[It's a beautiful, sunny day in Barcelona as Luis blissfully drives past million dollar yachts and cigarette boats docked at the city's overcrowded marina.]
[The middle-aged mechanic recounts the list of groceries his wife reminded him to pick up at the market just as he snuck out of the door to follow through on his weekly routine of dropping 20 Euro at Lial's casino; he never wins—though who ever could at the mistrustful mob boss' “legit” business—but it's a guilty pleasure for the hard-worker...]
What was it she said to get again: bananas, pork...or was it beef...either way she can make heaven out both, so I guess it can't matter too much. I should have actually listened this time instead of just nodding with a smile as usua...wait, what the?!...
[Just as Luis looks in his rear-view mirror he spies a fast approaching Pontiac sedan pursued by a troop of the Policia.]
Dammit, not again. I wasn't even speeding this time. Okay, I guess I need an excuse. Oh, I got it—the sun was too intense, that I couldn't read how fast I was goi...iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnngggggggg
[Smacking the pavement at 20 kph and rolling into the middle of the street, Luis' thought was interrupted by a stout, bald American's donkey kick to the chest, which came from the passenger's side...window.]
And such is the scenario that happens time and again in the Vin Diesel-starring game, Wheelman, created by the same actor's Tigon studio, and co-published by the financially troubled Midway, and Ubisoft. Through a mishmash of recognizable action film moments (mostly from Mr. Diesel's filmography), and now commonly fair tertiary missions, Wheelman offers a single-player experience reminiscent of the classic Driver series; however, exceptionally weak shooter portions and technical bugs overshadow any of the bravado delivered by listening to Milo Burik's (Diesel) subwoofer of voice or over-the-top-yet-entertaining gameplay moments.
Though we don't really know why Milo Burik is in Barcelona, right from the start of the game we're made aware that he's a driver-for-hire. It's only a short while later when we learn the wheelman's name is only a front, and his presence in the Spanish country is actually to complete a mission assigned to him by the C.I.A—yes, our hero is an undercover spy who doesn't play by the rules. Apparently there is “something big going down” in the country and it's up to Burik to interrupt a deal that has worldly consequences.
If the above sounds vague and a bit passive, it's because the game's plot is just as allusive. With a crash-boom intro that leads into playing-the-field deceit, Burik uses straightforward confidence to infiltrate the city's three competing organized crime families. Somehow each of the groups have something invested in the big event, but throughout the game's exposition and its finale, all you're left with is a situation where you're trying to use your driving abilities to save a smalltime thief from playing with the big boys. Essentially, the sooner you lose your investment in the story and just take the for-hire missions on their own merits, the sooner you'll enjoy the action.
Wheelman markets vehicles as your weapon, and in doing so, it delivers quite well. In an open-world setting, you're able to steal any car, motorcycle or scooter, and use it as a tool of destruction against enemies, pedestrians and the city itself. Using the right analog stick, you can quickly smash your vehicle left, right and forward, which rams other vehicles into explosive cinematic moments of crumpled mayhem—these accidents aren't your everyday fender-benders. The damage modeling is impressive as windows shatter, front-ends peel away to revel motors, and you end of driving on four rims, but it's when your car's damage becomes too great that the above personal account of Luis comes into play.
While Niko may be able to hold up Sunday drivers with little more than a handgun, Milo can jump from his current vehicle to one in front of him via the Airjack, on the fly. Once enemy onslaughts become too much to handle and your car is set aflame, all you need to do to stay in pursuit of a target is to come up behind another vehicle and press the action button when a chevron above a leading vehicle turns green. It's a move that's ridiculously unbelievable but oh-so fun, and not only is it useful and often necessary to complete missions, but it's just entertaining to do while cruising the streets of Barcelona when you're not on the job.
But jumping from car to crotch-rocket to car again isn't the only move in Milo's repertoire, he's also able to perform dramatic gunplay and bouts of speed while occupying any vehicle. By hitting Up on the D-pad Milo's able to focus and strategically aim at opponents in front of him, picking off tires and making headshots. Conversely, tapping Down on the D-pad causes any vehicle to swing 180 degrees to accomplish the same focused shooting, and when the meter is depleted, the car reorients itself, turning back another 180 degrees. In each case, the moves are necessary in dispatching pursuers and living up to their purposes, but too many problems in the game's general setup dilute the mechanics' usefulness.
For the most part, driver AI is pretty competent and does well in following the scripted routes that it needs to adhere to, even if you pummel it to a back alley. What's overly frustrating and controller-throwing worthy, however, is the yo-yo driving that the AI is capable of. Whether it's during story missions or any of side objectives, it's possible to either get left in the dust by those your chasing, or have to play catch-up to a waiting target if you get stuck somewhere. In both cases, each problem isn't very forgiving: targets can accelerate and out-pace you even when you have similar or “faster” vehicles, or when you activate your boosting ability; and yielding targets will only hold up for so long.
Since completing driving missions is the main point of the game, having inconsistent and unfair AI makes missions exhausting and either too easy or unnecessarily repetitive due to ungracious checkpoints. Only adding to the frustration is unrelenting hordes of enemies who can catch you no matter how fast you go. Also, shooting out tires, or having your tires shot out, is evidently only a cool cosmetic effect since both you and your enemies can rally and survive on nothing but rims.
On the other hand, driving problems pale in comparison to weak shooter action and a sterile environment rash with technical issues. Every once-in-awhile, Milo will be sent into a bee's nest of gun-totting gang members, on foot. In these sections he's be able to counter with a handgun of unlimited ammo and a secondary weapon of choice, and though his adversaries are many, completing missions are easy. The ability to automatically lock onto targets combined with oblivious enemies makes for nothing more than griding with guns.
The open world is equally as disappointing as the gunfights. When put up against what Rockstar has done with the GTA series, Barcelona just feels dead. There are only a handful of different cars to drive, two of them being licensed by Opel and Pontiac, and only lite activity on the streets and sidewalks. There's little character to the digitized city or its inhabitants, and there's a curious omission of any sort of day-night or weather cycles.
Though the game runs relatively well, when it bugs out, it goes to the extreme. It may not be as graphically intense as the NYC recreation in GTA, but Barcelona is still subject to large amounts of pop-in the faster you drive. In fact, on one particular straightaway, we managed to outrun the objects loading on screen, causing us to fall into a void and reappear inside a building. Upon exiting the car we couldn't jump out of the glitch either, since Milo lacks the ability to go vertical while on-foot.
Ultimately, through tedium and repetition, it's possible to complete the game in a short time-frame. Though the voice-acting is well done by not only Diesel but the background cast as well, and the character animation is fairly strong—albeit glossy and connected to their clothing—Wheelman borders on acceptable from a technical standpoint. There is a guise of replayability with over 150 side missions, spread across seven disciplines (ranged from taking taxi fares to hijacking cars on the run) and that when done well apparently upgrade several skillsets, but the progress is only visible from a stats screen, and not in gameplay. Also, a single song from Cypress Hill and the menu music marks the only highpoints of an overall lackluster soundtrack.
Wheelman delivers in some entertaining driving-based action that tries extremely hard to capture any who lust for a Driver rebirth; however, there's just too much missing from the overall formula to make it an engrossing offering.