Wheelman (PlayStation 3) review
"You'll have plenty of opportunities to go up against both gangsters and police as you tour Barcelona. Because Milo is a wheelman, many of the stages naturally involve a lot of interaction with other vehicles at high speeds. Besides leaping from ride to ride, you can stick to the one you currently have and use it like a battering ram. Much of the surrounding environment is more destructible than your current set of wheels, so you'll generally get to exchange a few bumps with your opponent as trees, motorcyclists and park benches fly to either side of your grill like hay swept away by a hurricane."
Two semis roar through the city of Barcelona. Careening wildly between rows of shops and apartment complexes while charred or flattened corpses pile up behind them, the vehicles are a rolling war zone. On either side of the trailing truck, town cars dart about like gnats chasing an elephant as men lean out the windows and fire bursts of machine gun fire. The sound of automatic weapons is joined by the comparatively faint noise of returning pistol shots, screams and the occasional scrape of metal against stone. One of the cars swerves too close to the semi at a critical juncture. Struck on its broad side by tons of driven metal, the automobile hurtles through the air, smashes against the wall of a bank and morphs into a gasoline-fueled fireball before dropping to the street in a twisted pile of blackened metal.
The above scenario might easily come from a Vin Diesel movie, but it doesn't. It comes from a Vin Diesel game. There's a difference, you'll find if you stick Wheelman in your PlayStation 3, and it's not an altogether pleasing one.
Things start out nicely enough, but they turn sour almost the minute you leave the title screen. You can thank the ridiculous plot for that. It features a wheelman named Milo (played to monotone perfection by the incomparable Vin Diesel) who has come to Barcelona and is working for the three gangs that occupy the area. Naturally, he's actually an undercover agent and any criminal behavior is meant merely to support his cover story. This excuses all of the people that he will slaughter--many of them innocent civilians--in the interests of protecting the free world. Gamers are apparently expected to happily embrace the notion that the needs of the many outweigh those of the few (a point it even references almost apologetically right at the very end). Perhaps more disturbing, though, is the fact that despite the inclusion of more narrative twists and turns than you'd find in your small intestine, there's no emotional impact. You're still meeting new characters half of the way through the game. When rivals begin dropping like flies, there's every possibility that you won't even remember who it is that just died or what you thought of him.
Plot deficiencies can be ignored, though, even ones as absurd as the ones that plague Wheelman. A weightier issue is the feeling that the game wasn't actually finished. It dogs the whole experience.
Take the city's population, for instance. It's just fine some of the time. You'll be driving down a street and weaving through traffic while on the sidewalks, people chat on cell phones or wander aimlessly. If you jump the curb, two or three people will leap out of your way and shout. Those moments are lovely, but they're canceled out by the other times where it seems like the city's entire population was abducted by aliens. You might go 10 or 15 seconds without seeing a single car or pedestrian. There's no apparent rhyme or reason for this except apparent convenience for the developers. The general populace and even the police force exist only when needed to slow you down and otherwise vanishes. It's as simple as that. Who needs immersion, anyway?
Some of that can be forgiven, of course. Wheelman isn't a Grand Theft Auto clone, even though it takes place in an open world and gives you plenty of side missions (complete them for stat boosts, or ignore them altogether; it makes little difference). Do yourself a favor, then, and forget about Rockstar's finest. You'll only drive yourself crazy if you insist on making the fruitless comparison. Instead, think of the Pursuit Force series. In those PSP titles, you were able to drive vehicles at insane speeds and leap from one to the next while still plowing down the road. The same thing happens here. Action slows down to accommodate the animation as Milo lands on the back of a sports car and swings in like Batman to kick out the current driver and take the wheel himself. You can 'air jack' a new ride whenever you like, provided there's actually traffic available. It's badass when things are going as planned, but sometimes--far too often for a city with such a massive population--there just isn't anyone around except for whatever gangsters or police officers you're trying to avoid. You can't air jack them.
You'll have plenty of opportunities to go up against both gangsters and police as you tour Barcelona. Because Milo is a wheelman, many of the stages naturally involve a lot of interaction with other vehicles at high speeds. Besides leaping from ride to ride, you can stick to the one you currently have and use it like a battering ram. Much of the surrounding environment is more destructible than your current set of wheels, so you'll generally get to exchange a few bumps with your opponent as trees, motorcyclists and park benches fly to either side of your grill like hay swept away by a hurricane.
Vehicular combat could have been extremely exciting, but instead it's generally annoying because the AI is too persistent. You can never stay ahead of your competition because even if you make use of a boost, everyone else keeps right up with you. You can use a special move to slow down time and cap the nearest threat, sure, but what's the point when someone else warps onto the scene a half-second later and resumes the attack? Even though they're not generally difficult, street rushes have a tendency to quickly devolve from thrill rides into drudgery.
Not every battle takes place in a vehicle, though, which is both a blessing (because a nice change of pace is welcome) and a curse (because things get sloppy). Missions that require you to hoof it generally place you in a claustrophobic area such as a parking garage with rubble strewn all about or in a warehouse yard or even in a car lot. The camera, typically quite functional for the open chases that are the game's obvious highlight, really struggles to keep up with the action when you're running and gunning. Most of the time, you have to rely on your mini-map to pinpoint threats because shooters tend to blend into their surroundings or you're so busy swinging the camera around that you're already halfway dead by the time you see who is firing at you. Tedious, safe approaches become necessary and the end result is that the game basically stalls every time you leave your car.
Such moments also are when most of the game's glitches come into play. One segment near the halfway point requires Milo to run along a subway tunnel, firing at gangsters while ducking behind trams for cover. It's another moment that should rock, but it's riddled with glitches. Get too close to an object and you'll see inside the polygons. Drop from a ledge and the collision detection could allow the ground to absorb you, at which point all you can do is fiddle with the analog stick and watch as Milo spins circles on the ground like the second hand on a clock. The game could even freeze on you, forcing you to restart the mission. That's never good, not when it means resetting the console and sitting through several load screens (including a 40-second one while the game loads save data, before even reaching opening credits or the title screen).
Sloppy moments like the ones outlined above are disappointing not just because they're inherently irritating in any game, but because in this case they help prevent Wheelman from attaining the greatness that was almost within its grasp. Excellence lurks in the background of every set piece--from the frantic street races as police cars bear down on Milo, to epic shootouts with the Russian mafia, to the leaps through the air as vehicles explode in the background--but things never quite come together to produce anything particularly memorable. Great for a rental or perhaps even a purchase from the bargain bin if you'd like to give yourself more time to complete the numerous side missions, Vin Diesel's first original property post-Riddick simply doesn't do enough things right to justify a $60 expenditure. Here's hoping that he tries again but with less mediocre results.
Staff review by Jason Venter (April 17, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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