I don't think my expectations were too high for Wheelman. As a man who enjoys the occasional crappy action film, I came into Wheelman expecting cheesy Vin Diesel dialogue, an unbelievable story and lots of explosions. What I got was a whole lot more -- and not much of it was good. Sure, there's an abundance of cheesy Vin Diesel dialogue and fiery moments, but there's also the complete lack of story, mentally handicapped enemies, a repetitive city and some lame missions.
In short, this is not an interactive The Fast and The Furious. That saddens me.
Wheelman is an apparent
undercover mission in Barcelona starring Vin Diesel. I say "apparent" because the story is pretty much never explained with the exception of a short cutscene at the beginning of the game. Vin just meets some dude from an agency who hands him a folder of info and vaguely mentions a world-ending thing that's in Spain. From there, you're Vin's undercover persona Milo, a no-nonsense driver for all sorts of bad guys. Throughout the game, you'll tear through the streets of Barcelona chasing a document in a tube, a guy named Felipe and more, but you'll never have any idea why the hell you're doing this thanks to the nonexistent story this game packs.
Seriously -- I'm an undercover agent, but I have no idea what group I'm working with. I get profiles of characters from the RAI between missions but I causally told some dude I worked for the CIA at one point. Who am I really working for? Who knows! Why would the CIA come to Barcelona? Who cares! All I know is there are three factions of bad people in the city and I need to work with them all to find the big thing. That's it. These are pretty big storytelling flaws.
Cue the Blues Brothers music.
Making this feeling of detachment even worse is the fact that this is a botched take on the open-world environment. See, you can get through the so-called story of Wheelman in about eight hours, but this is designed to be like the sandbox world of Grand Theft Auto. OK, that's a lie; this game is designed to be a direct knockoff of GTA. When you pull up the world map on your PDA, you'll see green icons for story-based missions and then a number of colored icons for the seven categories of side missions -- stuff such as driving people to certain places in a Taxi, taking out your opponents in Rampage and escaping your pursuers in Fugitive.
What makes this feel disconnected is the fact that these things just pop up without any rhyme or reason. When you choose to do a cabbie mission, you just teleport into a car that's already got a passenger. Why are you smashing into other cars? Just because you want to, I guess. Sure, the missions can give you upgrades and such, but how does that make sense in this world? There's no in-game economy, so you're not earning money for these tasks; you're just doing them to do them and get the best rank. You don't feel like you're a part of this city. It's just a bunch of random instances in a sun-bathed Spanish town.
One of the greatest things about any of the GTAs was connecting with the city you were inhabiting -- knowing shortcuts, tight turns, or where people lived. You'll never get this in Wheelman because you can just jump to any mission you feel like. You pull up the PDA, select the mission you want and you can be warped to that spot. You don't need to drive there; you can just travel through space and time. This leads to you not knowing or caring about the city, but honestly, there's nothing to know or care about. Barcelona is colorful and bright, but it's wholly forgettable. Every street looks like the one before it with a few notable landmarks here and there. Just about everything's destructible, which is a nice touch because you'll be smashing through all sorts of crap, but none of it looks that good. In fact, when I was tearing through a patch of dirt, the mud my rear tires kicked up was so blocky that I could've sworn it was pulled from a PlayStation 2 game.
Still, Wheelman isn't a complete failure -- there are some fun parts once you accept there's no story and the city is dead. What the game actually has going for it are a few completely over-the-top, unrealistic elements involving its vehicles. When Milo's barreling down the street and coming up on a car, you can hold down the Airjack button and watch a red arrow appear over the vehicle in front of you. When that triangle turns green, you let go of the button and Milo will leap from your ride to the new car in slow motion. That's right -- he's jumping forward from a speeding car to another vehicle that's going slower. Either upon impact or (oddly) after he's already jumped through the window, you'll see some shattering glass and Milo will be behind the wheel. It's completely unbelievable and it looks hilarious, but this is the kind of goofball crap I was expecting in Wheelman. This is actually fun.
Another ludicrous idea the game employs but can actually be a cool is Vehicle Melee. Here, the right joystick acts as your car's hit stick. When you're rolling down the street, you can jerk the stick left, forward, or right to perform a body check in that direction; it's like your car's wheels turned 90 degrees and you're driving sideways. Sure, it could never happen in real life, but for a videogame starring Vin Diesel, I'm behind the moves. If you wear down a car, you can pull off a finisher where the camera will follow the rolling ball of flame that used to be your enemy.
Sadly, the AI you'll go up against in Wheelman will quickly drain the fun out of these nifty moves. See, everyone in Barcelona is mentally challenged. Let's look at a simple example: there's a Trophy/Achievement for surviving a five-star wanted level for five minutes (yup, they stole the star system and achievement type from GTA). When I first started my quest to get this, I'd shoot a civilian for a while to get my level up (you can't kill police or innocents in this game) and start driving when the cops gave chase. My first few times, the cops caught up to me and took down my ride in a hail of gunfire (Oddly, there's never a car to Airjack when you need there to be one in these situations.).
Then, I remembered that I was up against idiots and tried getting out of my car and running from them. This strategy worked for a few minutes because every time the cops would get close to me, they'd climb out of their cars to chase me on foot but that animation gave me enough time to get far enough away that they'd climb back in their car to chase me and repeat the process. Finally, I got cocky around the three-minute mark and tried backtracking and they shot me. On the attempt that actually scored me the honor, I just drove in a circle around a courtyard. That's right; for five minutes, I drove in the same circle around a Barcelona fountain and the game's AI couldn't figure out a way to stop me.
This idiocy bleeds over into the hackneyed on-foot combat as well. Yeah, Milo can get out of his car whenever he wants to and he's going to have to do it a lot seeing as how a ton of Wheelman missions are "drive to destination, get out of car, fight dozens of bad guys, get objective, fight back to base." These are the types of mechanics that grate on my nerves. It's not that these tasks were tough; it's that they're so goddamn boring. You start at the alley entrance, crouch behind some boxes and pop up to shoot. When you've cleared all the red dots off your radar, you move forward and suddenly some new dots materialize a ways in front of you. It's your job to just mow down wave after wave of these dudes and it's not hard.
Health's regenerative in Wheelman, Milo's pistol ammunition is unlimited and there are a few secondary weapons he can pick up such as the shotgun and assault rifle. Comically, Milo'll store the secondary weapon on his back, but there's no strap or anything to hold it in place. It's just inexplicably stuck to the small of his back like he's got double-sided tape back there. I guess this shouldn't surprise me because I've seen Milo do a number of flat-out amazing things in this game -- he takes phone calls in his head without holding a phone or owning a Bluetooth; when you tell him to jump out of a moving car, he'll sometimes phase through the seat and just be standing where he was driving a second ago; if you see a car you want in the distance, you hit the button and Milo telepathically stops the car and jogs over to jack it; and he walked away after getting hit by a car, where he got bent in half to the point where his heels touched the back of his head.
Where's Paul Walker?
When the bad guys get in cars, the action isn't much better. One mission had me facing off against a gang in a circular construction site and I needed to take out the leader in five minutes. However, once the leader and his cronies climbed into their vehicles, they just drove around the site in a circle. It wasn't until the five minutes were up that the bad guys tried to leave the site. Why they felt like they'd toy with Milo for five minutes when they could just take off was beyond me, but I don't think the AI thinks out any of its plans in this game. Keep in mind that you're working for three different gangs in Wheelman so that you can... um... get info on this "device" or whatever. I guess.
Anyway, you're helping one gang kill another gang and then immediately turning around and helping the one gang you just hurt. During the one cutscene where a gang leader called Milo on this fact, the wheelman brushed it off by saying he was just a driver. That satisfied the leader, but I'm pretty sure that's not how it works in real life. This one boss who runs a casino didn't even know I was working with the other gangs -- even after I led a lone assault on the casino that killed dozen's of the boss' men. Did he think there was another bald American who runs like he pooped his pants killing people in the streets of Barcelona?
For lots of the missions, you'll be going after a certain car or trying to get away from a group. This means that you're in a match with a handful of other vehicles and you'll need to clean their clocks using your vehicle melee skills as well as the few super-moves you have via the turbo gauge. As you pull off moves like "speeding" and "handbrake turns," a gauge in the bottom left corner will fill with juice; you can use this power to boost or perform two types of trick shots. The first slows down the action, coats the screen in black and white, and puts you in the driver's seat so that you can shoot 180 degrees. Circles appear on the enemy vehicles during these moments so you can pull off some instant explosions and the results can be pretty satisfying.
The second move does everything I just wrote about, except this one spins the vehicle 180 degrees so that you're now face-to-face with the slow-mo enemies coming right at you. This is great for taking out bad guys who you've gotten a bit of a lead on. It usually ends with you whipping the car back to the front and crashing into some obstacle that's popped up in front of you, but it still can be cool... except for the times vehicles exploded before my bullets even got to the gas tanks.
Problem is you won't get that many leads as the game goes on. For some reason, when you hit your boost, it always seems the enemies hit their's as well. This means you rarely get the chance to get way ahead of the pack and deal out some damage. Hell, in the final missions, you're just SPAMMED with enemies. You'll be on the trail to taking out these gang leaders who are holed up in one vehicle, but whenever you get the slightest chance at popping the boss, three fricking underlings will t-bone you or knock you out of your turn. It's infuriating.
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