-existent, hurling you straight into the action acting as getaway driver for a lovely lady Latino bank robber. As an opening act, it’s brilliant, throwing you headlong into the action without allowing you a second to catch your breath. It’s also one of the best examples of an integrated tutorial mission we’ve seen. But you only ever get one first impression of something and while ours was initially good for Wheelman, as the game unfolded, things begin to look progressively less favourable.

There are two licensed cars in the game. The lovely Pontiac G8 pictured here and the Opel Astra.
An Airjacking in progress. Don’t try this at home, kids!

For starters, the narrative is a complete incoherent mess. Characters are dropped into the story without a hint of introduction or explanation, different strands involving feuding gangs are arbitrarily chucked in with absolutely no accompanying exposition and as a result, you’re never really sure of Burik’s or your own motivations. You just submissively tag along for the ride and forget about any of the whys or wherefores.

When the action is as over-the-top action packed as Wheelman’s, it becomes a little easier to discount the lack of a cogent narrative and simply enjoy the game at face value. Yet, the Barcelona location isn’t nearly as appealing or as exotic as you’d hope, emerging as a largely characterless and under-populated environment with only the odd two or three pedestrians wandering around and very few vehicle models to choose from. As with undisputed open-world king GTA, you can exit your car at any time and steal yourself another ride. Unlike GTA however, you can also ‘Airjack’ other vehicles while you’re still driving. Airjacking is an impossible move that sees Diesel leaping from his vehicle onto the roof of the one in front, subsequently kicking out the driver and taking the wheel. Executing an Airjack is easy, requiring you to simply hold the circle button while behind a car or motorcycle and let go when the red arrow indicator turns green. Using Airjack you can keep a police chase going forever in theory, ditching your wheels when they’re beyond repair by jumping to a fresh vehicle. It’s utterly stupid, but a pretty nice addition nonetheless.

Wheelman’s vehicle handling is rather good too, leaning more on the arcadey side with hairy handbrake turns and reckless, veering melee manoeuvres. For us, the melee moves have to be the best idea in the game allowing you to wildly skid between traffic, smash into enemies like gladiatorial chariots and stylishly swing into handbrake turns. It seems like such a minor inclusion (and it is really), but allowing you to shift the weight of your car left, right and forwards using the right analogue stick makes the driving element of the game the most fun by far. Nothing beats the thrill of ramming a police car off the road and watching it plough into a wall in a huge orange Hollywood-style explosion.

Getting out of the car is comparatively less successful, as it allows you to scrutinise the ropey visuals a little more closely. Vin and the other character models look waxy and strange, their glazed eyes making them look even weirder – a side effect of the Unreal 3 Engine perhaps? During the cut scenes, tearing is rife and nasty jagged, speckled shadows ruin the contrast between light and dark. During the slightly more cinematic interior cut sequences, things improve a little bit with the lighting toned down making characters and objects look more convincingly solid and a bit less waxen than they appear in the harsh light of day.

Look out behind you waxy-face Vin! Sadly, there’s no multiplayer stuff in Wheelman, just stupid AI.
There’re a lot of explosions in Wheelman, which is just one of the reasons that we liked the game.

Still, Wheelman does a fairly decent impression of Gears of War in its on-foot shooting sections even if Vin does run like he’s desperate for the toilet because his arse is playing tortoises. On-foot, circle allows you to crouch down behind cover while the trigger buttons allow you to lock-on, free aim, reload and shoot. It’s all very straightforward although the lock-on system suffers from pre-GTA IV syndrome with its fuzzy aiming and seeming ability to let the reticule drift away from your intended target. Factor in equally dumb enemy and partner AI, – one mission requires you to protect a character that idiotically runs out into a hail of bullets - and suddenly Wheelman’s shooting sections don’t seem all that strong.

Thankfully, the driving portion of the game makes up the majority of the game’s 31 story-led missions and all of the 105 side missions, so you’re not subjected to too many of the undemanding point and shoot sections. As it serves as the crux of the game, it’s a damn good job that Wheelman is fantastically enjoyable to play when you’re behind the wheel of a car (handlebars if you’re on a motorcycle, obviously). Some of the ridiculous feats you can perform transform the game into one of the most freewheeling, action packed titles around. You realise that Airjacking is just the tip of the iceberg the moment you perform the ‘Cyclone’ manoeuvre, spinning your car 180 degrees in slow motion, shifting the view behind Diesel’s shoulder and unloading rounds of gunfire into your pursuers causing them to erupt in huge balls of flame and smouldering wreckage.

For an open-world game, Wheelman’s narrative is unjustifiably slight, but there’re plenty of distractions and side missions to keep you occupied. The real issue is with the severe lack of story and Vin Diesel’s bored, indifferent performance. If this had been given a real meaty narrative giving you a few reasons for actually playing the game, this could have been all the more involving and rewarding for it. As it is, this effort is a great laugh and a lot of fun while it lasts, but we wish Diesel could have at least spouted a few one-liners to complement the improbably overblown action. Maybe then we might have found the will to care just a tiny bit more. Ultimately, there’s a lot to like about Wheelman, but there’s a lot not to like too. For a game that’s been in development for three years the visuals and draw distances are shoddy and the overall presentation is lacklustre. Also, the PS3 version we played required a 30-minute mandatory install although there appeared to be no reduction in loading times, which still managed to test our patience at times.

When you’re the victim of a hot pursuit like this, shooting out the other car’s tyres from your own car is easy. Hold L1. That’s all there is to it.
The on-foot shooting sections might be bad, but there have been far worse examples. Driver 3, anyone?

If you’re willing to forgive the lack of story, the sub-par graphics and sheer silliness of it all, you’ll be rewarded with a hugely entertaining game that plays remarkably well, mustering a fair few hours of explosive driving action. All that’s left to do when you finish the game is to wait for the accompanying Wheelman movie. I wonder if they’ll remember to include a story in that?

Top game moment: That opening escape sequence that opens the game so promisingly. It’s just too bad Wheelman fails to deliver on that initial promise.


By Arxen (I just got here) on Apr 02, 2009
It looks okay, but movie games always seem to turn out bad.
By MauroR (SI Newbie) on Apr 03, 2009
I'm waiting for the upcoming Riddick game, I think that this it's a good try but it's not their game genre. Making a free roaming game ala GTA series it's very risky, GTA it's the master of the free roaming mission based games, the comparing to it it's normal. Not a bad game after all.
By Nicolas19 (SI Core) on Apr 14, 2009
Hope a PC review will follow, as I'm fairly interested in this one, mainly because of Barcelona. I've been there several times, like the city, so a sweet, TDU-like cruise would be fantastic! I don't mind a little bit of action going on;)