Vin likes his games. He’s publicly spoken about how much he likes his games. He had input into the rather good Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, he’s an admitted fan of WoW, and he spent a fair bit of his youth playing Dungeons and Dragons. Vin Diesel, we salute you for your services in removing part of the stigma against games.What we don’t salute you for, sadly, is Wheelman. It’s not a bad game, Mr Diesel. It just doesn’t quite live up to our hopes.Vin takes the role of Milo Burik, an undercover CIA agent who’s sent in to Barcelona to recover some documents, as the information within could kill thousands. Before long, he’s working his way up through the three gangs that rule the city, and playing them off against each other to get what he needs.The story isn’t really one of the game’s few strong points, though, as the game opens with little exposition and to really understand what’s going on you have to pay a fair bit of attention. There are, thankfully, a few good characters – some of whom, like Scottish information broker Adrian, I suspect may turn up in the forthcoming film – and the cutscenes are reasonably slick and interesting.The city itself is a bit of a star, though. The contrast between Wheelman’s virtual depiction of Barcelona, and the towns of Stilwater and Liberty City from Saint’s Row 2 and GTA4, is striking. Where Liberty City is grey and grim, and Stilwater is gritty, Barcelona is bright and beautiful. Don’t expect to see any street crime or burned out cars here, unless you’re the one doing it. And while you can’t use the virtual Barcelona as a street map of the real one, it looks like most of the districts and landmarks are in the right place, so it feels reasonably accurate to me.The city, of course, is just the backdrop to the goings-on of the game. The game itself can be nicely divided into two halves – you’ve got main story missions, and side missions, with little overlap between the two. The early story missions, naturally, introduce you to the various concepts of the game, acting as a tutorial, with the majority of them also acting as a simple introduction to a particular brand of side mission.Those side missions are rather spectacular. There are various types – Rampage, which tasks you with causing as much property and vehicle damage as possible in a period of time; Fugitive, in which you have to get from A to B while under constant attack from heavily-armed goons; Contract, where you’re the heavily-armed goon after some poor vehicle; Hot Potato, which asks you to pick up a few packages in a hurry; Street Showdown, which is a street race which is more than happy for you to simply kill your rivals rather than come first; and Made to Order, which asks you to steal a few cars and get them back in good condition. Yes, that last sentence is simply a long list, but it was necessary – the side missions are a huge part of the game, with over a hundred of the damn things, and they’re incredibly varied.More to the point, they’re incredibly fun, and there’ll be at least one type that appeals to you, whether it’s the Burnout-style carnage of the Street Showdown, or the perfect control required for Hot Potato. Personally, I’m in love with Rampage, where I make sure to find a huge semi before starting the mission and then drive over everything.The vehicle control is actually handled differently than in most games. Before I get a lot of sneering emails telling me that it’s quite similar because you steer and accelerate and brake, I’ll clarify: in addition to the usual controls, you’ve got a Focus meter that lets you pull off a variety of useful manoeuvres, an Airjacking ability, and the much-touted Vehicle Melee system.Your Focus meter lets you pull off a simple Boost that lets you accelerate faster and hit higher speeds than normal, or an Aimed Shot, shifting the camera into the front seat and letting you shoot out other cars while time slows down and the AI steers (remarkably well, I might add.) This mode significantly boosts the power of your shots, with a shot or two turning a car into a flying mass of screeching metal. The third ability is Cyclone, which is probably the most visually impressive of the three, spinning the car 180 degrees for a few seconds while still keeping it moving in its original direction, but functionally it’s pretty much an Aimed Shot at cars behind you.Airjacking, on the other hand, is probably the most novel idea in the game. In an attempt to stop the flow-breaking need to get out of a car and get into another when you’re damaged, Airjacking lets you leap from your moving car onto another and immediately take control. While you can’t do this to enemy vehicles (no cars with armed occupants, sadly, and you have to be behind the target) it really keeps the pace of the game up, and it’s an excellent feature. A quick spin on Grand Theft Auto 4 right after playing Wheelman actually left me trying to Airjack, and I honestly sorely missed the feature. It’s a great idea, and it’s well-executed, as it’s all down to the timing – it’s fairly difficult to pull off early on, but once you can judge the distance, it’s incredibly cathartic to see Vin leap off a motorbike and slide through the window of a Smart car, booting out the driver.The vehicles are divided roughly into three classes – bikes, cars, and what I like to call “big things.” Bikes are nippy and manoeuvrable, cars are nippy and less manoeuvrable but can take more of a beating, and big things are slow, unwieldy, ridiculously resilient, and capable of pelting a car through a wall by gently nudging it.This ties into the vehicle melee system, which is the other major feature of the game. A tap of the right analogue stick swerves your vehicle left, right, or gives it a quick boost forward, with the intention of smashing other vehicles into the scenery. Do enough damage to an enemy vehicle and the icon above it starts flashing, indicating that it’s in a finishing state. One more decent hit at this point will move the camera into a slow-motion cinematic view of the car exploding.It’s all extremely silly, in the best tradition of a Hollywood blockbuster. The side missions are great fun, and the vehicles handle nicely – not realistically in the slightest, with even a moped capable of terrifying speeds, but those speeds haven’t felt this good since Burnout. However, there’s a rather large elephant in the room. I haven’t spoken about the story missions.There’s good reason for this – they’re really not very good. One or two are rather entertaining, certainly, but what they tend to do is highlight all of the worst parts of the game, and force you into missions that are either too long or too repetitive. The end missions in particular take the cake, showcasing an awful amount of rubberbanding that makes your use of boost completely useless as other vehicles match your speed anyway, and goons respawn constantly, meaning that even taking them down is fairly pointless. Far, far too many missions rely on getting to an enemy base, stealing a vehicle, and getting it back in one piece – which pretty much removes the Airjacking from the game, and means that your Vehicle Melee swerving is more about dodging than being aggressive.These missions also include a fair few interminable on-foot sections, which usually task you with moving forward, ducking behind cover, shooting a few times, and then repeating until everyone’s dead or you’re at a vehicle. While it’s understandable in terms of the Hollywood feel that the developers were clearly going for, they’re poorly paced and just aren’t much fun.So what we have is a very divisive game. The vehicles are great, and the driving is good fun, but the main missions are average at best, and the on-foot sections are awful. The side missions are good fun, but aren’t quite enough to carry the rest of it. It’s certainly worth a play and the side missions will keep you entertained for a good while, but the more you play the main missions, the more the flaws in the game show up. Not bad, then, but not as good as your initial play will have you believe.
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