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Vin Diesel makes his virtual action hero return in Midway/Ubisoft's Wheelman...
- Diversity of side missions
- Enjoyable driving/action gameplay
- Bland, lifeless city
- Gimmicky vehicle combat
- Atrocious on-foot action
Following a last-minute partnership with Ubisoft, Vin Diesel's starring role in Wheelman could possibly be the last time we'll see a title from the troubled publisher, Midway. The French publisher has come to its aid by taking on responsibilities for the title across all major territories. A sign that Ubi sees something worthwhile; a final swan song perhaps, or standard low-brow Hollywood blockbuster?
As the eponymous Wheelman, it's up to Vin to infiltrate three warring gangs and eventually bring them down from the inside. The plot is typically standard action fodder with cringing one-liners aplenty. As Milo, an undercover cop, Vin Diesel plays one gang against another so many times throughout the game that you have to ask why it takes the leaders so long to work it out. But eh, it's a Vin Diesel game; surely nobody's interested in a twisting narrative, deep characters, or intelligent dialogue?
Although the vehicular/action gameplay and open-world environment immediately conjures thoughts of yet another GTA clone, Wheelman is, to be fair, a considerably different prospect. Yes, you can drive freely around the streets of Barcelona and between missions, but there's very few reasons to explore its unconvincing and bland depiction, so the ability to instantly jump between missions and keep the tempo high is appreciated. It's an action game that primarily takes place on wheels; it's a lot closer to the original Driver than GTA. As Midway Newcastle point out, Wheelman isn't trying to be clever, witty, or satirical; it's your typical summer Hollywood blockbuster.
This is aptly demonstrated by the lack of refinement to the overall game. There's an overwhelming arcadey feel to the game's vehicle handling and physics, which is only exaggerated by the inclusion of a melee attack system. At first, any attempt to take control of the camera will end up with Vin's car hurtling to one side or another. Instead of its traditional use, the right thumbstick is used to shunt the car in various directions to engage in fierce car combat. The implementation is pretty effective in its visceral nature and a key element to progress in the game, but we failed to find the depth of combos and skill that Midway Newcastle alludes to. For us it's a very blunt, but nonetheless quite satisfying, combat dynamic.
The tempo is heightened by Vin Diesel's acrobatic ability to hijack cars without having to stop first. The so-called 'air-jack' has been seen before (Pursuit Force, Just Cause), but that doesn't negate from the fact that it suits the nature of the game perfectly and is wisely employed throughout a number of the game's tougher missions.
A run-of-the-mill dynamic of rewarding fast and destructive driving is encapsulated in Wheelman's Focus system. Beyond the customary speed boost, which still fails to inject a sense of speed to Wheelman's pedestrian pace, Focus is crucial to two outlandish techniques that firmly establish Wheelman in Vin Diesel territory. Slamming the car into an effortless 180 degree spin while afforded the luxury of slowed time to precisely target pursing opponents' weak spots with the Cyclone attack, or just having the slow-mo from the front with the Aimed Shot is fun to begin with, but any instant entertainment is quickly undone by what soon feels slightly cheap and gimmicky. Rarely did we have to resort to the techniques when good driving can easily suffice.
To its credit Wheelman does at least pack a considerable amount of variety. The largely linear based progress through the main story provides a substantial number of missions that demonstrate a fair amount of creativity on Midway Newcastle's behalf. However, it's the sheer amount of side missions that provide the game's length, and arguably the most fun. From Crazy Taxi styled taxi missions to entertaining Rampage challenges, Wheelman's seven side missions are each set against a challenging timer, with the arcade roots of different grades providing an entertaining challenge beyond the far-fetched action of the main game.
Thankfully, the wheelman decides to stick in a vehicle for the majority of the game, but on occasion Vin does have to step outside and, oh dear, we wish he hadn't. Without a covering system to mention beyond crouching unconvincingly behind objects, the situation is made even worse by gunplay that feels severely dated and AI that reinforces the feeling of a game from the 90's. Although the on-foot missions are kept to a blissful minimum, there's little denying the affect it has on the otherwise passable driving sections.
In attempting to ensure Wheelman hits a wide audience (you can't kill civilians but get penalised for hit and runs, and you certainly can't kill the cops), we found the difficulty curve a little too easy for our liking. It's only the final handful of missions that amount to anything like a challenge. Completing the side missions with a sufficiently high rank upgrades various aspects such as Vin's Focus gauge or health and car damage/power, but for most gamers you'll never feel a need to resort to these gameplay features. Unless you really want to unlock and complete all of the side missions, then Wheelman is limited to approximately 8-10 hours of gameplay. Although sufficient for an action title, the fact remains that without any multiplayer modes and just the lure of side missions, hidden statues, and jumps, there's very few reasons to come back once the end credits roll.
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