So...the first thing I'm going to say regarding the Wheelman is that it's a lot of fun, the second thing I'm going to say about the Wheelman is that it's also not Grand Theft Auto IV and it's not trying to be GTA. Open world games began well before Rockstar managed to corner the market and push out a highly successful franchise. It will draw GTA comparisons regardless, just not from me.
You are undercover agent Milo Burik, recently flown in to Barcelona (from Miami supposedly) and you're masquerading as a wheelman, a driver for hire that's pretty much just like Frank Martin (the Transporter). You're employed by a shady government agency to do some work for them and they want you to get in with the various factions, do some deals, a lot of driving and shake things up. I've been deliberately vague about the 15 hour or so story that's in the game, since it's something I don't want to spoil.
Wheelman is an open-world game and its best described as a joyful over the top mix of the Transporter meets Burnout meets Pursuit Force with Hollywood action movie thrown in. Right from the start you can see that the emphasis has been placed upon arcade quality driving and if you're a fan of realistic physics then you're going to be highly disappointed, just like if you think that people fly back twenty feet when shot by a gun, or cars explode at the drop of a hat if they crash.
This is Hollywood style action and physics with an action movie feel. To this end the team has concentrated solely on making sure that the driving and on foot part of the game is as honed as it can be. The first time the game starts up, it opens with a hectic escape from a bank robbery and you're thrown right into the thick of it with a frenetic car chase against a veritable army of cops.
The car handling is excellent, it reminds me of Burnout and I absolutely loved the arcade feel of that game all the way up to the current Burnout Paradise incarnation. There are numerous tweaks to GTA style driving that make Wheelman much more rewarding as the cars skid and slide with a perfect balance between handling and outright fun. Taking a corner with a dramatic slide, smashing through obstacles and driving like a maniac all adds to your Focus Gauge and we'll talk more about this in a moment.
Wheelman puts you in the action, it gives you control and heightens the dramatic tension of the various chases by a pretty solid in-game camera. You can enable or disable the action-cuts that show the various high-speed driving moves as you ram through a road block or drive your vehicle up a ramp/stairs sailing into the air in beautiful slow motion.
The game models all the shunts and slams of a Hollywood car chase and it brings to the table several Gameplay elements that are worth discussing in their own right.
The game has also got a good solid save/checkpoint system that makes sure you don't have to repeat a section by driving to it again. You can also use the map to instantly get to any mission or side mission rather than navigating the city.
With a quick flick of the right stick left, right or front when in a vehicle Milo slams the car in either direction and collides with enemy vehicles. This causes a great deal of damage to your opponents and can sometimes wreck weaker vehicles in one cinematic hit. The camera quickly cutting to show the spinning and exploding wreck dancing off into the distance, then cutting back to allow you control of your vehicle again.
You can avoid enemy attacks by countering, pushing the right stick in the opposite direction of the attack. You can also use the melee to dodge traffic as you blast down the highways at serious speeds. The faster you drive the more you gain your Focus, hitting pedestrians or slowing down loses you Focus so you've got to balance aggressive driving with risk/benefit as you navigate the various streets, alleys and so on.
Focus powers the Aimed Shot, Cyclone and Boost.
Time slows down for the duration of this ability, Milo can use his gun to target weak points on the enemy vehicles and take them down to the front and sides of his vehicle.
Time slows down for the duration of this ability; Milo spins the vehicle 180 and can take down enemies that are behind and to the sides of his vehicle. The same weak spots appear on enemy vehicles as Aimed Shot.
The vehicle gains a serious boost in speed; this drains the Focus Gauge rapidly.
As you might expect, the ride you're in isn't going to take an unlimited amount of punishment. It takes damage from impacts, ramming other cars and objects, gunfire and smashing into heavy obstacles. At some point you're going to need a new one and that's where the Airjack (and comparisons to Pursuit Force) comes in. Airjack allows Milo to leap from one vehicle to the next and continue on with a fresh set of wheels. It's a dramatic and cinematic leap that flows from one car to the next without breaking the sense of speed or immersion.
You can also shoot enemy vehicles, drives and especially blow out tyres with Milo's gun from the driver's side (passengers may some times shoot from their window as well) of the vehicle.
Later on you're introduced to on foot combat, this uses a simple system that concentrates on fast and furious (no pun intended) fun combined with intuitive controls that allow you to lock onto various targets and make them dead in a stream of bullets. Your pistol has unlimited ammunition and you can rifle other weapons from the dead. You unlock various weapon caches around the city as you play the various side missions, which we shall come to in a short while.
You can aim at specific body parts with a slight adjustment of the right stick, just like in GTA IV and there's a free aim mode to take down environmental objects such as gas cans. There's no cover mode per-se but Milo can crouch behind low walls, he automatically pops up to fire.
Once Wheelman opens up you can treat it like an open-world driving/action game. If you need to deal with some vehicle based pursuers and you can't be bothered to take them down car to car, you can always skew your vehicle into an alley and jump out taking pot shots at the enemy as they will usually get out and follow suit. Not always though, some of them will use their heads and remain in the vehicle opening fire from inside.
There are various side missions in Wheelman, escaping from cops or gangs, collecting packages in a game of 'hot potato' and even races. Wheelman puts a spin on these side missions by allowing you the freedom to use all the tricks you've earned so far such as Cyclones, Aimed Shots and Airjacking in races for instance. Do well, get the best rankings and you'll unlock various bonuses in the game and upgrades to your vehicles health and so on.
Wheelman might not be the best looking game but the frame rate is constant and it does benefit from installing to the HD. There is very little pop up and pop in and the game engine delivers high speed thrills aplenty. The character of Milo Burik is a close copy of Vin Diesel and whilst not as good as the job Starbreeze has done in Riddick, the developers should be proud that they managed to capture Vin's likeness for the game.
There's a certain plastic look to the character graphics now and then, yet it does not detract from the game. The environments are beautifully done and Barcelona has been created in game really well. There are scores of breakables, shop windows and tables/chairs to smash through and lots of pedestrians to hassle (since you don't actually kill them - this isn't GTA) as they dive out of the way etc. Lighting and texturing is a solid job with no graphical errors at all, no tearing or dodgy texturing.
The animations for the characters, the pedestrians and the various movements and so forth are done really well. Wheelman has character and Milo isn't just a static model, the lip synching is good and the way that the characters move and react especially in terms to gun combat means that the gun fights are just as rewarding as the driving in the game. Airjacking is one of my favourite animations and I'm reminded of the game Just Cause (which I adored) every time I leap from car to car, or car to bike.
From explosions, gun fights, car combat and smashing things to bits, Wheelman has a solid physics engine that delivers Hollywood style movie action right from the start. The vehicle handling might feel loose to begin with but the game isn't meant to be a realistic one. There are no real gripes from me here; the ott Hollywood physics of the crashes are enough to have me grinning like hell whenever I smash into something.
The enemy AI is pretty good, they can do a few dumb things and they sometimes do seem to lose it in a fight. Yet for the most part they'll push you hard and it keeps the pressure on, using all the dirty vehicle melee tricks that they know to make some of the most dramatic chases in a game yet.
A good solid sound design, the guns have a nice audio to them, so do the cars. There are no gripes here at all.
Wheelman has GTA-style radio stations and lots of cool music, not to mention the actual game music is pretty slick as well. It works for me and it's nice to see a mix of rock, classical and other genres on the radio in the game.
Vin Diesel has a distinctive voice, I always think of him as Riddick or his character from Fast and the Furious. When I sat down to play as Milo though I spotted that he's actually toned back his Riddick style performance and Milo feels a separate character. Vin delivers the lines with his trademark action-tough guy feel and does justice to the part. The rest of the cast have a mixed bag of performances, there are some really good solid takes there and then there are some cringe-worthy deliveries that made me wince a little. Accents are a funny thing to replicate so I can't complain too bitterly and I'm not going to mark the game down for that.
The dialogue is sharply written, it suits the character of Milo and the various one liners through the twisted/turning story match Milo's character perfectly. Vin's dry delivery adds to it in many ways. It wouldn't work with any other actor. The writers have done a great job on the script and the story; it's definitely a Hollywood Action Blockbuster feel. John Zuur Platten, Flint Dille and the other writers have taken their time to work on this and again it shows. It's not going to go down in history as the greatest story or script ever told: it is going to go down as a solid story with good characterisation and competent writing.
There is none, it's strictly a single player game regardless of what the box might say.
The final Vroom
I'm going to say it again, it's not GTA and it's not trying to be GTA. It's got more in common with Burnout, Pursuit Force and Driver than GTA and the game has a definite big action feel to it. The use of the camera to cut to crashes and smashes heightens the action and the on foot combat is just as fun as being in the cars or on a bike. With a satisfyingly simple mechanic for all of these elements, the game lets you concentrate on the action and just having fun. A true Hollywood action game that rivals the scenes found in the Transporter, if you like that kind of twist to your driving you can do no wrong with Vin Diesel's: Wheelman.
The missions are fun and there are a couple of really great moments when you have to scare a guy, he's hanging onto the roof of your car and you're going 100mph in the wrong lane. That's what fun games are made of!
Now, for me... back to putting my pedal to the metal in some of these side missions!