It's blatantly apparent from the outset that Midway Newcastle has taken some of its design inspiration for Wheelman directly from the Grand Theft Auto series. With such a heavy focus on driving missions, the developer would have been crazy if it hadn't attempted to imitate some of the same features that can be found in one the finest examples of vehicle-based gameplay in this particular genre, so we're certainly not going to knock it for its copycat mentality. Besides, Midway has done an impressive job fusing some of the familiar features from GTA, including its excellent way-point system, police evasion mechanic and mission structure, together with a few new ideas and plenty of over-the-top Hollywood flair.
The story of Wheelman follows Milo, an undercover agent and a digitized Vin Diesel, whose talent behind the wheel leads him into the heart of Barcelona’s criminal underworld where feuding gangs rule the streets. While the disjointed tale doesn't keep you engrossed for long enough for you to really care about your character or what his underlying mission is, the action more than makes up for it in terms of entertainment value. Plenty of frantic car chases through the Spanish city in a range of four-wheeled and two-wheeled vehicles, from Oil Tankers to Japanese Superbikes, plus many familiar objectives, including escort, rampage, delivery and taxi missions, in addition to street races and on-foot gun battles against Barcelona’s toughest criminals, ensure that there are a diverse range of objectives to get stuck into.
Disappointingly, despite the wide range of vehicles on offer, one of Wheelman’s biggest surprises is that there doesn’t seem to be a much of a difference in the way that each vehicle handles. Many feel almost identical. It's clear, however, that a lot of effort has been put into the general car handling and physics, as well as the variety of stunts and super moves available. The result is an arcade-like, exaggerated driving experience that benefits greatly from its range of over the top control mechanics. From the satisfying Burnout-style ‘Takedown’ melee system, where you use the right thumbstick to smash vehicles off the road, to the visually impressive ‘Cyclone’ super move, where your vehicle spins 180 degrees, the camera pans inside the car giving you a view through the windscreen and then slow-mo kicks in, affording you with a short space of time to blow up cars with a couple of shots from your pistol, it’s explosive stuff from start to finish.
Aside from the well implemented drift mechanic and the ability to handbrake sharply around corners, the range of game-defining super moves are a welcome addition to the driving portion of Wheelman and are essentially what makes it stand out from the crowd. By filling up a focus gauge, which you do so by driving recklessly fast around the city, you're able to execute a range of super moves, including the aforementioned 'Cyclone,' as well as a super boost or 'Aimed Shot,' which gives you a window of opportunity to kill enemies with a single blast. There's also the outrageously silly but enjoyable ‘Air Jack’ move that allows you to leap from one vehicle to another with a press of a button. These super moves are geared toward making Wheelman an accessible, fast-paced and exciting arcade-like experience, and to that extent it does it exactly what it sets out to do: entertain.
Gameplay has also been jazzed up with some cinematic touches to give Wheelman a movie-like feel. Short cut-scenes kick in at various times in the game, such as when you break through a police barrier or hurtle over one of the many of the strategically placed jumps around the city. Though they can occasionally be intrusive and interrupt the flow of a high speed pursuit, most cut-scenes have generally been handled with high production values and are enjoyable to watch. There are plenty of explosive and over-the-top moments to look forward to, including blowing up an oil tanker and then sitting back and watching the carnage it causes unfold on screen, or smacking cop cars out of the way and then watching in slow motion as they break into pieces and crash into other objects and cars in their path.
Wheelman isn't all about its over-the-top production, though it certainly adds to the game's appeal. The driving missions also provide plenty of entertainment and are varied enough to ensure that you shouldn't get bored. Fast-paced motorbike and car chases through narrow alleys, or zipping in and out of traffic at breakneck speeds and smashing through cluttered plazas adorned with tables and chairs are part and parcel of the Wheelman experience, whereas inventive missions, such as having to scare Felipe by driving recklessly through the city while he clings to your roof of your car, keep the action fresh and unpredictable. Barcelona has been designed specifically with car chases in mind, so there are plenty of side streets, winding roads, straight open highways to hurtle down and many ramps dotted around the city to jump off.
Nevertheless, although the bold Catalonian architecture and the beautifully designed, sun-drenched city plazas do add character to the virtual Barcelona, it lacks the life that you’d expect from Spain’s second largest city. There’s a severe shortage of pedestrians, so much so that at times it feels like you’re driving around a ghost town. The streets also don’t host the amount of traffic you’d expect, that is until you activate a mission and more cars miraculously appear. Despite some great looking cinematic moments, the majority of Barcelona and the chunky car models don’t quite live up to the great looking cinematic interludes.
Our main gripe with Wheelman, however, comes as soon as you step out of your car. A poor control system and some dreadful A.I., who think it’s a good idea to stand next to an exploding barrel, ensure that you’re never really challenged and ultimately make on-foot combat feel like you're simply going through the motions rather than taking part in anything significant or even remotely enjoyable. The same unfortunately goes for the A.I. of other drivers. Whenever you’re in a race or chase with other cars they're always faster than your own vehicle. Perhaps it was a deliberate decision that was designed to encourage you to use super moves and the melee system whenever possible, but sometimes it does feel like you're really wasting your efforts and driving skills especially during street races, where you often have to rely on your moves, no matter how good your driving skills are.
Wheelman gets many things right, however. It has a brilliant PDA function that allows you to set way-points and pick and choose your mission types depending on your preference and, despite the fact that many vehicles feel similar to drive, it's a smooth, enjoyable and often exhilarating ride around the city that is bolstered by some excellent, if a little over-the-top, super moves. If you're expecting a GTA clone then you'll be sorely disappointed as Wheelman lacks the life, the depth, and the attention to detail of Rockstar's franchise, but it does entertain thanks to the variety of missions and its cinematic flourishes. Wheelman isn't going to be up for any awards come the end of the year, but we've been pleasantly surprised. Despite the blatant and disappointing omission of a multiplayer component, we've had a good time; it's worth a rental at the very least.
-The Final Word-
A fast-paced, arcade-style driving game with a few impressive tricks up its sleeve.