|Platforms||PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows|
|Genre||Outrageous racing action|
|MtAMinutes to Action||1|
|Buy from Amazon|
Wheelman is one of those games I always thought looked interesting, but it got luke-warm reviews and slowly faded into obscurity as more popular AAA franchises consumed the markets (as well as my) interest. That is until one fateful day at Target when I saw it on the clearance shelf. Reviewers Note: Just in case you aren’t aware, Target stores generally have a clearance shelf near the electronics department. It’s usually an end-cap and that’s where they put the unpopular games out to pasture, along with poorly selling MP3 players, Barbie-themed boomboxes and other retail failures. Whenever I’m at Target, I make it a point to check that shelf. When I saw Wheelman for $14.99, I had to pick it up. Was it a mistake? Did the game hook me? Read on to find out.
Okay, so here’s what I knew going into Wheelman. I knew it was a pet project for Vin Diesel, an action star whose movies I’ve more often enjoyed than disliked (although Babylon A.D. was a particular stinker). I had read that Vin was an avid gamer and always wanted to be involved in the production of an action game. That sounded interesting enough, but then I found out it was going to be an all-out, over-the-top, in-your-face driving game and that there might even be a movie attached. Okay, so the movie didn’t pan out, but the heavily hyphenated Game got made and was even published by TWO major players, Midway and Ubisoft. The game was developed by Tigon Studios and Midway Newcastle. So, let’s see what the first hour of Wheelman looks like.
Editor's Note: Tigon Studios was founded by Vin Diesel and their first game was The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, a game I started to play once and I will admit, has a pretty amazing first hour.
(minutes are in bold)
00 - After several developer and publisher splash screens we open up on a beautiful panning view of Barcelona Spain. I’m told to press Start and I do. Then I choose New Game. I’m immediately given a loading splash screen with the caption, "Melee attacks are essential for taking out enemy vehicles at high speeds, chain them together for extra effect."
01 - Still loading, now the caption says, "Using your focus gauge, you can unleash special moves like turbo boost and the cyclone." "Your ride showing signs of damage? Use the air jack to get a new one by leaping from one vehicle to another." I don’t know what a cyclone is, but it sounds fun. Leaping from one vehicle to another? Yes, please. Okay, so the load finishes and we go back to the panning shot of Barcelona. Only this time, as it pans, it starts to zoom in and starts moving rapidly through the streets and thoroughfares, eventually coming to stop on a Pontiac Sedan. Vin Diesel is sitting inside, with the engine running, waiting for something.
02 - We see Vin look around, but not nervously. He sees a police car drive by in his rear view mirror. His gaze swings over to the entrance of a nearby building. A woman exits carrying a brief case and heads toward the street. Vin throws the car into reverse and guns the engine, spinning the car in a 180 at the last second as the woman reaches the curb. An alarm goes off inside the building as the woman jumps in the car. Vin guns it again and you’re peeling away as bullet holes pop and appear in the rear window. The nearby police car gives chase. The camera spins back behind Vins vehicle and I have control! The woman in the car shouts "Venga Venga Venga!" Thankfully I studied Spanish in High School and so I know that means, "let's the get the hell out of here". I’m not sure if Vin studied Spanish in school, but it doesn’t matter now, because I’m driving. I squeeze the right trigger hard and we’re off, police in tow. The female passenger starts shouting instructions, "Drive Straight ahead!" she says as we negotiate the first intersection.
03 - Now we’re in full-on hot pursuit. The "Policia" are chasing and shooting, the woman is telling me each turn to make, just in time to make it. It’s frantic, I’m not sure what’s going on, but things are loud and bullets are flying. Fortunately, the controls are exactly as I’d expect with gas and break on the triggers and steering on the left stick.
04 - More cop cars join the chase, maybe 4 or 5 at this point. I’m swerving all over the place, the damage modeling is extensive, my cars paint is scratched all over, one of the police cars is driving on the rim, with sparks flying. As I’m chased, I come upon a road block with flashing red lights. The woman tells me to blow through it. Funny, that’s EXACTLY what I was hoping she’d say. BOOM! We blast through and a mini-cinematic plays as cop cars explode and barricades are thrown in every direction. The woman shows her approval with the cheeky line, "It’s good to have REAL wheelman for once".
05 - The game pauses during the chase and a note appears on screen, "Your vehicle is your weapon, move Right Analog stick left and right to melee attack nearby vehicles. Just as the game continues, the police cars move in along side me. Perfect. I jam the right stick hard right and Vin jerks the steering wheel right and slams the police car next to me. It careens into a nearby building and explodes, sending it’s passengers flying into the air in a slow-mo mini cinematic. It’s spectacular.
06 - I dispatch a few more cop cars by ramming them into buildings, it feels great. Just then a Police helicopter swoops down in front of me and the woman exclaims, "Wow, you must have REALLY pissed them off". Sure lady, just keep me going in the right direction. She shouts to "Go Right!…..through the Bull Ring!". What? OK, here goes! I tear into the bullring, but it’s under construction, no bulls.
07 - We exit the bull ring and blow through another road block. Road construction forces me into oncoming traffic. The woman shouts, "This is insane!" She’s right. My car is smoking, I’m driving on rims and I have no idea where I’m going. Vin is cool as a cucumber. I think he’s done this before.
08 - The lady tells me to ditch the cops, as if I’m not already trying and then suddenly it zooms out to a cinematic of a fuel truck approaching a road block. The truck driver loses control of it and jack-knifes. There’s no where for me to go but up the middle. Fortunately, there is a giant ramp. I hit it doing about 100mph. Air. Lots of air. Somehow the cars lands and keeps driving. I don’t care, the police helicopter is still on me.
09 - The woman instructs me to turn down an alley. I oblige. It’s only wide enough for one car. I’m scraping buildings on either side. As I get further down the alley, shoot through a small intersection and then see a Police van in front of me. No where to go! She tells me to reverse. I slam the left trigger and we shoot backwards. Just at the last second I see a small opening into a little open area. I reverse into it and she tells me to floor it but the only thing in front of us is a fence. We drive through it and off a wall about 15 feet high. As we land, she tells me to go straight. What? I see no where to go. Wait a minute, she wants me to drive INTO a building. Ok, lets do this. I floor it and break through the glass entrance. Next thing I know I’m driving through cubicles and down hallways at 100MPH, just when I think I’ve run out of luck, we exit through a large office window and fly back out onto the street (in a mini cinematic) from 2 stories up. Amazing.
10 - As we exit the building, it’s clear we lost the police. The woman tells me we need to find a new ride. That’s handy considering the car we’re in is barely recognizable as a car anymore. A map appears in the upper corner of the screen with a green "X" showing where she wants me to go. As I drive there, we make small talk about how she has big plans for a wheelman as awesome as I clearly am.
11 - We arrive at the green "X" and now I’m on foot. She tells me to get a new car and I notice one car has a green arrow over it. Hmmm. How about that one? As I run over to it, the car explodes from a bomb underneath. She tells me to pick another. I push "Y" to hop in the nearest sedan. She gets in with me. My first "Objective" appears on the screen. "Take Lumi to the safehouse in Raval." So now we know her name. Thank goodness, I was getting tired of typing "The Woman". A green arrow appears on the map of my destination.
12 - As I drive there, we get more time to talk. She explains there are 3 major rival gangs in Barcelona. They are all currently at peace, but things tend to change in Barcelona, she says. My guess is that the change might have something to do with a particular wheelman.
13 - We arrive at the hideout and more sexy chit-chat. She goes inside. Vin Diesel goes back to the car: "Mission Complete." 20G Achievement unlocked. Nice. Cut to a dossier of Lumi Vega. I learn she’s a professional thief. Oh, and also a flamenco dancer on the side. Of course she is.
14 - I get introduced to my PDA, which is basically the interface for accepting missions and moving around the map. Looks clean and simple enough.
15 - After the PDA, I’m given a new mission: "Back to Barcelona" where I’m supposed to drive to the area marked on the map and meet my "Agency" contact. I learn through load screens that completing side missions will unlock weapons caches and improve driving skills.
16 - I arrive at my destination and cutscene, a man in a suit enters the vehicle. He’s clearly a spook. Looks like I’m actually undercover here in Barcelona. The guy informs me that one of the gangs in Barcelona has stolen a weapon. It sounds pretty nasty. It’ll be my job to play the gangs against each other to try to get it back. He gives me my next mission which is to meet up with a man named Miguel, a member of Los Chulos Canallas, one of the factions of Barcelona. I’m supposed to find out from him how to get in contact with a man named Felipe, who’s higher up the food chain. Sounds interesting.
17 - I arrive to meet Miguel and find out some of his cars were stolen. We bargain that if I can return the stolen cars within a set number of minutes, he’ll set up a meet with Felipe. A marker appears on my map showing me the location of the first stolen car. I carjack a nearby vehicle and give chase.
18 - Once I catch up to the target vehicle, a popup on screen tells me to get close to it and hit "B" to airjack; that I will leap from my vehicle to the other. As I hit "B", you can see Vin Diesel open his car door and leans out. Once you get close enough and release "B" he jumps on the hood of his car and leaps to the roof of the car you’re following, then swings down in the passenger side and kicks the driver out of the moving vehicle and takes over control. Awesome.
19 - Now a dollar amount appears on screen next to the mission timer. I’m supposed to return the vehicle before the timer runs out with a minimum of damage. Everything I hit runs up the damage counter. The point is to drive quickly but in control.
25 - So I recover the other 2 stolen vehicles by airjacking them like the first. During the last one, the police give chase as I return the car, forcing me to drive faster in an attempt to lose them. This makes not damaging the car more challenging.
27 - Mission Complete: Miguel tells me to look for Felipe at some Drug Store where he has set up shop. Now my automap is showing several new mission locations. One of which is green and blinking. That apparently means it’s the next story based mission as opposed to side missions and contracts which I learn are used to increase my driving skills in RPG fashion.
28 - I choose the next story based mission which is to visit Felipe. During the Felipe visit, I end up pissing him off and stealing his favorite car in an effort to work further up the food chain to someone named Paulo.
29 - Now I’m in Felipes convertible and 4 thug-mobiles are after me, trying to make me wreck. I’m instructed to take the vehicle to the construction yard and my map updates accordingly.
30 - Arrival at the construction site leads to a cut scene where Vin Diesel traps Felipe under some steel beams and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t set up a meet with his uncle Paulo.
31 - New Mission: Stop the thugs before they reach Paulo. Now I’m chasing them as they try to get to Paulo to warn/protect him. On the way to Paulos casino, I have to take out each thugs vehicle in turn. It’s a joy to smash their cars into buildings. Lots of explosions and mayhem ensue. An achievement pops for "finishing" an opponent.
33 - Mission Complete. Turns out Felipes uncle runs Los Lantos crime family which is a rival to Chulos Canallas. So I guess Felipe is a turncoat of sorts.
35 - Cutscene: Enter casino. I walk into an empty casino and find Paulo torturing a man on a blackjack table.
36 - We chit-chat and subtly threaten each other. Paulo decides he can use my "wheelman" services. He asks me to drive Felipe to "a deal". This should be fun since I just stole Felipes car and nearly killed him and now we have to work together.
37 - On the way to the deal, I try to get info out of Felipe. He refuses of course. So I’m given a new mission: Scare Felipe into telling you what you need to know. I’m told to drive fast and ram lots of cars, basically scaring the pants off of Felipe. If he wants me to stop, he’ll start talking. A meter appears over felipe to show his heart rate, or how frightened he is. The more crazy stuff I do, the more it fills.
40 - Ok, so he finally panics and starts talking, telling me about each of the 3 rival gangs in Barcelona and what their weaknesses are. He tries to exit the vehicle but I slam the gas and he ends up on the roof of the car. I’m instructed to keep driving crazy to get more info.
41 - Smashing into things with a guy on the roof is hilarious, his body is moving around realistically in reaction to the impacts, legs swinging and screaming like a little girl.
42 - After some more vehicular hi-jinks, Felipe crawls back in a window and unloads with even more intel on the rival gangs. In the midst of the conversation it’s apparent the police have noticed my driving (maybe it was all the smashed fruit carts, or screaming pedestrians?). Now I have to lose them. We’re introduced to what is a pretty typical police mechanism. 5 stars show how "hard" the police are after you. Currently it’s at 2 stars which appears to be just a couple police cars giving chase, nothing crazy.
43 - I finally lose the cops and I’m told by Felipe to go to one of his safe garages to get a new car. The game tells me that garages like this can be unlocked all over Barcelona to help get new vehicles and ditch the cops. I learn that there is a collectible in the game. There are Golden Lion statues hidden throughout the city. I get an achievement for smashing through the first one. Achievement Unlocked: Art Critic.
48 - After a REALLY long drive, we arrive at the garage. Felipe starts lipping off. He’s just pissed that I nearly killed him again I guess. We drive to the location of the deal we’re going to. He tells me to wait in the car. The deal apparently goes sour because as I’m waiting, people start fleeing from a nearby subway station, while others are shooting at them. Some guys jump in 3 vehicles and peel away. Felipe then jumps in my car, "After them".
50 - New Mission; "Take out the fleeing dealers". I give chase, and Felipe hangs out the window shooting out their tires as I drive. Once they’re driving on 4 sparking rims, I get the queue to finish them (a red pulsating marker above the car) and their car flips and explodes. One down, two to go.
52 - In continuing to chase the other cars, I notice small red targets appear on the tires when I’m in correct position for Felipe to shoot them out. This is a nice touch as it makes the chase more frantic as I not only try to keep up, but try to position my vehicle to get a good angle on the tires. Four tires out and BOOM. One vehicle left. It’s a big armored van. Smells like a boss fight to me.
53 - My car is pretty torn up so in the midst of the chase we’re forced to get a new ride. I air jack it (Nice!) and hit the breaks for Felipe to jump in.
54 - Definitely a boss fight. Cut scenes accompany each tire getting shot out. In between the tires going out, the back doors open and we have to deal with 2 gunman firing out of the back. This makes it much more difficult, but also more exciting as my windshield gets peppered with buckshot. Now we take out the other tires and then take out the driver. Massive explosion.
57 - Turns out there’s one guy left, who somehow got away. We drive to a point on the map and a bigger cut scene triggers. Felipe gets out of the car and approaches a man on a cell phone. He shoots him in the face and takes his briefcase. As he walks away he threatens me; "You better watch your back". Vin Diesel (Milo) responds, "I always do" and it’s clear he is going to be a pain in my butt throughout the game.
60 - Several loading screens explain more features about driving, combat and boost and the first hour is officially in the can.
Minutes to Action: 1
Minutes to Control: 2
What I liked: The vehicular combat in this game is a blast. It’s fast paced and incredibly cinematic and explosive. At the end of this game I’ll be looking for Michael Bay’s name in the credits. Car jacking, particularly within the scheme of a car chase, is fantastic. You basically drive a car until it’s smoking, riding on rims and has massive damage. Then you leap wildly into a nearby car and take it over, giving you a fresh new ride to destroy. The environments are beautiful and there are tons of destructibles. At one point in the first hour, I even drove through the lobby of a building on accident. I simply swung wide on a corner and drifted through a window and out the other side. I totally expected to "bounce" off the glass but didn’t. Very nice.
What I didn't like: While the environments are beautiful and you definitely feel like you’re in a European city, there was very little variation. As you drive, it’s hard to tell if you’ve just been there before or if it’s a completely new part of town. This will make getting around difficult and constant map checks a must. This may get annoying, I’m not sure. The on-foot controls felt overdone. Milo runs and turns on a dime and this is a bit disconcerting after using the more-fluid driving and drift controls, leading to running back and forth in a serpentine fashion as you overcorrect the controls.
Gameplay: The title of this game lets us in on something: this game is all about driving. And thankfully, the driving and controls are really very good. I drove half a dozen different cars and they all felt different, from the slow and poor-handling micro Smart Car to the blazingly fast and agile Porsche convertible. Most of the cars are not officially licensed, but you can easily tell what they are supposed to be. The one major license in the game is the Pontiac G8 and it’s awesome. It’s nearly the fastest car and can take a ton of damage before going out on you. Speaking of damage, that’s where the gameplay really takes on a new life. Driving and drifting are easy, and almost rote. This makes an entirely new control mechanic (driving combat) easier to get your arms around. You can bash cars all around you with the right thumbstick and it feels really good to run a rival vehicle off a giant ramp and watch it take to the air in flames. This game makes vehicular destruction an art form.
Fun Factor: In spades. This game is almost too fun. After the hour was up, I found myself just driving around at 100mph, air jacking vehicles, dodging the cops and testing the limits of the destructible environment. I almost forgot I was supposed to be doing missions.
Graphics and Sound: Very solid. Again, the on-foot sections drag things down a bit, Milos character model being none-too-impressive. But the cars look great and the action sequences look top notch. Vehicular damage modeling is extensive but not burdensome.
Story: This is clearly a driving game. It definitely HAS a story, or at least a framework of one, but I can tell already that it’s going to be more mission focused, rather than story driven. That’s fine with me.
Overall: Wheelman is all about outrageous driving and unbelievable crashes. This game even "out-burnouts" Burnout in some ways. It was often negatively compared to Grand Theft Auto IV, which is a huge mistake and a sad misunderstanding. The comparisons between this game and GTA IV are only skin deep. Once you dig in, it’s far more like a story-based, mission-driven burnout game.
Would I keep playing? Hold on, while I ditch these cops by DRIVING THROUGH A BUILDING! Absolutely.